John Irving (born in 1942) is the beloved author of The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and The World According to Garp.
Here are six wonderful quotes from Mr. Irving to help you write your novel!
1. The building of the architecture of a novel — the craft of it — is something I never tire of.
People go into writing novels for different reasons. Some have one particular story to tell. Some want to be novelists for life. Some want to make money. Some want to throw their creativity at something and see what might work. Novels are written in lots of different ways, but if you want to make a career of being a novelist, it’s important to fall in love with the process, not the end result. Fall in love with the process and you can accomplish so much!
I think a lot of beginning writers have no idea how much time and effort and skill and patience it takes to write a good novel. To go beyond that first draft, which is an achievement in itself, and keep revising the manuscript for many weeks and months, possibly years (the book I started querying this week went through twelve drafts over three long years, for example).
You have to learn to love the building of the architecture of a novel, as John Irving puts it. It is like putting a thousand pieces together to form one thing. From the initial idea to the outlining and brainstorming to the first draft to the revisions and everything that comes in between, writing a novel is a long and arduous process. You need to fall in love with the process and never tire of it if you want to stick with novel writing for the long haul.
2. I don’t want to write that first sentence until all the important connections in the novel are known to me. As if the story has already taken place, and it’s my responsibility to put it in the right order to tell it to you.
I’ve written twenty novels in ten years, and you know what the best of those novels have been? The ones where I had a clear vision of what I wanted the book to be from beginning to end, with strong ideas of the characters and the scenes and how the book begins and how the book ends.
You don’t necessarily have to outline your novel. I’ve never outlined one of my novels. I complete detailed character bios before I start a novel, that’s kind of my outline. I do it for the three to five major characters, writing one long paragraph for each character where I describe their physical traits, their motivations, the personalities, and where they begin in the novel and where they end up. Sometimes where they end up changes by the time I reach THE END, but it’s important to at least have an idea where each character is going.
Irving is right that the more you know about your novel before you start writing it will help you tremendously. You want to understand the important connections, as if the story has already taken place and now you just need to find the right order to tell it. When you know what your novel is going to be in all its aspects? You’re going to be well on your way to writing something that feels lived in and true.
3. I write very quickly; I rewrite very slowly. It takes me nearly as long to rewrite a book as it does to get the first draft.
I’m glad to hear one of the masters say this because it’s how I’ve been writing my novels ever since the beginning, and I honestly wouldn’t even know another way to do it. I’ve had writer friends in the past who work really long and slowly on the first drafts of their novels, every day re-reading what’s come before, then eventually just adding a few hundred words maybe on top of what’s already been written. Many of my friends never finished those novels.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a crappy completed first draft is way more valuable in the long run than a brilliant novel that’s only 60% complete. You can’t do anything with an incomplete novel, no matter how well written it is. But you can take a crappy novel that reached THE END and slowly shape it into something extraordinary.
Therefore I always work really hard during the drafting process to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. I’ve written an entire first draft of a novel in as little as three weeks. On average it takes me six weeks. My MFA thesis novel that hit a whopping 110,000 words took me ten weeks. But even the novels I wrote in a few short weeks I often spent months, even years, revising over and over again until I felt they were ready for publication.
So take as long as you need to revise. Five drafts, ten drafts, it doesn’t matter. Do the work that needs to be done.
4. When I love a novel I’ve read, I want to reread it — in part, to see how it was constructed.
Something I do at least once a year is stumble upon a novel that’s so brilliant I simply have to read it again. This happened to me last year with Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. I adored every second of it. And for the next few weeks I couldn’t keep those characters out of my head. It’s a bestselling novel, too, one that was just made into a new mini-series starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington. A bestseller that’s completely brilliant? Sometimes those two things don’t go together, but for this one, they did.
And as a novelist I’m always trying to learn from other writers and build upon my skills, so over the summer I re-read the book paying close attention to the craft of the book, how it was constructed. I looked at character development, pacing, tension, word choice. I spent almost a month with the book on my second read paying attention to everything that made the book work, and I took all that inspiration right onto my next project.
You should read anything you can get your hands on. Books in the genre you write in and books outside the genre you write it. You should read great books, good books, mediocre books. You should see what works and what doesn’t work. But an exercise you should take on once a year or more is finding a book you love that’s in the genre you write in, and re-read it studying the craft of the work. Doing so will inspire you, and it will absolutely help you become a better writer!
5. Your memory is a monster; you forget — it doesn’t. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you — and summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you!
One of my favorite aspects of writing is the way your subconscious sort of takes over when you get in the zone. You sit at your writing desk many days unsure of how to start the next scene or chapter of your novel. It takes you twenty minutes, maybe thirty minutes, to get some words down on the page and get into a groove.
But if the writing is going well, and you have a clear vision of what you want the scene to be, the subconscious eventually takes over, the characters almost start to speak for themselves in a way, and your memories, some of which might have stayed dormant for years, will often pop up when you least expect them to anytime you’re dealing with a scene in your fiction that resembles a moment from your real life.
This happens to me all the time when I’m writing the first draft of a novel. I’ll try to feel what the character’s feeling, and as I enter the zone, a variety of memories I hadn’t thought about in forever come swarming back from some place in my brain that was storing them just for this specific moment of writing. Irving is right in that we forget a lot but our memories don’t. And if you can use writing to access those memories, your writing will be even more authentic and powerful.
6. More than a half, maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting. I wouldn’t say I have a talent that’s special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina.
This is something I learned the hard way in my first years of writing novels. I learned how important the revision process is when it comes to novels. And not just any revision. Deep, focused revision that takes into account the smaller issues and the larger issues. Finishing the first draft of a novel feels so damn good, and yes, you should always celebrate for a few days or weeks after you reach THE END. It’s an extraordinary feeling every time it happens.
But eventually you need to begin the second draft and, like I said before, be in it for the long haul because you’re going to need a few revisions to get the novel right. In my first few years of writing novels, I completed three drafts total before I started the querying process. I thought three drafts were enough. Worse, much of those two revisions following the first draft was mere copyediting. Where I just went through the novel chapter by chapter and changed some sentences and words around. I didn’t look at potential larger problems with the novel that needed to be addressed.
It wasn’t until I started doing five drafts or more and having beta readers give me honest feedback along the way that my work finally started getting better. Three years and twelve drafts is a lot to give one single manuscript, but I believe that’s the work I need to do to ensure my latest young adult thriller shined its brightest. You might not have to do twelve drafts. You might only have to do three to five drafts if you treat the revision process seriously. Revision might come more easily for you than it does for me.
Just remember — the ones who become successful in novel writing are the ones who finish every single first draft, spend lots and lots of time revising their work, and have the stamina to keep going and never give up. Even when a hundred rejections roll in. Even when your latest manuscript is a big, fat failure. Sometimes you have to write another novel. And then another one after that. Have the unusual kind of stamina Irving talks about and you’ll get there eventually, I guarantee it.
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