How to write a novel

I've read a lot of tips on how it's done but I'm still not sure how to do it myself

Topics: Since You Asked, Writers and Writing, Writing, Writers, Novels, Books, Don DeLillo, joseph heller, Jose Saramago, Montgomery Clift, Cosmopolis, A Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez,

How to write a novel (Credit: Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary:

You asked for problems with creativity and writing. I will give you the back story first.

I belonged to a writer’s group when I was a student and they kept panning my short stories without feedback so I focused on my tech-writing class. I wrote a couple dozen letters to the editor after that. A three-sentence one made it into the Economist!

I never stopped writing fiction or letters. I read Strunk & White’s 4th ed. ["The Elements of Style" -- ed.] more than a few times, and Kerouac’s and Vonnegut’s tips, and Stephen King’s writing book and have tried to follow his suggestions to write a lot and read a lot. I taught composition for a year at the university level at a teacher’s college in central China and wrote my first novel at my next university gig in China. [After I read Tobias Wolff’s "The Barracks Thief," I wished I'd edited my first novel to a fishbone!]

I completed my second novel when I was laid up with a broken ankle five years ago. I know that a novel-length narrative with prose that flows faster than a machine gun’s bullets is essential but I want to put something readable, entertaining and informative out there and not something that people are going to call crap. I started a publishing house last year for comics and did all the writing for my first comic. I will do my next comic on vacation and try to find more sales channels. I want to write four hours a day for my five-week vacation.

I hope the comics will provide the on-the-job training that will make me a better storyteller.

My question for you is: Where do I get the idea for a novel-length narrative with prose that flows faster than a machine gun’s bullets?



I read the “Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Novel” and remember that a unique big idea is key. The idea for “A Hundred Years of Solitude” came to Gabriel García Márquez when he was driving down the road but he had been a journalist for 20 years. Heller’s idea for “Catch-22” came to him the same way I just mentioned for “100 Years.” Out of the blue. Saramago got his breakout novel published when he was 56. I know that the hero goes after a prize, the seven plots, etc.

I feel like Montgomery Clift’s character in the movie “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” when he says, “My writing’s like this: I got papers and matches but nothing to roll with and the jones for a smoke but got no cigarette tobacco. I am a smoker that can’t smoke and I can’t live in my skin.” I can’t find the exact quote and I got time constraints.

Your asking for questions about creativity is proof of Providence in this world. I want to write one decent novel. Nobody buys books of short stories. So I guess I want to write a decent novel and get paid.

I know that DeLillo is nearly an archetype but when I read “Cosmopolis,” I was floored and said to myself that this is the primo and all the crap I’ve written like a preschooler drawing on the sidewalk dreaming of doing van Gogh.

If I had a story, I think I could get something readable accomplished. Again: how do you get a big idea for a novel-length narrative?

Stymied, About to go on Vacation & Wanting to get S*** Done

Dear Stymied,

I myself am not a published novelist but I am a person who makes his living by writing and also a person who has been writing a novel for a long time and thinking about the writing of novels and helping others write novels and studying novels and so I have a few thoughts and opinions.

Here is mainly what I think. I think that your true purpose in life is to understand yourself and writing a novel is only one part of that true purpose. I think if you dedicate yourself to understanding yourself and telling the truth a novel may come out of that or may not but you will not have wasted your life. I think if you keep reading all these opinions of other writers and comparing them to yourself you will suffer damage. I think you will need to find the way alone. You need to find your way. You are unique.

There are methods, however, that help us continue when the going is difficult. I do recommend methods. If you think about the problem of writing a novel and can break down the problem into tasks, you can find a method for dealing with each task and that will increase your odds of completion.

But you have to figure out what the tasks are.

This is different for each person. Some people are good at telling stories but do not have a great command of literary style. Some people have great ideas but do not know how to write dialog. Some people write well and beautifully but do not know about how a story forms in the mind of the reader and how the reader wants passionately to see that story continue and not be interrupted by the writer’s patent but annoying genius. Some people have great access to their own unconscious but cannot control the movement of characters in space. Some people work in brilliant flashes but are easily distracted. Some people write in so many different styles that a novel produced by them does not have stylistic coherence. Some people have not added up the number of hours available and faced the truth that they will have to manage their time and prioritize. Some people are in too much of a hurry. Some people want quick answers. Some people think it will be easy.

In my case, I realized that I would need a method that would allow me to keep writing for a long time without becoming discouraged. I realized I needed a way to avoid becoming depressed or drinking or taking drugs. I realized that to keep up with a discipline I needed to be relatively stable in work habits and abode. So I have done those things. I also realized I had to think about why people like the things they read, and I had to adjust my own notions of what a good book should be. I realized that some of my ideas had not changed since adolescence and I had to change those ideas. I realized that there was a clear risk that I would fail and I had to live with that knowledge. I had to get comfortable with the idea that I might spend a lot of time on something when I could have been making more money or having fun, and then it still might not work out and I would have to live with that. I had to be alone a lot. I had to get used to the experience of making errors and coming to dead ends, of writing material that was not even fun to read much less relevant to the premise of the novel. I had to take a long time to find out what the premise of the novel was. I had to take a long time to find out where it should begin being told. I had to experience disgust at some of the violent, cruel scenes that I imagined and wrote. I had to think about why some of these scenes came to me and why they were painful but also alluring and whether they would be alluring to others or just to me. I had to think about how I would feel if an agent rejected the novel just because there were some things that felt personally disgusting even if I thought they were literary and important. I had to get comfortable with the question of what if it all didn’t work out.

I’m still working on all that. I work on it every day. I go to therapy and talk about things. I participate in my own recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. I read novels. I read poetry. I try to maintain friendships.

I don’t pay attention to the clever things other writers say about writing because they don’t make sense to me. Maybe that’s because I’m not smart enough to understand them or maybe it’s because I’m me and not them and I don’t have their problems.

Certain things about actual practice are useful. I find Robert Olen Butler’s work useful. You can read about it in “From Where You Dream.” I have used his techniques lately and have found them workable. I lead writing workshops using the Amherst Writers and Artists method and have found that useful to keep writing.

I don’t go with this thing that a great idea will make a great novel. I think it is more likely that if you begin writing a novel and work on it a lot for a long time, after discarding a great many ideas because when followed to their logical conclusions they turned out to be flawed, a passably interesting idea may emerge and then you will be able to spend another long time trying to clarify that idea and test it in various ways and then after that you may be able to write a novel that people will like to read.

And that would be good, wouldn’t it?

I’d settle for that.

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