How to Write a Novel

Composed on the 2nd of June in the year 2017, at 12:39 AM. It was Friday.

Well, that old novel of mine is about to come out and bring peace on Earth, so, as is officially required of anybody who writes anything longer than 50,000 words and receives at least two pieces of hate mail, it is time to impart my hard-won lessons upon the masses. As usual, my insights will be a list of instructions and thinly masked self-consciousness. I have decided to document these instructions according to the chronology of my insight, to better convey a sense of the authorial process.

The picture is completely relevant and will pay off later, as it is the first and most important part of what we wordjerkers refer to as foreshadowing.

1985

Ideally, you should begin the unending nightmare at age five, preferably the day before you’re supposed to have written something for your grade’s “Literary Magazine” (or whatever it was called back then). Cry until your father asks what’s wrong, explain, then listen as he says, “Well, write about what you know.”

Say, “But I don’t know what I know,” and listen to your dad laugh. Add cynicism proportional to your current age to the laugh each time you retrieve the memory. Listen to your dad say, “Look, just say the first thing that pops into your head.”

Say “Stegosaurus” with an adorable mispronunciation because it will be cuter than my memory, since my pronunciation was on fleek before you were born, according to the demographic report in my Google analytics. After parental prodding to think up a one paragraph madlib of everything you know at age five, commit to a writing career, because that was easy.

Manage to be judgmental about the other kids’ stories, partly because you’re jealous they wrote three paragraphs, partly in case you have to suck it up and become a critic. Cultivate abstract hate for the first time.

1988

Read a lot of Dave Barry and Calvin and Hobbes, and make a point of cutting the Calvin and Hobbes strips out of the newspapers so your dad can come home after work and make increasingly dejected noises over the three years it takes your parents to get you to stop cutting up the newspaper. This will build character.

Mimic Dave Barry’s weaker points to write a comedy piece that you can’t stop laughing over and read it in front of your class. This will mostly fall on confused classmates and indulgent authority figures, but the blond/e you have your first crush on will laugh, so you got that going for you, which is good. Feel intense shame at your parents’ jokes about how you should definitely marry the blond/e because their family has a lot more money than yours.

When retrieving this memory in the future, gradually fixate on everybody who didn’t laugh.

1989

After giving up on that writing nonsense, declare your intention to become a philosopher. Listen to your mom say, “You know, if you want to be a philosopher, you have to write books. You can’t just sit around and think all day.”

Say, “Oh. I knew. That.”

Switch to soccer.

1990

After an allergy attack takes you off the field during practice, stare at your soccer coach as he says, “Maybe you should take up chess.”

Once your parents explain what he meant, hate sports, hate authority, stop trusting adults, and vow to track the bastard down once the technology exists and tell him to go fuck himself, preferably after having sex with his spawn.

Switch to math. Begin developing neurosis about using sex as a weapon.

1991

Get placed in some advanced math course and meet kids much better at math than you. Cry until you can get away from them. Stick with math anyway, because you’re a child in the suburbs in the 90s, and if you can’t skateboard or play soccer, you’re out of options.

Take up chess, just in case.

1995

Move to a rural outback and proceed to have your carefully tended tolerance of math crushed by the high school that makes you spend two years redoing all the things you taught yourself a year before you had to move to this evergreen shithole. Once they have convinced you that math is not a puzzle adventure, but a series of repetative memory tasks, swear you will never study math again.

Go back to writing, because moody journal entries are all that keep you from killing yourself. Become obsessed with alone time, because now you have a lot of it. Learn to fear alone time for the same reason. Find new ways to embarass yourself on the protointernet. Keep digging deeper into your own brain until you find the scary stuff. Scream at the comprehension of a Godless universe. Construct a defensive fallacy of striving to reify the existential autonomy in which you no longer believe.

Bonus points: start writing a screenplay with your best friends.

1997

Start doing drugs. Flee evergreens. Go to college full of people smarter than you. Fuck. At least you have that screenplay under your belt, though, honestly, most of what you do is reformat it, because computers aren’t yet cool enough to do it for you. Cultivate hatred of technology.

1998

Move in with clinically depressed partner because they compliment your own clinical depression, since that’s always a good idea and will definitely work out this time. Fuck the screenplay. Fuck everything. Get a cat.

1999

Now that all the hard stuff is out of the way, you can stumble, stoned and drunk and alone in your now one-person apartment to your out-of-date-even-in-1999 computer and start writing about anthropomorphic household objects, because since you lost your job and unplugged the phone, you relate to them more than people.

Congratulations! Page 1 is in the bag. You have begun your novel. Internalize your suffering as you attempt to find meaning in it, because it builds character.

2000

Keep poking away at that novel! You’ll get all the way to page 27 before you’re institutionalized by the state, but only after writing that Super Clever Thing About Drugs and making your advisor read it. This should haunt you in a disproportionate way, so be sure to burn the memory into your brain by quietly staring at your advisor as he reads the whole thing.

2001

Clearly writing wasn’t a great idea, since you went insane. Get back to psychology or film or whatever it is you use to fill the hours between failures.

2002

That screenplay’s a little long for a feature film, so agree with your remaining cowriter that you should turn it into a miniseries, because cutting one iota of your clever dialogue is not up for discussion. You should be at page 130 of your novel, after pumping in all that stuff you learned from being crazy. Chop chop, motherfucker.

2003

Give up. You never finish anything anyway. Oh, except college. You did get through that on a technicality, so now it’s time to actually read the terms on all that money-related paperwork you signed over the years.

Congrats! You’ve unlocked Shackles of Debt and a whole new map. Hope you’ve been paying attention, because this is where the difficulty gets cranked up and they take away the HUD.

2004

After being stood up by your friend who is really just your friend and absolutely not someone you’re creepily obsessed with, spend some time alone in a bookstore, pull out a legal pad, and write your Favorite Thing Ever. This is what your novel needed all along. Boom. Back in the game. Continue to write, all the way up to The Chapter: the stream-of-consciousness bit that will make future grad students compare you to Joyce.

2005

Move to the city. Give up. You’re a shitty writer anyway. Fuck you. Fuck your little cats, too.

Cut The Chapter by half and switch to computer programming, even though you still hate technology and haven’t studied math in ten years.

2008

Remember that bad relationship you’ve been bitching about for nine years and, if you’re honest, is the centerpiece of your novel? Oh, honey. You didn’t even have to call a lawyer to get out of that one. Stock up on Bactine and don’t make any plans.

Also fail to acquire bitcoins. Even though you’re in the know. Even though you can still just mine it, you wouldn’t even have to buy anything. All you have to do is finish that last piece of the install process and let it run. Maybe an hour of work. You should fail to do this because crawling from paycheck to paycheck through empty ramen packets builds character.

2010

Well, your blog isn’t terrible even though nobody reads it. Could be better. At least one person has sex with you because of it, so maybe writing has some benefits, unlike all those musical instruments you learned to play specifically for the purpose of getting someone to have sex with you. Maybe take a peek at the novel?

2011

Congrats! You’ve finished your novel, but the ending sucks. Your roommate tells you so. Rewrite the ending and take the Well Now It Makes Sense trophy. It’s way too long, but you’re not ready to deal with that, so stuff it back in a drawer, after cutting The Chapter by half.

Start getting really upset with any writer who doesn’t seem to have put in as much work as you have so far, namely Douglas E. Richards. Dammit, Richards, it’s not real research if you don’t click the reference links beneath the wikipedia article.

Also realize “Ersatz Syzygy” is a terrible name for anything that doesn’t require a doctorate in physics and a particle accelerator. Try to remove your head from your ass and come up with a better title.

2012

Enough people have started reading your blog that your employers unironically call you a writer, and start floating the idea that you should write for your company’s tech blog on top of your regular duties, because writing has to be so fun for you. Add “Oh, yes, I would love to dedicate my entire skillset and the rest of my free time to fretting over comma placement for someone else’s benefit” to the list of things you have to bite back in work conversations, just after “Write your own fucking form validation.”

2014

Find a dusty stack of pages in the back of your file cabinet. Read it, and realize it’s a catalogue of wish-fulfillment, angst, and sexism. Cut The Chapter by half. Hate yourself. Pet your cats until the dumb one knocks your wine onto your laptop. Again.

2015

Your autonomy fallacy is starting to crumble as 40 creeps over the horizon, so it’s time to double down on your obsessions. Dig the novel up again and stare at it for a couple of weeks. Have a revelation about how to fix everything. Furiously rewrite the entire book. Make a point of cutting your Favorite Thing Ever, and the Super Clever Thing About Drugs. Take out the whole core relationship and most of the adverbs. Cut The Chapter by half. Realize you no longer have any perspective. Give up for a few months, then read it over and realize that everybody has smartphones now and half the plot points don’t work when everybody has a smartphone. Furiously rewrite the entire thing and give it to an editor.

2016

Listen to your editor point out that VHS tapes aren’t really a thing anymore, and there’s still a smartphone problem. Furiously rewrite the entire book, and wonder if spending 18 years occasionally writing one book is in the DSM.

Cut The Chapter. Just fucking cut it. It’s self-indulgent bullshit and you’re 36 years old. Hate yourself. Pet your cats.

2017

Only three months of correcting punctuation and congrats! You’ve written a novel. Now go and get that 18 years of back pay you totally deserve and someone will totally give you, because aren’t you just a treasure. Put a bowtie on your cat. Realize you don’t care much about dinosaurs anymore. Try to remember the name of that soccer coach.

He doesn't know he has cancer yet.

Hi there! You should totally go buy my book for the low low price of 6.66! It's like buying me a beer at an out-of-the-way dive bar in Brooklyn! Not in Manhattan. Manhattan prices are ridiculous, though there are a couple of decent Irish dives where you can snag a drink for five bucks. Otherwise, you're looking at a two or three book beer.
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