June 25th, 2013 / 2:11 pm
Craft Notes & Vicarious MFA

How I wrote my latest novel, part 1

writing survival kit

I’ve wanted for a while now to try writing a story “live” here, posting my work as I went from initial idea to finished piece. I might still do that, but for now, here’s a related series of posts. I spent the past forty days writing a new novel (“Lisa & Charlie & Mark & Suzi & Monica & Tyrell,” though my working title was “The Porn Novel”), and want to share with you how I did that. My hope is this will prove less an exercise in vanity and more something instructive—like, you might want to do the exact opposite of me.

Let me state up front that I don’t think there’s any one way to write novels, or fiction, and I don’t approach all of my projects in the same way. And what works for me may not work for you. But I have developed some basic procedures that I find useful and that you might enjoy trying. Also, this time around, I encountered some formal problems that should make for good discussion.

I write pretty quickly, but forty days is the fastest I’ve written a novel. (This is the third one I’ve really completed.) My first novel, Giant Slugs, took nearly a decade from start to finish, during which time I wrote three completely different versions of the book. That experience was, on the whole, difficult and often mystifying. Only in the final two years, when I wrote the final version of the novel, did I feel as though I understood what I was doing, and even then I felt crazily out of control most of the time. I had by then a Master’s in Creative Writing, but never received much instruction in novels, so I had to figure out a great deal on my own. (Perhaps that’s inevitable?)

I wrote my second novel, “The New Boyfriend” (still unpublished) as an anti-Giant Slugs: whereas GS is a mock-epic with dozens of characters and locations, covering several years, “TNBF” is a single scene featuring four characters, set in a single location on a Sunday afternoon/evening. That project took me seventy-five days total, which taught me that time is a resource, and some projects take less of it than others. I’m sure I’ll return to more time-intensive projects later, but for now, I’m having fun sprinting.

Recently I’ve wanted to try writing a novel in one month, and when I dreamed up this new project, it seemed a good candidate for that. (And, no, I’ve never done NaNoWriMo, though I have done the 3-Day Novel Contest about six times. I learned a lot from doing the 3-Day, but never produced what I’d consider a finished novel.)

Before I get to the specifics of this project, a few more words about my general procedure. The biggest lesson I learned while writing Giant Slugs was to discipline myself, and to write every day. That isn’t a sacred rule, and I do miss days and take time off: in the past forty days, I really only worked on this new novel for twenty-eight. (But isn’t resting part of the process?) I find I need a regular schedule because otherwise I’ll fill my time with hundreds of other things, like watching movies and going for long walks and weightlifting. A lot of the decade I spent writing Giant Slugs consisted of me wanting to write Giant Slugs, yet working only in occasional bursts. Looking back now, I can see that I wasn’t putting in the necessary time. I didn’t want to write a novel so much as I wanted to have written one.

In 2005–6 I started setting aside two hours every day to write—the same way I set aside time to work out—and that’s made all the difference. The final version of Giant Slugs took 700 hours to write, and even “The New Boyfriend” took 150 hours. (This new project took I think 100, though I didn’t count.) I had to put all of those hours in at some point. Having a regular schedule also helps me relax: I can set a target deadline, and not feel as though I need to do everything each time I sit down. Instead, I can focus my attention on whatever that day requires.

I write in the morning, after I get up, either at home or a nearby café. Ideally, I like writing very early, between 5–10 am, and always want to be done before noon (though it depends on the rest of my schedule). I find I can easily put in 2–3 hours in the morning; after that, I feel worn out, and want to do something besides sit in a chair. I drink coffee while working but don’t eat much besides a small breakfast. After I finish my work, I email myself a copy of what I did, along with some notes as to what I accomplished. (I keep a writing journal, more about which in a bit.) Then I eat lunch, work out, run errands, and enjoy the rest of the day. I try to focus on other things, although I will make notes if I get ideas. I think I took the basics of this routine from Philip Glass, who stated in his autobiography that he composes for four hours each morning. He also claimed he ignores ideas that occur at other times; his argument was that in this way he had trained himself to get his ideas when he worked. I’m not as strict as that, but I have found that employing a regular routine has made me feel more creative, and eliminated writer’s block (I haven’t had any in years).

So that’s my basic routine. That said, as I near the completion of a project, I find myself wanting to spend all my time working on it. Right toward the end, when all I want to do is finish, I’m willing to clear my schedule and devote whole days to finishing. This final stage is my least favorite part of the writing process, and the next time I write something long, I’m going to experiment with ways to make it more pleasant.

Now to speak more specifically about this project, “Lisa & Charlie & Mark & Suzi & Monica & Tyrell.” I had the initial idea on 29 April (I made a note), which was that it would be fun to write a pornographic novel that didn’t contain any sex, but that still had the structure and feel of pornography. I got this idea while rereading Ken Sparling’s Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall: there’s a scene where a guy’s having sex, but Sparling describes it abstractly, and you can’t be sure what’s happening until you reach the end of the passage. And my first thought was to try writing a longer version of that. This synced up with another idea I’d had a while back, to write a novel in which the characters are engaged in bizarre rituals that are described in explicit detail, but the purpose of which are never made clear.

From that starting point I got the idea of writing a novel where it seems as though the characters are going to have sex, but then never do. I described it as a porn film in which a pizza delivery guy shows up at the sorority house, but then sits down with the ladies and eats some pizza, then leaves.

I shared this idea with some friends; talking over ideas forces me to clarify what I mean. I also spent some time sketching out the concept. Whenever I get a new idea (which is often), I first make a note, then I try producing an example or two. I find this step important because the initial impulse, and its execution on the page, are two very different things, and making sketches helps me better see the formal issues at play. I think of this step as checking whether the idea “works” or not. In this case, I jotted out two or three pages, and it seemed to work all right (although, later on, the project changed in other ways).

Because of my school commitments at the time, I couldn’t return to the project until mid-May. Once I’d finished grading student papers and writing a term paper of my own, I sat down and asked myself what I wanted to do. I have no shortage of projects (including blogging), and some are more pressing than others. This time around, I wanted to “reward myself” for having completed my coursework by writing or finishing a novel. Upon further inspection I found myself wanting to work on this particular project. I told myself, “I think it’s doable, and I don’t think it will take me very long.” My close friends have rightly learned to laugh whenever I say this.

I started this project the way I start any other: I just wrote! In the early stages I do not sweat the details. I just bash away, throwing text down on the page, exploring the situation. I find it crucial at this point not to censor or second-guess myself—I often don’t even correct typos. I just explore. (Sometimes I use a typewriter for this, because it’s exciting to bash away at the keys.)

I should explain what I mean by “situation.” At this point, I’m really exploring the work’s form. I had the idea of the pizza guy not getting jumped by the coeds, so I knew right away that I wanted to write a scene where sex seemed inevitable, then failed to occur. This led me to the following formal ideas:

  1. there should be several chapters (the way a porn film contains several scenes);
  2. those chapters should be different from one another (there should be variety);
  3. those scenes should be scenes, with a bare minimum of summary or narrated exposition;
  4. the narrator should be as invisible as possible (no strong voice, no editorializing);
  5. it should all be done in “real time,” by means of straight description and dialogue;
  6. each chapter should be long (at least twenty pages) to help create that “real-time” sense.

None of this was set in stone, but those formal constraints all felt right. And while I’m extremely analytical and formal, I’m also pretty intuitive. Actually, I don’t see a contradiction between those things, and find they support one another. So once I get the sense of a project, I run with whatever feels good. As it so happens, I immediately ruled out the pizza guy and the coeds, because that felt too obvious—too much a dumb joke. (When I told others about the idea, two of them asked me if a plumber would show up, which helped me realize that I wanted to avoid stock porn scenarios.) I was after something more beguiling.

However, I still liked the notion of substituting meals for sex, and from there I advanced to the following structure: six friends sharing six meals over the course of a single day. I was influenced here by an actual porn film that I, uh, researched: Janie Summers: Private Lessons, where the coitus is motivated by a paper-thin plot involving workout sessions with fitness trainers. That movie contains ten characters over five scenes, but for some reason I decided to go with six characters over six scenes—probably because I worship Satan. I decided on three women and three men, and knew that three of the meals would be breakfast, lunch, and dinner. (Breakfast soon became brunch.)

I also decided that I wanted one character to appear in the first two chapters, then disappear until the end. I already had the hunch that the novel would prove mostly conflict-free: the friends were going to pleasantly share meals, not fight. I had begun thinking of the project as being “perversely innocuous,” where it constantly felt like some other shoe was going to drop (and then never did). I liked the risk and challenge inherent in that formal design, but realized I was staking rather a lot on it. So in order to give the reader something other than frustration, I decided to build in as much suspense and payoff as I could (more about this later). At the same time, since the novel would probably end up being pretty weird, I wanted to help the reader learn how to read it (which is something that Curtis White impressed upon me when I studied with him).

Having one character appear in chapters 1, 2, and 6 contributed toward both of those goals. It established right away that characters would repeat across chapters, but then create some suspense: would this character return? And when that character came back, her return would complete an A-B-A pattern that helped indicate closure. (I wrote more about that kind of patterning here.) I should note that Janie Summers appears in the first two scenes of her film, then disappears from the rest—director Robbie D. has obviously not read Viktor Shklovsky! (I was also influenced here by Harry Mathews’s great novel Cigarettes, where Elizabeth appears in the first two chapters, then disappears, then returns.)

I also wanted some chapters to feature two characters, and some to feature three (for variety’s sake), and then for the final chapter to feature everybody (which was another way of signaling closure). I quickly wrote up a list of names and assigned them to different chapters, so I could keep going. As it turned out, I stuck with my initial set of names, but finding the right combination of characters and meals would prove a substantial formal challenge—more about that next time.

So that’s how I started; I’ll pause here. I envision this as as a three- or four-part series—I’ve already sketched out the rest (in one of my morning writing sessions), but haven’t yet put in the details. And I want to be very detailed because that’s where God lives.

In the meantime, let me know whether you’ve enjoyed this? I’ll be eager to read your comments!

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,


  1. jtc

      Enjoyed! Though we’re working on different things (the novel I’ve been working on over the past 2.5 years is really, really big, and complicated, and annoying), I second what you say about setting aside the time to write regularly, as well as the important distinction between wanting to write and wanting to have written. Looking forward to reading more.

  2. Dollar Mike

      Appreciated this post – feeling less anxious about ‘writing’ now. Thanks, A D Jameson. I look forward to the rest of the series.

  3. UncleIstvan

      I like these “writers are shmucks just like you” pieces about process.

      Also, what’s on that MP3 player?

  4. A D Jameson


      Angel Olsen: Half Way Home
      Bon Iver: Bon Iver
      Daft Punk: Random Access Memories
      David Bowie: Hunky Dory, The Man Who Sold the World, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Pin-Ups, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, Station to Station, Heathen
      Deerhunter: Weird Era Continued
      Elton John: Greatest Hits
      Gin Blossoms: New Miserable Experience
      Kanye West: Graduation, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Yeezus
      My Bloody Valentine: Ecstasy and Wine
      Nirvana: Bleach
      Oasis: (What’s the Story) Morning Glory
      Pissed Jeans: Shallow, Don’t Need Smoke to Make Myself Disappear, Honeys
      Public Image Ltd: Metal Box
      Scott Pilgrim vs. the World Expanded Fan Soundtrack
      The Smiths: Thank Your Lucky Stars (live in LA 26 August 1986)
      Wipers Box Set (Is This Real, Youth of America, Over the Edge)
      + some episodes of Mark Rosewater’s “Drive to Work” podcast—which is a Magic the Gathering podcast, Uncle Istvan
      + 2600’s episodes of weekly radio program “Off the Hook”

      (Mostly stuff I’ve been listening to at the gym.)

  5. Shannon

      I really like this. I want more because I’m nosy. I also like your #5.

  6. UncleIstvan

      Nice list. I now have a playlist titled “AD Jameson”. Rosewater’s podcast is great, his voice is so stereotypically nerdy. And he provides some cool insight in the creative process too. But I’m surprised you are able to listen to podcasts while you write; music I can handle, but too much speech and I can’t focus.

      Have you seen Pissed Jean’s music video for “Bathroom Laughter”? It’s great, like an episode of Tim & Eric.

  7. A D Jameson

      Cool. I hope you like David Bowie!

      I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a parody of “Drive to Work.” A friend and I might try recording it in July.

      I mainly listen to podcasts while lifting weights and walking. But I can also listen to them when writing so long as I’m just editing. When I wrote Giant Slugs, I mostly worked by hand, and when I typed in the edits, I listened to Democracy Now! a lot.

      I have seen that Pissed Jeans video. It’s great! I love all their stuff. My favorite video of theirs though remains the one for False Jesii Part 2.


  8. A D Jameson

      Also, if you’re interested, you might get a better sense of my taste in music here, at my secret personal blog. Though no guarantee all the YouTube links still work.

      At home as of late, I’ve mostly been listening to Sparks.

  9. Frank Rodriguez

      I found this fascinating.

  10. bartleby_taco

      thank you for this; looking forward to the other installments. sometimes i get into a mood/zone where i think that writing things is not possible, but reading this made me think that its very possible. and that feels great and liberating.

  11. A D Jameson

      Thank you for all the positive feedback, everyone. I was wondering whether I should even post this! I worry sometimes that writing about my own work online will come across as narcissistic. I suppose that’s unavoidable? But in this case I hope the benefits outweigh that. Cheers, Adam

  12. Jeremy Hopkins

      Why’s your slug book so pricey?
      If I make a joke can I win a copy, or win a chance to win a copy?

      Seriously though, stuff like this is interesting to me. My interest in process is not limited to writers whose novels I’ve read.

  13. A D Jameson

      Hi Jeremy,

      Giant Slugs is expensive because it was published by a New Zealand press (Lawrence and Gibson) and they have to make it there and ship it from there. And they employ hobbits who take long breaks and sometimes eat the books. Also, it’s a small print run. Also, it’s made of solid gold. I have exactly one copy myself and I never let anybody touch it, not even me.

      I’ve been talking with a US press about reprinting &/or distributing it here, and hopefully something will come out of that. Or maybe there can be a digital edition? I dunno. In the meantime, I can at least keep talking about process! (&Thanks for the interest!)


  14. douglas riggs

      I very much enjoyed this. Looking forward to further parts in this series.

  15. deadgod

      “I already had the hunch that the novel would prove mostly conflict-free: the friends were going to pleasantly share meals, not fight.”

      That’s the porn aspect of the novel–the big way that it’s ‘porn’ and not capital-L ‘Literature’.

  16. deadgod

      Also: this write-every-day, keep-to-a-schedule stuff? It’s a waste of time.

      If you want to be a writer passionately enough, it’ll happen.

  17. A D Jameson

      I’m saving all the conflict for the HTMLGiant comments section.

  18. A D Jameson

      In early 2005, I read an interview with Vilmos Szigmond (I think it was him) in the book Visions of Light. The interviewer asked VS how a person could become a cinematographer. VS’s reply was that it was easy: all one had to do was move to LA and take a job on a film, any job. Then take a job on another film, then another. With every job, one tried to move closer to the camera. After ten years, he claimed, the person would be a cinematographer, if they weren’t a total fool.

      I don’t know if that’s true, but after I read the interview I realized that, even though I had wanted to be an author all my life, I hadn’t tried very hard to become one. So when I moved back to the US in mid-2005, I decided to dedicate the next ten years to that.

      I started writing every day. I finished Amazing Adult Fantasy in 2007, and Giant Slugs in 2009. I published both in 2011. I also started blogging in 2009, as well as publishing in lots of places, including several of my dream journals. In my case, sitting down to write every day was definitely what made the difference.

      Of course, since then it’s been all downhill!


  19. James Embry

      Hi A.D.

      This is a great post, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest. I wondered, while reading it, why more authors have not written this openly and specifically about the process of envisioning a work. Craft advice seems fairly common, but in most texts on writing by writers, I’ve noticed that the genesis of the idea itself tends to be summed up quickly, even glibly, or left out entirely (I can’t think of any great examples right now, other than Stephen King consistently saying some variation of “I heard this on the news” or “I thought it might be interesting if…” etc. … kind of one-sentence rationales). One potential reason why this is not extensively covered, I’ve thought, may be an adherence to the principle of “artist as mystic” as espoused by Sol LeWitt, especially in the sense of making cognitive leaps that cannot be described by any logical series of statements, x>y>z.

      While I agree that there is a mysticism inherent in the process–how your list of 6 formal ideas, for example, followed the concept is, for me, mystifying in that, had I started working with the exact same scenario, I am almost completely certain that I would have devised a completely different set of guidelines or constraints–your description of these moments paints them less as “the wheel” more as “wheels within wheels” which I think is a truer way of seeing them. To jump to a completely different analogy, I read the concept as a snake shedding its skin: beginning as a sort of “joke” then acquiring specific formal elements of a longer story and finally emerging from the husk of the “joke” it no longer resembled.

      I wonder, did you have any apprehensions about discussing the underlying concept of a work-in-process so openly and thoroughly? I know that many writers would, either for commercial (“People won’t be interested in reading the finished product if they know how it was done!”) or superstitious (“I am going to psych myself out by writing about this, and lose motivation to continue revising/promoting this work!”) reasons.



  20. deadgod


      Fantasize, deny, blame — that’s the ticket!

  21. A D Jameson

      Hi James,

      Thanks for that comment! While on some level documenting my writing process here is going to be at best an approximation (I’m describing what I did after the fact, and can’t entirely account for each decision I made), I’m a craft-oriented person who likes experimenting with form, and who also believes in demystifying things (even while I adore many “mystical” or “shamanistic” artists—Maya Deren, Jack Smith, Yves Klein, Sol LeWitt, Joseph Beuys, Chris Burden, and Marina Abramović, come immediately to mind). And like you, I find a lot of craft advice too generic to really be useful. I grew up hearing platitudes like “show, don’t tell” and “write what you know,” and have taken a lot of issue with them.

      Given my initial idea for this novel, I proceeded to explore it in a particular way. The formal problem I was mainly trying to solve was, “Can I write something that feels pornographic, but that doesn’t include any pornographic content?” But how I went about solving that reflected my personal interests and influences, as well as my abilities and inabilities. If someone else were to tackle the same problem, they’d probably produce something very different. I don’t think there’s anything mystical about it; it’s more an acknowledgement of how complex people are. (Only I have had my exact set of experiences.)

      My only apprehension in writing this was that it would seem too vain. Other than that I find that learning more about how something is done or increases my interest. I think details are interesting. And I largely think of writing as inquiry and problem solving—that’s what interests me, and keeps me going—so the rest of this series will focus on specific craft elements, and how my methodology relates. I imagine some won’t find that interesting, but I’m writing this for those out there who might be more like me. HTMLGIANT already has a healthy amount of “let’s mystify writing!” posts. :)

      I do hope others find this account useful. I’ve been studying writing for a long time now, and my friends can tell you that I’ve always been frustrated by the lack of real discussion of craft (that I’ve encountered). I’m nominally a fiction writer, but I’ve gravitated more toward poetry classes / scenes because, in my experience, poets talk more openly about craft than fiction writers do. I also really like genre fiction (in particular mysteries, fantasy, and sci-fi), and find that writers there are often more willing to discuss craft. And comics writers and filmmakers and musicians, too, are in general more inclined toward discussing craft. Interviews with them usually always include some discussion of tools and technique.


  22. A D Jameson
  23. Charles Dodd White

      Good stuff. I’m also impressed you get in two hours at the gym each day.

  24. Willis Plummer

      seems like a really good series. At the end of this post, how many hours are you supposed to have put in to the novel?

  25. How I wrote my latest novel, part 2 | HTMLGIANT

      […] week, I documented how I came up with the initial idea for my latest novel—“Lisa & Charlie & Mark & […]

  26. Whuppin’: NaNoWriMo and The Concept of Form | Things in the Fridge

      […] was inspired to do this by a similar-but-different project begun by A D Jameson, who’s a pretty awesome writer and academic. He’s chill, he reads and […]