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.

* * *

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.

139 comments

  • Awesome as always, man :)

    Now if only others around me understood this so I could go through the process of taking my novel from shit to good in peace! Any advice for that one? heheh

  • Definitely never throw anything out. The book that got me my agent started off as a teenager’s attempt at a screenplay a decade ago. When I needed a new direction for what I was working on, I started cannibalizing that sucker for parts and Frankennovel turned out better than I expected. It even turned out readable.

    There’s a point somewhere around the middle that the delete key becomes a tempting addiction. (I may or may not have accidentally deleted say 376 pages one day… The guy who invented ‘undo” should have a Nobel on his mantle- seriously.)

    And then – THEN – you realize that “edited” is actually one of those “journey, not the destination” thing-a-ma-jobbies because your edited and an agent’s edited aren’t the same thing, and then your agent’s edited and an editor’s edited aren’t the same thing. And you’re almost certain the cycle could go on forever.

    *deep breath*

    I’ll soon be on to line edits on my battle weary tome (it’s nearly 120K words, I can call it a tome if I want to, so there), and I’m sure it’s going to take a few more hits before it goes out on sub, but the weird thing that no one tells you when you start this insane ride is that your ego will grow callouses like anything else. You start not to feel the sting so much when bits you thought essential turn out to be dead weight.

    Writing is just weird.

  • I always learn something for what you write here. Of course, I cannot seem to learn NOT to drink while reading your blogging. I nearly snorted coffee while simply reading the alternate title.

    I sorely needed this kick in the pants, today. SORELY. Thank you, Sir.

  • I’m really liking this series.

    Along with Kate’s awesome suggestion, I’d like to see 25 things about finding an agent/handling rejection/making the most of a sorrow-induced drunken stupor.

  • I love this series!

    As someone just starting out I question my desicions constantly. I recently had a conversation about #9 Know When To Bring In The Motherfucking A-Team.

    I was looking for readers and was told by a relative “Why do you need readers? Why are you so dependant on other people? Just do it yourself and send it out.”

    I did not take that advice. I found a reader and the feedback has been incredible. The 25 thing’s series has really helped me along. Thank you.

  • Feel like I’ve been Jet Li ass kicked up and down the block with Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” plus some! Love this. I feel like I spend my whole fucking life telling students and writing partners to just write through–no matter how much it sucks and you hate it. Writers die on the first draft. That separates a writer from someone who just likes to wear berets, smoke clove cigarettes and drink coffee all day. I am going to copy this to some people I know–just the link because it is totally you. Don’t think it will work with the students, though. “Shitty First Drafts” was rough to get by “shit”–the students, teachers, and parents. Christ. It’s not like we don’t make them read Catcher and the Rye and shit.

    My man, I must say how excellent as well it was that you put in your battle metaphor a guy shitting his pants when he dies. Two of my readers have hounded me on this. One always pointed out my sour, split open intestines of half digested foot (and I didn’t use it THAT much. Just that kind of gross, versus heroic deaths). The other one sums up my whole writing style as “snot.” Meaning, when my characters cry, the snot is a-flowing and gooing and getting in their mouth everywhere. So whenever I do something she feels is particularly me, she just says, “snot.”

    Because I am, rather particularly me. I spent some years trying to jam myself into a publisher genre. I kinda got close to urban fantasy, but didn’t clear. And I fucking tried. I even wrote a novel that was specifically sell out. I put a VAMPIRE, a fucking VAMPIRE in that book. Though he didn’t sparkle and he didn’t drink animal blood he (and I’m so ashamed) had a soul. Then it turned into a perversion of modern mythology and a twisted Tam Lin retelling any way, and I was to the “Some times you just have to say ‘fuck it.’ You can’t say it, you can’t do it.” So I’m create spacing and you can figure out where that quote came from on your own. Thanks again for the awesome list. Sorry about the ramble.

  • Furthering my long ramble, I most definitely write fantasy novels, though non fantasy other things, but in choosing to back out of the rat race I came to peace with myself. I write fusion fantasy. That’s when you take a fantasy base, and then tip, dump, crumple, and through line and motif every genre you have ever touched. It’s a little like making sangaria. Check out my blog for further edification and to find out if you infuse too.

  • You’re batting a thousand here. Every point is perfect–momentum, first draft, rewriting, everything a novelist has to keep in mind. Thanks for sharing your process with us.

  • See? What’d I tell ya? Maybe I didn’t tell you, but I told somebody. Myself, maybe. OGX, I says to myself–cause that’s what I calls myself–I says, OGX, this is where you need to be to learn some shit. I feel like we’re all sitting on the floor in a semi-circle with our legs crossed while a madman teaches us, his kindergarten class.
    I haven’t been here long, but I’m enjoying the ride, learning stuff, and I get to eat crayons.

  • Regarding first drafts: I am a planner who wrote a 20,000-word outline for an 80,000-word novel, to the point where the outline itself felt like a first draft. I find this both an efficient and pleasing way to operate, because it lets me flesh out the characters and setting and sequence of events without getting too bogged down in all the tiny little details and things. Mmmmm outlines. I am not a pantser. I guess you could say I do the no-pants dance.

    Regarding pace and pushing through: For NaNoWriMo 2010, I plowed through 50,000 words in a little more than four weeks, publishing two chapters a week on a blog I set up for the purpose.

    And now, six months and one bad (six-month-long, not novel-related) decision later, I have a little more than two chapters to go, and DAMMIT I WILL FINISH THE SHIT THAT I STARTED.

    (It was a relationship. There. Happy now? It was my own damn fault, too. The relationship, I mean. I got out of it and I feel much better.)

    Besides, I’m doing the sequel in November, so I have to finish before then, don’t I?

  • First time here,but I’ll be back. Thanks for your suggestions. I’m in one of the rewriting phases and truly think the novel sucks. It may be time to toss it and start over.

  • “…that first draft of yours has permission to suck. Go forth and care not.”

    So very true. All great stuff. Thanks for the post.

  • This post was like a dancing robot with big breasts throwing hand grenades out of a car driving through Dullsville. And I’d like to thank you for that.

    (16. ‘The ideal novel is 48% action, 48% dialogue, and 4% exposition and dialogue’ <– I'm 98% sure that last 'dialogue' should be 'description'. My other 2% is thinking about hobo handjobs.).

  • Good stuff, and I’ve only applied myself to a few of these pointers (reusing an old character that didn’t make it) but I just recently made the mistake of going back to repair all my parenthesized notes, and my progress immediately ground to a halt. Glad I read this, just learn to say “NOT NOW” and just keep on chugging. I’m partial to Svedka.

  • This is the first thing I’ve read of yours, and I loved it. I laughed through most of it while finding it insightful and inspiring. Best line– the last sentence of number nine. Love those situations.

  • I think I love you! Glad I found your site and this post in particular. I am halfway through my first draft of my first novel and am going to kick its ass this summer. We should pay you for this kind of motivation and support. In fact, I think I will, in the form of buying your book. :)

  • Encouraging, insulting, and helpful in a crazy smart way. You manage to give practical advice with the voice of a verbally abusive father who entrenches his audience in a simile sewer of severed heads and shit. I liked it. I cringed. It has been helpful and entertaining, sir.

  • Once again, Chuck, you hammer in the nails and remind us all that writing is work and the more you do it, the stronger you get. Your rewrite mantra resounds. The art is in the rewrite…your triad: writing, editing, rewriting is the moebius strip model for novelists. Love your work….J

  • My love for you is a coffee running out of my nostrils and down my chin non-stalkerish thanks for the kick in the ass kind of love. Merry Christmas:)

  • I had so much fun reading this…
    seriously…

    been writing in my head and scraps of paper and spurts on the comp… all for someone somewhere, but I guess I never wrote like I really am .. wild, sentences staggering off each other careless and careful to be finally understood…

    loveya terrbile mind pen monkeyyyyy

  • You speak my language and I read every word (most with tears streaming down my face – great sense of humor) finding myself looking forward to reading the next tip. Thanks for the advice I’ll definitely be reading more of your tips.

  • OMG. This is genius. Loved every word. Laughed out loud many times throughout, especially about the illusions and then the real part (ie. the dead body) and needing to get out. You are hilarious.

  • July 22, 2013 at 3:29 PM // Reply

    I just can’t get over how freaking awesome this post is. It’s hard to believe your words were ever jotted down in a shitty first draft, because your writing style is ON POINT. Brilliant metaphors, crude humor, and excellent advice = I like!

  • Found this while searching for writer info. Congrats to you on being a published author and thanks for posting these words of wisdom. It’s a shot in the arm I needed after butchering the parts of a half a novel to create my new “franken-novel”. : )

  • September 4, 2013 at 11:02 PM // Reply

    I would very much like to leave a witty, hip reply….however I am neither witty nor hip…however I would like to poke a hipster in the eye with a sharp stick…like, RIGHT….IN….THE…..EYE.

    So that being said,…I plan to write something…there, I’m done.
    You have accomplished written works…I have not….my advice is to beware disgruntled strangers with sharp sticks, be you a hipster or no.

    Your 25 Things you Should Know lists piss me off,…enough that I’ve had a relapse of “hey, I can finish a novel, I can!!!!”….thank you,…I was clean, I was straight and sober,…went to the meetings, got the medallion…now I’m off the wagon….you’re a bastard.

    …you don’t even read these do you…..remember the sharp sticks.

  • This is so brilliant and filthy and helpful! Thank you so much for imparting your wisdom upon us mere mortals, and I wish you all the best in your word-oriented endevours. I will be hunting down all of your books, O’ Great One. Cheers! :)

  • Wow I have been inspired so much by this! I feel I have the potential to write a novel but I always stop! I never finish a single thing I start writing, and reading this was just what I needed!

  • Hey man, just wondered if ‘Confessions of a Freelance Penmonkey’ is/would be available in physical form like a paperback or something? Anything other than an ebook? I’m desperate to read it but don’t have a kindle, iphone or anything of that nature… Thanks for being brilliant x

  • November 23, 2013 at 1:10 AM // Reply

    I’m glad I stumbled upon this blog because I prefer to fish advice out of a stew of profanity.

    Number 14. When I write short stories, I rarely know what my point is until I’m knee deep in my first draft. Then I go back and strengthen that point during revision.That seems to work out okay. Is a novel too messy and massive to try that with? If I were going to attempt a novel, would I need to know what I was talking about before I started writing?

  • Lying in a bed in Singapore with my sleeping sister in a non-incestuous manner as I read this. I’m visiting her for Christmas and by default, momentum for my novel has slowed. This has really kicked the ole soul nutsack and has reinspired me to keep going.

    Of which I’m thankful.

    Ps. I hope all you cunts don’t take his advice. Easier for me.

  • 1st draft: Wow. Thanks for all the information in that post. I think I finally learned what I need to do. Despite what Mike said about me in the 6th grade. I learned what I need to stop doing. When you’ve had the childhood I had, you are grateful for anyone who will take the time to teach you. Most people ignore me anyway. After 4 vodka’s and diets, this was exactly what I needed to hear. Stop blaming your past and work harder. It doesn’t matter if your mom was a selfish asshole. You need to write well. I’m so screwed.
    2nd draft: Thanks! Good stuff!

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds