Three early observations about writing a novel

I’ll state the obvious first: it actually is as hard as you think.

When I began this process around around this time last year, I told myself not to overthink it. I was going to write a novel, simple as that. I wasn’t going to agonize over plot lines and details. I wasn’t going to do any reader panels. I wasn’t writing for fame, after all, but rather to try something new. Prior to diving into this project I hadn’t done any creative writing. None. In a long time, at least a decade.

I had the spark of an idea. I’d been thinking about it a lot. I knew the premise: Man gets sick and is certain to die. Man hears about a faraway adventure hospice and decides to go, leaving his family behind. Man regrets. Man dies.

I thought about the characters, the setting, and how agonizing this decision would be for everyone involved. It felt like there was a lot of meat on this bone and when I shared that much of the story with family and friends, their eyebrows raised. They were immediately intrigued and it spurred all kinds of questions, and even some disgust.

“I can’t believe anyone would do that! Would you do that to your wife and family?” Probably not, actually, but I loved that my plot elicited that type of reaction. It meant readership and book groups once it was published. And it meant it would be fun, even easy, to write.

I was right and wrong. It has been fun. It has not been easy.

Observation #1: It’s the main character, stupid

Story Genius by Lisa Cron

When I was about 40,000 words into it, I read Story Genius by Lisa Cron and loved it. Around the time I started the novel I also read Save The Cat on the recommendation of a neighbor. Both touch on the same theme: character, character, character. Plots are just things that happen. Characters are what we remember. Characters are what we care about. Characters are what actually drives the story and makes the plot matter.

When we read a great novel, we emote as the main character struggles with a misguided belief that drives him against the roiling ocean that is the plot. We feel him as he makes decisions and rejoice as he evolves, becoming a new person at the end. This is the formula that the most commercially successful novels and screenplays use to sell copies and move people. You want your reader immersed in your story, rooting for or enamored with your character. You want them invested through to the last page, and you want your story to be a real gift to them. For those five or six hours the reader spent with you, they got a real glimpse into another world, a new universe, a sidecar’s view into something extraordinary.

Humans seem to be uniquely able to get wrapped up fiction. The story is a device unlike any other. It takes us away from one reality and places us into another one. It’s science fiction, but it’s just words on paper.

Observation #2: Writing fiction is dreaming while awake

Getting “in the zone” on a piece of fiction is much different than feeling the same effect while writing non-fiction, as I typically do on this blog. When I get in the mood to write, as I did tonight, I can flow for a good 45 minutes, finishing a post in one sitting. During that time I’m focused. I feel good. Basically, I just feel like writing, and the ideas come and I jot them down and the sentences just write themselves with very little editing. But I’m very much awake.

The flow of creative writing is much different. At peak flow, I’m barely there. I’m fully engaged with the story. For those moments, the characters are real and I’m in it, watching them talk and make decisions, trying to take notes as fast and as best I can. I’ve cried while writing, which is actually an incredible experience. Two people who read early drafts of this novel told me they cried too. I wonder if we cried at the same part.

The best analogy I can offer is it’s like a dream, except you’re awake. You’re aware that you’re awake, because you’re working hard, furiously trying to record it in writing, which is maybe the thing that makes it most distinct from a real dream. But during those moments you’re a voyeur, a spy, a fly on the wall and your mind is working in two dimensions at once but it’s just buzzing on a creative writing high. That feeling is addictive. I wish I could say that it happens every time I sit down and write. It does not, but now that I know it’s there, I keep holding out for it to show up again.

This insight is one reason that I keep chipping away at this novel. It also helps me to justify my writing retreats. I know that getting there requires open mental space, the long runway of an open afternoon where my only obligation is to use that time to write.

Observation #3: Decision fatigue is real

The other big difference about non-fiction and fiction writing is the exponentially greater number of decisions that must be made in a fiction story.

Whatever the topic is of my non-fiction piece (business, usually), I have a framework to follow. There’s a set of facts and my decision-making is simply around how I describe my observations, what references to make, and how deep I want to go. (By the way, for some of the best non-fiction writing I’ve found, check out Alex Danco’s blog.)

Great non-fiction writing is academic but accessible. It might also weave a storyline through it, using some of the character techniques described in Observation #1. For the epitome of that technique, look no further than Alexander Hamilton’s biography or the musical inspired by it. Laden with facts, it had to decide what to keep and what to ignore, what to expand upon and what to merely mention in passing. These are big decisions, no doubt, but not as many as would have been made if Alexander Hamilton were a purely fiction character.

Dealing with decision fatigue is actually what originally led me to the second observation. In the flow state, decisions feel like they’re being made for me. Even though I’m writing a fiction, in the “dream” I have as I write, the story just happens and I simply record it, like a biographer reviewing source material for his subject.

I can manufacture it in some ways by basing a character on someone I know, much the way an artist uses a living model for a painting or sculpture. I can make fewer decisions this way, letting my memory of that person take the reins. It helps me save energy for the scenes when I don’t have an experience to run them against. These take real work, a bit of googling, and progress the slowest.


I’m 72,000 words into what should be an 80,000-word novel. The last 10 percent has been the hardest. I’m stuck on the ending. I thought I had it, but now I’m not so sure, and I’m aware that if I deviate too far, I’ll either end up having to rewrite a good portion before this ending or extend the novel out another 20-30,000 words. Neither outcome is appealing.

So this is what I think about when I go to bed, when I swim laps, and when I’m mindlessly throwing the ball from my big Blue Boy. Because ultimately that’s what writing a novel is. It’s getting absorbed in it, thinking about it, and knocking out some of the thousand hours it takes to write a book that will get consumed 200x faster.

That’s the glory in writing a novel. “It’s the journey, not the destination” has never felt more true.

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