How to Write A Novel

Writing in Paris

Author Max Barry gave an interview over on Aerogramme Writers’ Studio a few weeks ago on how to write a novel, and I found his 15 different suggestions comforting (full-disclosure: I’ve tried more than 10 of them!) and funny (“Method #7: You consume alcohol, narcotic, or caffeine before writing. Dude, those words just gush.”) The truth is, there is no one way to write a novel, and Barry himself admits as much, saying, “If there were a single method of writing great books, we’d all be doing it.” Instead, his 15 suggestions are all tried and true methods writers have employed, with pros and cons for each. Some of my personal favorites, both in terms of his advice and my own chosen methods:

1. The Word Target

What: You don’t let yourself leave the keyboard each day until you’ve hit 2,000 words.
Why: It gets you started. You stop fretting over whether your words are perfect, which you shouldn’t be doing in a first draft. It captures your initial burst of creative energy. It gets you to the end of a first draft in only two or three months. If you can consistently hit your daily target, you feel awesome and motivated.
Why Not: It can leave you too exhausted to spend any non-writing time thinking about your story. It encourages you to pounce on adequate ideas rather than give them time to turn into great ones. It encourages you to use many words instead of few. If you take a wrong turn, you can go a long way before you realize it. It can make you feel like a failure as a writer when the problem is that you’re trying to animate a corpse. It can make you dread writing.

6. The Immersion

What: You pull out the network cord, turn off the phone, and write in blocks of four hours.
Why: It eliminates distractions. You can relax knowing that you have plenty of time to write. It encourages thoughtful writing.
Why Not: You can wind up grinding. You can feel reluctant to start writing, knowing that such a huge block of time awaits.

11. The Jigsaw

What: You start writing the scenes (or pieces of scenes) that interest you the most, and don’t worry about connecting them until later.
Why: You capture the initial energy of ideas. You can avoid becoming derailed by detail. You make sure your novel revolves around your big ideas.
Why Not: It can be difficult to figure out how to connect the scenes after the fact. You need to rewrite heavily in order to incorporate ideas you had later for earlier sections. Your characters can be shakier because you wrote scenes for them before you knew the journey they’d make to get there.

If I’ve learned anything in this two+ year-long process, it’s that here are a thousand ways to write a novel, as evidenced by the list above. But there is only one way to not write a novel, and that is to just not write. As long as I’m writing, I’ll write this novel. In single sentences squeezed out of my early-morning brain on the bus, or in immersions, in jigsaws, or with word targets. The little milestones count just as much as the big ones.

21 thoughts on “How to Write A Novel

  1. I had a quick second to read this before leaving the house today, and I’m glad I didn’t get a chance to comment earlier because I thought about it *a lot* as I was running around like a madwoman. As you know, my novel-writing days are long behind me, but I’ve done all of these too… And I was thinking (as I was driving, driving, driving) that they’re lovely reminders of the importance of structure in all our projects, right? No matter what the end result. Photography portfolio, sketch or painting, sculpture, history exam.

    And that “single-sentence-squeezed out” comment reminds me of a time, in the middle of writing something big, I got out of bed and, half-asleep, wrote down, “She goes to him. They go down. They go back.”


    What the heck? But vitally important and I had to remember it! ;)

    1. I remember that line!! I love that it seems to be universal, that middle-of-the-night burst of creativity. I just love how that line has stayed with you all this time. Hasn’t the urge to expand on it gotten to you yet?? I think there is a big story lurking underneath that line, girl. xo

  2. (Hey psssst- you’re kind of one of the reasons I was googling the MA in writing and literary studies in Denver the other night after a far-too-late-in-the-evening-to-be-healthful coffee.)

    You rewl the skewl, dewd.

    1. Ooooh, yay for MAs in writing! I might talk myself into it this year. Wouldn’t you look at any of the programs in Paris? We could enroll in a program together! Think of all the things we could stress-eat together to get through the term! xo

  3. Très intéressant! Maintenant j’ai les clés pour écrire un best seller ! J’aurais aimé mais il semble plus compliqué que ça! Bon courage pour ton livre

  4. Lauren gave me a really good tip on writing that’s similar to the jigsaw method. Now if there’s only a cure for my laziness, I’d be all set. Maybe drinking would help with that…

    1. The jigsaw is my go-to method, and honestly, it’s kind of fun to go back and see how things piece together and what needs to be tweaked to fit the new parts. I don’t know, maybe I’ll try the Hemingway method of writing drunk and editing sober. xo

  5. It’s been a long time since I have written creatively, but I know when I did one of my favorite (and most difficult!) tips was free writing. It’s so easy to want to fix as you go along, but I really think it’s so much better not to. write first, fix later. xoxo

    1. I think know I’m too much of an over-thinker to free write successfully, haha. It’s so interesting to hear everyone’s approaches, though! xo

  6. i was going to quote hemingway, but you were two steps ahead!
    though, i just finished ‘ a moveable feast’ and he when he wrote about scott fitzgerald and how all the drinking (read: zelda) ruined him, he went about how he himself didn’t like to write drunk. kinda dashed my spirits, but then again drunk texting has never been a good idea… SO
    i don’t know where i was going with all that , but i love your ulitmate conclusion best: as long as you’re writing, you’ll write the novel! xo

    1. Hah, yeah, the more digging I do into that Hemingway quote (“Write drunk, edit sober”) the less likely it seems to be truly from him after all. Especially given the rift that Fitzgerald’s drinking caused in their friendship (well, that and creative differences/jealousy). But still, it’s catchy!
      More importantly: How much did you love “A Moveable Feast”? xo

      1. SO enchanting. loved it. i didn’t quite get the allure to his writing after i finished ‘for whom the bells toll’ – i think that was just being stubborn because i’m not that into war novels (it’s so much more than that, i know! and i did enjoy his telling of bullfighting and spanish culture) – but i really got to appreciate his honest and simple way of writing. in fact, there’s a good piece of advice for you from that man himself: “write one true sentence, and then go on from there.” love that. also, the setting of the novel. right? ;)
        p.s. you saw ‘midnight in paris’ right? it was kinda fun.

        1. You have to read “The Sun Also Rises” next! I’ll read “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in return. Ooh, we could start a book club! Maybe over-saturating my brain with Hemingway will spark some enormous creative burst ;)
          And girl. “Have I seen ‘Midnight in Paris’?” If you count watching it once a week at a minimum, then yes ;) I saw it in the theater on a solo-date and fell instantly in love. The DVD was released on my birthday a few years ago. I took it as a sign. I’m actually not allowed to watch it when Jamal is home because all I do is quote it the whole time. HA. xo

  7. Such wonderful and realistic advice! I tend to oscillate between forcing myself to write something every day and then only when I get an urge or feel inspired. Sadly, it’s often the former.

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