“How Do I Write A Novel?”

People ask me this question all the time, as if there were only one way to write. Writing — not just the product but the process — is as individual as our fingerprints.

That said, I can give you my own experience writing my novel Kiss the Sky, and we can go from there.

Where is “from there?” Well, that’s up to you. I get so many questions these days about writing, selling, publishing, and promoting books that instead of just saying whatever randomly comes to my mind, I’d like to know what’s on yours.

I’d like to do one or more of these each week…. Let’s set that as a goal, not a rule.

So: if you have a question about writing on your mind, just email me through this website.

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How I (and Why) I Wrote a Novel

I’ve always wanted to be a novelist. Well before I became a journalist, or even got my first byline at the age of sixteen (from Seventeen magazine), I wanted to write fiction.

What kind? Well, as a child I really loved fansty books like The Black Cauldron and the “Ring” trilogy. I also read books that bridged the child/young adult/adult worlds of storytelling, including Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

In college I had some great writing teachers including short story writer/ novelist Mary Robison. Then, after college, I continued writing short stories while I started my journalism career at Newsweek. And then…. I let fiction writing get away from me.

I never stopped reading, though. Octavia Butler. Tatyana Tolstoya. Orson Scott Card. Zakes Mda. Isabelle Allende. Amy Tan. And on and on and on. Reading is the best way to learn what you want from writing.

The novel I finished is not the one I started. Most of the characters in Kiss the Sky have evolved. Some I got rid of entirely. I dropped long, tedious sections about the business side of the music industry after someone told me I didn’t have to make this an MBA paper.

That was one of my amen moments. As a journalist, I research everything. As a novelist… well, it’s not that you don’t research, but you can’t let the research get in the way of the storytelling.

So, here’s how I wrote. I’m sure no one has the exact same process, but there are some fundamental building blocks:

1) Inspiration:
In 2001, right after 9/11, I went to a great journalism fellowship at Stanford. The Knight Fellowships encourage people to think broadly and out of the box. So in addition to taking geopolitics, Spanish, and installation art (with a wonderful artist named Mildred Howard), I started mulling over a novel.

I think that 9/11 and the political aftermath forced a lot of us to think about what we really wanted to do that we hadn’t done. Writing a novel was part of that for me, and I was finally willing to take my life “off track” (the track being reporting) in order to accomplish my dream.

I also wanted to write about that process of taking creative risks and paying the price. That’s the real soul of Kiss the Sky, and the journey of the rock musician in the title role.

2) Isolation
Right after my academic-year fellowship ended, I holed up in a cabin in Irish Beach, a beautiful area near Mendocino, California. Took out my laptop. Wrote.
I managed to bang out 134 pages of work, most of which is nowhere in the final book.
There was a love triangle between a woman, her ex-husband, and his new wife… in Kiss the Sky, there’s a love triangle between the main character, Sky, her ex-husband, and her new boyfriend.
I can’t even remember how that changed…..

3) Education:
…but I do know that the next step in my writing journey was taking a formal fiction writing class for the first time in over a decade.
I went to the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center.
Novelist/journalist Danyel Smith taught the class; participants included Obery Hendricks and Ron Kavanaugh of Mosiac Books.
(If you want to see what a sense of place does in fiction, read the aquarium scene in Danyel’s More Like Wrestling.)
Taking a workshop class was great, and…

4) Collaboration:
…several of us from the class formed a writing group.
Then I moved back to Northern California.
I got a call from ace fiction writer and superfun lady ZZ Packer inviting me to join a fiction group she was starting, if I was writing fiction. And I was! Or rather, I was stuck.
This group became The Finish Party. I owe them so much, especially in the process of opening up to (and receiving) smart, on-target critiques that make your work better.
(We also have a lot of fun. Check the website.)

5) Perspiration
I wrote draft after draft of the book, and my writing sisters were there for me all the way. (I can be one whiny and demanding writer so bless them.)

6) Organization
I was having some big problems with structure so I went to Claudette Sutherland, a writing coach and script doctor, specifically for advice on structure. She gave me great advice on revision.
I designed my own process of spreadsheeting all 90 chapters of the book with the headings “plot”/ “characters” / “add”/ “delete”.
So a (simplified, for our purposes) spreadsheet entry might read:

–plot: Sky goes to her mom’s house and Leo (her boyfriend) shows up unexpectedly
–characters: Sky, Leo, Mrs. Lee
–add: a physical sense of space in the house so we can see the tension between Leo and Mrs. Lee better
–delete: out-of-chronology reference to gig Sky hasn’t played yet

You get a lot of continuity errors and general mistakes when you write over a long period of time. This process helped me curb those errors, as well as make the overall narrative stronger.

7) Publication
I finished the book “my way”… got a great agent (Richard Abate) who gave his very constructive critique… an amazing editor (Malaika Adero) who shaped the book… and now the book is out!
That’s a whole process and a whole lot of material for another blog post.
Aaaaah!

Well, that’s it for now. Questions? Let me know. Enquiring writing minds, and all that…

Happy writing,
F

About Farai Chideya

Farai has combined media, technology, and socio-political analysis during her 20-year career as an award-winning author and journalist. She is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She contributes to print, public radio, and cable television; and she also hosts a series of town hall meetings in both New York and San Francisco, with New York Public Radio and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, respectively. You can see an archive of her 2010 midterm election specials -- which foreshadowed some of the current political and immigration debates -- at PopandPolitics.com, which she founded in 1995.

3 thoughts on ““How Do I Write A Novel?””

  1. Pingback: Haute Lit: A Conversation with Farai Chideya | This Side Of The Wall

  2. Marci S in New York

    I am a New York HS and college English/ writing instructor and am constantly trying to convince my students of the vital importance of revision and editing. Many of them don’t catch on, but a great many of them get it eventually. This essay about your process might help them get it sooner. I’m going to provide the link on my teaching website and share your thoughts in my HS classroom.

    I’m intrigued by the synopsis of Kiss the Sky and, although I haven’t read it yet (as I just heard about it today) I am excited about the possibility of adding to my curriculum for my seniors (if I can find the money for 60 copies somewhere).

    You are a great role model for young women in a world where adolescents don’t have enough. Thanks.

  3. farai

    Hi Marci:

    Thanks for doing what you do. I remember how much my English/composition teachers changed my life. Anyone who tells you how to craft words also tells you how to craft the world…

    F

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