Replay: How to write a novel

Chapter 1

I’ve always loved the opening scene of the movie Manhattan: Woody Allen, or the disembodied voice thereof, starts dictating the first chapter of his new novel, a pessimistic meditation on modern New York life. As usual, the Allen character, who’s like all Allen characters, is filled with insecurities, vanities, pretensions, and a general distrustful view of humanity. He starts with an idea he thinks is terrific, but the more he draws it out the worse it gets.

Like anything else, writing a novel can be broken down into a series of steps, which go something like this:

1) You get a brilliant idea! Eureka! This is the greatest concept for a novel since…well, ever. A guaranteed best-seller. You don’t want to write it; you want to call all your friends and tell them, “Hey, guess what I just thought of?” You can already see yourself sitting across from Oprah on the couch, talking about the moment of your inspiration as the famous talk show hostess cradles your book and reminds viewers it’s for sale on Amazon. (“But look under your seats, people. All of you who came here today get it free!“)

2) You sit down and sketch out a few paragraphs. Although it’s hard to do this because you’re so excited you can hardly write. In fact, instead of writing out your idea you go on Facebook to see if your best buddy is logged in so you can tell him/her about your terrific idea. He or she is not around, so you send a message instead. While doing this you realize you don’t have a title yet for this masterwork, so

3) You brainstorm to think up a title. Something snappy, so Oprah can mention it over and over on her show. (Dang it, Star Wars is taken and it’s such a good title. Of course, maybe not for a romance…) After about half an hour you come up with it—brilliant! You can see the whole cover now. Excited beyond belief, you write a short synopsis of your plot. All this activity has exhausted you; you go to bed, but can hardly sleep. Instead, you keep seeing yourself on your first book tour, signing autographs which later turn up on eBay for hundreds—make that thousands—of dollars.

4) Wake up the next morning and reread your synopsis. And God, it’s AWFUL! You can’t believe you were excited about this last night! The clever bits now seem not very clever. The characters are thin. Last night you thought the wise-cracking sidekick was so funny. Today he seems like a cliché, Jar-Jar <sarcasm>without the warmth.</sarcasm> You have no talent. You’re depressed all morning and into mid-afternoon.

5) Okay, enough of this depression. Sitting in your favorite coffee shop (note: what are all these people doing in a coffee shop on a weekday? Don’t they have jobs?), stirring a latte or staring into a double espresso so you’ll feel more like a real writer, you decide to sort out what you do, and don’t, like about this novel.

6) Enthusiasm renewed, back to work. Okay, they must put some booze into this coffee, because after half an hour you see things you like in this story after all. The elements just needed some reordering. Didn’t George Lucas reuse a lot of stuff from Kurosawa, who reused it from Shakespeare, who just copied Bacon and Marlowe and the Bible? There’s nothing wrong with imitation. So you get to work on chapter one.

7) The next day you reread chapter one. It stinks. You’re hitting the reader over the head with dialogue; the characters are just talking the plot. And all that exposition! Yesterday it seemed to give the story more depth, the way Tolstoy and Amy Tan give their story depth. Today it just seems pretentious. What makes you think you can write? You’re not Amy Tan and you’re certainly not Tolstoy. You haven’t lived exciting lives like they have. You just work a nine-to-fiver and live somewhere dull like Pasadena. Have anyone exciting ever come from Pasadena?!

8) You finally get an email back from that Facebook friend. She loves your idea. Your original idea. The one you decided two days ago was stupid. But her email is bursting with strong points you hadn’t recognized, so you think, Hey, maybe this is better than I thought. You tear up the drafts you’ve been doing and go back to the first version. Didn’t your seventh grade English teacher tell you your gut ideas are usually the best? You need the funny sidekick because humor sells and your main idea is kinda grim, so people need to laugh along the way. Sitting in that cafe, the one with the free wifi if you buy one pastry, you crank out three chapters in a row. You reread it after dinner and throw up.

9) Enough of the negative vibes! After a sleepless night of second thoughts, you decide to just write, and not censor yourself, until you’re all the way through the first draft, which, at the rate you’re going, will take you a year. Sure a lot of it will be crap, but some of it will be good, right, and you’ll keep the good stuff when you revise, right? Right???

10) Confusion sets in. You want to change direction here on page 133. But you vowed no more negative vibes, and if you do change something you have to revise what you wrote on pages 56-58 and 77-82 and 99-101 and again on 119-121. You check your How To books on writing and they recommend you just insert a small note to remind yourself to make those changes in the next draft.  But the notes turn out to be longer than the stuff you’re changing, so you might as well just do it now.

11) A month passes. You’re making revisions left and right now. Why’d you decide to set this thing in Paris? You’ve never been to Paris, dummy. The only street in Paris you know is the Champs-Élysées, and you can’t even spell it. So make the location Pittsburgh! Not the most glamorous, but you know your way around, as much as anyone knows their way around Pittsburgh, which has some of the nuttiest streets on the planet. Now, that means Margaux and Jacques have to be changed to Marge and Jack, but that’s what global search is for. Darn, you’ll have to lose all those worldly Edith Piaf references, and the moody rainy days near the Eiffel Tower are out, but oh well. Hmm—here’s an idea: maybe part of it could take place in Paris. Just so long as they get a room on the Champs-Élysées and stay on that street the whole time. Genius!

12) After another month you’ve abandoned the coffee shop and moved up to Maker’s Mark straight-up at the Imperial Bar in the lobby of the Hotel International. Now you know what drove Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Chaucer to the bottle. (Chaucer had it especially tough, since he had to actually invent the novel before he could write one.) You reread your last 100 pages. Big mistake. It sucks. All of it. Well, the first bit in chapter three was good, and some of chapter six can be saved, and the scene with the Port Authority bus driver was funny. But that’s all. You decide to put your manuscript down for a month, but keep coming to the bar anyway.

13) After a month you go back to your story. And it still sucks. The thing is, in the interim, you got an even better idea for another novel. This one is really great! It has none of the flaws and all of the assets of your first idea.  You already see yourself sitting across from Oprah on the couch—no, wait, bouncing up and down!—talking about the moment of your inspiration as the famous talk show hostess cradles your book and reminds viewers it’s on sale at Amazon.com and other outlets. You decide to leave the unfinished first draft of your first novel in a drawer and start this second one instead, because this one you know you’ll finish.

14) Repeat steps 1-13.

15) You’re browsing in a bookstore when you see Syd Field’s Screenwriter’s Workbook. You are astonished to read on page three that screenwriters can make up to a million and a half dollars for a single movie script. You look at the format for a screenplay and think, “I could do this! No narrative voice to contend with. No allusions to Edith Piaf and the Champs-Élysées to have to work in. Just werewolves and spaceships and creatures that morph into killer robots. This is way easier than novel-writing. $24.95? I’m getting this book. My idea always was cinematic, anyway.”


“This didn’t suck yesterday. What happened?”

16) Repeats steps 1-13. And that’s pretty much it. If you doubt me, just ask the person sitting in a coffee shop on a weekday hunched over a laptop, staring blankly at the screen, seemingly in shellshock. He’s probably somewhere around step six. And not for the first time


8 responses

  1. Charles

    Fantastic post. Btw, what step is “Write an interesting blog entry so I can avoid working on my novel?”


    November 6, 2009 at 2:54 pm

  2. Yeah, you’re right, I’ll have to add that.


    November 6, 2009 at 3:16 pm

  3. Mark

    John John John you clearly know the drill and the frustrations. And I prefer Knob Creek to Makers Mark any day, but that’s just me. I must join you in a drink sometime.


    November 6, 2009 at 4:32 pm

  4. Excellent post! :)


    November 6, 2009 at 7:46 pm

  5. Suzannah Sherman

    Brilliant post! I laughed. I cried. I understand!! I bought that Syd Field book too. And let me tell you, screenplays are their own special hell.


    November 6, 2009 at 9:28 pm

  6. Matthew-on-Main

    Hilarious. “This didn’t suck yesterday, what happened?” Ah, you hit the nail right on the head. I went through that almost every day. That’s one reason I no longer write.


    November 9, 2009 at 1:37 pm

  7. Maria

    I still LOVE your idea! (glad I finally checked out the blog, too….)


    November 25, 2009 at 6:49 am

  8. David

    Good writing, John, wry, ironic, laconic and droll. Add a little character, substance, wit and style and you could well be on your way to Oprah’s couch. However, there are other couches that you might first want to avail yourself of in order to bring the depth and breadth to your work that could elevate it from pulp fiction to L-I-T-E-R-A-T-U-R-E.

    So, bust your ass, break a leg, good luck and have fun!



    December 4, 2009 at 7:49 pm

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