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Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.

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Mon 29
Nov
2010

Fifteen Ways to Write a Novel

Writing Every year I get asked what I think about NaNoWriMo, and I don’t know how to answer, because I don’t want to say, “I think it makes you write a bad novel.”

This is kind of the point. You’re supposed to churn out 50,000 words in one month, and by the end you have a goddamn novel, one you wouldn’t have otherwise. If it’s not Shakespeare, it’s still a goddamn novel. The NaNoWriMo FAQ says: “Aiming low is the best way to succeed,” where “succeed” means “write a goddamn novel.”

I find it hard to write a goddamn novel. I can do it, but it’s not very fun. The end product is not much fun to read, either. I have different techniques. I thought I should wait until the end of November, when a few alternatives might be of interest to those people who, like me, found it really hard to write a goddamn novel, and those people who found it worked for them could happily ignore me.

Some of these methods I use a lot, some only when I’m stuck. Some I never use, but maybe they’ll work for you. If there were a single method of writing great books, we’d all be doing it.

  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.

  2. The Word Ceiling

    What: You write no more than 500 words per day.

    Why: You force yourself to finish before you really want to, which makes you spend the rest of the day thinking about getting back to the story, which often produces good new ideas. You feel good about yourself even if you only produced a few hundred words that day. You don’t beat yourself up about one or two bad writing days. You give yourself time to turn good ideas into great ones. Writing feels less like hard work. (More on this.)

    Why Not: It takes longer (six months or more). It can be difficult to work on the same idea for a very long time. It may take so long that you give up.

  3. The Coffee Shop

    What: You take your laptop, order a coffee, and compose your masterpiece in public.

    Why: It gets you out of the house, which may help to break a funk. You’re less likely to goof off if people are watching. It feels kind of cool.

    Why Not: It’s extremely distracting. You look like a dick. You lose a deceptively large amount of time to non-writing activities (getting there, setting up, ordering coffees, considering bagels…).

  4. The Quiet Place

    What: You go to your own particular writing place and close the door on the world.

    Why: It removes distractions. It can feel like a special, magical retreat, where you compose great fictions (particularly if it’s somewhere you only use for writing, not checking email, doing your taxes, and leveling your Warlock).

    Why Not: You may not have one. You may find it depressing if you’ve had a tough time writing lately. You can end up fussing over making your Writing Place perfect instead of writing.

  5. The Burst

    What: You write in patches of 30-60 minutes. When you feel your concentration flag, you go do something else for 30 minutes, then return.

    Why: It freshens you up. You find solutions to difficult story problems pop into your head after a breather. You can find time to write more easily, knowing you’re only sitting down for a short while. When you’re “running out of time,” you can feel energized and write very quickly.

    Why Not: It’s more difficult to sink into the zone if you know another activity is just around the corner. It can encourage you to look for excuses to stop writing. It discourages more thoughtful 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.

  7. The Intoxicant

    What: You consume alcohol, narcotic, or caffeine before writing.

    Why: Dude, those words just gush.

    Why Not: You may be part of the 99.9% of the population that writes self-indulgent gibberish.

    Sidenote: There is no case of writer’s block that can’t be cured with enough caffeine.

  8. The Headphones

    What: You strap on headphones and crank up the volume.

    Why: It’s inspiring. It can quickly put you in the right frame of mind for a scene. It can block out other noise that would otherwise be distracting.

    Why Not: You can’t think as clearly. You can be misled into thinking you’re writing a powerful/exciting/tragic scene when in fact it’s just the music.

  9. The Break of Dawn

    What: You wake, walk directly to your computer, and write.

    Why: Your mind is at its clearest and most creative. You haven’t started thinking about the real world yet. Your body is not fuzzing your mind with digestion. If you write for a while, you develop a hunger dizziness that’s mildly stimulating. (This can be combined with coffee.)

    Why Not: You may not be a morning person. You may only be able to write for a short while before becoming too hungry to continue. Your lifestyle may not permit it.

  10. The Dead of Night

    What: You write at night, after everyone’s gone to sleep.

    Why: It feels kind of cool. It’s often a reliable distraction-free time. You can often be in a fairly clear, creative frame of mind.

    Why Not: You may only be able to write for a short while before becoming too tired to write coherently. You may be too tired to repeat the process regularly. You may not be a night person.

  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.

  12. The End-to-End

    What: You start at the beginning and write the entire thing in sequence.

    Why: You see the story as a reader will. You feel more confident about your characterizations, pacing, and logical progression of plot. It’s simpler.

    Why Not: You can become bogged down in boring sections you think are necessary to set-up good stuff (not realizing yet that you don’t need those boring sections, or that they can be far shorter than you think). You can wind up far from where you intended to go, never finding a place for those initial ideas. (This may not be a bad thing.)

  13. The Outline

    What: You sketch out plot, characters, and turning points before you start writing.

    Why: You feel like you know what you’re doing. You can feel excited because you know big stuff is coming. You tend to produce a better structure, with larger character arcs and clearer plot twists.

    Why Not: What seems like a brilliant idea for an ending on day 1 can seem trite on day 150, when you understand the characters and story better. You feel pressure to make your characters do implausible things in order to fit your outline. You can close yourself off to better ideas. You can become bored because you already know what’s going to happen.

  14. The Journey

    What: You start writing with no real idea of where you’ll wind up.

    Why: It’s exciting. Discovering a story as you write it is one of life’s great joys. Your characters have freedom to act more naturally and drive the story, rather than be bumped around by plot.

    Why Not: You can end up nowhere very interesting. You tend to write smaller, more realistic stories, which may not be what you want.

  15. The Restart

    What: You abandon the story you’re working on, even though you know it’s brilliant and the idea is perfect but GODDAMN it is driving you insane for some reason

    Why: It’s a bad idea. There might be a good idea inside it somewhere, but you’ve surrounded it with bad characters or plot or setting or something and the only way to salvage it is to let all that other stuff go.

    Why Not: While loss of motivation is always, always, always because the story isn’t good enough, and some part of you knows it, you rarely need to throw away the whole thing. Often deleting the last sentence, paragraph, or scene is enough to spark ideas about new directions. Sometimes you only need to give up a plan for the future. Changing your mind about where you’re going can allow you to write the story you really want. (More on this.)

Comments

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Machine Man subscriber Robert Bissonnette (#2827)

Location: Perth, WA
Quote: "Cante Jondo and The Blues; Popular suffering raised to a high art."
Posted: 1402 days ago

Wow, thanks for that comprehensive list Max.

I was participating in NaNoWriMo for the first time, hoping to break a 10 year writers block. I haven't written anything since high school, and it was frustrating to never actually just sit down and write.

Well, I proved to myself I could do it, finishing the 50000 word goal in 3 weeks, and ending with 60K+ For me, it was liberating. Now I don't have the excuse of "Yeah, sure you can write, uh huh. You're a stupid idiot, go play video games."

Was / is my first draft (I refuse to say I've written a novel - I haven't!) any good? Hell no! Does it need significant editing before I will even show it to anybody? Of course it does. Was it worth the effort, well that remains to be seen.

What I do know is that the ideas I've had pent up inside have started to show themselves, and I have some that I actually want to develop further now, over the course of the next year or however long it takes.

That's worth the exercise, surely. :)

In the alternative: I think you've found the secret, 'single method' and you're holding out on the rest of us poor slobs.

Machine Man subscriber SRD (#2889)

Location: Ogden, Utah
Posted: 1402 days ago

I did NaNoWriMo for my first "novel", and I found it to be a good way to actually finish something I had started, what with the daily word counts and whatnot. But, then again, before I began sat down and wrote down a lot of what I call "knowns." Characters, a setting, a beginning, an end, and various plot points I wanted to work in along the way. Like I said, it was a good way for me to teach myself to focus and actually finish a story. However, it took three years, several rewrites and 35,000 words worth of supplemental material for me to actually call it a "proper novel." I can't say that I can do the whole 50,000 words in 30 days thing again, because since then I have become much more methodical in my writing. My second 50k venture took 4 months and my third took 3 months, and both of those required the rewriting and 35k supplements to be "finished" that my first one did.

So, for what it's worth, I think NaNoWriMo works if you aren't expecting the world and trying to convince yourself you can finish something you start. Otherwise, I have to agree with everything Max has said here.

TotesEichhorn (#4757)

Location: Vienna - Austria
Quote: "marketing IS modern propaganda"
Posted: 1402 days ago

Whow, I didn't know that writers have so much in common with simple IT personnel like me =)

'Cause, well, you know that these "techniques" seem to be true not only if someone wants to write a book. Ever tried writing a "useful" program?

Well back on the track here. The key itself is like in any remotely creative process: the idea and the willingness to stick with it until it's finished. Whatever suits you to make it possible, give it a try. In my field it's usually a combination of factors. Most common is a lot of caffeine - and in my case cigarettes together with a near manic bevahvior type when "into the matter". I have the urge to understand, analyze and complete a piece of work, even if it is as simple as a "hello world", or the printer problem a working colleague has (had, btw).
The most important thing is the realization that YES YOU ARE ABLE TO DO THIS

Machine Man subscriber Danni Brennand (#357)

Location: England
Quote: "Eagerly awaiting the European Tour."
Posted: 1402 days ago

You level a Warlock? What game? (for now I don't write novels, as that requires concentration, but I'm bookmarking this in case I decide to take it up in the future).

Hans Miniar (#2600)

Location: Iceland
Quote: "~your love is made of happy, and sometimes exhasperation~"
Posted: 1402 days ago

When I write, which is far, far, FAAAAR, FAAAAAAAR too little, the most common thing I do is; I grab a large mug of coffee, or two, or five, put my headphones on, disappear entirely into my writing (with short breaks now and then), and let the story lead me on into the dead of night.

So, it's a combination of 5, 6, 7, 8, 10 and 14.

This wouldn't be so bad if I was fit enough, but fibromyalgia's made a mess of my ability to keep my head clear enough to even read a book (I'm pathetically struggling with a light read these days!), let alone write a whole one.

'Course, I also got insomnia that sometimes robs me of sleep entirely, and during those hours I usually end up going "oh fuck this" and write whatever comes to mind.
Can't be arsed to work on "books" then, but I churn out depressing and dark short stories during those nights. It's quite cathartic, but it makes my friends and loved ones worry about my mental health.

Arancaytar (#2358)

Location: Frankfurt
Quote: "We are a way for the cosmos to know itself. -Sagan"
Posted: 1402 days ago

[quote]There is no case of writer’s block that can’t be cured with enough caffeine.[/quote]

There is practically [i]nothing[/i] that can't be cured with enough caffeine.

Judd Exley (#5009)

Location: South of the River
Quote: "If I didn't flush OR wipe, do I still have to wash my hands?"
Posted: 1402 days ago

Max, I probably love you a little.

Funny things... a published friend of mine back in the US challenged me to a 50K novel by the end of November (starting Oct 1st).

Me: "You mean NaNoWriMo? I like that! That name is neat and the website is fun!"

Him: "No. NOT Nanowrimo. Trust me, NanoWriMo is like having anal sex in a port-o-potty with a line outside. There's just not enough room, or time, and you end up smelling like somebody else's shit no matter how good you are.

12,500 words a week means you end up throwing away 75% of it in the end. I've seen it happen, bro."
-----------
We've just finished NaNoBiWriMo and I've got 51,705 words. Only about 1/3 to 1/2 is crap, so I'm pretty happy with that.

Plus, now I've got a goddamed novel. My first. I'm pretty f*ckin happy about that too.

Rock on baldy.

Machine Man subscriber Charles Thiesen (#3)

Location: Dorchester, MA
Quote: "Never put off till tomorrow what you can put off till the day after tomorrw."
Posted: 1402 days ago

I don't care if hundreds of thousands of people take on the NaNoWriMo challenge. I JUST DON'T WANT TO HEAR ABOUT IT ANYMORE. I don't want any more tweets. I don't want anymore blog entries. I don't want email. I don't want strangers turning to me at a bar and telling me.

But I enjoyed your 15 ways Max.

Machine Man subscriber Dan Maurath (#2013)

Location: California
Quote: "You know, we're not the only ones destroying trees. What about beavers? You call yourself an environmentalist, why don't you go club a few beavers? - Lindsay - Arrested Development"
Posted: 1402 days ago

I must write with caffeine and have struggled with motivation because I always doubt whether the writing is any good or simply self-indulgent. Does this sound like self-indulgent gibberish? I plead for an honest answer for it will determine whether or not I continue or turn in the pen.

"However, it was not a simple infection that led to such a dramatic shift in my life’s work; it could not have been. I believe it to have been something much greater, something that Anthony was in ally with. With the loss of that piece of art, I was not expressing an indirect wish of the infection, but my farewell to a reliance on objects of affection from which to derive myself through introspection. It was something of a great but translucent power I served in that cavernous tree until that final possession of mine was found, then sold, thereby allowing me to exasperate into bliss."

Machine Man subscriber Polina Malamud (#3017)

Location: New York, NY, USA
Quote: "We're fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well Dance."
Posted: 1402 days ago

This may be the best/most useful blog post you've ever written, Max. We all <i>know</i> about these methods of writing, at least internally, or at least we've tried them, but it's really great to have 'em listed like this with all their pros and cons.

Thanks!

Daniel DiFranco (#243)

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Quote: ""I do not think that word means what you think it means.""
Posted: 1402 days ago

16. The Vortex

What: You read* every "How To" and "You Can Do It!" book** about writing to better arm yourself for the craft.

Why: You feel immersed in the writing world. You learn the mechanics of writing and why using adverbs should be avoided.

Why Not: Time. The time you spend reading about writing is time you will not be writing. While you will feel accomplished and knowing, you will not be producing. No amount of "Letters To A Young Poet" will help a story that isn't being written.

*and write reviews/leave comments
**and blog. Mep mep mep.

Great post Max. As always, your insight into the craft is keen. Now time to start writi...sigh, getting ready for work.

Machine Man subscriber Bushra (#36)

Location: Fremont, California
Quote: "www.caffeinatedmuslim.com"
Posted: 1401 days ago

Good post Max. I was totally going to do NaNoWriMo this year, figured it would get me going. But after a day of writing and many days of not writing, realized I couldn't just force things out like that. I just have to figure out what's right for me.

Machine Man subscriber Adam (#24)

Location: Morristown, Indiana
Quote: "Why do I blog? Simple, because Max Barry blogs."
Posted: 1401 days ago

November 30, 2010

MY PERSONAL WRITING PHILOSOPHY:

Blog. Don't write a novel. Don't even think about writing a novel. You're not a novelist. Maybe, on special occasions, write a haiku or children's story (and no pictures). But no novel.

Only write when Max Barry blogs. If Max doesn't write a blog for a month, you don't write for a month. If he writes a blog everyday, you write a blog every day. It's simple really. Submit to Max.

Oh and only write it on his blog comments section. This keeps you from editing. It insures that everything you write has to be good. Or else everyone will now your an idiot forever. Once it's on the internet, it's there forever.

Crap, I put "your" instead of "you're".

-adam

Zwangzug (#3872)

Location: GMT -6
Quote: "It ain't over till it's over"
Posted: 1401 days ago

But isn't #1 essentially the NaNoWriMo premise? Just go for quantity over quality at first so you can get something done instead of...uh, not getting stuff done.

Abgrund (#3357)

Location: Atlantis
Quote: ""Redeem your mind from the hockshops of authority." - Ayn Rand"
Posted: 1401 days ago

"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."

John Reynolds (#2534)

Location: New York, USA
Posted: 1400 days ago

This was an excellent read! I actually think much of this applies to any creative endeavor, not just writing. I'm an aspiring mathematician (that math is a creative process is a discussion for another time, I guess) and many of these are techniques I use when trying to solve problems. I'm nothing even slightly akin to a morning person, but I've found #9 to be especially helpful lately.

Machine Man subscriber b3n3llis (#3159)

Location: UK
Posted: 1398 days ago

Sat in a coffee shop yesterday and wasted a lot of time feeling self-conscious about looking like a dick. Staying at home today.

yuvi (#5171)

Posted: 1386 days ago

Really nice way to approach writing a novel. It seems like it's so easy for writing advice to fall into the realm of EITHER "you should do it this way" OR "you shouldn't do it this way." Nice to hear how you cover a lot of ground while repeatedly pointing out both the good and the bad of each method. I'm sure that the reality for most writers is that they need to fiddle with several methods at various times depending on how things are going and I'm not sure all beginning writers understand this...

Here's another method... in my goofy video about how I write my novel from the bathroom stall of my day job:

WRITING A NOVEL (WHEN YOU'RE TOO BUSY TO WRITE A NOVEL)
www.vimeo.com/17071598

Why: Allows you to work on your novel during an insanely busy day, full of non-writing responsibilities.

Why not: Writing from the toilet has plenty of downsides... Pick one.

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