On Accidentally Writing a Novel

Writing Life

Dear Phantom Reader,

Yes, it’s true – I seem to have written a novel, well, kind of on accident.

So here’s the thing: readers and aspiring writers always want to know how writers structure their writing time and projects.

Is it important to outline and make extensive notes? When should you write and how should it be measured (i.e. every day, specific times of the day, specific word count, etc.)? Should you do writing exercises to get to know your characters and their arc better? Or should you just invite them over for tea and hash things out?

Ok, so probably no one has ever asked that but what an idea that would be. Some characters could be served tea, others black coffee, for some I would definitely bust out the booze.

Then again, maybe it’s not a good idea. To write a compelling story, you have to be pretty mean to your characters, at least the protagonist. No one wants to read a book about a nice guy with a charmed life, everything works out more or less ok for him, the end. But if you take that nice guy with a charmed life and say, have his entire family die in a boating accident, which sends him spiralling until he finds himself again by trekking across the Arctic all by his lonesome, well then you might be on to something.

Tossing back a couple of beers with the guy may make you go easier on him, which wouldn’t be in interest to the story.

But I digress. This piece is supposed to be about me and my accidental novel.

What a lot of aspiring writers/readers don’t realize (I know this because I once was one of them) is that there is no hard and fast rule for how to structure writing time and projects, no secret formula that guarantees writerly success, whatever that is. Talk to ten different writers about this and you’ll likely get ten different answers. The process is much more subjective and individual than a lot of people would like to believe.

As for my approach, I find outlines and exercises boring and not particularly helpful. I prefer to start with a character, have a vague idea of where I want them to go and experience in the story and where I want them to end up at the end. As for the rest, I write and discover as I go. I try to write every day, even if it’s only for ten minutes, earlier in the day if possible, but not too early – dear Phantom Reader, yours truly is most definitely not a morning person.

I also am always working on several projects at once. Usually, I consider one project my “main” project (right now this is the novel I haven’t finished yet) which gets interrupted by littler projects (e.g. short stories, essays, etc.).

On the plus side, this means I basically never get writer’s block. If my main project is stuck, then I move on to something else for a bit until the story starts flowing again.

However, this does mean that my main novel is a lot slower going than it would be otherwise. I started the novel (working title: Love Bites) around five years ago. Since I’m a pretty fast writer, the book would definitely be finished by now if I hadn’t gotten sidetracked by short stories, my accidental novel, etc. Right now I’m about three quarters of the way through the first draft and have promised myself that I will finish it by October at the latest.

By hey, I do have an accidental novel, so that’s something. Let’s get back to it.

I started the accidental novel in the summer of 2018 when I did a deep dive into the novels of Philip K. Dick. Dick had a twin sister named Jane who died six weeks after they were born who really haunted him for the rest of his life. When I was doing this deep dive into his books, I read about his sister, what happened and what she meant to him and it struck me how much it sounded – or at least felt – like a fairy tale.

Later, when I took a nap on the beach, I dreamt that PKD showed up and we went walking out onto the tide pool rocks. He told me I had to write a story about his sister, he was actually super pushy about it in a kind of annoying way.

Photo by pure julia on Unsplash

“Fine,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I’ll write something. Get off my case already, geez.”

Thus, my accidental novel Dick & Jane was born.

(Side note: This isn’t the first time a writer showed up in a dream and talked to me about writing. The writer Jonathan Lethem once showed up and told me that he needed to talk to me about a short story I’d written called The Unbelongers. I knew something wasn’t quite working in the story, but I couldn’t tell what it was.

“I like a lot about the piece,” he said, “But you need to get rid of the mysterious man and replace him with the brother character.” When I woke up I thought, “Holy shit, he’s right!” I wish I could find a way to get other writers to show up and give me advice/ideas – I’d love to have a chat with Charles Dickens – but so far no dice.)

Other than the initial inspiration, the book doesn’t really have much to do with PKD or his work, although I do bring in a Perky Pat doll at some point. Set in Berkeley in the 1960s, the story is about a girl named Jane who can communicate with her dead (?) twin brother by playing the cello. By doing so, she hopes to find a way to bring him into her world so that her family will be whole at last.

Weird? Most definitely. Good? Well, I hope so. My mom and sister loved it, so at least that’s something.

But wait, why was the novel accidental?

My dear Phantom Reader, I’m so glad you asked!

I use Scrivener for my longer writing projects. You can do all sorts of stuff with the program, but I’m too lazy to figure it all out. I just write chapter after chapter and/or scene after scene and then export the piece to Word when I’m done.

I did this with Dick & Jane on the side when I got stuck on/sick of my main novel. The piece was supposed to be a novella for a short story collection I’m working on. But when I finished and exported all the chapters, I saw that the final word count was around 70,000 words.

In other words, a novel.

I went through five rounds of edits on the manuscript and now feel like it’s strong enough to start querying agents, and have started doing so. Wish me luck! I’ll keep you posted if I get any bites.