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How to write a novel. Tip #1: Learn to listen

Updated: Mar 19, 2018

Advice on how to write a book, more specifically a fiction novel. The posts in this series reflect my own experience as an author. I do not pretend to be an authority on the subject (or on any other subject for that matter). My only goal is to share what I've picked up along the way on my journey to becoming a writer, and to hopefully help some of you avoid the mistakes I made, or benefit from the things I’ve learned.

Tip #1: Learn to listen.

No, I’m not trying to get all “Zen” on you. When I talk about listening, I mean it in a basic, literal, sense. To be perfectly frank, this post is not really intended for those who decided that they ‘wanted’ to write a book, but rather for those who felt that they ‘needed’ to do so.

If you belong in the former group, there are various reasons why you might want to try your hand at writing. For instance, becoming a writer might be a long-time aspiration of yours. As far as motives go, this would be a pretty good one, as good as any I can think of, but I’m not sure this particular advice would apply to you (though it might).

If you belong in the latter group, I suspect there’s one reason above all others why fiction writing appeals to you: There’s a story floating around inside your head. It’s been there for some time, and no matter how long you wait for it to go away, it simply won’t (kinda like your mother-in-law).

Of course, this feeling will be different for all of us.

  • In some cases, it will be like a faint echo you can barely hear. You might not even know exactly what it’s been trying to tell you.

  • In other cases, it will be like a clear voice narrating a story inside your head so often it keeps distracting you from everything else you’re trying to do.

Either way, the solution is to listen.

It sounds like an obvious thing to say, and I bet more than a few of you just went “well, duh!”. But if you think about it you might find it’s one of those things we’re all aware we should be doing, and yet is somehow still a difficult to manage. That’s because we’re rational creatures (I know there’s an easy joke here but I’m not gonna make it).

In other words, our thinking gets in the way. It’s not always easy to let your imagination lead your conscious mind, as opposed to doing the leading yourself (it is your mind after all). And yet, that is precisely what you should try to do if you want to become a better writer.

Listen to the voice inside your head … No, not that one. I mean the one that’s been trying really hard to tell you a story.

The same story you can almost discern behind the words of every page your gaze happens to land on.

Try to make that voice as clear as possible. Let your imagination go as far as it will take you. And don’t worry about coming up with something which sounds too extravagant, too far-fetched, or too close to being non-sensical.

Like I said, we’re rational creatures, our brains are wired to use logic and reason. This will keep you from straying too far into the land of the implausible, the incoherent, and the downright preposterous. Reason is the tether of imagination.

But you still have to allow your imagination enough freedom to explore and to see what it might find at the frontier between the reasonable and the unreasonable. That is where you are most likely to come across real originality. Therefore, my first advice to you before you seat down in front of your computer and stare with dread at that terrifying blank page on your screen. Learn to listen.

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