For National Novel Writing Month, Two Vital Reminders

I’ve certainly said a lot over the last many moons about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and I’m not really sure I have a whole lot to add, but I do want to remind:

Writing a novel is hard, because it’s supposed to be hard.

And writing a novel is hard, because it has to be done your way.

And your way only.

Let’s unpack that a little bit.

If writing a novel were easy, everyone would do it. Everyone says they’re gonna do it, after all — you tell someone you write books and they tell you they have a book in them (presumably nestled somewhere near the pancreas, or tucked up in an orifice as part of an embarrassing sex maneuver), or they say they have an idea and they’ll give it to you and all you have to do is write it because ha ha that’s obviously the easy part, you shitty ink-fingered monkey. But it’s not the easy part. It’s the hard part. The writing of the thing is the hard part. Ideas are easy-fucking-breezy. Maybe they don’t always arrive so easy, but an idea is a seed, a capsule, a stray thought. An idea is a dog you don’t own — you walk up to the pupper, give it some ear-scritches and some butt-scratches, and then that dog is on its way and you owe it no responsibility. But a novel is a dog you own. Sure, that means getting all the joy of the snoogles and snuggles and the playtime, but it also means getting up at 3AM because the dog needs to go out, and it means cleaning up after the dog yaks up a dubious slurry on the kitchen floor, and it means walking the dog even when it’s raining. Sometimes, you get dog cuddles. Sometimes, you get dog farts. Because it’s your dog. It’s a commitment.

A novel is hard because it needs to be hard, and the novel is hard because it’s yours.

It needs to be hard because it’s not just an idea. It’s the execution of an idea. It’s not just imagining a house — it’s building it. Foundation to roof, basement to attic, brick by bloody brick. It’s you mentally orchestrating entire worlds, people, concepts, conversations, and then doing it all in a way where it clicks together and makes sense and forms not just a hot Ambrosia Salad mess of goop and fuckshittery, but rather: structure and form, story and plot, thought and feeling and meaning. It’s not a grade-school crush. It’s marriage. You gotta put a ring on it.

It’s yours because there’s no other reason to write a book if it isn’t going to be yours. It’s not the money, because the money is… well, it’s often moist, open ass. (I recognize that I do pretty well at it, and the money for me is pretty good, but let’s be clear, I’m a privileged outlier who has also been working as a novelist for a number of years now and who had a long, long freelance career before that.) It’s not the fame, because ha ha ha what. It’s not the immediate gratification, because writing a novel and editing it and shopping it around to agent and editor and editing it again and copy-editing it takes approximately *checks notes* 47 years, and of course the first novel you write probably isn’t even The Novel anyway, you’re gonna write two, or maybe five, or fifty, before you actually figure out what you’re doing. And, by “figure out what you’re doing,” I mean, “figure out you don’t know what you’re doing but realize that this is a feature and not a bug.”

If you’re gonna write a book it’s because you love books and because you want to put some part of yourself out there. An idea, an argument, a fear, a dream, a parade of anxieties. If you’re gonna take the time and the intellectual-slash-emotional effort to carve that narrative bedrock, you do it because it’s who you are, and it’s what you want to do. The novel is yours because if it’s not yours, what’s the point? If it’s someone else’s, who cares? Let them write it. It’s yours. It’s yours, and beyond that, it’s also you. The novel is you. A part of who you are, anyway. A slice of it, like a bisected chunk of heart — a Heart Piece from Legend of Zelda. What the book is — and furthermore, how you get there, in the process, is yours and yours alone and nobody else can tell you precisely how to get there. They can give you advice. They can offer notions. But that map is theirs. The design is for them. You have to do your own thing. You can’t raise their kids, can’t have their dog, can’t build their house. You gotta do your own thing. And maybe that means writing X number of words per day, or per week, maybe it means writing relentlessly for one day, or a little bit every day, or morning, or night, or a long book, or a short book, or an outline, or just a wild feral dash through Word Country. Who the fuck knows? Nobody the fuck knows. You. Just you. That’s it.

The book is the book.

It takes the time that it takes.

Every writer of every book is different.

Every book is different.

Even you, the author of the last book, will be a different author when you write the next book.

So, whether you’re doing NaNoWriMo or you’re just thinking about writing a book, remember these things. It’s going to be hard because it needs to be hard. And it needs to be hard because it’s yours.

Happy writing. Good luck with the book, whoever you may be.

Oh and remember:

* * *

WANDERERS: A Novel, out now.

A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world’s last hope. An astonishing tapestry of humanity that Harlan Coben calls “a suspenseful, twisty, satisfying, surprising, thought-provoking epic.”

A sleepwalking phenomenon awakens terror and violence in America. The real danger may not be the epidemic, but the fear of it. With society collapsing—and an ultraviolent militia threatening to exterminate them—the fate of the sleepwalkers and the shepherds who guide them depends on unraveling the mystery behind the epidemic. The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart—or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world.

PrintIndiebound | Let’s Play Books (signed) | The Signed Page | B&N | BAM | Amazon

eBookAmazon | Apple Books | B&N | Kobo | Google Play | BAM

AudioAudible | Libro.FM

22 responses to “For National Novel Writing Month, Two Vital Reminders”

  1. Dubious slurry would be a great name for a rock band. Thanks to Dave Barry for putting in my head to evaluate two-word formations for this, throughout most of my life.

  2. “Writing is when we make the words. Editing is when we make the words not shitty.” I so need this as my desktop screen! (Or on a mug or whisky glass or something). I did NaNoWriMo last year and managed to finish my first draft. That was the easy part. It’s the editing that’s a bitch.

  3. Thanks, Chuck. This is my first time doing Nano. Don’t know if I’m going to win it because I write slow, but I’m going to have fun regardless. More important than winning is feeling the creative juices flowing again, because I’ve been in a word drought for many months. I hate it when I feel blah about my work. I want to feel the passion everyday. At least I have good juju about starting with a clean slate today. Gonna bust out of my prickly vat of apathy. Wish me luck!

  4. I nearly didn’t read this because NoNoNoMo. I’m starting The Next Project and am having trouble finding it. This helps. Feeling woefully incompetent is part of the job. Check…

  5. You’ve put into words why, though I enjoy the advice and information surrounding NaNoWriMo, it’s not a good challenge for me. Thanks! I needed that reminder!

  6. Excellent advice; thanks. I did NaNoWriMo twice and didn’t finish the second time and felt horrible about myself – UNTIL I realized that I just can’t work to that kind of pressurized deadline. I have to do it my way. Draft 1 will still be pretty shitty, but at least I don’t feel like I rushed it (and made it even shittier) in order to meet someone else’s deadline.

  7. I write a lot. But I’ve only just made the decision to write for ME. And it’s the hardest fucking thing I’ve decided to do with my life. I also kinda love it. I might be a masochist. Thanks for writing this, it’s put a fire up my ass to write some shitty prose and be OK with editing the hell out of it

  8. “Even you, the author of the last book, will be a different author when you write the next book.” Which is good, in that (hopefully) you’ve developed as a writer, but also bad, because yes, now you’re an Author Who Knows How To Write Book, but unfortunately only That Book, not This Book.
    Always, the beginning again.

  9. I agree with Laurel Avery, “it’s the editing that’s the bitch.” Love this article! And NaNo taught me that I don’t need to wait until November to do this. I create my own 30 day or 60 days sprints for a word count, because after the first one, I knew I could do it.

  10. I needed this! As I sat down to begin my NaNo journey today, I naturally procrastinated by catching up on email. Clicked on this and I’m taking it as a sign to actually work on my NaNo project today. Signing off. Thanks again!

  11. These brown clumps of words keep sticking to my fingers, and the novel sapling that I’m planting looks dead, but it is November, so maybe it’s just dormant. Anyway, it’s mine, right? Thanks, Chuck!

  12. Through book distance voice, prominent voice, a live voice talk to us and it’s like heart to heart monology which spill out what the yearning heart for the book would like to hear. Hurrah!! to every writer across the world.

  13. I know that writing is what I want to do, because, for the first time in my life, I’d rather work than procrastinate. I came to the decision that I wanted to create more than consume, leading to a growing TBR and TBW pile, but also a steadily growing word count – perhaps growing too well, as I now have the heartbreaking task of editing 190k down to a saleable number – darlings will be killed.
    Every evening when I reach for the remote, a question appears, fully-formed, in my head: ‘do you want to entertain or be entertained?’. When that happens, I set the remote down and open my laptop. I’ve even found ways to edit on my phone on the hoof (when I can drag myself away from Twitter – I’m only human). I work full-time and have a wonderful son, with whom I get up at 5am to allow his equally wonderful mother some much needed shut-eye (I hope he finds the joys of sleeping-in soon, or I may go insane). It’s hard – that I’ll admit – but as I edit I come across passages that excite and amuse, and I created them.
    Am I a writer? I’m still not comfortable with that question. But if asked could I stop, now that I’ve started, that I can answer – No. Not even if I wanted to.

    Sigh… is it any wonder my word count is the way it is

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