Getting Started with novel writing; based on notes from Dorothea Brande: Becoming a Writer
For those who want to get started novel writing, Dorothea Brande believed there is indeed some magic that can cast a benign spell over those really determined to write and that the spell can be taught. That is what the first part of her book Becoming a Writer is all about.
Well, before you can sit down to write your novel, there is the question not of talent but of stamina. Marathon runners start practicing shorter distances but, and this is the crucial point, they need to practice every day, steadily getting stronger and running farther. There are some aspiring writers who feel unable even to start. Whether they ought to bother in that case is an issue we will confront later but Dorothea suggests what is needed by everyone. At this point she advises one not to worry about plot structure or characterisation but to learn, first of all, to write.
There may also be some one-book authors out there who seem to have risen like a rocket but fallen straight back to earth and now lack the fuel or the will-power to attempt a second flight. Knowledge of writing technique is no help here. Like those who cannot start and those who cannot get going again, there are ‘occasional’ writers whose output starts with a great rush but who cannot sustain this output nor find a way back into their work.
Brande suggests that this problem of achieving a sustained and consistent output of writing exists before any real writing is begun. What she wants to do is to ‘teach the beginner not how to write, but how to be a writer; and that is quite another thing.’ (Brande, p.36).
There are many ways of analysing the human personality but for this purpose let’s refer to the rational and the emotional sides of every personality. In practice they co-exist in everyone but, at different times, one will dominate the other. Brande says, with emphasis, “[…] it is possible to train both sides of the character to work in harmony, and the first step in that education is to consider that you must teach yourself not as though you were one person, but two.” (p. 44)
Novel writing practice demands you become an early riser!
Remember from Lesson 1: a writer is someone who writes! You should read the early chapters of Brande’s book, following her argument with care but it will be clear what she is driving at as we come to the first test of will; one that will separate the chic from the gauche! To develop that mental and muscular discipline of being able to write in a way that is, at first, consciously sustained but will later be transformed into an unconscious facility, Dorothea writes: The best way to do this is to rise half an hour, or a full hour, earlier than you customarily rise. Just as soon as you can – and without talking, without reading the morning’s paper, without picking up the book you laid aside the night before – begin to write. (p. 72) What you are doing, in that transitional phase between the world of your unconscious and the daily realities your conscious self must wrestle with, is learning simply to write. My own format for this is my daily diary. Normally, most of us type; but the medium is not important, it is the message that the physical act of sustained writing is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition of becoming a writer. In a day or two, you will know roughly how many words you can create and Brande suggests that as soon as you know what this is you should try to step that up, ideally double it. This exercise is one which writers can either sustain all their writing lives or return to if ever some sort of creative drought seems to be threatening.
Start tomorrow morning then and when we meet again you will have already created a body of useful work. The next lesson will start with a stern message but, meantime, start writing.