Five Things I’ve Learned About Writing a Novel

I just reached a major milestone that I set for myself: I’ve written 100 pages of my novel. Allow me a moment to have another sip of wine in celebration and give a little “Hooty Hoot!”

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100 pages!

My time in New York is seriously winding down and while I sort of wanted to have written more than 100 pages by now, I still feel pretty good where the book stands. I’ve been going to a writing class at the Center for Fiction every other week. The class is taught by an extremely talented author whose work I adore. Getting positive feedback from her has made me glow brighter than the Rockefeller Center tree (trust me, the metaphors I use in my book are better than that). In addition to providing me with some solid constructive criticism, she has told me she thinks I have “big, muscular” book on my hands and that she can’t wait to read it when it “hits the bookshelves.” It was also a big moment for me when my writing group said how much they liked and couldn’t wait to read more about a character I created. Knowing that a (mostly) made-up person caused readers to feel real emotions…. I can hardly even describe how that felt.

A few things I’ve learned over the past several months while working on this book:

1. Having journalistic training is both a help and a hindrance in writing fiction. It helps because the things that need to be included in a news story are some of the same things that should be included in a novel. While the 5 Ws an the H (who, what, where, when, why and how) are less important in a novel than a news story, they still should make a strong appearance. Also crucial: Those descriptive little details that make you taste a food and smell a person’s perfume just from reading about it. Good journalists and good novelists are always looking for interesting ways to include these nuggets in their writing.

However, the straightforward writing style of a journalist has been a bit hard for me to get away from. Someone in my class told me I write like a man and everyone agreed the first 30 pages of my book needed more emotion. My teacher said one scene was like “really good travel writing.” Not really what I was going for. I’ve learned that recounting details and hoping the reader will make her own judgment on what a character is feeling simply won’t cut it in a novel. Which brings me to my second point…

2. Writing feelings is hard! This could be because, for me, expressing feelings is hard. Usually, I really need to concentrate hard to think “What is this I’m feeling? And why am I feeling this? And what does it mean?” But I’m writing fictional characters, so it should, theoretically, be easier for me to assign feelings to these made-up people. Like how would a person who does not have the emotional intelligence of a food processor be feeling right now? How would that feeling be externalized?

3. It is very important to really think of every scene I’m writing and what its specific place is in the larger story. If it doesn’t provide something crucial – a plot point, an insight to a character – then I need to cut it. Even if I found it amusing or whatever. Just like life, books are made up of important scenes. If your life played like a movie, that scene where you sat on your couch, ate a block of cheese, and watched a marathon of Law & Order: SVU would not be included. And the literary equivalent shouldn’t be included in a book.

4. A guy in my writing class says things like “This book is writing itself!” and “I just stand back and let the characters do what they want!” Oh come on. The characters might “come alive” in a figurative sense, but I am still the writer and I need to think up dialogue, plot, and movement. That’s like saying you don’t need to study if you just sleep with a text book under your pillow. It definitely takes work to move the characters along and to do it in a believable way, and in a way where each character maintains a unique personality. I’ve found it helps if I close my eyes and picture the characters I’m writing and think of what they’d say and the little gestures and ticks they have. This becomes much more vivid after a drink. Which is unfortunate, because I write during the day and don’t really want to be a writer living in New York City who drinks whiskey at noon. Because writers should always avoid cliches.

5. Procrastination is a powerful enemy. I use cooking as my main procrastinator because I convince myself making up recipes, grocery shopping, and making a meal is a creative thing to do, so it’s a better substitute for writing than say watching Will & Grace reruns. My original goal of writing for four hours per day now seems like a hilarious pipe dream. I generally write about 1,000 words a day. Which is just not enough. Facebook is partly to blame as well.

Anyways, I’ll continue to write until I feel like the first draft of the book is done. Or until Spain turns in to such an inspiring experience and pushes Yemen to the back burner.

To writing,



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