A Few Strong Words: An Interview with Aspiring Novelist Graham Strong

Graham Strong is a copywriter by day and an aspiring novelist by night. Unlike most novelists, however, he is live-blogging his novel writing experience day by day, as it happens. Curious about the making of a novel? Check out A Few Strong Words.com, and you’ll see the struggles of a new novelist doing his best to get the damn thing down on paper and, ultimately, shape it into a publishable piece. I asked Graham if he’d be interested in sharing some of his words of wisdom with fellow writers and aspiring novelists, and he graciously accepted.

BLACK HEART: What compelled you to start writing a novel, and how long have you been working on it?

GRAHAM STRONG: I started writing when I was six years old, and I think ever since I could comprehend what a “novel” was, I’ve wanted to write one. But novel writing doesn’t pay the bills, unless you’re very, very lucky, so I work as a freelance marketing writer and part-time freelance journalist. Honestly, I am just happy that I can support my family with my writing. For me, that’s living the dream.

However, I never gave up on writing a novel; it just became that “someday” kind of thing for me.

Last summer on a whim I went to a local writers’ conference where I attended workshops by Terry Fallis and Miriam Toews, both of whom are recognized writers here in Canada (Toews won the Governor General’s award and Fallis just won Canada Reads 2011 with his debut novel). I was there with another writer friend of mine, Duncan Weller, who writes and illustrates children’s books. We talked about finding time to write, and he said I could probably find an hour a day to put towards my novel. I laughed at first, but then I realized he was probably right. I also realized that if I didn’t plan to write a novel, “someday” would never come.

So I started writing on September 7, 2010 – the first day of school here – and committed to writing one hour per day. I finished my first draft around Christmas.

BH: Since you’re on your second draft now, what kind of advice would you give those working on a first draft?

GS: I think the most important advice is to have fun with it. One of the biggest reasons novels get abandoned (I think) is that writers get discouraged – and as a group, I think we are easily discouraged. To fight that, I decided to not focus on getting published, but just to “muck about in the sandbox” as it were. I had a vague idea for a story and characters and themes, so I just started writing. If something wasn’t working, rather than get stuck spinning my wheels I moved on to another scene. I wrote scenes I knew would never make the book or that were too long, because the idea wasn’t to write perfectly, but just to write and get those ideas down on paper.

Once they’re there, it’s easy enough to start forming them into a storyline in the second draft.

BH: Why write a blog about your process of noveling? Do you find it helps with your writing process? I feel like I am distracted by writing updates about my own novel-in-progress, so I try to minimize them. I’m curious about why you chose to update daily and not weekly.

GS: Accountability was my number one concern when I decided to blog about my novel. As we all know, nobody cares if you work on your novel today or not. There is nobody to answer to. I’d learned from past experience that without that accountability, I’d likely abandon the project again.

So I publicly announced that I was writing a novel. I invited friends and family to read about my progress – I became accountable to them and, in some personified way, the blog. I posted daily because I was writing the novel daily, so it was kind of a “shift report” about the day’s events.

In that sense, it also validates the day’s work – too often you finish your writing for the day and it feels like a drop in the bucket compared to what the completed novel will be. But we have to remember that every drop is important – every day, something we write will eventually show up in the novel. Even if the whole scene is eventually cut out of the book, it served some purpose to write it, and had an impact somewhere. Blogging about the work underlines that one drop and brings validation right now. It helped keep me going.

Now that I’m in the second draft and not working on the novel daily, I’m not posting as often – I try for four to six times per week.

There were other reasons to blog as well. I got a lot of encouragement from my readers along the way, which made writing a novel less lonely. It will also serve as a sort of writing journal, detailing the process “from blank page to published author” as I call it.

"Gotta Be Stronger Than The Story" (photo by Flickr user Robert Bruce Murray III / Sort Of Natural)

BH: Do you usually prefer to write for a specific amount of time or toward a certain daily word count? Which do you find more motivating?

GS: Personally, I think writing to a certain word count every day would drive me nuts. I’d constantly be looking down to see where I’m at. Very distracting, I think.

When I was writing the first draft, I wrote one hour per day. I set a timer and then I didn’t have to think about it again – I could just focus on the writing. It’s also important to note that I’d stop right when the timer went off, even if I was in the middle of a sentence. I found it made it easier to pick up again the next day.

BH: You may have answered this somewhere and I just couldn’t find it on your site, but does your novel-in-progress have a name? And could you give a general idea of what it’s about?

GS: I have consciously not given away too many details about the novel. I’ve come to realize that many writers, for whatever reason, refuse to talk about what they’re working on (I thought I was the only paranoid one, but apparently not…) I think it’s kind of a writers’ superstition, but there are some practical reasons behind it too. If you tell someone anything about your book, you’re bound to get feedback – or at least leading questions – and that will affect your writing. It can’t not. So I’ve found the best policy to not talk about the story, at least in the early going.

(Besides, if you tell everyone the whole story, they’re not going to need to read the book when it’s done, will they?)

What I have mentioned though is that it is a contemporary Canadian novel, it is a “buddy road trip” novel, and that I am writing it as if it were a non-fiction book. I’m developing a certain style while writing it based on New Journalism, popularized by writers like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. It’s a very rich, colourful way to report, and suits the subject matter and themes well, I think.

I haven’t decided on a title. I have had a few titles pop into my head along the way that I’ve written down. One stands out in particular, but I won’t be talking about titles until I reach the “review draft” stage when I start looking for readers.

BH: Do you already have a publisher lined up, or is this part of the process you’re going to attend to after the writing is finished?

GS: I wish I had a publisher! No, not yet, but part of what I’m doing is educating myself on the process, reading stories about getting published from other writers, and so on. I have a couple of places in mind I’d like to approach, but I’m nowhere near done that part of my research.

Right now though, my main focus is on getting the novel finished.

BH: Related to that, are you considering self-publishing?

GS: This is a very exciting time in publishing, isn’t it? Self-publishing today isn’t what it was five years ago or even last year. Many writers, both veterans and newbies, are going the self-publishing route and finding success.

Personally, my Plan A is to find a publisher though. I think there is a certain validation in finding a publisher (though maybe I’m old-fashioned that way). I’m also noticing that the writers who are having the most success at self-publishing are genre writers. Since mine is a “literary” novel (I use the term in the loosest sense – not Tolstoy literary, but say Rex Pickett or Tom Robbins literary), I’m not sure I’d have the same success.

That being said, I will definitely self-publish if need be. I already have a plan to hire one (or more) professional editors to help polish it up in the end stages.

BH: Also related, are you thinking about sales strategies, or just focused on the writing process for now?

GS: Yes – I’m a marketing writer, so I can’t help but consider ways to sell the book. Actually, the strategy I have in mind doesn’t quite exist yet. I envision a model where like-minded writers get together and pool their marketing powers/reach/finances. The idea is like the “Amazon suggests” list at the bottom of your book pick – if you like this writer, perhaps you’ll like that writer too.

Lee Goldberg  said he’s doing something similar with some of his writing friends (I haven’t followed up on that yet, so I don’t know all the details) and Seth Godin’s Domino Project looks interesting. I think these “communal publishing houses” will grow in popularity, and ultimately if I self-publish, I’d like to be part of this movement too.

Terry Fallis first gave away his book in podcast form, reading one chapter per week and making it available for download. That’s a great idea too (though I’m not sure I have the speaking chops to pull it off) and ultimately helped him land a major publisher in Canada. I might give that a try too.

As I mentioned already, the focus right now is definitely on finishing the novel, but there is time in between to research and consider what will work best for me. It’s better to be prepared for when the time comes, I think.

BH: Can readers of the blog help shape your story in any way? I’ve heard of writers using these kinds of gimmicks before, either bidding on the chance to have a character named after them, or something like that, so I was curious to know if you had any ideas for reader interaction in the creative process.

GS: Yes, I’ve heard of those too. I really like the idea in theory – it helps get the readers involved, which is never a bad thing.

However for this book, it will be all me. Right now, the biggest part of this venture (besides completing a novel) is learning how to write a novel. Or perhaps more accurately, learning how I write a novel. Once I’ve learned the process – and developed a readership – I’d love doing something like that, if it felt right at the time.

I do plan to put the call out on my blog for people who might be interested in reviewing the book and giving me a critique, when I reach that stage. So in that way, my blog readers will definitely have an impact.

BH: Is there a specific date you’ve currently got in mind for your deadline, or do you prefer to play things by ear?

GS: I do not have a deadline – in fact, I’ve avoided deadlines altogether. I’ve decided that as long as I’m working honestly on the novel, I’m not going to put any pressure on myself to have it done by a certain time.

Besides, this really is a side project as well (when you’ve got a family to support, anything that doesn’t immediately pay the mortgage has to be considered a side project, I think). I’ve been really busy work-wise lately, so I haven’t been able to work on the novel as much as I’d like. I’d feel guiltier about that if I had a deadline in place.

All that being said, I’m on track to having a third draft finished by this summer. This will be what I call the “review draft” which I’ll send out to select readers for critiques. After that process, I plan to find a professional editor to help me with the final polish.

BH: What’s the best book or article you’ve ever read about how to write a novel?

GS: I haven’t read any books specifically on novel writing – not a comprehensive book on the subject, at least. Larry Brook’s blog StoryFix.com has some consistently great advice, and I bought his Story Structure De-Mystified ebook to help me structure my novel (it helped me a lot, BTW).

I also really like Stephen King’s On Writing (which is weird, because I’ve never been able to finish one of his novels…).

To read more from Graham Strong and follow his path from blank page to published author, check out Graham Strong’s Novel Writing Blog.