What Writing a Novel Really Means

What Writing a Novel Really Means

…The best times are when you’re sitting at the desk and all of the thinking drifts to the back of your mind and then, out of your mind and the story begins to flow. First, it’s a drip, a single word, then a sentence, then another and you’re painting a picture and living in that picture and the actions of the characters are your actions and there’s movement and drama and it comes in a rush and you’re riding it and not thinking about it and you’re really there. And then it stops. And you drift out and up from the scene and your thinking comes back and fills up your brain and you’ve lost it and there’s nothing to do but sit back and breathe and get up from your desk and try again later…

An early childhood memory: I grew up in a woodsy, little town outside of Boston, Massachusetts and my school was this very New England boy’s school of old farmhouses and white clapboard and all the rest. The wood shop, which was one of my favorite places at the school, was set off to the side—as all good wood shops are—and it was tucked back behind the dining hall and the rest of the buildings and it was this little dilapidated ex-house and in the wood shop was the wood shop teacher, an real, old-school guy but not the hard-ass kind of old-school guy; he laughed all the time and was joyful and had these curly auburn-and-gray hair, scruff of a beard, over-sized button down shirt, fleece vest—all perpetually covered in wood shavings—and these big bulbous fingers, the kind that come from a life-time of hand work. He was, and still is, a good man, who sit in the weathered, corduroy chair that he kept in this little front room and was surrounded by couches and we would sit on the couches and all of us would have sandpaper and would be working on sanding down whatever we had to sand down and he would talk and tell us stories and listen to us talk and tell stories too. And he was a very good storyteller, just as he was a very good word worker and to me, the two trades are linked. Writing a novel is the craft by which we take a huge, nebulous block of raw experience and narrative possibility and shape it down into something useful and elegant: a story.

I didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer. My father was a businessman. My mother was a businesswoman. I didn’t know any writers or novelists or poets—not in the flesh—and didn’t know what being a writer meant then. The one thing though that I knew I wanted, however, was to have a craft. My father—just like my shop teacher—had a craft. His was investing money and it was a craft because he took something raw (all the information available about the world’s present state) and turned it into something useful and elegant (a set of predictions for the world’s future, in the form of investment choices). And he worked very hard at this craft. Moreover, he considered the execution of his craft (through which he helped grow peoples’ savings so that they could retire earlier, live better) as a duty and a privilege and he took his work seriously and worked hard at it. And thus we come to another input into novel writing: hard work.

Another childhood story: one year, for career day, I dressed up as scientist. White lab coat, pens in pocket. I borrowed little goggles from the classroom and had a ruler and a calculator. I didn’t really know back then what a scientist did, but I think was intrigued by what being a scientist represented: experimentation and this is another answer to the question of what is writing. Writing is about trying things. It’s about constantly asking the question, what if this happened? Then saying, no, what if this happened? And doing that for as long as your deadline will permit. Novels—the written word—lend themselves well to this experimentation: in a novel, you can try anything. You can write and re-write and rearrange because you don’t have the rigid and familiar form that movies and television have, which they have to have because they’re expensive. You can write whatever you want, as vulgar and crazy, as upsetting or strange, as outlandish as you want and, if it doesn’t work, you can throw it out. Visual storytelling is very arresting, very captivating. Written stories take more work to get into but the potential for innovation and curiosity of written stories cannot be matched.

So, what do you get when you combine all these things (craft, hard work, experimentation)? You get luxury in story telling. You know when you read a luxurious story. You can feel how much life has been poured into, how long it’s been wrestled with, how carefully and precisely the words have been chosen, how thoughtfully constructed the characters, how beautifully build the chain of events and how arresting the climax. Brazilian chef Alex Atala says an amazing thing, “This is luxury: The human capacity to transform something into emotions.” He is talking about skillful cooking but it is also true about writing. Good writing should make you feel an emotion and that emotion response from her or his reader is what every writer strives for.

But What About the Writing?

But how to we get there? Gimme the concrete steps. How do we create this great thing that will create these great emotions in our readers? Write out a book proposal. What is your book about? Create your characters. Outline the book. How will you get from the Initiating Event to the Conclusion and what will happen along the way? Look at a calendar and figure out where you want to be at certain points on that calendar. Then start. You’ll find it all goes to shit and becomes mayhem and you’ll have to rethink everything. And that’s ok. In the first six months of writing my novel, I was constantly writing myself into these narrative holes in which basically the plot would dead end and I would have to write myself out. I’d have to change something earlier in the story then that would throw something else out of whack and I’d have to figure it all out again. It was slow, laborious and lonely because no one really knew what I was doing and I didn’t know what I was doing and it was a strange and lonely time of retraining my brain for deep, rather than Internet-y thought, and no one knew what the hell I was doing with my life and I didn’t and everything is distracting and expensive and crazy. So, be prepared for all that.

What saved me? Doing the research. I studied the craft of writing, by reading these books. I took notes. I learned about the eight main tools of fiction: Plot, Character, Point of View, Description, Dialogue, Setting, Pace, Theme. In it’s most simple form, a story is a chain of events: this event leads to this event leads to this event. So, start there and build in complexity. Try to manage your reader’s emotions, planting something early in the text so that later, when that something surfaces again, only slightly changed, the reader says, “Aha, here we go.” Experiment—one of our magic words. Try things and when they don’t work, throw them out and try something else.

What else saved me? I read writers that I admired—Hemingway, McCarthy, Diaz, Calvino, Cather, to name just a very select few. And reading these works gave me examples to emulate, but they also ignited my competitive drive and inspired you to write better, if for no other reason than I wanted to be better than these writers I admired.

What’s next? Develop your process, a schedule. Experiment. Find what works for you. When will you wake up? When will you sit down to write? What will you have eaten, drank before sitting down? What will you have done or not done (a walk, a work out), read or not read (the news, the work of a writer that inspires you). Where will you write? Do you have a desk (sitting on the couch won’t do)? Is your desk in your bedroom, can you bear to spend all of your awake and working time in the same room that you sleep in? Coffee shops to work in? Loud coffee shops, quiet coffee shops? A park? Where can you walk when you need a break. Music? No music? What kind of music? What kind of headphones for when you’re in that loud coffee shop that you will inevitably have to work in. How much coffee? How will you combat loneliness? Is that why you’re working in the loud coffee shop, for the company? Are there other writers you could build a community with? Do you need a community? Probably. Remember, social skills deteriorate quickly if not used.

Arrange your workspace, your desk, the windows on your computer screen for work. I write in Microsoft Word and I keep two documents open and side-by-side. On the left, the main piece that I am working on. On the right, a sort of note document where I keep spare lines of text or things I want to save for later or text I removed but didn’t want to delete entirely. ALSO, don’t delete things entirely; if you’ve said something you like, put it in a new document and save it in a folder with the rest of your spare ideas. You never know when you’ll wake up in the middle of the night, remembering something you wrote months ago, and know in a flash how to use it.

Try writing at different times of the day. I’ve found that writing in the morning concise and clear prose and what I write at night, especially late at night, is the most poetic. Try that for yourself. Also, find out what gets you in the mood to write different types of things: description, action, dialogue, insights, outlines. Try to stay in-tune with your brain and know what it’s in the mood to do, and go with it.

Depression: what will you do for yourself each day? I like to lift weights at a gym and to go on long runs or hikes around Brooklyn to explore. Come up with if-then strategies: if it’s going terribly, what will I do? Stand up? Walk away? Flip the table? A drink? A cigarette? (Don’t smoke. Cigarettes will become a crutch and you’ll lean too much on it and it will make you feel awful and sap your energy and be terrible, trust me).

Be as analog as possible: technology distracts. It is a tool. Use it but don’t let it use you. Don’t let it rob you of your time or productivity because those two things will become the most precious and illusive things in your life.

Write everyday—that old writer’s cliché that I’ve read in almost every writing advice essay. If you only right when you feel ready to write—when conditions are just so, when you don’t feel tired, when your chore checklist is cleared, when there’s no construction outside your window, when your coffee is the perfect temperature—you’ll never write. Know also that your brain is a muscle and it will get flabby if you don’t use it. It’s like working out, running: the more days you take off in-between writing, the longer it will take to get back up to speed when you do sit down again.

Be happy. Even if what you are writing is very somber (as my writing is), write with joy because your reader will feel the joy. Be thankful that you get to be part of, as Oliver Sachs put it, the great “intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.”

And lastly, read all the advice you can find, then throw it out. Read the rest of this essay, try the strategies, then reject all of it and try something different. Being a writer means finding the answers for yourself.

And One Fine Morning —

It will be difficult, almost impossible at points, but there will be these moments when you’ll be sitting at your desk, writing and everything that you’ve filled your head with, all your plans for the narrative and character backstories, all your meticulous writing schedules and special writer’s diet, all the tricks and gimmicks and suggestions and tips, all of it will drift to the back of your mind, then out of your mind and you’ll feel all of it clear and cold and the story will begin to flow.

First, it’s a drip, a single word, then a sentence, then another and you’re painting a picture and living in that picture and the actions of the characters are your actions and there’s movement and drama and it comes in a rush and you’re riding it and not thinking about it and you’re really there and living it. And then it stops. And you drift out and up from the scene and your thinking comes back and fills up your brain and you’ve lost it and there’s nothing to do but sit back and breathe and get up from your desk and try again later. Those moments are rare and fleeting, but the best stories will be the ones that come from those moments, when you are acting as the conduit to some greater thing just beyond your consciousness. Frank Bures writes, “My best stories are the ones that don’t feel entirely mine. When I read them, I’m not sure how I wrote them. This is similar to the way I feel about my daughters.”

A Conclusion

So, you’ve thought about what goes in to the best, most luxurious writing (craftsmanship, work, experimentation) and what the best writing does (creates emotion in the reader). Written a book proposal, outlined the book, calendared the book. Researched the craft of writing (Plot, Character, Point of View, Description, Dialogue, Setting, Pace, Theme). Read your favorite writers. Come up with your process and trained your brain for deep focus. You’ve fought depression, technology and written every day. At least a few times, your story has flowed and now, you’re done.

What now?


Edit, edit, edit, revise, revise, revise. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. And when will you know that you’re done? You’ll never be done. You’ll only stop when you have to stop, because you’ve run out of money or reached your deadline or discover that you’ll go insane if you work on the same story for one more second. Then what? Do it again, tell another story. Because that is also what writing a novel really means: it means never being done. It means, like Gatsby, both believing in the orgastic future of your own creation and never obtaining it. And that is the point, simply to hope that “tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning — So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

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[I took the above photo at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art]

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