What It Takes … To Write A Novel (Part 1!)

So you’re convinced that you need to write a novel. Maybe you’re an undergraduate creative writing student. Maybe you’re a poet. Maybe you’re a 62-year-old grocery store manager and you just have this really good idea. Maybe you’ve been writing since you were three, and maybe you’ve never written anything you didn’t have to.

I doubt nothing. People come to novel-writing from so many different places that it’d be sort of stuck-up to tell someone that they should maybe try something else first. The point, here, is that you have not written a novel yet, and you’re looking for some advice. To help you along, I spoke with three authors who have just recently finished and published their first novels:

  • James Tadd Adcox, short story writer and author of Does Not Love, available from Curbside Splendor (day job: Short story writer, publicity at the University of Chicago Press)
  • Kathleen Rooney, author of O, Democracy!, available from Fifth Star Press (day job: Founding editor at Rose Metal Press, member of Poems While You Wait, and assistant professor at DePaul University)
  • Susan Breen, author of The Fiction Class, available from Plume (day job: Teacher in fiction writing at Gotham Writers)

So: Here’s part one of what it takes to write a novel, according to our experts! (Look for the other installments over the course of the week.) And don’t forget to check out our sweet sweepstakes at the bottom of this post!

Step 1: Find Something To Write About

This seems obvious, but it’s not always that easy to know what to write about or even to have confidence that you should write, period. Susan Breen understands. “I think that your generation has been exposed to so much information that it’s hard to weed out the value of what you have to say. Then you get involved in this whole irony thing, and how it’s very hard to step out on the ledge and say something without worrying that you’re going to sound like an idiot.” Susan’s suggested starting point, especially for brand-new writers who really don’t know what to write about, is pretty basic: “Don’t be afraid to say what you really think. Writing has to be fueled by a passion. I would think about, what do you have to say that the world needs to hear? What is your unique take on this?”

For writers who have been at it for a while, on the other hand it might be worthwhile to take a page from James Tadd Adcox, who came to novel writing from short story writing, and had more of a moment of intuition about the alternate reality/illicit sex/mystery plot that originated in his wound up being Does Not Love. “There wasn’t that moment of decision, that this was going to be my first novel,” he told me. “It was more just an idea that I started working on and thought would be fairly quick and ended up being not all that quick.”

Tadd, rather, developed his novel from the characters and plots in his short stories: “There was one day a couple years ago – the day that I started writing the novel, I was driving from Indianapolis to Chicago, and for some reason on that drive I started playing around with this idea of expanding these shorter stories to a novel length. I feel like I kind of outlined the whole novel in my head on that drive and then when I got home, rushed into the house and tried to get as much of my outline down as I could before I forgot it. And then started working on it immediately, that day, and kept working on it pretty much for several hours a day for a while for the next couple of months.”

Kathleen Rooney, though, had an idea in mind from the get-go. Her O, Democracy! is based on her experiences working in Illinois Senator Dick Durbin’s office in 2008, and she mulled over the plot of her novel for a long while before committing it to the page, concentrating on formal issues once she knew that her idea was novel-worthy: “I spent a lot of time finding the right point of view (a mix of close third person on the protagonist, plus the first person plural of the ghosts of America’s dead founding fathers) as well as the right plot that would let me tell the story as a story–something neater, more arcing, and more entertaining than ‘real life.’ A lot of the work there had to do with being in what I guess you could call the research or the contemplative or the cogitational phase – just walking around day and night, all the time, every waking moment, with this idea in my mind, trying to think of the best way to create the book when I finally sat down to do so.”

Step 2: Carve Out Time To Write

I’ve learned, over the years, that professional writers view the question of how one finds the time to write with some scorn. Neil Gaiman, at a Chicago reading for his story collection Trigger Warning, answered the question very succinctly: “You don’t. You make time.”

Even that can feel like a daunting task, though, if you’ve got a full-time job. But, for instance, Tadd noted that he was in grad school, teaching, writing stories and essays, and writing a magazine for the length of time that it took him to write Does Not Love. It was an issue of “just deciding that this is a thing I’m going to do on a daily basis,” he said. “I’ve been pretty consistently writing something every day or almost every day for at least the past ten years or so. Which is not to say it’s always particularly productive or really great, but I sit down and get something done.”

Kathleen also advocates for daily practice. “I’m very much a write-every-day kind of writer, but I don’t typically schedule my writing time, per se. Like I try to write every day and I usually do, but I don’t beat myself up over achieving (or failing to achieve) a set word count, or a certain number of pages, because arbitrary productivity goals like that can feel inimical to creativity.” Her advice is that “it’s okay to be kind of intuitive about it – to be honest with yourself about what you’re capable of and what your life will permit and to try to work within those parameters in a way that doesn’t lead to your psyching yourself out.”

Susan was a mother of young children when she started writing her novel, and was full of suggestions for finding moments in which to write. “Sometimes I’d just drive the car and I’d sit in a parking lot. For some reason, my kids never bothered me when I was washing the dishes, so I’d be running the water for hours! I’m probably responsible for California. But I’d have the water running and I’d be writing in my notebook.” If she could, though, she said that she’d plan her writing time in advance. “A lot of it was really thinking about it beforehand, just figuring out the day before, all right, when am I going to have time? And then, sometimes, I’d get up at four in the morning or something. I just had to do it.”

Step 3: Figure Your Way To Prepare

What I found out from asking three different writers about their process is that you really can’t get too hung up on what other people do to prepare for a mammoth project like writing a novel, because everyone prepares differently. But, Susan Breen noted, one thing is pretty much guaranteed to help writers prepare for writing. “I don’t think there’s anything you can do better than read a lot. Before I start to write, I always try and read something by Dickens, say, or by somebody who inspires me, because I feel like it gets me into the flow. If I’m thinking good thoughts, it’s like it rubs off, hopefully.” And whether or not you read will come out in your work, by the way: “I can always tell when people are good readers or don’t read. If somebody’s only influence has been watching TV, it shows up very clearly when you’re writing a novel because you get this stuff in the novel like, ‘She walks in the room. She looks around. She goes, she makes coffee, somebody fires a gun.’ You’re not getting any interior life.”

Kathleen Rooney O Democracy Outline

Kathleen Rooney has a massive and long preparation process: “Writing a novel is among the most pre-meditated activities I’ve ever engaged in, and that’s one of the things I’ve loved about it. For O, Democracy! specifically, I prepared (by reading, thinking, taking notes, and planning) for years before I finally put myself in front of my laptop and began the first chapter.” She went into more detail about what that all meant: character descriptions, story maps for each of the characters, outlines about thematic material, and a chapter-by-chapter outline for the whole book. Which is not to say, she told me, that “I didn’t permit myself spontaneity – I totally did, and in both cases, I scrapped a lot of stuff I thought would be in, and added a lot of stuff I thought would be left out. But the outline felt invaluable not just aesthetically, for the outcome of the piece, but personally for helping me to complete what is a pretty monster task. The outline helped make it manageable as opposed to overwhelming. I couldn’t get ‘blocked’ because I always knew roughly what I’d done and what remained to be accomplished.”

If that sounds hellish, consider the following sports analogy she recounted to me. “Just sitting down and writing a novel to see what will happen sounds, to me, like showing up for a marathon and just seeing what will happen, which is probably that you’ll be miserable and won’t finish the race. I like to have the sense that I’ve done everything I can to finish the race.”

If it still sounds hellish, consider Tadd Adcox’s process, which was just fascinating to me. First of all, the way he conceptualized his novel is, well, less straightforward: “I tend to have kind of flashes of scenes with dialogue, very early in the process, where just a moment will come to me and I’ll work to keep that tone. And often, the final product is sort of me getting all of these moments to sort of fit together.”

Accordingly, when he prepares a novel, he told me that his process is sort of visual-tactile. “Recently I’ve been writing in notebooks more because the spacialization of the writing helps me do what I’m doing a lot better,” he said. “So I’ll be writing a scene, say, on the left-hand page, and then I’ll have an idea that something is going to happen in the future and I’ll write it down the side of the page just to make it clear that it was a different thing than I was writing before, and then there’s a lot of asterisks and arrows pointing to other things. It seems much more helpful to do it on a physical object rather than writing it on a laptop, because my brain then has a general memory of, like, ‘This part was on the side of the page over here, or this part is over here.’”

And as for what sort of outline comes out of that: “Even in later stages, when I get toward the end of writing something, if it’s a long project, I usually have to print it all out and lay it out on the floor, so from page one to page whatever, just have a long line or, usually, multiple long lines of paper going across the floor, so I can see how much space different things take up and how much weight different things have, and where things are in relation to other things.”

All of which strikes me as simultaneously a sort of free-flowing outlining process, especially compared to Kathleen’s more basically organized system. But it goes to show: Everyone has a different way of actually getting the writing done. You have to figure out what works best for you.


Tomorrow, in part two, our experts offer advice for diving into your first draft, having patience and knowing when you’re done with revisions. Get psyched!

A tremendous thank you to James Tadd Adcox, Susan Breen, and Kathleen Rooney, as well as Curbside Splendor, Fifth Star Press, and Gotham Writers. (Full disclosure: I know Tadd and Kathleen personally, via Chicago writing circles.)

Do you want to know What It Takes to achieve your big goals? Send me an e-mail at [email protected] and let me know what you’ve been dreaming of doing!


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