Luke Fraser is the author of two novels, a graduate from English Honors at UBC, and a current bookseller at Powell’s Books. You can find pieces by him online on The Garden Statuary, and you can find him on twitter @lukerfraser. He lives in Portland, OR.
What is your advice for someone setting out writing their first novel?
For those about to embark on their first novel, I say write blind and without second guesses. I will quote the King from Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Wonderland, who tells Alice at one point, near the end, ‘Begin at the beginning… and go on until you come to the end: then stop.’
That is, start from wherever the story truly begins. We might be tempted to start where the action picks up, but is that where the anchor of the first few pages should rest? In my process, I also write chronologically as a solemn rule. It may seem productive to map out and follow the plot points for an entire novel, jumping between them from day to day, but I believe that too much planning harms more than it helps; it leaves little room for true, creative freedom.
Neither do I look back at what I’ve written, unless it’s for reference. I write until I hit my word count and then I close my manuscript until the next day. To new novelists, I say write without any attachment to what you’re putting down. Write terrible chapters that you know are terrible in the moment. You can always change or delete them on the second draft.
Last but not least, another quote. I can’t remember who said it, or even how I came by it, but I think it’s providential, ‘Write your first novel and then bury it.’
What did you learn after finishing your first novel? What did you learn through writing the first draft? What did you learn through editing?
After my first novel, I learned that it’s not that difficult to write something that resembles a novel. Anyone with enough patience and dedication can put eighty thousand words in a document. The hardest part is sitting down to do it every day.
I learned that there is no singular way of writing a novel: everyone has their own process; the trick is to use the first novel as a way of learning how to write a novel in the first place. It can help you set good habits for the future.
When it came time to editing, I learned that time away from the manuscript and printing it out were the best ways of getting some objective distance from the project. Later, I learned that my own approach to editing was too coddling. I only ever went so far as to edit the electronic document. So when it came time to editing my second novel, I started over with a blank document, which was the best decision I could have made. It opened whole new possibilities for fresh scenes, characters, and story lines.
How much of an idea do you have before you begin writing?
I usually have a vague idea about how many parts there will be in a novel, and therefore how many story arcs there will be for the protagonist(s). I might have ideas about where I want my protagonists to end up, but I don’t try to work out those plot points until I get to them. As I said, I start from the beginning and go; I am diligent about keeping myself from assuming any kind of prescience. Instead, I try to let my characters work through their conflicts on their own. It usually takes me about the first hundred pages before I figure out who they are and what they want. In the past, I’ve almost always scrapped most of those pages for better material in the second draft.
Do you advance your novel while you’re out working or walking around? If so, do you advance its plot or its characters?
I try not to think about my novel when I’m away from my desk. Since I write as often as I do, I treat it like I would any other job; I keep a healthy distance from it when I’m not working. The best epiphanies always come when I’m not trying to work something out, but rather when they catch me by surprise and interrupt a completely different, unrelated thought.
Otherwise, I leave plot points up to the moment while I’m writing, but I’ll get to that in a few questions.
What form do you write in most? Do you write novels most?
As of now I do focus more on novels. There is something about the long form that is incredibly appealing to me. It leaves a lot of room for exploration and meditation on character.
I have been working on my second novel since October of 2015, with six months for each completed draft thus far. Before that, I spent about ten months working on my first novel. That’s left me little time for other pursuits, but I have been known to write poetry and short stories. I plan to produce more of the latter in the next year, as I hope to try my hand at submitting to journals.
What’s your writing process? How many words do you write in a day and why?
On any day while I’m working on a project, writing is the first thing I do after a solid breakfast and a cup of tea. (I’m learning to write at other times in the day, but I more often feel better when I’ve hit my quota first thing.) I’ll sit down, put on some instrumental classical music, and then write until I hit one thousand words. Sometimes I write less on truly terrible days, but more often than not I will write past that word count. One thousand is a comfortable suggestion. Per Stephen King in On Writing, I made my quota two thousand words per day during my first novel, but it was often a struggle. At one thousand I feel like I can put my all into that many words without forfeiting my voice for the sake of hitting a number. Where the ‘and oftentimes more’ comes in is the frequent case in which I’m on a roll and I want to write until the end of a scene.
Do you write every day?
If I’m working on something, I do write every day. I have to, or else. Then there are times when I allow myself to take breaks, like right now. I just finished draft two of my latest novel a couple weeks ago, and even if I’ll be working on shorter things here and there I might give myself another couple weeks before I return to it for draft three. Distance is a necessary balm for the creative mind.
Do you have a different process for different forms of writing?
I can’t say that I do, except that when I write shorter stuff I usually try to finish it in one sitting. Sometimes it’s impossible, but other times it’s so rewarding to write a whole story over the course of only a few hours.
What guides you in your writing?
I leave most of my forward momentum to blind instinct, trusting that my characters know more about their stories than I do. Even if most of my characters amount to little more than a few loosely bound data points, the brain has a funny way of perceiving them as fully formed individuals with real lives and personalities. My job is to interpret those personalities onto the page, acting as a translator for these fictional specters: what they see, hear, smell, taste, feel. Sense and sensory experiences are the easiest ways of centering someone in their world and finding a foothold for you, the writer.
How do you pick what to follow and what to leave aside?
Sometimes it can be hard to know what to keep and what to trash. Most often I have to ask myself, how does this passage add to my character’s growth and development, or how does it reveal something about them? If a particular passage does neither, then I get rid of it. I think one of the hardest parts of writing is putting something down that you know is worthless, but from my experience I’ve found it’s always easier to pivot from something as opposed to nothing. It’s far more constructive to know what you don’t want out of a story if you can point to it. Unfortunately, I feel my advice here is lacking. I rely on my gut more than anything else.
Do you ever feel tricked or led astray by an idea or a character?
While I can’t say any ideas or characters have tricked me, I have been surprised. The best moments in the writing process come when an individual character makes a split-second decision completely separate from my own autonomy or expectations. This happened recently at the end of my latest novel’s second draft. In the first draft, only my protagonists were fully fleshed out as characters. Then when it came time to rewrite the second draft, I made a point of fleshing out the supporting characters more. I thought I knew what the end was going to be as I approached the final chapter (after all, I’d already written it), but because I took the time to invest in my supporting characters, my last chapter changed completely when a few of these characters stepped in between me and where I thought the story was going to go. Out of that came an entirely new ending, which I’m now happier with.