Peter Stenson on How to Write a Novel in 90 Days

Here’s my current dirty secret: I’m afraid to tackle a novel. I haven’t written a novel draft in a couple of decades — though between my worldbuilding blog and my published articles, I’ve probably written the equivalent of at least ten non-fiction books.

But a novel is different. You can put together a non-fiction book by doing the research then organizing the material in any of half a dozen ways. A novel, though, can’t be organized that way. It has to grow, organically, and what you’re growing is not a potted plant nor even a patch of flowers, but a very big tree.

mother elm

So yeah, I’m scared to tackle a novel, even though I have ideas for 2 or 3 different novel series in separate genres, in 2 separate universes. Because right now, I’m having trouble finishing even a short story unless I have a firm deadline set by some editor who is not me.

This spring, I realized that it was time to make a committed start on the series that’s currently burning a hole in my imagination. I’ve started some serious outlining and worldbuilding, to work out the chronology of the Earth colony of New Colorado, 200+ years from now, on a world something like Mars if it still had liquid water and an atmosphere. The outlining is essential right now, but eventually, I’ll get to where I have to stop playing with the research and the outlines and actually start writing a draft. And how will I do that without getting scared or overwhelmed or losing my way?

Enter my hero, novelist Peter Stenson,who has an amazing post on the Guide to Literary Agents’ Blog this month. Here it is:  The 90-Day Novel: 5 Simple Steps to Writing a First Draft.

And here’s just a bit of Stenson’s tangy novelist goodness:

“A rough draft is meant to be exactly that, rough. It is where you figure out what the heck you are even writing about, what your characters yearn for, what voice, tense, POV, and narrative distance best captures the story you’re telling. Allow yourself to be unsure. Allow yourself to make mistakes. Allow yourself to be human, to be afraid with the uncertainty of embarking upon the heroic (in my opinion) artistic endeavor of creating a fictional world.”

The best thing about Stenson’s 5 steps is that they make the “heroic endeavor” achievable. Not easy, no, never easy. But definitely do-able, for you, for me, for anyone who is willing to make the commitment of time and effort. When I’m ready to write Chapter 1 on the first page of my first New Colorado novel, I’m going to print out a copy of the 5 steps, and pin them on the bulletin board above my desk. If you’re thinking of tackling a novel, especially for the first time, you might want to do the same.


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