April 20th, 2011 / 4:39 pm
Craft Notes

Novel Writing, Cooking, Walking, Running

If you are a fiction writer, you will inevitably be asked when you plan to release a novel. If you don’t have an answer to that question, or if the answer to that question is, “I have no idea,” or “never,” other writers will look at you strangely. There is an expectation, for fiction writers, that your primary ambition is to produce novel-length work despite a professional education system (the MFA system) that, for better or worse, focuses primarily on the craft of the short story. The short story, while fairly popular in literary magazines, often seems beleaguered within the greater context of the publishing industry. There are lots of notions that the reading public is not interested in the short story and as such, there is less need for a genre for which there is not a significant audience.

Most of the advice about finding an agent implies that if you don’t have a complete novel draft or one well underway, you shouldn’t even bother with seeking representation because short story collections don’t sell. This mantra is repeated over and over although there is ample evidence that it is, indeed, possible to publish a short story collection. Certainly, publishing a story collection is more challenging, particularly with bigger presses, than publishing a novel, but I read collections regularly and don’t foresee that changing anytime soon. I cannot be alone in enjoying short story collections and finding them abundant. Nothing is ever as dire as the rhetoric implies until, of course, you have written nothing but several short story collections and they are sitting, quietly, on your hard drive, gathering virtual dust.

For a long time, my answer to any question involving when I would produce a novel was, “I have no idea.” I love writing short stories. I would be perfectly content to only write short stories for the rest of my life. Still, when among writers, talk often turns to this grand idea of a career and many people believe you cannot truly have a career as a fiction writer until you have produced a novel or four. I blame Joyce Carol Oates for this. When I thought about that question, of when when when, I wondered if writing a novel is something I could do. I love reading novels, the longer the better. I enjoy the immersive quality of a single story sustained for a long time. I get invested. I’m so down with the genre. When I read a novel, I wonder how the writer was able to accomplish the feat, particularly when I am reading a beautiful novel, sweeping stories with a real epic quality. I wonder how those writers were able to build their book’s world so meticulously, holding all the various narrative threads together, creating rich characters, making me feel something whether its joy or melancholy or fear or anger. I can make sense of how to do these things in 2,000 words or 8,000 words but when I tried to conceive of how to write a story for 60,000 words or 80,000 words, the sheer scope of the task overwhelmed me.

I am not a natural in the kitchen. I can cook well but I require detailed instructions. I have lots and lots of cookbooks so when I’m cooking for someone I can always keep the meals interesting. Without cookbooks, we would eat in restaurants every night or I would prepare something edible but uninspired. If I were faced with a culinary dilemma like having to make something happen with an onion, a tomato, two pieces of chicken and some basil, you would be served an onion, a tomato, two pieces of chicken, and some basil, neatly arranged but individually and probably blandly prepared. I don’t have that McGyver like ability some people have to sweep through a kitchen and prepare a meal based on instinct. I don’t naturally know what to do so I look to cookbooks and with a great recipe, I will make you a great meal. I assumed novel writing would require a similar set of instructions because I was at a loss for what to do with the idea I had. As I began to prepare for writing a novel, I wanted to find the right “recipe” that would tell me, precisely, how to accomplish the task because left to my own devices, I had no idea where to start.

I started reading various books and writing forums online trying to find advice about writing a novel. I learned about storyboarding methods and special software and how some writers create extensively detailed profiles for each character so those writers can live and breathe the lives of the people they mean to write. A lot of what I read about novel writing made the process seem like something I didn’t really want to do. I downloaded Scrivener and tried to navigate the software but failed. All I could see was an unfamiliar screen with lots of buttons and options that made no sense at all. I don’t handle change well. My writing soul belongs to our corporate overlords, Microsoft. I made a few sorry attempts at trying to write something using the Scrivener software but the words never looked right on the screen. I couldn’t get into a rhythm. I abandoned that idea. For months, I opened the same Word file and stared at the screen blankly hoping I would magically figure out where to start. Nothing came. I could never get past the 4,000 word mark. My agent regularly asked how my novel was coming along and I assured her, “I’m working on it.” That was true. I was working on it or, at least, I was trying to work on it. I knew the story I wanted to tell but I did not know how to approach the beginning, middle, or end. It was a pretty miserable time within the context of self-imposed, voluntary misery.

There were also a lot of logistical questions. How long should a novel be? (There are a million different answers to this question, by the way.) I prefer to write in single-spaced unindented paragraphs. Would that be an acceptable way to submit a manuscript? How long should a chapter be? How many chapters is too many chapters? How do you number chapters during the drafting process when certain sections might be moved around? Is it acceptable to use multiple points of view (ie. both first and third person)? What if certain chapters adopt an experimental format but are interspersed with more traditional prose? Is it really true that every chapter should be self-contained and readable as its own thing? Do you have to write from beginning to end or is it acceptable to jump around the story and pull it all together at the end? How do you pace a novel? How explicit is too explicit? Is it okay to leave gaps in the narrative? How on earth does Joyce Carol Oates do what she does? There is lots of advice on novel writing but I struggled to find satisfying answers for my peculiar set of questions.

In Haitian cuisine, there is a tomato based sauce that is served with almost everything. If we sit down to a family meal and there’s no sauce on the table, my father will ask, “Where is the sauce?” and if there is none, my mother will cut him a withering look, answering his question quite efficiently. He can’t help himself. Sauce is serious business and most Haitian women have a recipe learned from their mothers, modified for their own tastes. No two sauces taste the same. Both of my grandmothers had different recipes. My aunts all have different recipes. I even have an uncle with his own recipe. The one common feature is that all their sauces taste damn good. Mine is okay but I haven’t perfected my technique yet. Every time I want to make this sauce I call my mother and ask for the recipe and she patiently recounts the ratio of tomato sauce to water, what to do with the thyme, olive oil, how to cook the onions and peppers so they remain crisp. I pester her to write down a specific set of instructions for me but she refuses. She says, “That’s not how it works.” I have noticed that her instructions change quite a bit and I often feel like she’s leaving a little something out. The last time I wanted to make this sauce, my mother was in Port au Prince and I couldn’t get ahold of her because the phone situation can be iffy. I had all the ingredients assembled on my kitchen counter, a dinner companion waiting patiently, and a vague sense of how to proceed. The task still felt somewhat impossible but I did the best I could. I tried to trust my instincts. People who have tried my sauce and my mother’s sauce say hers is better but mine is close.

After the holiday break this year, I realized I had to get serious about this novel. Tick tock tick tock. On January 12 or so I decided to ignore all the advice I had read. I started writing what I felt like writing when I felt like writing it how I felt like writing it. I jumped all over the place. None of my chapters have numbers. At AWP, my roommate typed nonsense into the beginning of a chapter and I left it there. I laugh every time I see it. I began each new chapter with the word Chapter so when the time comes I can add the correct number as needed. I didn’t take notes or create a timeline or plot anything out. I did write every single day on the novel, for hours, and made that the one rule I would stick to. I regularly read what I wrote and revised. After more than six months of staring at a page, never breaking 4,000 words, I finally started making progress and the word count crawled into the five figures. I learned when you break 100,000 words you can no longer see the word count in the tool bar at the bottom of the Word window and then I learned just how often I stare at that word count because when it wasn’t there I thought I might lose my mind. I needed that visual reminder that progress was being made. Finally, a few weeks ago, I finished what is a very long story you might call a novel, a story far longer than I ever thought I could write. Knowing the first draft was finished was a surprisingly good feeling.

The other night my gentleman friend wanted lasagna because I make good lasagna. I had a recipe, a perfect recipe, but I couldn’t find it. He gave me a pathetic look making it seem like if he didn’t get lasagna, immediately, his life might come to a tragic end. It broke my heart so I sent him to the store to get what I thought I needed and when he got back, I started drinking wine and putting things together in a way that vaguely seemed like the right thing to do. The wine really helped and an hour and a half later, we had a vegetable lasagna that was pretty good. I sort of knew what to do even if I didn’t know what to do. I guess I don’t always need a recipe after all.

When I began my novel, I was originally aiming for 70,000 words. I ended up writing 115,000 or so. The number changes as I continue to fix what isn’t broken but I have a book I’m not embarrassed by and the strangest thing has happened—I enjoyed the writing of this novel so much, once I got out of my own way and trusted my instincts, I’ve started writing another because now I have a clearer sense of what to do. I sort of wrote my own recipe even though it’s all kinds of fucked up.

Like most writers, I was able to write a novel without explicit instruction and that’s probably for the best. I learned a lot and there are some skills that can’t be taught and some things we should figure out for ourselves. At the same time, a little help never hurts. When I got my MA, I took several fiction workshops but I don’t think the word “novel,” was ever spoken. The understanding was that we were in workshops to learn how to write short stories, probably because of how enamored we are as a culture with the idea that we should walk before we run. I have no problem with that. I am really lucky and had great teachers and experiences that continue to help me grow as a writer. Looking back though, thinking about how long it took me to finally get to a place where I could write a novel, I wish at least one of those workshops had been dedicated to building some kind of foundation for writing novel-length work. We can teach writers how to conceptualize longer work and demystify some of the novel-writing process both philosophically and practically. Cathy Day has been writing quite a bit about teaching novel writing in the creative writing workshop and creative writing pedagogy and I am loving her ideas. She has a draft of a syllabus here of a class I would love to take, even now. It’s an important conversation she (and others) are having about creative writing pedagogy because there are so many questions about what it means to write a novel, what it takes to write a novel (and do it well), and how to actually get it done. You don’t need a recipe to cook well but a good recipe can help. You don’t need to go to school to learn how to write or be a great writer but it can help. Can you teach writing? Can you teach novel writing? I do not know, but we can try better.

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  1. Anonymous


  2. Nick Mamatas

      Often collections are sold in conjunction with a novel, which is why one sees them as frequently as one does.

  3. Samuel Sargent

      When are you going to stop blogging about yourself and release a memoir?

  4. Sean

      I wanted to see more about running in this post.

  5. Dawn.

      Thanks for this, Roxane. It may sound odd, but this post helped brighten my day.

      The idea of writing a novel has always been daunting to me–on the other hand, the idea of writing a short story collection has always been exciting. Damn that “walk, not run” mantra. We should all just write whatever we damn well please.

  6. Roxane


  7. Catherine Lacey

      This post made me happy because now I know your novel is on the way!

      Also– no one knows how to write a novel until they write one, it seems.

  8. Roxane

      Thank you! (I don’t know if its on its way but its written and will hopefully be on its way soon.)

  9. Sean

      Anyone has followed Roxane’s writing knows there is a novel and a CNF book coming soon. That’s my feel. And I feel about my feel pleased.

  10. deadgod

      If there is one question I dread, to which I have never been able to invent a satisfactory reply, it is the question what am I doing.


  11. Roxane

      You must know something I don’t. No such projects are forthcoming. I have written a novel. It hasn’t even gone out to publishers yet. I am not publishing a CNF book. I wrote one but am not having it published.

  12. Roxane

      You must know something I don’t. No such projects are forthcoming. I have written a novel. It hasn’t even gone out to publishers yet. I am not publishing a CNF book. I wrote one but am not having it published.

  13. reynard

      yes he would have loathed twitter

  14. Sean

      Well that is irrelevant to my feelings.

  15. Roxane

      LOL. This is true.

  16. jose Alvarado

      How bout this, I’ve never written a short story, but have produced over the years a few novels, which are next to impossible to get published because…I’ve never written any short stories, and therefore have no previous publication credits.

  17. Roxane

      I’ve not heard of no short story credits getting in the way of a novel’s publication but that doesn’t mean anything as every writer has different experiences. That is a frustrating experience I imagine. Have you tried submitting novel excerpts that are self-contained to build some of those stepping stones?

  18. deadgod

      I’m not so sure

      wherenow?whonow?whennow? would be a great hash tag

      or Gurgles_of_outflow.

      or, yes, a thousand others

      clutched passionately, the widget snorkel:


  19. Sean


      That isn’t how getting a novel published works. Enter your novel to a contest (a real one, a whole other post). Or query agents and send them the first 50 pages of your novel. No agent gives a DAMN about some short story published. Please. What they want is a novel they can sell. What does a short story mean to an agent, except something a tad bit better than the red death, poetry.

      What avenues have you used to get those novels published?

  20. Catherine Lacey

      Never stop blogging about yourself AND write a memoir.

  21. jose Alvarado

      It doesn’t make it impossible, but I would say less-likely since people like to see that you have previously been taken-a-chance-on. But I’m not complaining. I’m convinced good writing will win out.

      Actually an excerpt from my last book was published over at Lies/Isle, so I guess I do have a credit. YAY!

  22. Samuel Sargent

      I concur. Based on the opening, I was expecting an analogy. Not all writers write novels. Not all cooks open restaurants. Not all joggers run marathons. Not all walkers ranger in Texas.

  23. jose Alvarado

      I’ve submitted to various contests and independent publishers that accept unsolicited manuscripts. I’ve never queried agents because I wouldn’t even know where to begin. But generally, I was under the impression that (a) its easier to get a short story published than an entire book, and (b) a history of previous publications factors into a publisher or agent’s decision to invest their time and resources into you and your project. If I am wrong about these things then believe me I am quite happy to hear it.

      But like I said, I’m not complaining, all writers will face rejection many times over. In the meantime, at least I’ve written enough novels to feel confident in my ability write more and better ones.

  24. Richard

      There are some novel writing workshops out there. Kellie Wells is teaching a two-semester novel writing workshop right now at Alabama, with this coming summer as the break between semesters. They’ve been workshopping sections this semester, are expected to finish a draft and turn it in over the summer, and then workshop complete drafts and revisions next semester.

  25. Brendan

      I’ve written a lot of short stories, but as a reader generally tend toward novels. The collections I tend to read are ones that form a sort of body of work in themselves and that have some sort of inter relation of works connected.

      As far as sales go, collections don’t sell as well as novels. They never have. So part of the reason for the novel is to make money.

  26. adrian

      Ms. Gay,

      Thank you for the honest post. Over-analyzing the novel writing process only serves one purpose: it destroys the process of writing a novel. When writing a novel, the work should be organic, rules thrown out, outlines ignored, etc. etc. When writing a novel, you’re basically pissing against the wind. Sure, it makes a mess, but there will be time later for cleaning up the messes made (this is called the revision process). You have already taken the largest step, it seems — learning to trust your instinct, which some writers probably label a “voice.” Once you trust that, everything else follows. Good luck on getting your novel published… I sincerely hope it works out!

  27. Nathan Huffstutter

      If you read a lot of Querying Do’s and Don’ts or Ask-An-Agent/Editor type features, they will say quite candidly that yes, they do prefer writers who’ve had stories published in magazines or literary journals. Applying for most any job, prior experience counts, since the screener can then skip the tedious first stages of the screening process. Not foaming at the mouth…check. Not carrying a resume written in blood…check.

      But by looking at credits as a “first step,” those editors and agents help feed your assumption (a) without providing proper context. Yes, your query letter or submission will look stronger if you just had a story printed in a respected journal. But keep in mind those respected journals have acceptance rates somewhere between .005 and .002. The writers being published in those respected journals typically spent years hammering out so-so stories before they began writing stories that merited publication, and if you read contributor’s notes or craft notes, it’s amazing how frequently you’ll hear a writer say a specific story took 3-5-7 years of drafts and rewrites before they had a strong handle on it. And then there’s the pertinent fact that some writers are better suited to the long-form than the short- form.

      If you want to try your hand at short fiction, cool, go for it. But if you’re considering writing short fiction as a resume-builder, you might find there’s nothing “easier” about getting those works published. Your best energy should go into taking your strongest work to the venue most appropriate for it.

  28. postitbreakup

      Oh Roxanne, that was so beautiful. And I related so strongly to the first half that it gave me hope that maybe I could achieve what you do in the second half. The cooking metaphor was so well chosen and described. I’ll have more to say later but, that was so beautiful.

  29. Sean

      Small presses have open reading periods. Or you could publish it yourself! If it’s strong work, the publication record is going to be irrelevant. How many short stories did Rowling publish? I forget.

  30. Anonymous

      As someone who loves writing short fiction but struggles with novels, this was great. Thanks

  31. MFBomb

      I recently began a novel-in-stories (or parts)–not one of those after-the-fact slap together jobs, but something along the lines of “House of Mango Street” or “The Pink Institution.”

      Anyway, even though this is sort of a hybrid form, the fact that it’s a “long narrative,” as opposed to a single, self-contained short story, has been freeing. I actually feel tremendous pressure when I write single short stories, based on my prior workshop experiences and the expectations that I write something that might be publishable in a lit mag. When writing a longer narrative, I’d argue that it’s almost easier to lose yourself because the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t always staring you in the face; you can’t overthink the process because if you do, you won’t get anything done; you can, however, overthink the short story writing process more easily (I would argue) when you’re only working with 10-25 total pages.

      As for the workshop model and its relationship to pedagogy, I think one problem is that too many professors don’t want to rock the boat…they’ve worked hard to land that tenure-track job, and the last thing they want to do is challenge the status-quo, so, begrudgingly, they nod their heads and push forward the with same ole, same ole model that limits the teaching of “fiction writing” to “literary short stories.” It’s easier for them, and no one gets hurt along the way–other than the writers who might not want to write “literary short stories.”

      I think that creative writing programs need to be more honest; if they want to continue with their reliance on this rigid model, they need to rename their workshops: “Literary Short Story Workshop.” Don’t call it a “fiction” workshop if you’re only going to allow students to write in one genre, and in one form.

  32. Carolyn DeCarlo

      number one most confusing thing entering my mfa program was realizing i would receive no novel-writing instruction in a classroom setting. profs are willing to “talk” about it in their “office” but only in amorphous ways, i think. i’ve decided to just be brave and charge ahead with my novella on my own. i’m at 7,689 words currently. cathy day sounds interesting.

      also, i am enjoying the food photo. it feels crisp.

  33. sm

      I don’t know if it’s as much about rocking the boat as it is about finding the time. Many if not most undergrad workshops have ridiculous caps (20-25) and workshopping that many novels in a semester is a special challenge, not just for the prof, but for the students as well. Mix that in with a 3/3 (or, gulp, 4/4) teaching load and it can seem impossible. But I agree that there needs to be a novel pedagogy for those students who are novel writers, which is why I’ve been reading the Cathy Day stuff Roxane mentions.

  34. MFBomb

      Good point on the logistics, though grad (or MFA) classes typically don’t have that many students enrolled, and I was mainly talking about MFA programs, which raises another point: because more and more students are majoring in creative writing as undergrads, why do they end up taking the exact same type of course at the grad level? I like Alabama’s MFA program because they treat their students like adults and practicing artists and design workshops in unique, “non-traditional” ways. How many traditional workshops does a person need to take in his or her life? Why are people taking the same damn class 5,6,7,8, 20 times? And no matter what anyone says, a workshop is still an academic class. It’s offered at a university. It issues grades, and part of its supposed “rigid” nature is due to the fact that creative writing professors must prove to their peers in other fields that creative writing is “academic” or “rigorous” enough to be considered a discipline, even though it’s not an academic discipline, despite what the people at AWP say. I would argue, then, that creative writers have conceded too much to academia, and that their field has become stagnant as a result.

  35. sm

      Yeah–the MFA would have smaller classes. Workshops: I hear you. Even though I teach them, sometimes I’m not sure how useful that model is. I did a non-trad (low-res) MFA in which the workshop was minimized and I loved it. In fact, I might say that “learning” (being mentored in?) novel writing probably works better in the low-res model than the traditional workshop model. As for rigor and discipline, my very basic teaching philosophy is: make them write like crazy. That’s the best way I know to get better at writing. Some people need the structure of a class for this, others don’t.

  36. Guestagain

      This is the NaNoWriMo approach, no storyboarding/process, just move forward to a target word count and have at it without looking back and editing/revising until a full draft is finished. I’m hugely interested in views on methodology, taking this pure agile or intuitive approach, or an iterative editing and revising hybrid process as the way to a novel length result. I always speculate on how the author might have approached the work. I’m often as much or more interested in this as the work itself, which in a way dilutes appreciation of the content, so it’s kind of a liability to be very focused on how it was done.

  37. Anonymous
  38. erica barmash

      I too find myself obsessed with the word count. Recently I started writing in TextEdit (because I don’t have Word, and can’t write in Google Docs if I’m someplace without internet access), and it’s really nice to set a time limit for myself and not know how many words I’ve written until I go somewhere with internet.

  39. Roxane

      I might try that someday. I’m finally getting used to not having the wordcount there though I do check it more than I should.

  40. Dacey Mathers

      Awesome post.This post contain really useful info and may guide other people who are thinking to star a novel.Ideas for starting a novel writing is really good.One should have creative mind for writing a novel.