Lab Book for a Novel

I recently mentioned on Twitter that I have started writing again. I stopped writing for several reasons, but the most important one was that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write anymore. Moreover, with all of the good writing out there today, I wasn’t sure if what I wrote would make much of an impact. But my desire to write was stronger than my concern over impact, so here I am, writing again.

But what to write? For years now, I’ve had the idea for what I think is a novel-length story. The story has challenged me. I’ve started it many times, and it has always stymied me. I can’t quite figure out the right way to tell it. I can’t quite figure out the right voice for the narrator. But I think it is a good story, an entertaining one, one worth trying to tell.

I have only ever written one novel. In 2013, I wrote the first draft of a science fiction novel. It was the one and only novel have ever written. It never made it out of first draft. It was a kind of spring training. I needed to know if I could carry a story through 90,000 words, and I managed to that, although I’m not sure how interesting or entertaining the story really is. If nothing else, however, the experience taught me that I could write at length.

Earlier in my day job career as a programmer, I occasionally encountered tough coding problems. I’d pick around the edges of these problems for days or weeks, until finally, one day, I’d come into the office and say to myself, “I’m not budging from this chair until I’ve got this problem under control.” Something about the mental state that put me in almost always worked. With a high degree of focus, I was able to accomplish more than I thought I could.

That is what this lab book for a novel is all about.

I have decided to write this novel. I have decided to give it the kind of focus that has helped me solve problems in the past. And I have decided to write about the experience of writing a novel not just to add focus, but with the idea that it might be useful to other people who are trying to do the same thing. I call these posts my “Lab Book” for a novel because I think of them the way I think of my old lab books from science classes and labs. I had a science teacher who taught me that a good lab book records everything, successes as well as failures. By going through a lab book, another scientist should be able to reproduce the results. That may not work perfectly for writers, because writing is not an exact science, but maybe it will prove helpful.

This is not a “how-to” guide for writing a novel. I’d be wary of any such thing. Instead, this lab book is a description of how one writer—me—went about writing one particular novel, with all of the frustrations and successes therein. I think it is just as important to record mistakes and frustrations as it is progress.

Last night, at my writers’ group, I was talking with some other writers about how hard it is for me to explain the problems I run into when writing a story. First, it is very hard to complain to non-writers. I suspect to many non-writers, writing looks easy and it is anything but, at least for me. Second, it is almost as hard for me to talk with writers about the problems I have writing because I don’t like discussing what I am writing while I am writing it. For one thing, we all know writers who are eager to tell anyone within earshot all about the plot of the novel they are working on. I can’t do that because I don’t know the plot—only know a little more than what I have written. For another, rehashing my story dulls it in my mind, and makes me less excited to write about it.

It occurred to me last night, however, that one solution may be a lab book like this. I can write about problems I’m having with a story without writing about the story. Or I can just plain vent, and other writers will know that these things happen to all of us. I can write about good days and bad, and provide context to why they were good and bad. I can write about what happens after I finish, assuming, of course, I do finish.

Don’t expect a lab book post every day. That would be asking too much of myself. However, I will write them as frequently as I am able and try to identify situations in which I think the posts will be most illustrative of my process. I will include a “Day #” in each post title, so that those following along know how long I’ve been working on the novel. I’m sure it will evolve as I go along.

Expect a handful of baseline posts over the next few days. Any real lab book should set a baseline so that people referring to it know the conditions at the start of the experiment. To that end, I plan to post on the following baseline topics over the next few days:

  • My writing credentials and experience up to this point.
  • A very general description of the story I want to write, including some targets like length. This is won’t be a description of the plot, but a sentence or two that gives some context for the story.
  • The tools I plan to use to write the story.
  • A few words on my writing process so far. I may experiment from what I am used to as part of this process in order to make it a success, but I think it is important to know how I have worked in the past in order to see if any of the deviations I make this time around prove helpful or harmful.

With those prefatory posts out of the way, I’ll start writing, and the day I start I’ll mark as Day 1. We’ll go from there.

Comments and questions are encouraged along the way. I learn best through practical exercises. I learned how to tell short stories by writing a lot of them. I imagine the same is true for telling longer stories. Readers’ questions and comments not only help me, but may help others who stumble along this lab book.

All of these posts will be categorized under Lab Book for a Novel, so if you want to follow along with just these posts, and not have them cluttered by other things I write here, the category is available for that.

One comment

  1. Good for you, Jamie. I will be interested in your progress and process, and all of your writing tips. It isn’t easy, not by a longshot, but then the best things never are. Go for it!


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