25 Things You Should Know About Writing A Novel

I figured, okay, I just finished the first draft of a new novel. Just got a book deal for another one. Got DOUBLE DEAD coming out in November. Maybe a list of “25 Things” to do with writing a novel. Specifically. The other lists apply, of course — plot, character, storytelling — but this one about the mechanical act of smacking your face again and again into the meaty thighs of a novel. Only problem: I had a list that went well-beyond 25 things. So, I had to trim and trim and trim, and this is the list I came up with. It’s incomplete, of course. They all are. So, if you’re so inclined: get into the comments, add your own.

Previous iterations of the “25 Things” series:

25 Things Every Writer Should Know

25 Things You Should Know About Storytelling

25 Things You Should Know About Character

25 Things You Should Know About Plot

1. Your First And Most Important Goal Is To Finish The Shit That You Started

Let’s get this out of the way right now: if you start a fucking novel, then plan to fucking finish that fucking novel. Your hard drive is not a novel burial ground. It’s like building your own Frankenstein monster — robbing a grave, stealing a brain, chopping up the body — and then giving up before you let lightning tickle that sonofabitch to life. The true author finishes what he begins. That’s what separates you from the dead-beats, from the talkers, from the dilettantes. Don’t let dead metaphysical weight slow you down.

2. That Means Momentum Is Key

Say it five times fast: momentum-momentum-momentum-momentum-momentum. Actually, don’t say it five times fast. I just tried and burst a blood vessel on the inside of my sinuses. The point remains: writing a novel is about gaining steam, about acceleration, about momentum. You lose it every time you stop to revise a scene in the middle, to look up a word, to ponder or change the plot. It’s like a long road-trip: don’t stop for hitchhikers, don’t stop to piss, don’t stop for a Arby’s Big Beef and Cheddar. Just drive. Leave notes in your draft. Highlight empty spaces. Fill text with XXX and know you’ll come back later.

3. The First Draft Is The Beach-Storming Draft

It’s you and hundreds of other soldier-penmonkeys clawing their way up the enemy beach of the People’s Republic Of Novelsvainya. Most of those other poor sots are going to take a stitching of bullets to the chest and neck and drop dead in the sand, flopping around like a fish, their bowels evacuating. Your only goal is to get up that beach. Crawl through mud, blood, sand, shit, corpses. It doesn’t matter if you get up that beach all pretty-like. Or in record time. Nobody cares how your hair looks. Your first draft can and should look like a fucking warzone. That’s okay. Don’t sweat it, because you survived. Put differently, that first draft of yours has permission to suck. Go forth and care not.

4. Be Like The Dog Who Cloaks Himself In Stink

Find joy and liberation in writing a first draft without caring, without giving one whittled whit. It’s like pouring paint on the floor or taking a sledgehammer to some kitchen counters. Get messy. Let it all hang out. Suck wantonly and without regard to others. Let that free you. Have fun. Don’t give a rat’s roasted rectum. You’ll think that all you’re doing is upending a garbage can on the page, but later, trust in the fact you’ll find pearls secreted away in the heaps of trash and piles of junk.

5. The First Draft Is Born In The Laboratory

Take risks on that first draft. Veer left. Drive the story over a cliff. Try new things. Play with language. Kill an important character. Now’s the time to experiment, to go moonbat apeshit all over this story. You’ll pull back on it in subsequent drafts. You’ll have to clean up your mess: all the beer bottles, bong water, blood and broken glass. But some of it will stay. And the stuff that does will feel priceless.

6. Writing Is Rewriting Is Rewriting Is Rewriting Is

Said before but bears repeating: writing is when you make the words, editing is when you make them not shitty. The novel is born on that first go-around but you gotta let that little bastard grow up. Do this through rewriting. And rewriting. And rewriting. As many times as it takes till it stands up and dances on its own.

7. You Have As Many Chances At-Bat As You So Choose –

A Marine sniper doesn’t get infinite shots at his target. A batter only gets three strikes. A knife-thrower only has to fuck up once before he’s got a body to hide. The novelist has it easy. You can keep rewriting. Adding. Fixing. Changing. Endlessly anon until you’re satisfied.

8. — But You Also Have To Know When To Leave Well Enough Alone

Seriously, you have to stop sometime. You whip mashed potatoes too long they get gluey. Comes a time when you need to stop fucking with a novel the same way you stop tonguing a chipped tooth. The perfect is the enemy of the good. Write till it’s good, not till it’s perfect. Because you don’t know shit about perfect. Aim squarely for a B+, and then it’s time to let others have a shot in getting the novel to that A/A+ range.

9. Know When To Bring In The Motherfucking A-Team

You’re not Lone Wolf. You are not Ronin-Ninja-Without-Clan. A novel is a team effort. You need readers. One or several editors. Potentially an agent. True story: writers are often the worst judges of their own work. You spend so long in the trenches, it’s all a hazy, gauzy blur: a swarm of flies. It’s like being on acid. Sometimes you need a trip buddy. Someone to tell you, this is real, this is illusion. “The pink unicorn is just a hallucination. But the dead body in the middle of the floor, dude, that’s real, WE GOTTA FUCKING GO.”

10. Escape The Gravity Of The Hate Spiral

Every 10,000 words is a new peak or valley on this crazy-ass roller coaster ride. You loved the novel last week. This week you want to punch its teeth down its throat. That’s normal. Write through it. The hate spiral will kill you in if you let it. It’s one of the reasons we abandon novels. It’s also nonsense. Sometimes your best work is your worst, your worst is your best. Everything is ass-end up. Fuck worry. Just write.

11. QFT

The other day on Twitter, the author J. Robert King said something that rang true: “No balanced person writes a novel.” You sit down at the desk, shackle your mind to the project, wade into an imaginary swamp with made-up people. For days. Weeks. Sometimes even years. That’s fucking batty.

12. Gotta Abandon Your Baby? Butcher Him For Spare Parts

Don’t abandon your novel. Don’t do it. Don’t make me kick you in the nuts. There. I did it. I kicked your nuts. Taste that? In your mouth? Them’s your nuts. Still. Sometimes it’s going to happen. Hopefully not often, but it does: a novel just isn’t working. Fine. Fine. But don’t let it go without a fight. Chop it apart. Break it into its constituent parts. You put work into that. Take what works and apply it elsewhere. Build another robot using parts you stole from yourself. Eat your body to sustain your body.

13. You Can Write A Novel Pretty Fucking Fast

It’s hard but not impossible to write, say, 5,000 words a day. A novel is roughly 80k. At 5k/day, you can finish a novel in about 16 days. Just know that it won’t be good. Not yet. Can’t write and rewrite that fast.

14. For Fuck’s Sake, Say Something

A reader is going to spend those 80,000 words with you. Hours of his life, given to you. Make them count. Say something about anything. Have your novel mean something to you so it can mean something to them. Bring your guts and brains and passion and heart and for the sake of sweet Sid and Marty Krofft, a message to the table. Don’t just write. Write about something. Do more than entertain. You’re not a dancing monkey. You’re a storyteller, motherfucker. Embrace that responsibility.

15. The Shape Of The Page Matters

A novel page shouldn’t look like a giant wall of text. Nor should it look like an e.e. cummings poem. The shape of the page matters. Balance. Equal parts emptiness and text. Void meets substance.

16. A Novel By The Numbers

The ideal novel is 48% action, 48% dialogue, and 4% exposition and description. I just made that up. Probably totally inaccurate. Possibly I might could maybe sorta be drunk right now. Drunk on words, or on Tito’s Vodka? You decide. Point is, a novel gets bogged by boggy bullshit like heavy description and blathering exposition. A novel is best when it lives in the moment, when its primary mode of communication is action and dialogue linking arms and dancing all over the reader’s face.

17. I Just Lied To You Back There, And For That, I’m Sorry

Dialogue is action. It’s not separate from it. It is it. Action is doing something. Dialogue is talking, and talking is doing something. Even better when dialogue manifests while characters do shit: drive a car, execute some baddies, make an omelette, build a sinister dancing robot whose mad mechanical choromania will reduce the world to cinders. Characters don’t just stand in one place in space and talk. They’re not puppets in community theater. Find language with movement and motion.

18. Description Is About Signal To Noise

Description is best when subtle. Too much description is static. Paint in short strokes. A pinch of spice here. A delicate garnish there. Description is not a hammer with which to bludgeon the mooing herd. Pick one, two, or three details and stop there. I’ve heard this said about large breasts and we’ll reiterate it here for description: anything more than a mouthful is a waste.

19. The Reader Is Your Mule

Up to you whether the reader is a mule carrying your prospector gear up a canyon path or a mule carrying doody-balloons of hard drugs in his butt-pocket; the point remains the same. The reader wants to work. The reader doesn’t know this, of course, so don’t tell him. SHHH. But the reader wants to fill in the details. He wants to be invested in the novel and to make his own decisions and reach his own conclusions. You don’t need to write everything. You can leave pieces (of plot, description, dialogue) out. The reader will get in the game. His imagination matters as much as yours. Make that fucker dance for his dinner.

20. Too Many Dicks On The Dance Floor

A novel can have too many characters. It’s not a set number or anything. The number of characters you can have is limited by your ability to make them fully-realized, wholly-inhabited people. If you don’t have the time or the room to give them a soul, to lend them wants and needs and fears and foibles, then fuck it, chop their heads off and wipe their blood from the page.

21. Genre Matters, Except When It Doesn’t

A good story is a good story, and that translates to novels: a good book is a good book. You write the novel you gotta write regardless of genre. But eventually you have to think about it. Agents, publishers, bookstores, Amazon — they care about genre. Your book has to fit somewhere. The secret is, it doesn’t have to be a perfect fit. Close enough for horseshoes, hand grenades and hobo handjobs. Maybe not that last one.

22. Beware The Saggy Mushy Middle

The beginning’s easy because it’s like — BOOM, some shit just happened. The ending’s easy because — POW, all the shit that happened just lead to this. The middle is where it gets all gooshy, like wet bread or a sloppy pile of viscera. Combat this in a few ways. First, new beginnings and early endings — the peaks and valleys of narrative. Second, keep the pressure on the story and, by proxy, yourself. Third, treat the second act like it’s two or three acts in and of itsownself.

23. Like I Said: Imagine A Long-Ass Road Trip

Variation. In scene. In character. In mood. In setting. In everything. A novel can’t just be one thing. Mix it up. It’s like a long car ride. Take an eight-hour trip down a bland mega-highway and you pretty much want to suck on the tailpipe. Take an eight-hour trip through scenic mountains and pretty burgs and ghost towns, you no longer want to eat gravel and die. Put differently: don’t be boring. If the story buys a house and gets a job in Dullsville, you need to burn Dullsville to the ground and push the story down the road a ways.

24. No One Way Through The Labyrinthine Mire

Plotter. Pantser. Five-k a day. Two-k a day. In sequence or out. Nobody writes a novel the same way, all the way down to which font folks like. Individual novels have their own unique demands. You write it however it needs to be written. Nobody can tell you how. Only that it needs to get done. We each cut our own way through the dark forest. In the deepest shadows, look for your voice. Your voice is what will get you through.

25. Writing A Novel Is Easy, But Writing A Publishable Novel Is Hard

Writing a novel isn’t hard. You throw words on a page, one atop another, until you’ve got a teetering Jenga tower of around 80,000 of the damn things. Same way that building a chair isn’t hard: I can duct tape a bunch of beer cans and chopsticks together and make a chair. It won’t look pretty. And it’s an insurance liability. (“I’m suing you because I smell like beer, I have cuts on my legs and I’ve got two chopsticks up my ass, perforating my colonic wall.”) But writing a good novel, an original novel that’s all your own and nobody else’s, well, there’s the rub, innit? The way you do it is you tell the story like you want to tell it. You learn to write well and write clearly and put a pint of blood on every page until you’ve got nothing left but spit and eye boogers. Learn your craft. Learn your voice. Write it until it’s done, then write it again.

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If you dig on the apeshit crazy-face no-holds-barred profanity-soaked writing advice found here at terribleminds, then you may want to take a wee bitty gander-peek at: CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY, which is available now! Buy for Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), Nook, or PDF.

94 comments

  • January 7, 2014 at 2:01 PM // Reply

    Thank you. I needed that. Particularly No. 11. My psych just diagnosed me as manic-depressive. Oh, now I know why. And if your novels are anything like this cursing, spewing, delectably violent image-laden list, I’m going to purchase every one.

  • Every now and then it helps to get confirmation of why—imagining in shear hope that we might still be sane—we do something like write a novel; the sage advice helps too. Quite enjoyed what you’ve said. I’ve done all the don’ts and all the do’s and can agree that any less expletives just wouldn’t do the subject any justice. So fucking thanks :)

  • This is great! Like the Anthony Bourdain of writing.. It’s like walking through 1,500 different plots projected on the walls of a long dark hallway. From one extreme to the next. Love it!

  • Shit! Here’s me 55,000 words into my first. Finally deciding to shut myself in the back room for 3 hours at a time, and I’ve already succumbed to the temptation to google “how hard is it to write a novel”. But I think this was worth it!

  • After reading this, I feel like writing is a crazyass mutherfukin battlefield. Thank you for the perspective.

  • I needed this brutal honesty. I think I’m over thinking and procrastinating. I’m just gonna let loose and just…write, dammit! Thanks

  • I don’t agree that al novels should be almost completely action and dialogue. There can be soul piercing beauty and enlightenment in exposition and dissemination of ideas. Virtually all classic literature employs it extensively.

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