I get a lot of email from aspiring writers who want to know how to write a novel. Most of you are well along the path already -- way beyond the 'if I only had time' daydreaming stage. You understand that it's a lot of work, and you're willing to do the work ... but you're running short on faith and hope and looking for a little encouragement. This page is my attempt to answer your questions by laying out the basics of the craft as I see it, sharing some of things I've learned along the way, and pointing out some of the pitfalls on the road to publication. And also -- let me say it up front -- to encourage you to stay the course and have faith in yourselves.
The first thing we need to talk about is talent. I don’t believe in it. I’ve seen brilliant talent squandered by writers who were lazy or conceited, or couldn’t accept constructive criticism, or were so paralyzed by self-doubt that their best work never made it to the page. I’ve also seen people with no talent at all become truly fine writers by dint of hard work and a burning desire to write stories they really, truly cared about. Writers are made, not born. A natural knack for spinning words can steepen the learning curve, but the one certain rule I’ve learned in a decade of writing is that no one can look into the future and predict the ultimate quality of any writer’s work. If you think I’m joking, go find a biography of George Orwell and read the stuff he was writing when he was twenty- five. It sucked. In fact, it was so awful that thirty years after his death his friends and relations were still struggling to figure out how an average kid with no talent at all turned into one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.
So. If you really want to write, go do it. Don’t wait for permission. Don’t wait for some famous author or college professor to tell you you’re good enough. Just write. Your stories may get no further than your own desk drawer, or you may turn out to be the next George Orwell. I can’t tell you which ... and neither can anyone else. You have to sit down and make your own future.
MONEY (Part 1):
The second thing we need to talk about is money. I've seen more than a few aspiring writers get scammed by people who promise to get them published or teach them how to write a novel in ten minutes or make them the next big woof in Hollywood. Don't let it happen to you. Remember the Writer's Golden Rule:
CASH FLOWS FROM AGENTS AND EDITORS TO WRITERS
Learning to write good fiction takes time, patience and years of work. However, unless you're paying tuition to a reputable MFA program or a workshop like Clarion or Odyssey, there is no step in learning how to write that should involve you reaching for your wallet. Well, okay ... word processors and strong coffee come in handy, but you get my point, right?
MONEY (Part 2):
That said, the amount of money that flows from agents and editors to most writers is small. This is a precarious way to earn a living. If you’re a productive professional writer capable of putting out a commercially viable novel every year or so, then you can eventually hope to make a living from your writing .... but from a purely financial point of view you'd probably get paid more per hour for flipping burgers at the local frankenfood factory.
I think you see where I’m going with this. If you love writing and you’re willing to work at it - and you get a few lucky breaks at the right time - then you may well be able to write for a living someday. But if you want to get rich, forget about that novel sitting on your hard drive and go to law school.
HOW TO BECOME A WRITER IN EIGHT NOT-NECESSARILY-EASY STEPS.
Okay. Now that we've taken talent and money off the table, let’s move on to the interesting stuff. What follows is the sum total of my wisdom about writing. It doesn’t amount to much, but it’s what I’ve got. Hope it helps.
Step 1: Read. This seems obvious ... to me, anyway. Nonetheless, an astonishing number of aspiring writers and a depressing number of established writers don’t seem to have much interest in reading other people’s fiction. It shows. Always. It makes their plots and characters thinner, their writing lazier and the overall quality of their work lower than that of writers who are also enthusiastic and thoughtful readers. There are few rules in writing that don’t have exceptions, but this is one of them. Besides, if you don’t really like reading novels, then the last thing you ought to be doing is writing them; I can tell you from experience that by the time any novel you write hits the bookshelf you’ll have read it at least a dozen times. With a pen in your hand. Trust me on this one: if you don’t like reading fiction, you won’t like writing it.
Step 2: Write. Another obvious but often ignored piece of advice. Like any other skill, writing requires regular practice. There may be some lucky writer somewhere who managed to produce a novel by writing only when he was feeling inspired, well-fed and adequately rested .... but I sure as hell never met him. For most writers, and especially for novelists, the key to successful writing is setting a regular writing schedule and sticking to it. When someone asked Michael Chabon to sum up the secret of a successful writing career, he said: “Write every day, write at the same time every day, and write for the same number of hours every day.”
Other writers might quibble about the details of Chabon’s advice. Some writers take weekends or Sundays off. Others, myself included, set a minimum daily word count rather than writing for a set amount of time. Still, I don’t think you’ll find many established writers who disagree with the basic idea. You get in shape by setting a workout schedule and sticking to it - and most people finish novels pretty much the same way. It may not sound poetic or artistic, but it works. For most writers it’s the only thing that does work.
Step 3: Don't have time? Write anyway. One of the most amazing things about publishing a novel is the number of people who immediately tell you about the novels they’d write ... if only they had the time. Well, guess what? No one has time. Most writers produce their first (and often their second and third and fourth) novels while making a living doing something else. Many also write while juggling jobs, families, and all the rest of life’s little complications. So if you really want to be a writer, just do it. Get up at five in the morning and write until you leave for work. Or put the kids to bed and write until midnight. Or lock yourself in your office and write through your lunch break. Sure you’ll probably write slower than you would if you didn’t have to earn a living or give the kids a bath or whatever, but these things are all part of living ... and who wants to read books by people who’ve never lived? Most important, no matter how hard you struggle to find time to write, you can be certain you’re in good company. Odds are your favorite writer went through it too.
Step 4: Write what you love, not what you think you’re supposed to write. As soon as you start writing seriously, all kinds of people - parents, teachers, aunts and uncles, wives and husbands and boyfriends and mere acquaintances - will pop out of the woodwork to tell you what you should be writing. Actually, that’s not quite true. Usually they prefer to tell you what you shouldn’t be writing ... which somehow always turns out to be exactly what you are writing. If you take one thing out of this entire page, I hope it will be this: IGNORE THEM.
Write what you like to read. Write the kind of stuff you’d read even if it wasn’t assigned in class. Write the kind of stuff you read under the desk instead of the stuff they assign in class. There’s nothing worse than a writer who secretly loves shoot-em-up space opera trying to write Serious Literature to impress the critics... except, possibly, a writer who really loves Serious Literature trying to write trashy space opera to make money. For one thing it doesn’t work; readers can spot a fake a mile away. For another thing, life’s too short to waste a minute of it writing anything else.
Step 5: Imitation is the best form of flattery (or how to use your favorite books to beat writer’s block). Sooner or later, you’ll run into the problem all writers face: wanting to tell a story that you don’t have the skills and tools to tell. Many first time novelists quit when they hit this point, assuming that if they were really meant to be writers they’d just somehow magically know how to finish their first novel. Other writers flit from one unfinished novel to another or end up revising their work to death - whittling promising first novels into dead, dried up little corpses. Writer’s block comes in every shape and size, and it can hit anyone.
That's the bad news. The good news is that help is out there. Whatever kind of story you want to write, there are models - textbooks, you might call them - that can help you solve many of the problems you’ll face during each stage of writing.
What are they? Well, I’ll give you a hint: you’ve already read them. In fact, you probably already own them. They’re your favorite novels. You know, the ones you’ve read again and again, even though they weren’t assigned, even after your teacher confiscated them and gave you detention for reading under the desk, even though they made you miss your final or burn dinner or forget doctor’s appointments. If you’re writing the kind of book you should be writing (“write what you love to read”), then your book will have a lot in common with your favorite books. Which means that those books will contain most, if not all, of the tools and techniques you’ll need to finish your book.
I discovered this when I was writing SPIN STATE and ran into a wall around chapter 20. I couldn’t figure out how the book ended. Hell, I couldn’t figure out how chapter 20 ended. It was a literary trainwreck, general strike, and The End Of Everything, all rolled into one ugly package. After a few days of fussing and fuming, I gave myself a much-needed break and did one of the things I like best to do: read a spy thriller. Somewhere in the middle of that thriller, the lights went on. I realized that while Spin State was clearly a science fiction novel, it was also a spy thriller - a book about international (well, interplanetary) politics, lies, power and betrayal.
With this realization in mind, I went back to the book that I consider to be the most perfect spy story ever written: John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Over the next few days I literally took my copy of that book apart. I wrote all over it. I made outlines and lists and marginal notes. And by the time I was done, I had a pretty good grasp on how the greatest living master of the spy thriller solved the problems I’d run into in SPIN STATE. More important, I had added a new and versatile tool to my writer’s toolbox: the realization that every successful novel is a roadmap that shows you how to solve the kinds of problems - character development, plotting, using place and atmosphere, you name it - that come up in writing that particular kind of novel.
All of which takes us back to Writing What You Love to Read. Because the more you read - and the more you read the kind of fiction you want to write - the better equipped you’ll be to solve the problems all writers face.
Step 6: Join a writer's group for moral support and constructive criticism. I can’t say enough about writing groups. A good writers’ group is a great moral and emotional support. It is also the surest and most direct route to publication for most writers.
There are any number of ways to hook up with a writing group, from local college creative writing courses to science fiction conventions and masters’ programs. If you’re interested in writing science fiction my first advice is to join one of the on-line groups I mention in the links page and start testing the waters to see if a writing group is the best place for you to learn. Then get on-line, locate nearby science fiction conventions, and go to one.
SF conventions are a little overwhelming for those who’ve never attended one before, but somewhere in the midst of the fray and hubbub you’ll always find a room or two dedicated to what convention organizers call ‘the writing track.’ Go there. Attend the writers’ panels, go to the local writers’ readings and tell them that you’re looking for a writing group to join.
Already being a member of an on-line writing group will score you big points here, of course, because it will tell them that you know the basics of submitting and critiquing fiction and actually want to learn how to be a better writer, rather than just tell everyone what a great writer you already are (sorry, but there are a lot of people like that out there). Still, even if you can’t or don’t want to do the on-line thing, don’t worry. SF writers are a nice bunch of people, and anyone who shows up with a smile on their face and a love of writing is going to be welcomed with open arms.
Really. I mean it. Try us.
Step 7: Never forget that readers are doing you a favor when they read your books, not the other way around. Whether the readers you’re dealing with are fellow writing group members or fans who walked into their local bookstore and ponied up seven bucks to read your novel, please remember that they’re doing you a favor. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen well-meaning readers get their heads bitten off for offering constructive criticism ... often criticism that the writers in question would have done well to listen to. Don’t be one of those writers. Be kind to your readers. Feed and care for them properly. Otherwise, they will stop being your readers ... and a writer without readers is no writer at all.
Step 8: Don't quit. This is the hardest one of all. It is impossible to get across to aspiring writers just how difficult it is to write a novel, even for people who have already written so many novels that you’d think they could do it in their sleep by now. Every novel you’ve ever read exists only because its writer persisted in the face of self-doubt, despair and the morbid conviction that even if he or she somehow managed to finish the damn book no one would ever read it, let alone publish it. If you set off to write a novel, know that you will face those moments too ... lots of them. And when you do face them, don’t quit.
There are many wonderful books about writing and the writing life. The following are some of my favorites. There are two different types of book on this list. Some are technical books that focus on learning the basic craft of writing. Others are more theoretical books that ask the Big Questions about why we write and why writing matters. Taken together, I think they make a pretty good working library of craft advice and moral encouragement for anyone setting out on the long trek of writing a novel.
Stephen King, On Writing. An intelligent and highly readable explanation of the nuts and bolts of writing, from work habits to grammar, style and submissions guidelines. I don’t know of any better all-around introduction for aspiring writers than this one.
Ray Bradbury, Zen and the Art of Writing. Really. In spite of the title. Though it’s a little thin on practical advice, this book is a vivid window into into the work habits and creative thinking of one of the great masters of science fiction.
Lawrence Block, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. This is the book I most often turn to when I’m stuck and miserable and wondering what the hell I was thinking when I decided to be a writer. Block is a prolific and talented writer, and he has a gift for describing the dead ends and detours that always seem to pop up along the way to finishing a novel.
George Orwell, Essays. Like Mark Twain, Orwell is one of those writers who manages to piss most people off most of the time. Despite this - or perhaps because of it - his essays and nonfiction books are the best guides I know of for any writer who wants to tackle the Big Questions. Orwell’s essays “Politics and the English Language” and “Why I Write” can be found in almost all the standard collections of his work. Read them. Then read them again. Then put the book on your desk so you can pick it up whenever you start asking yourself why you’re writing and what it means to be a writer.
Ursula K. LeGuin, Dancing on the Edge of the World. Essays on topics ranging from writing to politics to Virginia Woolf and Henry James. A thought-provoking read for anyone interested in writing science fiction or understanding how the genre has changed over the last thirty years. Also well worthwhile are her other collections, Steering the Craft and The Language of the Night strong>.
Charles Baxter, Burning Down the House. Baxter is more interested in narrative theory than the nuts and bolts side of writing, but I think this collection of essays should be required reading for all writers. His essays on melodrama and fantasy have been pivotal to me in terms of understanding why I write science fiction and fantasy and what those two genres can do that mainstream fiction, at least in its current form, can’t do.
John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist and The Art of Fiction. Twelve percent of what John Gardner says about writing is pompous nonsense. The rest is sheer unadulterated genius. Plus the guy wrote Grendel, so he’s got to be worth listening too, right? Anyway, I’ve gotten a lot from his books, despite the occasionally disparaging things he says about science fiction, and I recommend them.
Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write. This fascinating book describes the psychological barriers writers face, from fear of failure to fear of what neighbors and relatives will say. If you’re having trouble getting the words to come or working up the will to sit down in front of the computer, and you can’t figure out why, then this book is for you.
Anne LaMott, Bird by Bird. A strong, insightful discussion of how one writer has overcome the things that make it hard to write. Everyone who’s ever had writer’s block should read the chapter about Shitty First Drafts.
Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel. This craft-oriented book is aimed at published novelists looking to improve their writing and sales, but I think it has a lot to say to anyone writing a novel. It’s also written by a successful agent who represents many SF and fantasy writers, and should give you a clear idea of what SF and fantasy agents are looking for in the manuscripts that come over their transoms.
Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry. Sure, he’s a poet. But these are essays ... and magnificent ones. See what one of the greatest storytellers alive has to say about why we tell stories and why writing matters. The essay “From the Frontiers of Writing” is one of the most cogent discussions of writing and politics I’ve ever come across.
James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name. Another book that should be on every writer’s required reading list. This book is both the chronicle of Baldwin’s coming of age as a writer and a brilliant exploration of race, politics, and what it means to be a writer in America.
Finally, here's some advice from two masters of the craft:
[Don't take] literature so seriously ... it's just writing the best you can and finishing what you start. - Ernest Hemingway
No one else can do it. The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in. - James Baldwin
Good luck! I can't read unpublished manuscripts or recommend you to my agent or editor, but if you have any writing questions for me that don't involve those two things, I'd love to hear from you.