How To Write The Great American Novel

How To Write The Great American Novel

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the Great American Novel if your name is George R. R. Martin or Suzanne Collins. You guys are doing great; somebody give them genius grants. I had never before read a 1,000-page book, and now I’ve read like 5 of them. If Westeros had subways things would move along much faster, George. Think about it. (Unless it was a weekend! Then they’d have shuttle buses between King’s Landing and Riverrun like only once every few hours. Ugh!) And obviously Katniss Everdeen should have dated both those dudes in the book rather than suffer the guilt and sorrow of having to choose just one. Let’s stop living in the 20th Century, with all its bullshit morality and monogamy. Hot people can do whatever the hell they want. Those two whatstheirnames would be like, “Aw, Katniss, but I love you so much.” And she’d be like, “If you truly loved me you’d make out with each other.” And then they would and then everything would be awesome. But overall, Martin and Collins get a billion gold stars. The rest of you novelists, who knows what you’re thinking. The entire world economy depends upon the Great American novel to enrich the world with vampire and werewolf love triangles that become giant blockbuster movies that sell popcorn, tickets and movie tie-in gear. Have you ever seen a blockbuster movie based upon a French bestseller? Camus’ Stranger in IMAX 3D? No. And you never will. Only Americans possess the ability to create a breakout crossover global phenomenon. It’s a heavy burden, but there you go. Deal with it, American novelists. They don’t base movies on sonnets, otherwise Ted Berrigan would be the most famous writer of the last 50 years.

So maybe you’re saying, I don’t want to create a global phenomenon. I just want to write my little book about me and my little friends texting each other and such. And I’ll answer, Jane Austen already wrote that book, but okay. There is nothing wrong with trying to write something a little more adult contemporary. Maybe Ryan Gosling will be cast in the lead and we’ll want to bone him. There have been maybe 15 truly great American novels, and you and none of your friends have ever written them. They are all basically unfilmable, except for maybe To Kill A Mockingbird and I think Stranger in a Strange Land would make a good movie. But maybe you want to make kids forever have to read your book in freshman English classes and struggle with the magnitude of your truth and beauty. An honorable goal, to be sure. Here’s a few tips on how to write a book that ought to be carved into marble, made into a bestselling movie with action figures and make you a much better, much happier person.


I know not every novelist in America lives in Brooklyn, it just seems that way. There are a million stories on the L Train, and they’re all basically about dorky people doing dorky things. Which is fine. The best novel to come out of Williamsburg was obviously A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. That was The Pre-ironic Brooklyn Age. And while Brooklyn might be a great place for other artists, poets and painters to live and interact and steal from each other, all your sad little Brooklyn novels end up sounding about the same. Novelists in packs are like Smurfs, except drunk and bitter. Short stories: no one should be writing them. Too short to be filmed. Brooklyn novels are written by smart people who are tuned-in to all the various things that might seem like a life, but just because you’re smart and tuned-in doesn’t mean anyone is ever going to want to read your book. Most likely the opposite. Writing a truly page-turning novel is a weird skill set. And while I might take comfort in the idea that every backpack on the train contains a manuscript, they’re generally the wrong kind of manuscript.

I live in the Southside area of Williamsburg. Here I’m thrilled by the constant whoosh of traffic and trains on the bridge. I mourn the view that has been darkened by another ironic condominium. If you stand on the sidewalk in Brooklyn for long enough, they will build an ironic condominium on top of you. There is a large Hasidic community; I wish someone would write a novel about them. Or the abutting Dominican community. Or looking down from inside the Marcy projects. Why should I care about your story? You have a bad job and want to be doing something different but feel paralyzed because of something and so you gchat with your friends all day the end. Collins and Martin keep you reading deep into the night because at the end of a chapter Katniss’ head suddenly falls off. And you’re like, her head just fell off??? I have to keep reading. Like holy crap. And so you stay up all night furiously turning pages. What happens at the end of your chapters? Someone doesn’t reply to your email or something. Or, like, 9/11 happens. I’m so fucking riveted.

All of these celebrated Brooklyn novels of the moment probably won’t amount to much. Just go to the Strand to visit all the half-read Jonathan Franzen books in their natural habitat. Even though he no longer lives there, Franzen remains the prototype alpha dog to which Brooklyn wanna-be novelists ruggedly aspire. But hey, one day you’re on the cover of Time magazine and hanging out with Oprah; the next minute you’re still Jonathan Franzen. No one will be putting your mug on the side of a Barnes and Noble bag, pal. It’s the books the Strand can’t keep in stock that you’d want to have written. The ones that people hover over freshly opened boxes to find. That they stare blankly at wooden carts full of yesterday’s award winners and Michiko Kakutani darlings to discover. Try to find a used copy of The Recognitions by William Gaddis, I dare you. You’ll live and die and be reborn and then die again.

We need a novel from Kodiak Island, Alaska. And the streets of Topeka. We might never need another Brooklyn book ever. It’s cheaper to move back home. And there’s probably a better story about America there. You can’t go home again, but go home.


If being a great writer could be taught, wouldn’t it have been taught by now? How many great books have been written out of writer’s workshops? Approximately the same amount that have been written from the decks of steamer ships. We all might delight in the idea that we will actually win the lottery, but the chances are better that you’ll get to sleep with Angelina Jolie. If you think the writer who is running the workshop actually wants you to go out and write a book that is any better than a book that he’ll write, you’re crazy. And not in a good way. And none of those other student writers want you to write Harry Potter either. If you’re in an MFA program, you’re basically living in a hornets’ nest of crazy ambition and anger, resentment and fury, where the ones you trust the most with your brilliance are trying to destroy you. It’s like playing on the New York Knicks. What possible good could come from offering up your fiction to a bunch of people who will quit writing fiction about five years after graduation? That’s like me giving novelists advice from a poet’s point of view. Who the hell would care about that?? No one.

Suffering is a key essential to great writing. But there’s probably enough suffering in your life already — or suffering will come on its own.

Likewise, I don’t know that the burden of perpetual debt has ever made any American writers any better. It’s pretty distressing that you’ve spent all that tuition money on something that’s basically worthless. And when your old teachers won’t even remember your name or recognize you on the street you come to the horrible realization that even sunlight is an illusion. Suffering is a key essential to great writing. But there’s probably enough suffering in your life already — or suffering will come on its own. If you feel like paying someone to teach you to be a writer will make you a better writer, PayPal me $100,000 after reading this here article.

If you want to write a Great American Novel, drop out of graduate school and join the Army and go to Afghanistan and tell us all about it in your fiction. We’ve had ten years of reporting about the wars, but we still don’t seem to know shit. If you get your head blown off, your book will probably become really famous. Or join a circus. I want to read a book told from the point of view of a bearded lady. Or become an assassin. One who kills lousy novelists.


I’m actually typing this article on a blue Selectric II typewriter in a meadow filled with ducks. I have a very long extension cord. Stop asking so many questions. I’m entirely unclear who was the first hopeful writer who thought the atmosphere at coffee shops was the ideal place to get some work done. It’s loud there and people are having completely awful conversations about their boring lives. (Side note: People having conversations in public: Please make them more interesting! Who told you your lives could be so banal?) Which is not to say I don’t have coffee with me. Coffee is portable. I got my little Dwight Gooden mug and the sounds of birds whose names I don’t know and also I think a little bird crap between my shoulder blades, but I can’t reach back there. One does not paint a masterpiece on a canvas with ketchup already smushed all over it. And it’s not necessary to be in nature to write great. The only great poem I have ever written was written on the Cyclone at Coney Island. It was about God living inside a vending machine and not accepting my wrinkled dollar. It will be in my obituary. What will be in your obituary? “Saffo wrote several middle-of-the-road novels that were fatally flawed for having been written inside a crowded chain coffee shop.”

I’ve been to the bungalow that Mark Twain wrote Huck Finn in. It’s tiny and snug and has been dragged out of the woods to be placed on the campus of Elmira College in western New York. I suggest you roll up on Elmira, steal this bungalow and bring it to a grove of sequoias or the bottom of the Grand Canyon and get to it.


This is mainly for the male contingent of American writers. The female contingent can skip this part and just know how truly beautiful and perfect I think you all totally are. I find women’s adultery completely transfixing and please cheat on your husbands or wives with me, ladies.

Now then, dudes. No one cares that you want to cheat on your boyfriends, girlfriends, wives or dogs. No one gives a crap. I read on the cover of Lolita that it was the only believable love story of the 20th Century, and while that seems almost completely like total bullshit since the guy is, in addition to being a cheater, a child molester, and while Nabokov might have managed that plot point, you yourself are just not suited to writing about matters of the heart. Because we’re all, basically, cheaters. It’s part of your little cheaty nature. Even if you are not physically cheating on someone you are probably writing novels in which the character is you and they are cheating and so getting away with it and it’s just totally lazy writing. The best novel of the last few years is called “Mad Men” and it’s on AMC Sunday nights and he is handsomer than you and when he cheats I am somewhat interested but not much. And nothing ever seems to happen on that show and yet we watch and imagine ourselves cheating on whoever we are sadly with. Like, Don Draper, sit on my face, etc.

But you’re not Don Draper or even Philip Roth so who cares about your desire to cheat on your wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands. It’s boring. Your grandparents cheated, too. What do you want, a Nobel Prize? I liked adultery better in, like, Klima and Kundera novels, people crushed by a monolithic society whose only escape was to sleep around. Or so that’s what they told their wives. But what do I care if you break your mousy wife’s heart? Everybody gets divorced. It’s the American Way. I married someone who I knew going in I wanted to resent forever. When I cheated on them it was barely even interesting to me. It’s really only fun to sleep with people for a few weeks but then you’ve seen everything they’ve got going on and see their little sex face and hear their sex dialogue and it’s time to go back to imagining having sex with Don Draper. I’m trying to think of a great novel I have read in which adultery is the main rising action of the thing and I can’t really think of any except Nabokov maybe or Klima’s Love and Garbage but the adultery seems more incidental in that one. Like just another piece of sprawling puzzle of Prague, Kafka, the death of his father and the dark cloud of Communist country despair. William Vollmann has cornered the market on hookers. We’ll give Roth adultery since he doesn’t have anything else. Jeanette Winterson gets hot genderless sex. Jaime and Cersei Lannister have incest. So go out and find something even kinkier. All this mommy porn is nice, but so vanilla. I wouldn’t mind if men stopped writing novels altogether, frankly. Your drunk little egos get in the way of most good writing. But since that’s still a dream, find something a little more exciting than the adventures of your penis. Unless it is a magic penis — like the one in The Seducer by Jan Kjaerstad. Hooray for magic penises!


I think we can all agree that Jonathan Safran Foer’s magic child in Close and Loud has officially ended the need to ever write a book again told from the point of view of brilliant magical children. The desire of adults who are not YA authors to place themselves inside the lives of kids to make a more-perfect and more beautiful version of themselves in youth: Puking sound. YA authors are actually performing a vital service: Please continue doing that, YA authors! There’s nothing self-conscious and plodding about what you’re up to. Kids in general are rarely magical. They’re kids. Sometimes amusing, sometimes accidentally saying interesting things. When adults write kids they make them unbearable. Like Harry Potter. What a bore. Hermione was the real hero of all those books. They should have all been called HERMIONE GRANGER SAVES HARRY POTTER’S DUMB ASS AGAIN.

I’m not sure that the current waves of autism and other related illnesses are all officially on the level. I just think some kids have found a way to truly not pay any attention to their parents. Parenting is hitting all-time high scores of annoying and yes, every child in America is so super special. That’s why they ought to live with their moms in Park Slope for the rest of their lives, so they’ll never be too far from a breast-feeding at age 25. But why should anyone find your child, or the child you write about in your novel, compelling? There are roughly 100 million kids in America. Is your child an actual ninja? Then let them write a novel about it. I would totally read a book written by a 12 year old about 12 year olds. I think that would be completely fascinating. Do 30 year olds know what happens in the lives of autistic 10 year olds? There’s just no way. You can follow them around and put their clothes on and roll around with their Transformers and I’m still pretty sure there’s just no way you’ll even begin to comprehend what it’s like to be a kid. The only book I read as a kid that even remotely got what I thought it meant to be a kid at the time I was a kid was Bridge to Terabithia, which understood me and my relationship with the love of my young life Harumi Tanaka pretty damned well. If Harumi wrote a novel about my childhood, I’d be totally OK with that. Although I am not, in and of myself, a very interesting character. Harumi, on the other hand, like Hermione, is a hero for the ages.


All these tweeters and bloggers and gifs of cats, that’s what’s keeping you from writing! Articles like this! You’re totally wasting daylight here! Stop being so distracted. There’s nothing so very important happening on the internet that won’t be happening next week. Or that you will remember next week. “It’s 11:11 on 11/11/11!!” Good for you. It’s taken me since January to write this article, which I am writing in a few hours finally on a Saturday. Why? Because I’ve been much too busy fucking around on the internet to actually get anything done. Can you believe who the New York Observer named “The Sexiest Nobodies of New York 2012??” I know, neither can I! Don’t worry. The Observer will always have another Top 50 list of unbearable people in the works. If you want to write a novel, no one but yourself is stopping you. In my novel, the character of Tim is in love with the cute lady who works at Marlow & Daughters, who he sees whenever he goes in to buy sausages. What will happen to Tim? We’ll never know! Because I’m too busy writing this. And then looking at cats. And then playing with myself.


Have you read The Call of the Wild? That’s a great book. I reread that on my phone recently. It had cool little woodcuts and everything. Books need more woodcuts these days. Why did we get away from pictures in books? Especially e-books. They are just so goddamned white all over the place. It’s nice to be turning little pages of your e-book with your thumb (or, if you’re on the subway, your penis) and be presented with a woodcut of a dog attacking another dog. I think John Gardner’s Grendel would make a great movie, except he should get away at the end so there can be $equels. Animals are great. And most books written from the point of view of animals are great.

I remember some Vintage paperback about a woman who have a love affair with a dolphin. Told from the point of view of the woman! What a missed opportunity.

Although I was glad when the dog in that short story by Dave Eggers drowned, so that one was an exception. That dog was annoying. He was the Holden Caulfield of dogs. Everyone should stop trying to write Holden Caulfield characters, too, by the way. That dude was a dick. My friend Steve Himmer wrote a novel from the point of view of a bear that I feel is the greatest thing ever written anywhere ever. Because bears are awesome. I think a squid who also had legs would be a good main character of a book. Wouldn’t you want to know who that dude was sleeping with when his wife wasn’t around? Eyebrows up and down! Cats are sorely under-represented in our Arts and Letters considering what a giant online industry they’ve become. They’re obviously smarter than us or they’d be the ones that have to work all day. And too often they’re personified. Try giving actual lasagna to an actual cat. Because they don’t go for that, believe me.

But monsters, goblins, whales, beavers. They can be the best narrators. I remember some Vintage paperback about a woman who have a love affair with a dolphin. Told from the point of view of the woman! What a missed opportunity. Some ex-girlfriend gave it to me and was mad when I took it back to the store and traded it in for some Eastern European thing I wanted to read. Kafka had it right. The bug is much more interesting than boring old Gregor Samsa. No one would want to read a story in which a dude woke up in the morning to find himself transformed into some boring Czech person. No one would read that. I know, because I wrote it.


We’ve somehow entered an age in which we all must rage against all slights, perceived and imagined. The internet has somehow made us less able to take criticism and less likely to give frank criticism. Because haters be hating. So what? Why should anyone’s opinion matter to you? If you think your novel is amazing, then keep banging away. Even the best novelists usually only write like 1 ½ great books. The rest of them are like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Or Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010, 2061 and 3001. What was it Robert Walser said when his friends visited him in the sanitorium and asked if he was writing? “I didn’t come here to write, I came here to be crazy.” Except in German. Which sounds way more awesome. People on the internet are no more real than the people you imagine. And if you imagine Lincoln Center audiences giving you applause at the end of every paragraph you write, you’ll be better off than if you worry about some dude on Twitter or in the London Review of Books. What great novel did those people ever write? The really great novelists don’t review books or even read anybody else’s stuff. They are too busy counting their money.

The ache for content in America is palpable. And never have there been greater opportunities for writers. You used to have to type things up on typewriters and carry them around with you but then a strong breeze would come and blow it away which I think happened in a Michael Chabon book which became a Katie Holmes and Michael Douglas movie which is really not very good. The lives of writers are not interesting. Just as when Letterman interviews an actor you’re like, wow, they are boring and dumb. It’s other people’s words that fill up actors like helium and makes them dance. And the only thing that’s interesting about most writers is just the tap tap tap of keys. Otherwise they’re just as boring as the rest of us.


Well, you don’t have to stop. You just have to stop caring about it so much. Doing coke and drinking has never made anyone a better writer. It’s destroyed good writers. Now benzedrine, that’s another story. But just because you drink it doesn’t make you interesting. It just makes you feel interesting. Just pull up a stool next to some stranger at a bar and find out. I admire professional alcoholics as much as the next guy. The people who really aren’t fucking around, that’s their true calling in life. The people who dabble in both writing and drinking usually fail at everything. And all this trendy binge drinking? It’s like the disdain Paul Newman feels for 9-ball billiards in The Color of Money.

And coke just makes everyone unbearable. Have you ever heard someone say, “When you do lines of coke you become so incredibly charming?” No. No one has ever said that before in the history of the world. Cocaine makes you a terrible person, and not even in an interesting way. If you realized how angry and on edge you’d feel as a writer without coke and drinking, you’d go for that. Not drinking has improved my writing dramatically, which used to be 99% about drinking or about wanting to drink. I thought stopping drinking would get me laid more often. That was a bad call because mostly I got laid during last call with my back against a urinal. So those opportunities went down dramatically. But no matter. I’m now a rageball of infinite beauty, watch my terrible power drift magnificently across the page. The murder mystery I’ve been working on is still ridiculously stalled: Tim will probably never win over the nice sausage woman, but at least he’s not wallowing in his own whiskey about it. People only like being drunk, not necessarily watching idiots be drunk. So the drunkenness in your books or your real life really doesn’t amount to much. Except to slowly chip away at you until you cannot write anymore. Which would be sad if you were any good. Save the drinking until after your writing is done, when it’s not hurting anyone but yourself. I wouldn’t stop drinking entirely unless you truly have to, but just realize that everything you say and do while drunk is stupid bullshit that doesn’t mean anything. If you’re ironically smoking crack to write better novels you’re probably dead by now.


I have this idea for a Showtime show. It is kind of like “Dexter” except the main character is a child molester. But wait, it’s OK because he only molests really bad kids who deserve it. I’m pretty sure this is a brilliant idea that can make me millions, but that’s all I’ve got so far. We’ve fallen so in love with lovable bad people that we can’t accept bad people as they really are: bad. Why can’t we celebrate and embrace criminals and psychopaths for who they really are? Well, in general, criminals and psychopaths don’t write novels because they’re too busy doing the things that matter to them, like killing people. It’s too bad, because I bet if they wrote books about why they kill it would be interesting. Not in all cases. That Unabomber manuscript had some serious Fourth Act problems.

Not that all narrators need to be goody-goods. Most goody-goods are secretly awful people driven by terrible motives. Just depict people as they are. Complicated. Sometimes douchey. But hopefully as hot as Jon Hamm. I read most books and hope most characters will actually be brutally murdered on the next page. It’s a shame when they aren’t.


There are so many reasons not to write. But few are any better than because you are going to get laid. That is a good reason. Everything else, all these other distractions are meaningless. Friends betray you. There will always be another party. I remember when John Updike blew off some big important New Yorker Party because he was writing. The only thing I ever liked from him was the story about the supermarket, but he lived in the town I lived in and I used to ride my bike past his house and wonder what he was up to, typing away in his house. Adultery stories mostly. But it must have been unbearable for John Updike to show up at parties anyway. Everyone bothering him for something. Everything in the world is trying to distract you from getting something on the page. Our own doubts about everything we do is crushing. Don’t let it crush you. No one has any idea what they’re doing. And even J. K. Rowling once lived in her car and her next book will probably be no good anyway. The Great American Novel is inside you, I just know it. Especially if you’re Canadian. Like the David statue in the stone, it’s up to you to release it. And then leave it on a window sill or the M train so I can steal it and take all the credit for it.

Even the greatest writers died horrible deaths terribly alone. Try to enjoy it.

Related: How To Write A Love Poem

Jim Behrle tweets at @behrle for your possible amusement. Photo by mpclemens.