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.”

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