What goes into writing a novel?
Excuse me, would you like to take forty minutes to talk about our Lord and Savior, Novel?
This is going to be a long read, so buckle up and grab your favorite brand of candy.
If you know me, you know that even though I believe in transparency and generosity, that I also believe most writing advice is snake oil (lol). Well, excluding practice advice (which is the kind I prefer to give). There are people out there who will give you advice like “write every day” (why?) or “focus on the action” (why?) or “don’t use adverbs with dialog tags” (why not? they asked skeptically).
Practical advice is something like, “Most agents take a 15% commission if they sell your book and you should never pay a fee up front when you query one.” See, that’s useful, because you’re trying to help a pal avoid being scammed. Or someone could say, “Did you know if you hit Option + the “;” key on a Mac keyboard that it will make an ellipsis for you?” …………… Wow, well would you look at that! Now I don’t have to hit the period key three times. That’s saving me two whole key strokes.
Okay, I’m being cheeky, as my British friend Cherie would say to me, but I do have a point here. So much of the writing process is so individualized and mysterious that I often feel like these adages that are presented as catholic do more harm than good. Someone working on an experimental novel that is mostly concerned with atmospheric montage doesn’t need to hear “focus on the action” when their novel is mostly #vibes. And while I understand the impulse behind “write every day” and have even embraced it at times, not all of us are “write every day” writers***.
***However, Macmillan, if you have any more of those eight-figure book deals to spare, I cross my heart and hope to die I can become a “write every day” writer for you. My characters would make cute action figures. They’re very toyetic. Let’s talk licensing.
Anyway, I grew another year older this past week, and while I have another adage I tell myself that goes “Toni Morrison didn’t publish her first novel until she was forty” I also felt compelled to re-visit my novel manuscript out of this brief existential dread that I have one year less on this planet & that I’m almost about to disqualify from the “40 under 40” list.
Novels are so weird. It’s weird that they are the unit of literary exceptionalism in the United States. It’s weird that so much cultural cachet is placed on them when story collections are so mindblowingly fabulous and poetry is consistently on the literary and cultural vanguard. It’s weird that realist lit fic gets the most respect when it’s just another genre among genres. It’s weird because I’m not even sure I enjoy reading novels. It’s weird because I find them so much more unbearable to write than a short story or a poem.
I was the last kid in my preschool class to learn how to tie my shoelaces (to be honest even as an adult I’m not 100% sure I know how to tie my shoelaces properly), and novel-writing feels like this too.
Novels are also very deceptive because if you go into a bookstore you’ll see a bunch of pretty, matte covers printed over ~300-400 pages of off-white paper, and on the back will be a nice little author photo (they’ll be standing outside by a nice bush or wearing some nice costume jewelry) and some nice little words about the book by authors whose names you probably recognize, and it feels like everyone has managed to tap into this universal shoelace-tying experience except for you.
And man, I haven’t even published a novel, so maybe I shouldn’t be talking about them. But I have written at least one novel. I’ve probably written more. And not only am I starting my sentences with conjunctions, but I’ve been working on one of my novels again and have just completed a new draft. Which is why I’m thinking about novels again. I haven’t been exceptionally fastidious about tracking my novel-writing, but I can give you my best idea of a timeline for anyone who is curious what my individual process has been like. If you want to skip my personal (non-Knausgårdian) struggles, then maybe just scroll down to the numbered bullet points at the bottom of this very long newsletter for my novel-writing takeaways.
In June 2014 I was a couple of months out from leaving my job and moving across the country to attend an MFA program I had been accepted into. For better or worse, the company I was working at the time in NYC hit dire straits financially and had to furlough 95% of the staff. So, for the final summer I lived in NYC I suddenly had a bunch of free time but very little money, so I got creative with trying to entertain myself. This next few bullet points will be very nerdy, so be prepared.
I’d backed this storytelling game on Kickstarter called Storium, which had just been released (or at the very least, was in beta). Essentially you could set up a collaborative writing game where you create some archetypal parameters and other people finish generating their characters out of the basics you set up, and you all write together to create a story.
If you know me, you know that one of the most important TV shows for me growing up was Sailor Moon. So I was like, obviously as a grown-ass adult I’m going to set up a game where we all pretend to be teenage girls with magical powers who fight monsters—except we’ll set the game in NYC instead of Tokyo—because I lived in Brooklyn and was more familiar with the local monsters (like rent hikes and stop-and-frisk).
What I liked about Sailor Moon (and other series in its subgenre called mahou shoujo—or magical girls) is that there’s often something archetypal about the characters too. You have the smart one (the Brain), the athletic one (the Jock), the diva (the Idol), and so on. I thought it was a cute conceit and something some friends might be into to kill some time on the internet when the summer weather got too unbearable.
I ended up setting up the foundations for this game (I even made a banner, see above!). Sadly, I never really got it off the ground though. I did start to think about these teen girl archetypes though. I also started thinking that it’s surprising that there’s been very few earnest attempts made to try to gender swap (or queer it, if you will) the whole mahou shoujo genre and do a send-up to it with teenage boys instead. I also just felt completely inadequate and unprepared to try to write about teenage girls, despite spending most of my teen years being socialized as one.
Apparently this was something that kept twirling in the back of my head, because even after I started my MFA and was focused on working on a poetry collection as well as a story collection, I kept scribbling some notes in Word Docs about these magical teenage boys, who I thought they were.
Over time, I created about a half-dozen of these boys, moving their world to Florida. I don’t necessarily know what it’s like to grow up as a teenage superhero who wears a frilly outfit and fights monsters (reportedly), but I knew what it was like to grow up as a teenager in Florida more than I knew what it was like to grow up as one in New York, so the story moved to Tampa in my mind. I also began moving away from the archetypes too. I was more concerned with their internal characterizations.
2.5 years later it’s January 2017, and I’m in the penultimate semester of my MFA coursework. I have done the most absurd thing I could possibly do as someone who was admitted into an MFA program to write poems: I signed up to a year-long novel-writing workshop. There is only one truth I know at this time: I don’t want to put pressure on myself to write “the Great American Novel.” I wanted something as low-stakes as possible. I wanted to figure out novel-writing for myself from a place of poetry without having a complete meltdown.
I’m told I need to write 50,000 words by the end of the semester. This is a lot of words for a poet. A meltdown seems inevitable.
I don’t have any ideas. I don’t have any ideas. I don’t have any ideas.
“What about Candy Dynamo Gorgeous Cadets?” a silly goose voice in the back of my head says. You know, the one where teenagers with candy-themed weapons and magical powers fight monsters. That’s a respectable thing you could share with other people.
It is April 2017. I am in my thirties. I am in a professional, graduate writing course and turning in a 30,000-word sample that includes a boy fighting an undead horse with a magical whip made out of licorice.
If I’m not supposed to do this, if I’m not supposed to write this, why do I love it so much? Why does this bring me so much pleasure and enjoyment?
The work sample was surprisingly well-received. The most exciting part I remember was people in the class speculating about the boys relationships to each other and just generally being floored that people were seriously discussing this world I made up inside my head. It made me wonder if I was writing a Young Adult novel, and if that’s a genre I should explore despite having no knowledge of it.
I ended up getting close to 50,000 words by the end of the semester, but I mostly shoved it in a drawer after that. The second half of the workshop (which was supposed to be my final course credit) was supposed to occur in the fall, but I received a fellowship to work on my thesis and didn’t have to teach for my keep anymore—so I didn’t take it. I ended up moving back to Florida for the first time in 14 years and taking an online LIS elective to round out my MFA coursework.
It’s weird to live somewhere in the year 2017 while you’re writing about the version of it that existed in the year 2004.
I know I had some prolific bursts in the summer of 2017, but this manuscript went on the back burner as I entered my final MFA academic year (2017-2018) because I had decided to work on a story collection for my thesis (which eventually became Moonflower…).
I do remember that some point in the fall of 2017 I was writing a scene where some of the boys were being chased by a monster in the Sulphur Springs Water Tower (off the Hillsborough River in Tampa) and I had a come-to-Jesus I-have-no-idea-what-I’m-doing moment. It wasn’t even that I had a deep sense of shame at my own endless shenanigans—despite all my cheekiness and self-awareness about this endeavor. It was more like I had some characters and a rich setting and some small plot beats, but I really just had no idea what this novel was about or where it was going. I couldn’t keep working on it until I found it.
Thus, it went into a drawer.
I also should say, that whenever something goes into a drawer, it’s not necessarily out-of-mind. Our subconsciouses are always at work. I thought of those magical teenage warriors when I was stuck in traffic. I thought of them when I was soaking in the bathtub. I thought of them when I was trapped in a crowd during at a bad opening band at a concert and found my own imagination more interesting than listening to the lead singer croon slightly off-key.
August 2018: My MFA program is over. I was fortunate to attend the Lambda Literary Writers Retreat for their young adult workshop that summer, where I brought some of my oddball chapters and met some of my dearest YA friends. It was an important moment for me, because this clued me in that I was writing a book about teenagers, but not necessarily a book for teenagers, which was an important distinction I hadn’t quite made for myself yet.
By fall of 2018, it’s been roughly a year since I touched the novel. I’m unemployed. My savings are almost completely gone. I post up at the coffee shop every other day and try to move past the water tower scene. I write and write until a couple of months later I begin a high-duress job that continues for years because my money ran out. It’s a miracle I find any time to write at all. Another year passes.
Spring + summer 2019. The writer who taught the workshop that I took at Lambda offered to read our manuscripts if we completed them within the next year (also I could have just made this up, lol). Either way, I decide that since August 2019 is coming up, I need this arbitrary deadline to just finish this damn thing. It’s been 2.5 years already, geez! I want to be able to say I’ve written a novel, and this manuscript is the closest thing I have!
I write for a month, I take a month off, I write for a month, I take a month off. In late June/early July 2019 I say it’s now or never. I enter a fugue state and I write and write and write. I do not recommend doing this. It felt like my brain was releasing those chemicals that one faces in a near-death experience. At my most unhinged, I write 9,000 words in one day. I cannot see straight. My mind is DMT goop.
On July 6, 2019, I have written a novel. It is 183,000 words. It feels like death.
Immediately after I finish a first draft I do some research and find out most debut novels are between 75,000-100,000 words. I’m told that science fiction and fantasy sometimes have leeway for a longer word count by an agent friend.
That’s good, I say. My novel has blood-meat portals and an undead horse and a raspberry lollipop sword. That’s probably something that qualifies it as a fantasy novel. That feels like a much more compelling argument than someone telling me I will have to delete 80,000 words.
IDK, did anything memorable happen in the year 2020?
I don’t touch the novel for a year.
I do some agent querying, get some full manuscript bites that result in eventually rejections. I get told that for a novel about teenage boys who battle monsters with candy canes that my book sure is very literary, slow, and depressing. I am charged and changed by this feedback. I want to do more to make it less literary and slow (I like the depressing parts, because those are my parts).
There is a girl character in this storyworld, but she is defined by absence. She never appears in-scene, only as a reference. I know a lot about her though. I’ve been thinking about her for six years. I feel so comfortable in this world that I no longer have any hesitations about what it would mean to write about these teenage girls—their lives growing up in Florida.
Fall 2020: I begin writing one chapter about this girl, then another, then another, then another. Soon, I would die for her. Soon, I start to re-structure the novel in which the main boy character has a chapter, then the girl character, and this becomes a major structural force as I edit and re-write. His chapters are slower and more contemplative. Her chapters are much more action-oriented and full of emotional excess. I like this balance.
Work is still very busy though. There is still a global pandemic. If there’s a rare work vacation or a three-day weekend, I work on the novel, but otherwise it is untouched. Still, it gradually grows.
Summer 2021: I get accepted into a PhD program for English and quit my job. I write and edit and write and edit. I have probably done this a dozen times, maybe more. Because I often take long breaks, I usually have to start over when I edit again, which means I never get farther than 50-60% through the manuscript.
My first semester in the PhD program is so intense that I don’t touch the novel again until January 2022.
I have small bursts of writing and editing, writing and editing, but mostly it feels like I’m spinning my wheels. The first half of the novel is feeling very polished (because I’ve edited a million times), but I always get busy and it’s hard to get to the last half of the novel. This is most likely because my novel is over 200,000 words at this point. Something is very wrong.
It’s just untenable, this word count. I know what I have to do, but I don’t want to do it yet.
I do it anyway.
August 2022: I split the One Book into multiple books. There are some decent moments to split it up, but it was always intended to be one volume, not multiple books, so I have a discomfort I have to sit inside.
September 2022: I send some alpha copies of the earlier chapters to friends, and get some exciting/invested feedback. I don’t show them more because I changed too many of the earlier chapters which created butterfly effects I haven’t reconciled yet, but I’m happy sharing the most polished early chapters.
After leaving some voice messages with a friend, it really does hit me: these can be separate books. I'm not just trying to convince myself of a lie. It actually feels pretty amazing to say you didn’t just write one novel, but four novels.
On October 1, 2022, I officially split the beta version of the novel into four separate Scrivener documents and work on an outline for Book 1. It's a bit overwhelming, but exciting, because suddenly I have books that are socially acceptable word counts:
BOOK 1: 67,205 words
BOOK 2: 68,212 words
BOOK 3, 75,531 words
BOOK 4, 46,531 words
SCRAPS, NOTES, and CUT CHAPTERS: 25,656 words
CHARACTER NOTES: 11,220 words
MISC WORD DOCS, SCRIBBLES, EARLY PRE-ALPHA CHAPTERS, SYNOPSES: 5645 words
If you add all the above up, you will get exactly 300,000 words.
Fall 2022: School is busy again, but I think I might be interested in querying the novel again. I know, since it was never intended to be a first book in a series, that it will need massaging, and it will need a firmer ending that leads into the next book. I also know that telling an agent I have a four-book series might send them to the hills running and screaming. I also know that if it gets agented it might become two books or three or five or zero. Maybe even this title I’ve grown to #live with, #laugh at, and #love will be tossed out by an editor who thinks it doesn’t make any sense. I have to accept even with all this work, I might have to abandon so much of this storyworld I’ve grown inside.
I mostly don’t write until January 2023 (winter break) and March 2023 (spring break), but I get up to around ~80,000 words. I now have finished the second draft (“beta”) of my first novel, but also now suddenly have three other novels in various states of disarray.
It’s now almost 9 years since the phrase “Candy Dynamo Gorgeous Cadets” first appeared in my head, and I’m not even sure any of these books will ever see the light of day, but I have bled for them. I have worked to hard to bring this world to life. The journey has changed me.
I want to be clear that during the past decade, I’ve never not believed in this book (well, books). I have doubts about how the publishing industry will know what to do with a lyrical, literary Southern Gothic dark fantasy novel set in Florida in the early aughts playing off mahou shoujo and tokusatsu tropes that features teenagers (“but it’s not YA”).
I even have concerns if ultimately this becomes the first novel that I present to the world (as opposed to the realist, literary regional novel I’m also working on) how this could impact the public perception of me as a writer. Despite being a silly goose, I do want my work to be taken seriously for what it is. This is a serious book by a serious writer. This isn’t a complete fantasy. This is the world as I experience[d] it.
No, writing as a career has never a goal I’ve believed in, but it is a dream we are sometimes asked to navigate and strategize around.
When I’m in Scrivener in the year 2004 with my motley cast of characters set in the subtopic gothic landscape, I’m a writer.
When I’m trying to professionally see my work into the world, I’m an author.
At least that’s how I’ve defined it. I try to separate the fun, messy, art-making from the business act of publishing, because otherwise it might kill me more than writing 9,000 words in a single day already did.
I know what it’s like to publish a poetry collection and a story collection, but as for now, I can only speculate about what it’s like to publish a novel. There are some things I can tell you I’ve learned across a period of nearly 10 years though…
No one can teach you to write a novel. Only you can teach you to write a novel. It’s a combination of all your lived experiences, your loves, your regrets, your revenges, your memories, your fantasies, your resurfaced dreams, your indulgences, your restraints, your need to fill the lacuna, your sense of language-making, every book you’ve ever read, every book you’ve ever wanted to read. People can help you make deadlines and hold you accountable, but there is a story that only you can tell, and you’re going to have to go on that journey alone.
Each novel has its own storyworld and stakes. If you ever write another novel, it’s going to be different, because you’re going to apply everything you learned while writing the previous novel. This process is endless. It sucks. It’s wonderful. You never quite get used to it, but isn’t it exciting, to create a world again?
Scrivener is not overrated. It’s appropriately rated. They did not pay me to say this—but I wish they would. You don’t need all the bells & whistles. I don’t know what 90% of this app does. I do know that I write in vignettes, and that Scrivener lets me create my little chapters and drag-and-drop to restructure them. And being able to drag-and-drop instead of scrolling through a 1000-page Word Document and having to cut-and-paste chunks of text is worth $59.99 alone.
A leopard cannot change its spots. There are stories we dream of telling and those become the stories we must tell. When I was watching bootleg subtitled Sailor Moon episodes on VHS that I bought off of some sketchy Geocities site in the year 1999 with a money order I got from the 7-Eleven that I arrived at from riding my bike over there and giving them cash I received in exchange mowing lawns, I did not think it would inspire a novel. Publishers and readers might not know what to do with it, but it’s mine. I’m not chasing trends. I’m not copying The Lord of the Rings or popular campus-novel tropes or mimicking what I think would publishers would like to buy. I’m telling the only story I know how to tell. So I tell it.
There are no rules. Rules are snake oil too. Someone once told me not to write cinematically because literature is not television. But if you’ve been shaped by television, what then? If you think trying to gesture toward animation in text is a fascinating thought experiment, why not? Don’t write every day if you don’t want to (or can’t). I would love to be married to a very sexy surgeon who lets me stay home and write because he feels sorry for my weird obsessions but thinks I’m too cute to abandon—but mostly I have had to work or I go hungry and eventually die of starvation. This means sometimes I don’t work on my novel(s) for months. But I am always listening to strangers’ conversations, always writing grocery lists and to-do lists and emails to my students. I am always reading and writing. We all are. Even if these acts don’t feel inherently creative, they are part of the creative process. They enter your subconscious and become part of the novel too.
I don’t know, man, maybe I don’t know anything about novel-writing or writing in general, but I do know if I didn’t do this, I would die. I would literally die. It’s like breathing. We forget it’s there until we don’t. It’s involuntary. But if we stop doing it, we croak, we kick the bucket, we pop our clogs.
I don’t write because I want to. I write because I have to. I’d spend another ten years with these characters because I love hanging out with them (even you, Jules). Sometimes I feel like Henry Darger with his Vivian Girls, and it all feels a little unhinged. But would I really want to spend my time on this planet doing anything else? Maybe this will never get published, but it doesn’t mean I’m not a novelist, and it doesn’t mean I’m not a writer. Even if no one reads it, I still wrote a novel, I’m still a writer, and so are you.
Maybe it will get the next eight-figure book deal. Wouldn’t that be something? Then I’ll take you all in my limo to the movie premiere, and we’ll eat your favorite candy, and we’ll say isn’t this all very silly, and didn’t we nearly die for our art, and what is the biggest ICEE size you sell, and hasn’t this all been such great fun.
Now go write your novel, friends. If no one else believes in you, know that I do.