Nobody asked you to write that novel

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

My favorite thing to remember about novel-writing is an observation I saw taped to a friend’s wall in her office in graduate school: “Nobody asked you to write that novel”. Therefore novel-writing is a choice–you can always stop, always keep going. You are free to do whatever you want. Most novelists come to writing novels because they have been avid readers. Almost all novels, because they are capacious and hard to contain, are imperfect. Normally, “perfect” and “ambitious” cannot co-exist in the same novel. Therefore, most readers have plenty of opinions about how even a wonderful, beloved, and thrilling novel might be made just a little better. And so we try it. And we discover that it is both harder and easier than it looks.

  1. Be the tortoise, not the hare. You learn a lot by taking your time, paying attention to what is going on around you, and keeping at it. Every draft is first and foremost an exploration before it is a work of art. You have to finish exploring before you begin shaping, so it is all important to get to the end of the first draft.
  2. Read a lot. You take in a great deal of knowledge without intending to. Familiarity and pleasure breed ease. When you read other novels, you get models of what to do and what not to do. When you read other sorts of literature, your idea of what a novel is shapes itself by contrast. And every subject requires some sort of research, if only to stimulate your own ideas.
  3. Look and listen. Never hesitate to watch people, eavesdrop, and ask “innocent” questions. You want to know how individuals comport themselves. Novels thrive on the energy of real life. Characters in novels seek to emulate human variety. You cannot know human variety and maintain good manners at the same time.
  4. Exhaust your own curiosity about your project before showing it to someone else. Let your own ideas play out without getting input from others, then, after you show them your work, use their responses as input to push you forward. It may take you several drafts and a long time to come to the end of your ability to tackle a given subject, and when you do, you might be satisfied or dissatisfied with your product. If you are dissatisfied, the input of others will give you ideas for how to shape your novel further. If you are satisfied, the input of others will let you know if your novel is readable and accessible.
  5. Focus on enjoying the process and let the rewards, such as they are or might be, take care of themselves. If you love the process, you will be happy. If you focus on possible rewards, you will be unhappy.

So, even though nobody asked you to write that novel, you may, you should, and good luck to you!

Jane Smiley from an interview with Publisher’s Weekly

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