July 27th, 2011 / 3:59 pm
Craft Notes & Random

So. How to Write a Novel?

Many of you have, so do tell. Once you weren’t writing a novel, then you were. WTF? How did it go, or not go? Exhausting or exhilarating? Robert Penn Warren says you are a car driving a back-road at night—you can see as far as the headlights, the next couple of pages. Or: Should I go total road-map and fuck you, RPW, how about storyboarding (a cousin of waterboarding) or, you know, A. Dillard sprawling out her cut-up paragraphs on a large wooden table in her kitchen so she can see the layout, the spatial design. (But if I’m in the kitchen, gonna make some coffee…) A query letter? What did you just call me? Take a stack of 3X5 index cards and…ur, who even uses index cards anymore and so you begin using heroin, ride the dragon, etc., on the nod, who knows what you’ll find? Technique. You just wake up one day and put ass in seat and black on white and say, “I am writing a novel.” Night-voice says, “Ive done this and that, but I need to write a novel.” Hey! Know what? Plot stems from character under adversity. My ass. No, no, not your ass, go drop shrooms while avoiding trite phrases, cliches, or deliberately unusual words. Simone de Beauvoir was so hot she burned her first two novel drafts, published the third—is that the way? Or is it “I do not usually revise much.” Word count versus using household chores as “thinking time.” Thinking time? Remember that “nothing in a story happens at random” versus feel/fall your way through, let the story bloom, little rose, little flower of verbs, thorns…. oh tired metaphors. Wait. The thing is to know nothing. So.

Oh, I’ll get back up, you barefooted bitch. You novel thing. Ah, fuck. Are we daunted? I feel daunted. Anyone else want write a novel, but, hey, feel daunted? Un-daunt us. Someone. Please?

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  1. Eppie

      With my eyes closed.

  2. Samuel Sargent

      What is there to be daunted about? Writing a novel is just like writing a blog comment except it has more words in it. Just write the thing and expect it to be a piece of shit. Writing a novel is easy. REVISING a novel is considerably more difficult.

  3. Murder Virus

      What you need is stick-to-it-ivness!

      PROTIP: REVISING is the fun part. Ground up re-writes not as much.

  4. Ken Baumann

      Nike knew.

  5. Zack Schuster

      Why do people insist on separating “writing” and “revising”? You know that one is a subset of the other, right?

      I wrote my novel by progressively learning, over the course of a year, how to suck less. I had outside help.

  6. Darby Larson

      are you saying subsets aren’t separate from sets? what distinguishes it as a subset?

  7. Leapsloth14

      Don’t dis Zola.

  8. Darby Larson

      small goals. have fun.

  9. Zack Schuster

      That is what defines a subset. And no, by that definition subsets aren’t technically “separate” from sets (though that’s just semantic bullshit).

      The point is that revising is a form of writing – just like author and writer are both synonyms, and there’s no such thing as a conflict between “literature of escape” and “literature of expression”.

      The phrase “writing is easy, revising is hard” is at best a truism, but at its core it’s an exclusionary taxonomy designed to separate the “true authors” – the ones who somehow innately knew that “a novel is done when you’ve finished cutting” – from the lowly plebs who are satisfied with their one draft. Which is in turn both logical and elitist.

  10. xTx

      i do the car driving down a back road thing.  i wish my car had laser high beams.

  11. Anonymous


  12. postitbreakup

      I wanna know the answer too although probably it’s just “there is no answer.”  But curious to know what everyone says.  I’ve wanted to write a novel since 3rd grade.  The farthest I ever got was 30,000 words, which could be at least a real short book, but it wasn’t anywhere near ending and I stopped.  So easy to set things up, less easy but still do-able to write an ending, it’s the long long long middle that’s always baffled me.

      love love love the line about people don’t use index cards so you start shooting heroin. loved the tone of this post in general

      more answers please… i wish every htmlgianter who ever wrote a book (and there are lots) would give their input 

  13. agreenfield73

      Jury duty.  It all started in during long painful waiting hours in that big noiseless room.  Flash forward almost two years and 65,000 words later, not to mention a second kid and a deceased father, and BOOM!, waddaya know, it’s almost done.

  14. Samuel Sargent

      Shitting in a god forsaken gas station bahtroom is a subset of road tripping but I separate those when discussing them as well.

  15. Brian McElmurry

      Drop out of college. Work and then write. Make outlines. Write 100 pages. Write 30-40 pages that go nowhere. Write 200-300 more pages that at various times lose direction. Finish draft. Print it out. Do a detailed outline, finding form, repetition. Edit for 8 months after work. Detailed outline again. Reformat sections. Get rid of flashback for one draft. Put them in the next. Drafts take less time, first 4 months. Then 1 month. Reformat back to your 3rd draft. Check original drafts to see if you cut emotional writing that worked better. 1st draft 208,000 words, add 30,000 new words to 3rd draft after cutting 150,000 words. Final 11th draft 70,000 words. Try and figure out which puiblisher to send to… become severly depressed.

  16. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      My first book I tried to write was supposed to be about my misadventures on a Greyhound trip. I spent most of my time writing it on the road, and when I got back home I started working on it more regularly. I think my schedule consisted of going to a coffee place to write by hand first for maybe two hours, then spend an hour transcribing it on a library computer. I dunno, the first one was a failure, I got 60k words in and was only halfway through, and it was my first long book for Christ’s sake, and it felt like I was writing “Look at the quirky I’m-a-victim college kid write about his cool trip”, so I ended it.

      The second book… I didn’t think about writing it until I wrote the first chapter, which was originally just supposed to be a short story. I looked it over and realized, “Hey, this is semi-autobiographical, and it’s about things I’m familiar with. I can expand this into a novel.” It came together really naturally. I mapped out all the things that would happen in my head. I predicted 50k words as a reasonable length. Six weeks’ worth of nights in the Borders cafe drinking espresso and blasting A Passing Feeling later, I had drafted it, 49k words too!

      It was really simple. I planned to write half a chapter every night. When I sat down to write I made sure to answer any questions I had for the characters setting and myself on the page instead of postponing them from being answered. That was a big transition for me as a writer, because before then I used to write very impatiently/lazily and skip parts I promised to address later because I was so eager to get the draft finished. Then the next day at work I’d brainstorm and be prepared to hit the page again when I got back to Borders.

      Once the rough draft was finished, I think I took a week or two to let it cool before giving it a quick readthrough for minor alterations. Then I sent it out to a bunch of friends for feedback. Then, another month off the book, and one more look at it, and voila, I wrote a fucking book.

      The second book is just about finished, and was much more difficult to write. It’s a novel consisting of two smaller books, each one I originally hoped to weigh in at about 50k. The first book required a lot more research, and a completely different style, and most of it was drafted once a week on adderall, anywhere between 2-6k words a week. When I finally finished the first draft of the first book, it was only 30k, which killed me, so then I went through again to try and expand. Then I think I took a break of a month, printed out a copy of it at work, and got to revising, which was TERRIBLE, because I had to alter nearly every sentence I’d written, and actually transferring the changes onto the actual word document was fucking mind numbing.

      The second book of the second novel was much easier because it was written very conversationally. I drafted it the same way I drafted my first novel — nightly sessions at a coffee shop with loud music, reread a month later. Because of content I sent the draft exclusively to one friend, who recently mailed it back to me with his own mark ups. At the moment I’m working through his mark ups, and then I go to my own copy with a few more minor markups, and then I think it should be ready for querying.

      This new one I’m working is supposed to be a book consisting of like 100 pieces of flash fiction, so what I’ve done is typed a list of all the chapter titles so I know what pieces still need to be addressed. But I probably will give that more attention later, now that novel 2 is almost done.

      And that’s how you make a novel. Any publishers who are interested let me know, because I hate querying. A lot.

  17. deadgod

      “Writing” and “revising” are two names for the same set, might be a useful perspective.  (On this view, the ‘first draft’ of a sentence or even a word is chosen (necessarily from alternatives), and is then chosen in or out with every subsequent ‘draft’.)

  18. Justintylerchandler

      I have about 190k words right now. been working on it all year. i decided to not revise any of it until I’m finished with what I think is the first draft. As i write it changes, and I let it change. If I like an idea I go with it. i don’t worry about it being stupid. I trust that if it is stupid, I’ll forget it, and when I come back to it I’ll realize how lame it is. Occasionally, when I skim across something I’ve written, I’ll cringe at how lame it is. Occasionally, I get excited. It’s fun. I am nervous about revising though. But, hopefully the novel just goes on forever, and I never finish the first draft, and I never have to revise! yay.

  19. Justintylerchandler

      oh, and my advice, since it’s the only advice that always, always makes sense, is just write a lot. and, yeah, read a lot. We all know that, but…it can’t be said enough. I think.

  20. John Minichillo

      I agree with car on a dark road but you may know you’ll wind up in New Orleans. The Hemingway thing about stopping when you know what’s next so it’s easy to get started in the morning – so you are excited to be in the chair vs. baffled. Keep it interesting for yourself and keep writing stories. Do both. Find an idea that is sustaining that you can also explore. You will revise at least as much as with a polished story, or you should, and so the time it would take to write that many pages of stories – that’s what you’re looking at. You won’t know it, not for a year or so after you are done, but you will probably write a throwaway novel before you get something good enough to put on a shelf. Writing the throwaway novel is a major accomplishment and realizing it is throwaway and picking yourself up and starting over takes serious guts. Structure is extremely important. Instinctively everyone knows this, but it’s tempting to just plod along. You don’t have to map but do be very smart about choices. If you pull it off you get to call yourself a novelist.

  21. Zack Schuster

      Because that example is totally comparable to the definitions of revising and writing. And I bet you totally look down on people who don’t shit in a gas station bathroom on their road trip, right?

  22. Dennis Kelly

      Sean, are you drunk when you write these things? I mean, I don’t care if you are. But it seems like you are. You write like my mom talks.

  23. Dennis Kelly

      Sean, are you drunk when you write these things? I mean, I don’t care if you are. But it seems like you are. You write like my mom talks.

  24. Jason Plein

      The novel is one big 60,000-word file. I don’t have an outline. I have notes (I make it clear they’re notes by putting a pound sign at the beginning of the line) that describe changes I want to make – things I want to add, problems with a section, etc. – and notes about consistency (e.g., “This happens on month/day/year”), etc. The notes that describe changes I want to make include the word “TODO” so that I can find them easily, something I stole from my day job.

      Programmers check their code into a source control system so that old versions are retained forever and so that changes have descriptions along with them; I do the same thing with the novel so that I am not afraid to cull parts that don’t work and so that I can tell whether my revisions help or harm. Eventually there will only be notes about consistency and no notes about things I want to add or things I want to change, and maybe then the novel will be done. 

  25. postitbreakup

      your mom sounds awesome then

  26. postitbreakup

      damn that’s like The Stand long right? what’s it about?

  27. postitbreakup

      i couldn’t figure out what your argument was til you mentioned that looking down thing. is what you are saying that you think your first drafts are publishable and you’re tired of people saying revision is essential since it’s not for you? is that what you’re saying?

  28. alan

      Man, if you need to ask, don’t even worry about it.

  29. Zack Schuster

      No, I draft and revise. My hypothesis is that the phrase “writing is easy; revising is hard” is an insipid truism with an elitist bent. My argument – which I guess isn’t clear at all, I apologize – is that it’s essentially attacking a straw man, a person who not only doesn’t revise but needs to be told that it’s essential and very difficult. Those people, though I’m sure they exist, are already either so ignorant of the writing process or outright lazy and deluded that no truism will save them. After all, why do you think people who don’t revise stick with their one draft? If it was easy nearly everyone would do it as a matter of course.

      Really I just think that, as with my earlier examples of the false divide between “author” and “writer” and the Dorothy Sayers-concoction of a hierarchical difference between “literature of escape” and “literature of expression”, the whole thing is a design by writers to make themselves feel special and important for following very basic and elementary tenets of good writing – which is why the mindless repetition of that truism annoys me.

  30. simplicity

      I didn’t write my first novel.

  31. MFBomb

      “Robert Penn Warren says you are a car driving a back-road at night—you can see as far as the headlights, the next couple of pages.”


      Not to nitpick, but I’m pretty sure Robert Stone said this, something I only know because I remember the quote from a craft text I taught from a few years ago. 

  32. karl taro

      I just sold my first novel, this week actually, to a major publisher. it started as short stories all in the same setting with same characters, then over the last year I kept adding longer and longer sections. I thought it was done a few times, but none of the agents I showed it to agreed—or liked it particularly. finally, I wrote a few more sections, cut some others, fixed the ending and then a few agents all wanted to represent my fiction. book went out about ten days ago. we got a very good two book offer this week. I’m delighted.
      and this was something that started as a group of stories that I just kept expanding, either the stories themselves or by adding other narratives. not a very organic process, but it worked.
      i think there are numerous ways to do this, sometimes by hypertrophying a short story, other times by that long process of building a bridge from one shore and not being sure of where the other shore even is. I’ve done that with complicated non-fiction books and memoirs, intricate narratives that I wasn’t sure about when I began. you feel lost, you keep going on faith, you surrender a little bit to your sub-conscious to get through those days when every word feels forced, and if you’re lucky you will look up one day and discover you are close to some kind of ending. 

  33. Leapsloth14

      He stole it from RPW. They were at dinner, over Turkey. I mean to say they were in a jet, over Turkey, eating dinner. RPW was hammered. Stone took notes on napkins, and stole the anecdote.

  34. Justintylerchandler

      It’s about this guy who can’t remember who he is, and then who gets told by this woman that he’s a friend of her father, and then she tells him about this org that’s looking for him, and so he’s on the run. And then this sad 14-year-old kid, whose brother is obsessed with the various possibilities that reality isn’t true reality (the truman show, the matrix, an occurrence at owl creek bridge, Descartes’ evil demon, brain in a vat, various Borges stories, all stuff he’s read and then obsesses over, as in genuinely worries it might be true), and has somehow involved himself with the girl from the beginning, and has convinced himself that this group, which neither one of them have any evidence of except letters from the girl’s missing father, is after this kid, because they believe he’ll be the Anti-christ. Then there’s the stories of the various characters that orbit these two main characters, the old man who can’t remember and the suicidal kid whose brother kidnaps him so he won’t be kidnapped.

      But then, really, that’s all just the sort of framework I’ve come up with in order to talk about the stuff that I’m really interested in, which is issues of faith and doubt, and identity, and what it means to be a self, and what it means to have meaning or purpose, and what matters.

      You might be the first person I’ve actually told that to. I’m always apprehensive about talking about the framework, the actual plot, because it always seems silly when I talk about it.

  35. adrian

      Always start with a killer line.

  36. adrian

      Always start with a killer line.

  37. postitbreakup

      that sounds quite appealing, especially the kid obsessed with “is this real,” i’ve tried to write something inspired by that truman show feeling so many times and always failed. thanks for sharing about it, seems very cool

  38. Leapsloth14

      Congrats on the sale. Well done

  39. Leapsloth14

      Congrats on the sale. Well done

  40. Leapsloth14

      Thanks for this. Helpful.

  41. Justintylerchandler

      thanks a lot man. good to know someone’s interest is piqued.

  42. KKB

      Our drunk moms should party together and talk trash / fictional technique.

  43. deckfight


  44. Jason Jimenez

      I’d venture a guess that most writers know what you mean when you say ‘writing is hard, revising is easy’. It’s not some truism ‘serious writers’ throw out there to ‘non-serious writers’ to lift themselves above the non-serious. Serious writers exchange this truism in solidarity, no?

  45. Jason Jimenez

      Take a cruise to Alaska. After dinner head to the bathroom and let the idea for a novel come to you. Write scenes, dialogue, description of characters and one short story based on the idea, in a black moleskine. Do this for up to 2 years. Begin a MFA program and force yourself to earnestly work on your idea. Workshop 2-3 chapters every 3 weeks. Find a teacher you trust and let them guide you. Write every day, as much as you can, use caffeine to stay awake. Talk about your story endlessly with friends almost to the point that you become a bore, don’t worry they will forgive you. Friends will help and see things in story you can’t. Even better if your lover can help with this (sometimes). After 7 months you will have 70k words. Print them out and edit. Reduce to 65k words. Print it out again. Reduce to 60k words. But writing will be getting better. Keep many documents on computer open with notes, passages you’ve deleted, keep track of references (if you’re into that), track descriptions of characters, don’t be afraid to track themes, etc. More just to color the text not for some grand idea about theme. Save everything and back it up too. I guess most important thing is to have the idea and then earnestly work on it every day until it’s done. Don’t edit yourself. (This was my experience – and I’m not done yet, but since I am in the process of revising/editing/preparing for queries, I can say, Yes, I have written a novel. It may never be published but I’ve done the work.)

  46. Zack Schuster

      Yes, as an exclusionary “in-joke”. It’s still at the so-called “non-serious writer”s expense, the one who you never see grousing about revising because, you know, he just doesn’t “get it”. It’s the same logic behind one fifty-year-old guy saying “Marriage!” to another, and the both of them nodding and chuckling. Them young bucks just don’t get it. Give ’em twenty years (or twenty manuscripts). They’ll learn. Maybe.