At the age of 16 I decided that, one day, I would write a novel.
I came to this while writing long fanfiction stories, which were of novel-length, albeit not of novel-quality. I would link them here but there is no point in ruining my reputation before I even begin to establish it. What I learned from writing these stories is that I enjoy the task of crafting a long tale, developing characters and charting plots in an arc that cannot be presented in shorter formats. In five fanfiction stories, 50k words or more, I was able to hone my skills, understand what works and what doesn’t, learn how to put together a sentence that is not unwieldy or cringeworthy.
I still saw writing a novel as something particularly unique, however, as something that I would not be able to do for a long time. I abandoned fanfiction eventually and wrote a few short stories, three or four years ago, but none of them really caught my imagination.
Two years ago, the idea struck me to write a collection of stories about a cast of characters, with a prologue that describes how they first met one another. I began writing this prologue, by hand, in the summer of 2016; then last summer I set about completing it. It became clear that what I thought would be a short story, 20k words at most, was something much longer; and without planning or deliberation I kept going, eventually reaching the natural end of the tale at a word count of 59k.
What I learned that summer was that writing a novel is much like anything else: if you want to get it done, just do it.
Planning is of great importance to writing. Without planning, you cannot reliably formulate what you want to say. There is, however, a danger of lingering too long at this preliminary stage, an error that I often made back when I was writing fanfiction. The problem with planning, for me, is that the more I do it, the more I want to perfect things, but this is not the way to create something new.
When I was a teenager, one of the reasons that I felt I would not write a novel until I was much older was that I believed in getting the perfect idea. It is the stuff of dreams and wonders: the inspiration that drives a profound burst of creativity, that answers all the problems that may arise, and that carries all criticism before it. In the real world, such ideas do not exist. Rather, you collect inspiration, a drop here and a fragment there, adding it together until you have a panoply of material that, with some effort, is transformed into something that has never before been seen on the page.
I would never have written my first novel, The Last World, if I had sat round waiting for the right idea to strike. I wrote it only because I seized on the leading thread of a story, and pulled. What emerged was something unexpected, influenced by many sources but not derived from them, with its own internal logic that I had to decipher. This is what the editing process is about: discovering how this fictional universe functions, bringing to light its particular ways, and letting the story tell itself in the best way possible.
This is, of course, an approach to storytelling that is wholly opposed to the more structured approach of, say, Edgar Allen Poe, who took great pains to craft his stories, to produce a specific effect. Such an approach has tremendous value, and is characteristic of someone with great control over their art. However, that level of skill can only be attained by actually doing the task, over and over, until mastery is obtained. There is no point in worrying about whether or not you are producing a masterpiece, if you haven’t even learned how to use the tools; and you learn to use the tools by using them, not by thinking about them.
This advice could no doubt be applied just as well to all areas of life. The point, however, is that the only reason I wrote a novel is because I understood that it is not a big deal. Writing is no different to speaking, thinking, or listening. It is a core skill, a task of processing information, and not something to be wary of.
In this case, in order to write a novel, there is nothing else to be done: have an idea, obtain writing materials that suit you, and begin.