Thursday, February 06, 2014

How to Write a Novel, Part 3

Motivation and State of Mind

In the first two installments of how to write a novel we talked about preparing to write and the structure of the novel. Next week we’ll talk about characterization. Wedged in between, just to make sure you have everything in place, I thought we could talk about motivation and state of mind.

Everyone has a different idea about writing and how to write a novel. Certainly anything I say here could be the opposite of what someone else says. When I was starting my first novel, the week my son was born, in 1989, the only person I told what I was doing was my wife. And I told her what I was doing so she didn't think I was chatting with women on the Internet. Back then that wasn't really a thing, I'm just trying to get the point across that I didn't blurt out that I was writing a novel. One of the reasons was I didn't want to explain to my friends what happened if the novel didn't go anywhere. It was a personal choice and I could not care less if you tell everyone in the world you're writing a novel. That would be your choice.

As it was, it took thirteen years and two unpublished novels before Walking Money sold to Putnam in
2003. I continued to write even after countless rejections from agents and others in the publishing industry because I like to write. That is the only reason. I enjoyed sitting down and completing a task I had laid out for myself. Of course I daydreamed about making money and having a lasting career, but the fact is, after the first five or six years of disappointment I had accepted the idea that I would probably be an unpublished author for the rest of my life.

So now when someone says to me they’re writing a novel and they go on to say they need the money to clear up debts, I cringe a little bit. The odds of making any money on your book are probably similar to the odds of winning a lottery. Except not nearly as much money is involved. Someone told me that more people make a living playing basketball in the NBA than make a living writing novels in the United States. Of course some of this is dependent on what you consider a living. With a household to run and two kids, a living probably means something different to me than it does to a thirty-year-old bachelor living in northern Georgia.

If you look forward to writing, and feel compelled to do it every day, you cannot go wrong. If no one ever reads your novel, you still did something that you enjoyed. Just finding something you enjoy can be a challenge. Having something that beckons you every day should be considered a blessing.

I personally feel that the only worthwhile motivation to write a novel should be that you enjoy writing. It shouldn't feel as though you have to destroy the rest of your life to complete it. Every day I hear someone say to me, "I wish I had time to write a novel." I wish I did too. It's just something I have to complete whether I have soccer games to coach, cheerleading competitions to attend or family vacations that I dearly love.

One other thing I would mention about writing a novel. It never hurts to find a good mentor. I was lucky enough to know Elmore Leonard, who really helped me, not only to be a better writer, but to discover how I wanted to write a book. More recently, even though I heckle him endlessly on this blog, Paul Levine has guided me through the many pitfalls of publishing. The guy has done it all and is ruthlessly honest about his experiences. That's a difficult and elusive combination to find. Generally, someone with a high standing in a profession will omit anything negative, but Paul has always told me the truth and helped me in so many situations that I can't even begin to list them. I still rely on his counsel for almost any major decision I make regarding my writing career.

This week's random famous rules:

Henry Miller’s Rules for writing:
1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to “Black Spring.”
3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
4. Work according to the program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
5. When you can’t create you can work.
6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
7. Keep human! See people; go places, drink if you feel like it.
8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
9. Discard the Program when you feel like it–but go back to it the next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

So if you have your head screwed on right and your priorities in perspective and still you feel you must sit down for 30 minutes or more a night and work on a story that's been rambling in your head for years, maybe you’re in a good position to be happy as a writer. And if you can be happy as a writer, you can be happy as anything.


  1. Well stated, James O. Mentors are a blessing. I was lucky to have someone in my early writing career who taught me volumes about the craft of writing but also about the writer's life. Writing can be a solitary pursuit. It's important to surround yourself with people who wish you well. And that describes our Paulie to a T. He's the best.

    p.s. I just finished THE HUMAN DISGUISE. Most excellent!

  2. from Jacqueline. Another excellent post on writing, Jim - thank you! And I thank you, especially, this morning, as I get down to writing. I don't think I have ever had an ongoing writing "mentor" so to speak, though I have taken classes with some excellent teachers, and have always felt that if I came away with only one thing, then it was all worth it. I never took a fiction class though, always creative nonfiction, or memoir, which I think teaches a lot about bringing the camera in on character. My first ever advance was enough to buy a new laptop - and it came just in time because my desktop computer was about to blow a gasket! You just have to write stories you have to write - if nothing else to get them out of your head and onto the page! Which is what I am doing right now!

  3. Thanks for the support. Next Week it's back to ridiculing Paul.