Monday, October 11th, 2010

Four Writers Explain How They're Writing Novels

Believe it or not, some percentage of the world's population likes to write novels. (I'm one of them.) Or maybe "like" isn't the best word, considering that it often feels more like a compulsion or an addiction, although there are more destructive compulsions or addictions, as we'll explore in some detail below. To put a slightly more positive spin on it, novels are the LTRs of prose writing: never easy but on balance probably worth doing. (Although just to be clear: writing a novel, like being in a relationship, doesn't make you "better" than anyone else, that's for sure.) From a mechanical perspective, novels generally range from about 60,000 words to north of 200,000 or even more (the rule of thumb is 30,000 words equals 100 published pages) for a serious tome or "doorstop." Which is a lot of words, and let's not even talk about character and plot development and other novelistic "elements" that to get even sort of right will inevitably require excruciating amounts of time, revision and bouts of self-doubt and loathing, all to pay for those fleeting moments when our thoughts seem perfectly aligned with what appears on the page in front of us.

Okay, so writing a novel is probably harder than-I don't know-mowing a plot of grass or doing the dishes, but can help you learn a few things about yourself and your place in the universe. Given that this is probably self-evident, a more interesting question for those writing a novel (or considering it) is how to manage your time, given that nine times out of ten it's going to take at least a year or two at a minimum, even if you bang out a draft in National Novel Writing Month. I don't know anyone these days (except for maybe "Name Withheld," below) who isn't already stretched well past the breaking point, given all the other crud we have to do, whether it's paying for our existence in a most literal/financial sense, taking care of your family (however that's defined) or maintaining a level of social interaction to keep from crossing into that nebulous (but okay, sometimes alluring) zone of insanity where one spends 99 percent of one's waking hours in serious conversation with the cats.

With a thought to get some perspective, I asked four work-in-progress novelists about their philosophy regarding what might be called the day-to-day writing process. I conducted the interviews by email and asked the following questions:

1) How long have you been working on your novel and roughly how much longer you expect to go?

2) How do you "pay the bills"?

3) How do you balance work/friends/relaishes/family with your writing?

4) Do you have a routine and if so do you reward yourself for sticking to it (and does it involve cupcakes)?

5) Do you write longhand, on the typewriter, or on a computer (and is said computer online)?

6) Is there anything else about writing a novel that you've found to be particularly difficult/enlightening from a time-management perspective?

Below are the answers, which (at least as I see it) affirmed a few of my own ideas about writing, which can be helpful when you're slogging through a rough patch. I think these writers convey a fundamental optimism in the venture, i.e., each describes the worth of doing something that must be done utterly alone but with the idea to bring us a little closer together. Or something like that.

1) This novel? I think I started taking notes about 3 years ago, and started writing it in the current form about a year ago. At the rate I'm going it'll take at least two more years. Which, by the way, fuck the rate I'm going. I need to improve it. 2) ______ (where I work full time) pays my bills. 3) I was thinking about your questions on a bus from upstate New York recently, and this was one of the two things I definitely wanted to mention. It's important to make your close friends aware of what you're writing, and how much time you need to dedicate to it. Because A) for those of us who have a day job, being a writer is like being a superhero — you often need to sneak away from other obligations and slip into your second identity. And B) your friends (if they're good friends) will hold you accountable for your writing and encourage you to get it done. 4) I choose one or two nights a week to write at home, and I write on Saturday and Sunday mornings. I rarely manage to write at ALL of these times in a given week. But when it does happen, these are the times when it happens. 5) I've taken to splitting up my really "creative" time and my ruthless self-editing time. Like, on weekends, and on long voyages, I'll carve out time to sit and ponder things, and take notes or write out passages longhand. Then, when I'm back at work or whatever, I do more of the nitpicking over words at the computer. It's pretty much useless to try and "be creative" for half an hour in an otherwise jam-packed day. My mind needs more time to adjust. So I tend to separate the really imaginative stuff from the day-to-day polishing. Also, how I manage the distraction of being online: by really, really hating myself if I wander too far. By telling myself I'm a mindless little shit if I look at HTMLGIANT or NFL recaps for too long. By browbeating myself to within an inch of my life.

Next: "Capitalism really does a number on you."

29 Comments / Post A Comment

Excellent! More, please.

macartney (#1,889)

I really liked this, Matthew. Nice work. I'm curious as to how many of them have deals with publishers and are working towards a specific "end game" and how many are writing without that specific goal post already lined up.

MatthewGallaway (#1,239)

None of the novelists featured today have deals in place (yet!), which is generally how it works in the fiction game: you have to be finished (or as finished as you can be) with your novel before you "shop" it around. (That topic, i.e., how to actually sell the work, will be covered in a future column or maybe two.) But here I wanted to focus on the practical side of "how" ppl write instead of "why" (at least financially speaking). My own philosophy is that it's a mistake to think about money or deals or "the end game" as you write and far better to focus on making the novel something you would enjoy reading.

macartney (#1,889)

Thanks, Matt. That's encouraging, in as much as it can be. Looking forward to further installments.

doubled277 (#2,783)

I really related what Robert Repino said about not having a set time to write, and knowing that you can skip it to see a loved one or to do something important, but not okay to do something for the 12th time in a month etc. I can relate. I always beat myself up for not sticking to schedules, to the point where I get rid of the schedule all together and then proceed to not write at all because, how could I possibly write if not on a schedule? I tell myself. But really, the time is there, in increments, if I can only recognize it. Does anyone else do this?

MatthewGallaway (#1,239)

I know what you mean — I think novelists are by nature obsessive types, but as much as that applies to writing, it also applies to NOT writing, and what Robert is maybe saying is that "moderation" is best, which makes sense on a logical level but can be difficult to swallow on an emotional one…or at least that's how I understand it.

doubled277 (#2,783)

I like the idea that we're not only obsessive about writing but not writing as well. It's like we're obsessed with our own apathy or self-loathing. We want it there on some level? Or maybe that's romanticizing laziness.

Joey Camire (#6,325)

My favorite kind of romanticizing.

KarenUhOh (#19)

It's a fascinating, grueling process, to be sure. I'll add my two cents, which is two cents more than it's worth: the last time I did the god damn thing it took close to seven years. I paid the bills by _____ _____ _____.

And, pretty much dithered (that's a perjorative, right? The President was accused of it, so) over every punctuation mark. I made up words when the dictionary wasn't helping out. I finished it because I wanted to know how it came out.

I hate it. I love it.

MatthewGallaway (#1,239)

I think you've captured the essence of ambivalence…

dorothy (#1,694)

I think Name Withheld should look into Google documents.

Moff (#28)


I read this as a single page on my flip phone.

MatthewGallaway (#1,239)

It's the pitchforkreviewsreviews paradigm!

jennie (#25)

ha ha i put paragraphs breaks in my original email, MG. that was an editorial choice.

jrb (#3,020)

I never took "creative writing" in college, for example, and I don't use tons of SAT words, because I don't like to seem pretentious.

That was pretentious.

Joey Camire (#6,325)


Abe Sauer (#148)

7) Pagination: yes or no?

I find this uncharacteristically readable even though I switch the radio off when authors come on to talk about "the writing process."

Dear novelists of America:

Your book is eventually going to wind up on my desk and I am going to have to read every blessed word of it, so keep these things in mind:

In dialogue, stop making your characters sigh, snort and chortle dialogue. If you wish to convey that something is funny or whimsical or amusing, let the words themselves convey that. "Said" or "asked" or "replied" are adequate.

Quit writing "vice" when you mean "vise"; it is unseemly. Same things with "clamored" and "clambered," "climactic" and "climatic," etc. If you think a word might be wrong, it probably is; have the decency to gently enforce Webster's 11th, or I will do it fury.

Stop having your characters change eye and hair color midway through the novel. And quit imagining that eye and hair color are some kind of shorthand for actual character development. Not all redheads are hot-headed and lusty, thanks.

Make sure your story doesn't suck. Make sure it is not totally boring, tedious and annoying.

Thanks, and one more thing: The best way to make these things we call books is the old-fashioned way, not on a hot screen. As they say in Great Britain: "Begin as you plan to go on"; paper makes paper. Have patience with the editorial process, it is here to help you and make you look better, smarter and more clever than you are.

^^ "with fury." Showing that my point about the hot screen has some validity, I hope.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Who[m] do I have to blow to get my book on your desk? I'll clamor up there and slog it over your transom.

MatthewGallaway (#1,239)

Whoa, this seems a bit harsh to me, Bookish. I think a lot of us are doing what we can in circumstances that we understand are less than ideal, and which often means circumventing "the rules." It's also not always about getting published, but just the act of writing, which is something I wanted to draw out here. But rest assured: your point about the editorial process is on the money, and one we will be exploring in great detail in future installments!

Moff (#28)

@Matthew: One point about "circumstances that…are less than ideal":

I'm presuming (presumptuously) you mean something like "having a day job and other responsibilities outside of writing a novel." My understanding is that most novelists — increasingly today, and especially those who haven't achieved serious commercial success — operate under such circumstances. That's sort of inconvenient, but it's also helpful in that it serves as a sort of litmus test: If you can't make the time to write regularly, the writing might not be as important to you as you claim it is.

I do get your point about just focusing on the act of writing, and far be it from me to suggest anyone shouldn't pursue whatever creative endeavors they want, to whatever end they have in mind. (For sake of Bookish's sanity, I hope folks familiarize themselves with the rules before they send their mss to her, though.)

MatthewGallaway (#1,239)

Moff, yes w/r/t having a day job and making it work with a writing schedge, so to speak, but I also meant that for many people, it's not really plausible to write on paper, or to write on an Internet-free computer, or to follow other "rules" about writing and how it gets done. In my experience, the only rule is that there are no rules, and I hate to think of anyone being deterred from giving it a shot due to a fear of doing something "wrong."

Hydroceph (#662)

For what it's worth, what you say reflects my own experiences. As much as I enjoy the feeling of pen and paper, I'm carving time to write, and it's easier to do that electronically. I schlep my laptop everywhere, because even a paragraph written while my son's in karate, for example, is a paragraph more than I had before. What matters is that it gest done, not how it gets done.

I actually agree strongly with the first five points here. (For instance, we don't allow any words to describe saying and writing beyond "wrote" and said" here.)

The last one though… I'm not sure I know what any of that language means! I think you are suggesting people WRITE BY HAND?

Wow. That's nutso! :)

No, of course not. I mean the manuscript-to-book process itself. I do think writers should print out and proof their work on paper, not onscreen. But, then again, I am olde. Trousers rolled, etc.

Bunx05 (#1,625)

@Bookish: I found your points to be insightful and helpful. I know in my own experience that sometimes I am too close to a story to see what I've done well and what I haven't. I have to take time away (not writing at all) and come back to see what needs to be rewritten or discarded completely (including my grammar and word choice). As for writing long hand on paper: I began doing this to engender a sense of nostalgia for the great writers of yore, but quickly found that my first draft is always better scribbled out with corrections and doodles in the margins. The clicky thingy with the buttons and the electricity helps me polish my thoughts. But that's just me. Others are assuredly different.

@Matthew: This is great. I can't wait for more. Seriously. I want more now!

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