Mon 29

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.)

Wed 17

Famous Friend

Writing Some people think it must be cool to have a famous friend. You’re imagining hanging with someone like, say, Keanu, and Keanu telling you things he doesn’t tell anyone else, and you ragging on him for sucking at PlayStation. That would be cool. But what it’s actually like is one of your friends—your real friends, say your best friend—and he’s exactly the same only everyone thinks he’s wonderful. Do you see how annoying that is? Because, sure, he’s a good guy, but he’s not perfect. He’s not God. But now everyone fawns over him and tells you how lucky you are to know him. That’s why they pay attention to you: because you might help them get closer to him. And whenever you spend time with him, just the two of you, you both know he could be somewhere else, listening to people flatter him or take him cool places for free or sleep with him, because he’s famous. Being friends with a famous person is the worst. And that’s why when the magazines come sniffing around, asking just off the record, just for background, is he really happy, and does he drink or ever do drugs, and did he really hit that girl, you tell them everything.

Mon 01

Ayn Rand and a Hint

Writing The New Yorker published one of my short stories in full without even asking. That’s a gross copyright violation. I’m thinking of suing. Admittedly, the story is only 25 words long. But still. They broke the ten percent rule. Two and a half words would have been okay. “She walks i.” I’d have no problem with that.

So now The New Yorker has stolen my livelihood, there’s no reason for you to buy the book it’s published in, Hint Fiction. Unless you would like to read 150 or so stories by the other contributors. I guess that’s a good reason. The deal is they are all hints: 25 words or fewer, not self-contained stories but rather suggestions of larger tales. There are some more examples, by which I mean copyright violations, in The New Yorker article, and you can pick up the book, published today in the US & Canada, here or here.

If you are in Australia, I’m on TV tonight, talking about Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Actually, I’m doing that no matter where you are. You can’t affect it. I’m also discussing Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. I mention the Rand book first because it’s the one people will send me emails about.

Here’s the thing with Atlas Shrugged. It’s eleven hundred pages of brilliant, beautiful, go-getter industrialists talking to stupid, grasping, corrupt collectivists, set in a world where only half the laws of economics apply. The character names change but nothing else. Otherwise, it’s not bad. No, I lie. Even setting that aside, it’s terrible. I felt like Ayn Rand cornered me at a party, and three minutes in I found my first objection to what she was saying, but she kept talking without interruption for ten more days.

It’s not a novel so much as a manifesto, and, I think, impossible to enjoy unless you’re at least a little on board for the philosophy, and it’s hard to be on board for the philosophy if you understand economics or see a moral problem with starving poor people. I realize many believe fervently in the philosophy. They email me. And I don’t think it’s one hundred percent bogus. But it demands that you choose between no government or total government, and I think all such extremes have similarly extreme problems.

Freedom is good, though.

Sat 31

Max! Does! Stuff!

Writing Here is a short story! Not by me. Oh. Sorry. You thought… you’re right, that was confusing. No, this is by Sean Silleck. He’s nobody. I say that with the deepest respect. I mean he’s only had one thing published and this is it. But check it out: it’s like something I would write, if I was having a really good day. I mean, eerily so. It’s like the guy is hanging around my house after dark, going through my trash. I’m not saying he is. I’m not saying anything until the police have finished their investigation. But really. Eerie.

I swapped a few emails with Sean and it turns out he’s never heard of me in his life. That was kind of disappointing. I was all excited that I had inspired a bright young talent. But no. Apparently I’m just working with ideas so obvious that anyone can have them.

Speaking of shorts, I’m judging a short story contest! You can win $1,500 just by writing the kind of thing you already know I like. It’s practically rigged in your favor. Although you do have to be Australian. I suppose that’s the catch.

If you’re not Australian, I still have something for you. Wait. No, this is local, too. Wow. This blog is just getting more and more pointless for you. But anyway, I’m rocking out the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne next week with the Writer’s Mix Tape. The idea is I bring along a CD of significant/pumping tunes and play them and talk about why what they mean and finish with an awesome breakdance. It’s something like that. I’m there with Rob Jan of RRR radio. You should be, too. Unless you live thousands of miles away. In which case I’m very sorry for wasting your time. As you were.

Tue 25

Mind of the Agent

Writing I remember when I was desperate to find a girl but had no idea what they wanted. I knew what I wanted. I wanted them to take delivery of my package. But how to convince them? What did they want from me? Where could I find one with a good reputation, who didn’t charge fees?

Wait, did I say girl? I meant literary agent. I couldn’t find a literary agent.

Now there are tons of sites about literary agents. Some are by agents. My favorite is Nathan Bransford of Curtis Brown, but there are plenty to choose from. There’s no longer any excuse for not knowing at least a little about how an agent’s mind works: what they’re looking for, how to approach them.

Still, the other day I received an email from a writer facing a quandary:

A Literary Agent has given me a favourable reply (ie: wants to see my entire manuscript from a lousy query letter), so I immediately panicked and sent it to a “professional editing” service (one listed on Australian Literary Agents Website) for a final Mr Sheening. Do Literary Agents have a time limit before they get miffed if you don’t send manuscript by return email? The Editing Service assures me that I have two months (?) to submit, as they have not started it yet, but “it is on the top of their pile”.

Help… please?

Yours in awe


Usually I can’t respond to emails, but I make an exception for those that sign off, “Yours in awe.” So I replied, and then I thought I might as well post my response here, because it was just that good. Or possibly not, but what the hell, it’s not like I’m forcing you to keep reading.

Hi Elle!

This is why you don’t query agents until your book is ready, of course. But I know it happens. I queried a few agents with my first novel then freaked out because what if they wanted to see it? I think I did lightning rewrites every time someone responded.

I see two issues. The first is: Are you damaging your chances if you don’t respond to an agent immediately? If we were talking about American agents, I’d say, “Maybe.” Most reputable American agents receive more queries than they can remember, and might not notice whether it’s been two weeks or two months since they asked to see yours. But they might.

For an Australian agent I’d say, “Probably.” They deal with far fewer writers and are more likely to wonder what’s going on.

But either way, I’d send them that manuscript. Agents want reliable clients, and if the first thing you do is delay, they’ll worry you are one of those writers who are forever six months away from finishing their next book. For this reason you should not reply with some pathetic story about how you thought your book was ready but now you think about it can you please have a few more months. Don’t do that.

You are worried that your book could be better; well, it probably could. They all could. Do you think yours has little flaws or big ones? If they’re minor, they’re unlikely to dissuade an editor who otherwise loves your work, and if they’re major, you’re dead no matter what: dead if you send in that piece of crap, dead if you wait for two months only to discover from this editing service that you need to spend six more on rewrites.

Speaking of which. There are very fine freelance editors out there but I don’t like the concept. In particular I think it’s bad for amateur writers with no idea what’s good and bad about their book to consult a freelance editor in the hope that this expert can explain it. It’s bad because (a) to rewrite well you need to completely believe in what you’re doing. Receiving advice you don’t really understand or agree with but feel compelled to follow anyway because it’s coming from an expert will crush everything unique and valuable about your book.

And (b) some freelance editors are delusional psychopaths.

By my reckoning, about one in four pieces of literary feedback are so wide of the mark they’re not just unhelpful but destructive. They want your book to be more like a completely different type of book, or prostrate itself before the altar of Strunk & White, or not imply things about hot-button issues you never even thought of, or go into depth about things nobody cares about, or not do this mildly felonious thing that someone tore strips off them for at their last story workshop, or stop reminding them of their ex-wife.

I’m talking about feedback from other writers and readers, rather than editors; you would hope freelance editors are less delusional than writers. But I don’t know. Why take the risk? This is why I advocate quantity: get your ms. read by at least eight or ten people before you show it to anyone in the industry. Enough to identify the outliers.

More on this here.

Obviously I haven’t read your manuscript (that wasn’t an invitation). I don’t know which editing service you’ve selected, or how experienced you are, or whether you’ve workshopped it already. But based on what I know: send it. You’re more likely to hurt yourself by not sending it than you are to help yourself by delaying for months in order to maybe improve it but maybe not.

Good luck!


Thu 04

My Stupid Industry

Writing Lately the publishing industry has been trying to commit suicide over electronic rights. It’s funny because every time in history a revolutionary new way to do business comes along, the first instinct of all established players is to strangle themselves with it. Movie studios fought the VCR. Microsoft fought the Internet. The music industry fought MP3s. TV networks are fighting PVRs. Eventually, these turn into important markets, fully embraced by the companies that tried to kill them. But until then everyone spends a lot of time throwing lawyers at anything that doesn’t look like a traditional business model.

The first e-madness was DRM, of course. That’s the code they wrapped around electronic books to ensure they couldn’t be pirated. Well. “Ensure” is a big word. I’m not sure that any piece of DRM in history has survived an interested hacker. What it did ensure was a steady trickle of emails to my inbox from people who couldn’t find an electronic copy of Jennifer Government in the right format for their device, or could but after they paid their money it didn’t work.

Next came e-delays, where publishers held back electronic versions for four months following print publication. “The right place for the e-book is after the hardcover but before the paperback,” said Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy. This is a brave counterpoint to the more common wisdom that the right place for selling something is wherever customers want to buy it. So we were not just restricting e-books to particular formats within particular territories, but also to particular windows of time.

But that wasn’t enough. Publishers didn’t like the fact that started selling e-books for $9.99 each. (They thought that was too cheap, if you’re wondering.) It didn’t affect publishers’ margins, nor authors’ royalties, since was selling below cost to promote its Kindle platform. But still, publishers were uncomfortable with the idea of books being that cheap. So they went to war and forced to bump up prices to $13-$15, in exchange for taking a lower royalty on each sale.

Let’s review. was eating it in order to allow you to buy books for ten bucks, instead of twenty or thirty, while paying authors the same royalty. Publisher intervenes, and now books are more expensive for you, while the author gets less. Also, the publisher gets less. Oh, and I didn’t mention this, but during the war, took down all the “Buy” buttons for Macmillan books, so you definitely couldn’t buy them no matter how much you wanted to and nobody made any money at all.

I won’t say it’s impossible for an industry to push retail prices up while pushing their own margins down and be successful. I’ll just say that’s not the way it usually works. Also, as a general rule, when customers want to buy a product, it usually works out best if the company lets them. I don’t think there have been too many examples of companies making money while refusing to sell their products in the formats their customers want while also forcing retailers to charge more and pocketing less themselves. I’m not sure. But that’s my feeling.

Meanwhile, rocked by the Global Calamitous Money Disappearing Event, publishers began cutting back what they do. Ten years ago, a publisher gave hopeful authors editorial advice, a printing service, a promotional budget, and access to bricks and mortar bookstores. There was really no viable alternative, short of becoming a small publisher yourself. To become a successful author, you needed a publisher.

Today, the promotional budget is more likely to involve encouragement to do something on the internet rather than a book tour. Publishers are still fantastic at getting you into bookstores, and physical books still comprise the vast majority of the market: you need them for this. But in e-books, you can click “Export to EPUB” as easily as they can, and without giving up 75% of revenue.

Also, publishers are getting less willing to make risky bets. Instead of taking an unknown author and striving to find her an audience, they want authors to establish their own audience in advance, via a website or similar.

Now, publishing is full of terrific, smart people who love books and want to promote authors. I haven’t met a single person in publishing I didn’t like. I even love my old Viking editor, who dumped me via relayed e-mail message. I forgive you, Carolyn. I really do. But the people in charge there are trying to sue the VCR. If publishing gets tomorrow everything it wants today, it will be smaller and less relevant. Imagine the world in in ten years, when e-books are 50% of the market: What will publishers offer authors? Not the ability to find an audience, if they’re pushing that onto authors. Not the distribution network: anyone can get their book into an electronic store. Not promotion; or at least, not much of it. That leaves editorial and distribution of hard copy. Not to be sneezed at, for sure. Editorial in particular is often the difference between a great book and a mediocre one; I can attest to that. But if I’ve got a web site and a hundred thousand visitors, I’d think seriously about whether editorial and print is worth giving up 90% of my income. I would, at the least, drive a harder bargain with a publisher than if they were providing more services I really needed.

The publishing industry is trying to think long-term, like every industry that faced a revolutionary change before it. But please, this time, can we not batter ourselves to death? It’s not that complicated, Publishing. I write stories. I want people to read them. I want as many people to read them in whatever format they want, wherever they want, as cheaply as possible, while I earn a living. I don’t want lower royalties in exchange for higher retail prices. That’s the opposite of what I want. I don’t want to get emails from people saying they wanted to buy my e-book but they couldn’t because it wasn’t available or didn’t work. This is text. It’s not hard to put text on an electronic device. It’s only hard because you make it.

Thu 11

Fiction For Short Attention Oh Look At That Laughing Dog

Writing Tower of BooksSince I got a iPhone, my bedside table has turned into a tower of books. It was always pretty bad. But now it’s worse. Look at that. It’s a fire hazard. One day I’ll toss a cigarette in there and it’ll be a conflagration. Not that I smoke. That’s the only thing saving my life.

The problem is when I go to bed, instead of picking up a book, I think, “I’ll just check Reddit.” Or Twitter. Or the news. Or Facebook. Or my email. Not or. And. I check all those things. I have 65 apps. I just counted. Halfway, I thought, “I wonder if there’s an app for counting your apps.” I was tempted to take 20 minutes and hunt one down, so I wouldn’t have to waste ten seconds the next time I need this information. You see what’s going on here. It’s a sickness.

It’s got me thinking I should do more short attention span fiction. Maybe another serial, like Machine Man. Firstly, because that was fun as hell, in a terrifying kind of way. Secondly, because I’m rewriting it as a novel, and it’s pretty great. I already have the story. Now I get to play around in all the spaces I skipped over because the serial had to go go go. It’s a good system.

But thirdly because maybe no-one has the time to sit down with entire novels any more. Or rather, maybe there is a class of people, to which I belong, that is becoming addicted to bite-sized information delivered by scattershot. I hope there’s a class. I hope it’s not just me.

Not that it has to be one or the other. I’m not saying that once you sign up to Facebook, you abandon Margaret Atwood. Although I have done exactly that. The Year of the Flood is just sitting there. What I mean is that the novel seems to be getting more competition. The novel is very strong, of course; there is no replacing the novel. But the competition is pretty great. The internet is everything in bite-sized pieces. It’s candy-flavored stream of consciousness of whatever you want.

And increasingly the same device will access both. I’m having trouble getting to novels just because an iPhone is in the same vicinity. What happens when my books are actually on my phone? Or in my iPad? When I’m one swipe away from the web, will I still be able to completely sink into a novel? Plenty of times I’ve slogged my way through a book that wasn’t really holding my attention just because it was there, in my hands. I don’t think I’d do that on an iPad. I think I’d tap that bastard into oblivion and answer an email.

So I am interested in fiction that works with the internet, rather than fights it. Something that doesn’t sit there, 400 pages heavy, asking for a seven-hour commitment before I start. That’s the kind of fiction I’d like to read right now. Something that sneaks under my guard and pries me away from memes and status updates. I would like to find that.