15 Ways to Write a Novel

25 November 2014 — 11 Comments
15 Ways to Write a Novel
Max Barry is one of Australia’s most exciting writers. His speculative fiction novel Lexicon was named as one of the 10 best fiction books of 2013 by Time magazine. In this post Max shares some of the methods he and other authors use to write a novel. 

Every year I get asked what I think about NaNoWriMo, and I don’t know how to answer, because I don’t want to say, “I think it makes you write a bad novel.”

This is kind of the point. You’re supposed to churn out 50,000 words in one month, and by the end you have a goddamn novel, one you wouldn’t have otherwise. If it’s not Shakespeare, it’s still a goddamn novel. The NaNoWriMo FAQ says: “Aiming low is the best way to succeed,” where “succeed” means “write a goddamn novel.”

I find it hard to write a goddamn novel. I can do it, but it’s not very fun. The end product is not much fun to read, either. I have different techniques. I thought I should wait until the end of November, when a few alternatives might be of interest to those people who, like me, found it really hard to write a goddamn novel, and those people who found it worked for them could happily ignore me.

Some of these methods I use a lot, some only when I’m stuck. Some I never use, but maybe they’ll work for you. If there were a single method of writing great books, we’d all be doing it.

1. The Word Target

What: You don’t let yourself leave the keyboard each day until you’ve hit 2,000 words.

Why: It gets you started. You stop fretting over whether your words are perfect, which you shouldn’t be doing in a first draft. It captures your initial burst of creative energy. It gets you to the end of a first draft in only two or three months. If you can consistently hit your daily target, you feel awesome and motivated.

Why Not: It can leave you too exhausted to spend any non-writing time thinking about your story. It encourages you to pounce on adequate ideas rather than give them time to turn into great ones. It encourages you to use many words instead of few. If you take a wrong turn, you can go a long way before you realize it. It can make you feel like a failure as a writer when the problem is that you’re trying to animate a corpse. It can make you dread writing.

2. The Word Ceiling

What: You write no more than 500 words per day.

Why: You force yourself to finish before you really want to, which makes you spend the rest of the day thinking about getting back to the story, which often produces good new ideas. You feel good about yourself even if you only produced a few hundred words that day. You don’t beat yourself up about one or two bad writing days. You give yourself time to turn good ideas into great ones. Writing feels less like hard work. (More on this.)

Why Not: It takes longer (six months or more). It can be difficult to work on the same idea for a very long time. It may take so long that you give up.

3. The Coffee Shop

What: You take your laptop, order a coffee, and compose your masterpiece in public.

Why: It gets you out of the house, which may help to break a funk. You’re less likely to goof off if people are watching. It feels kind of cool.

Why Not: It’s extremely distracting. You look like a dick. You lose a deceptively large amount of time to non-writing activities (getting there, setting up, ordering coffees, considering bagels…).

4. The Quiet Place

What: You go to your own particular writing place and close the door on the world.

Why: It removes distractions. It can feel like a special, magical retreat, where you compose great fictions (particularly if it’s somewhere you only use for writing, not checking email, doing your taxes, and leveling your Warlock).

Why Not: You may not have one. You may find it depressing if you’ve had a tough time writing lately. You can end up fussing over making your Writing Place perfect instead of writing.

5. The Burst

What: You write in patches of 30-60 minutes. When you feel your concentration flag, you go do something else for 30 minutes, then return.

Why: It freshens you up. You find solutions to difficult story problems pop into your head after a breather. You can find time to write more easily, knowing you’re only sitting down for a short while. When you’re “running out of time,” you can feel energized and write very quickly.

Why Not: It’s more difficult to sink into the zone if you know another activity is just around the corner. It can encourage you to look for excuses to stop writing. It discourages more thoughtful writing.

6. The Immersion

What: You pull out the network cord, turn off the phone, and write in blocks of four hours.

Why: It eliminates distractions. You can relax knowing that you have plenty of time to write. It encourages thoughtful writing.

Why Not: You can wind up grinding. You can feel reluctant to start writing, knowing that such a huge block of time awaits.

7. The Intoxicant

What: You consume alcohol, narcotic, or caffeine before writing.

Why: Dude, those words just gush.

Why Not: You may be part of the 99.9% of the population that writes self-indulgent gibberish.

Sidenote: There is no case of writer’s block that can’t be cured with enough caffeine.

8. The Headphones

What: You strap on headphones and crank up the volume.

Why: It’s inspiring. It can quickly put you in the right frame of mind for a scene. It can block out other noise that would otherwise be distracting.

Why Not: You can’t think as clearly. You can be misled into thinking you’re writing a powerful/exciting/tragic scene when in fact it’s just the music.

9. The Break of Dawn

What: You wake, walk directly to your computer, and write.

Why: Your mind is at its clearest and most creative. You haven’t started thinking about the real world yet. Your body is not fuzzing your mind with digestion. If you write for a while, you develop a hunger dizziness that’s mildly stimulating. (This can be combined with coffee.)

Why Not: You may not be a morning person. You may only be able to write for a short while before becoming too hungry to continue. Your lifestyle may not permit it.

10. The Dead of Night

What: You write at night, after everyone’s gone to sleep.

Why: It feels kind of cool. It’s often a reliable distraction-free time. You can often be in a fairly clear, creative frame of mind.

Why Not: You may only be able to write for a short while before becoming too tired to write coherently. You may be too tired to repeat the process regularly. You may not be a night person.

11. The Jigsaw

What: You start writing the scenes (or pieces of scenes) that interest you the most, and don’t worry about connecting them until later.

Why: You capture the initial energy of ideas. You can avoid becoming derailed by detail. You make sure your novel revolves around your big ideas.

Why Not: It can be difficult to figure out how to connect the scenes after the fact. You need to rewrite heavily in order to incorporate ideas you had later for earlier sections. Your characters can be shakier because you wrote scenes for them before you knew the journey they’d make to get there.

12. The End-to-End

What: You start at the beginning and write the entire thing in sequence.

Why: You see the story as a reader will. You feel more confident about your characterizations, pacing, and logical progression of plot. It’s simpler.

Why Not: You can become bogged down in boring sections you think are necessary to set-up good stuff (not realizing yet that you don’t need those boring sections, or that they can be far shorter than you think). You can wind up far from where you intended to go, never finding a place for those initial ideas. (This may not be a bad thing.)

13. The Outline

What: You sketch out plot, characters, and turning points before you start writing.

Why: You feel like you know what you’re doing. You can feel excited because you know big stuff is coming. You tend to produce a better structure, with larger character arcs and clearer plot twists.

Why Not: What seems like a brilliant idea for an ending on day 1 can seem trite on day 150, when you understand the characters and story better. You feel pressure to make your characters do implausible things in order to fit your outline. You can close yourself off to better ideas. You can become bored because you already know what’s going to happen.

14. The Journey

What: You start writing with no real idea of where you’ll wind up.

Why: It’s exciting. Discovering a story as you write it is one of life’s great joys. Your characters have freedom to act more naturally and drive the story, rather than be bumped around by plot.

Why Not: You can end up nowhere very interesting. You tend to write smaller, more realistic stories, which may not be what you want.

15. The Restart

What: You abandon the story you’re working on, even though you know it’s brilliant and the idea is perfect but GODDAMN it is driving you insane for some reason

Why: It’s a bad idea. There might be a good idea inside it somewhere, but you’ve surrounded it with bad characters or plot or setting or something and the only way to salvage it is to let all that other stuff go.

Why Not: While loss of motivation is always, always, always because the story isn’t good enough, and some part of you knows it, you rarely need to throw away the whole thing. Often deleting the last sentence, paragraph, or scene is enough to spark ideas about new directions. Sometimes you only need to give up a plan for the future. Changing your mind about where you’re going can allow you to write the story you really want. (More on this.)


For  more advice from Max, read After the First Draft: Max Barry on Editing.

This post was originally published at maxbarry.com in November 2010. Reproduced with permission of the author.

Max Barry is the author of five novels, including New York Times Notable Book Jennifer Government and Syrup, soon to be a major film. He is also the creator of the internet mini-phenomenon NationStates, an online political simulation game. Follow Max Barry on Twitter and Facebook.

11 responses to 15 Ways to Write a Novel

  1. The first time I did NaNoWriMo, I did it properly — the way the organizers would have wished. I dreamed up and wrote 50K words of a completely new novel in a month. I then spent the next five years trying to make something decent out of that mush. Now I use NaNoWriMo completely improperly. I use NaNo as an external deadline to push me 50K words closer to a destination where I’m already headed — whether it’s editing an existing draft, writing another chunk of a pre-planned story, compiling text for a non-fiction book, or exploring story lines for a possible series of children’s chapter books. Whatever direction I’m headed that particular year, NaNo forces me a hell of a lot closer, which makes me feel less guilty about all the time I’m about to take off for the holidays.

    Great post!

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