What It Takes … To Write A Novel (Part 2!)

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)

Yesterday, in part one, our experts shared their advice for deciding on what to write about, carving out time to do it, and getting organized in a way that works best for you. Here’s part two of what it takes to write a novel! (Look for part three tomorrow!)

Step 4: Write A First Draft

If you’re nervous about your first draft – and why wouldn’t you be? – breathe deeply and know that it really is OK for your first draft to suck. Kathleen told me, “In general, I’m a fan of the concept (via Anne Lamott) of the ‘shitty first draft’ – the idea that one has to get it all down before one cleans it all up.”

Tadd said that his very first draft took way less time than the drafts that came later: “I gave myself three months to write this draft. And I wrote it in three months, but then kept going back to revise things for a very long time after that.”

Appropriately, when I asked Tadd about actually writing a draft, he had this to say: “I’ve talked to other writers who say, ‘I start at page one, and end on page whatever, I write straight through, and I can’t imagine writing any other way.’ And it’s really hard for my brain to go in that linear of a way.” Tadd also spoke with me about some of his formal concerns as he wrote the book that are interesting to note, like that he’d drawn inspiration from the comic book Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and “was very much impressed with this idea of something that appeared to be purely episodic and purely moment-to-moment that at a defined point suddenly acquires a plot. And that plot had been there the entire time.”

Additionally, he said, he had been reading Dan Clowes graphic novels, especially Wilson, and “realized that there had been events happening between these comic strips that are often major, plot-changing events that had been passed over in the white space. And it’s sort of connected to the character Wilson’s inability to deal with life in certain ways and all that, but it has a thematic connection as well as a formal effect. That’s another thing I was playing with, with the very short chapters and often having a lot of movement occur in the spaces between chapters.”

I also discussed with Kathleen and Susan the idea of character development. Susan said that, yes, that’s one of the places where new writers get tripped up the most. “The question is how you bring a character to life on the page. That’s a question of patience and really being willing to sit and think about who the character is. I have these dossiers that I love where people fill out questions about characters, and I think that’s really useful.”

I talked to Kathleen, specifically, about an idea that gets passed around when you seek out writing advice. The idea is that a writer has to develop really well-rounded characters, and then the characters will start writing the story themselves. “That has always sounded mystificatory to me, obscuring the real work that goes into creating characters and building up verisimilitude in fiction,” she told me. “In my experience, character development happens both before and during the actual writing of the novel – like if you’re inclined to plan and map and outline, then you’ll have a solid sense of your characters from the moment you start drafting, and then as you go along, because of that preparation, you’ll have an excellent command of how they’ll react in whatever fictional situations arise.”

Step 5: Have Patience

When I asked James Tadd Adcox about the length of time it took him to write Does Not Love – I heard around the Internet grapevine that it was six years – he described it as “An embarrassing length of time.”

“I think, when I counted up the total number of start-to-finish drafts,” he told me, “I believe the number was nine. Which is ridiculous, by the way, I’m not advocating that at all.”

But it’s not that dissimilar from Susan or Kathleen’s experience. Susan said, “If when I was 40 somebody had said to me, ‘You will have your novel published, but it will take ten years,’ I would’ve found that really daunting. So I think that in my case, I’ve just always tried to find enjoyment in the small parts.” Her advice is to see writing a novel as a set of smaller goals: “I try to do whatever I can do to break it down and make it more manageable.”

Kathleen told me, “I can say that I did 15 drafts total (all still saved on my computer) that decreased, gradually, in how radical they were (from sweeping to fine-tuning) on O, Democracy! and that I started the book in earnest in late 2008 and turned the final draft in to my publisher in 2013.”

Revision sounds like it can be near-maddening. Kathleen described it as being like the Diderot Effect, “Which I’ve always heard explained as the phenomenon Diderot ran into making his encyclopedias. When he began, he thought he knew what he was doing and was doing his best, but then as he went on and made more and more entries, he realized how to get better and better, so he had to keep going back, noticing imperfections in earlier entries, and fixing them to bring them all up to the higher standard he was eventually able to attain by sheer virtue of learning-as-he went.”

“So with a novel, I certainly notice that by the time I’m halfway in, I have a much stronger sense of what I’m doing, and then, naturally, I have to go back to fix what I’ve done previously (even though it didn’t need fixing at the time).” Kathleen went on: “ it can be easy to get hung up (speaking of binaries) on thinking that writing is an activity totally unto itself and revising is one totally separate from writing, when really, in practice, for most people, they’re a lot more coextensive: You write a little, then you revise a little before going on, and so forth.”

And Kathleen’s final advice for revision is the targeted revision, which sounds slightly less daunting and more Susan-style, break-it-into-manageable-goals-type revision. “When you’re a few drafts in, you tell yourself okay, now I’m going to go through the whole thing once for dialogue and fix that, then I’m going to go through the whole thing once for setting and fix that, then for character, then for x, y, z until all the bigger parts have been fixed and then you can do another holistic draft if you’re so inclined.

Step 6: Learn To Know When You’re Done With Revision

So, with all the revision, when do you know you’re, y’know, done-done with writing your novel? “Each author probably has an internal thermometer of sorts that tells them when a piece is ‘done,’ so I was able to feel, for myself, when I felt I’d done all I could do with my drafting,” Kathleen told me. “But then, each author probably also has a set of friends and colleagues with whom they share their work, and from whom they get feedback on how to take those drafts and make them even better. So at several points in the drafting process, I was able to seek this kind of feedback.”

Tadd, on the other hand, sort of threw up his hands on writing any more drafts. “I did hit a point where I just said to myself, ‘Look, I’m going to sit down, I’m gonna do one more draft start-to-finish.’ I actually ended up throwing out the previous drafts and deleting them from my computer and everything so that I wasn’t relying on them too much.”

And this seems like a good way to describe the “done” setting on that internal thermometer: “It was kind of a moment where it was like, I need to move on, artistically. I need to work on something else.


Tomorrow, in our final installment, our experts conquer finding an editor and giving yourself a little motivation.

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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