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Writers on Writing

How To Write A Novel: The Short Version

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Gabriel Roth


You start by thinking about all the things a novel should do: tell a compelling story, create vivid characters and reveal them in all their particularity, illuminate the human condition in general, reveal ordinary experience with a vividness that enables us to see the familiar world anew, open fresh possibilities for language… you can easily spend a whole afternoon just listing the requirements, and you should.

Then you divide the list into three categories. You can use a new sheet of paper with three columns, or you can just mark the first sheet with three symbols, like maybe an asterisk and a pound sign and a smiley face.

Category One is “Things I Can Do”.

Category Two is “Things I Can Maybe Do Without”.

Category Three is “Things I Need to Learn”.

And then you go down the Category Three list and set yourself assignments: Describe with startling freshness three things that happened to you today. Make flowcharts of the plots of six novels you admire. Write a scene in which two characters reveal all their hopes and weaknesses in eight lines of dialogue apiece. (I have completed all of these assignments, because description, plot, and dialogue were on my Category Three list.)

Over time you will find that the things on your Category Three list become your favorite aspects of writing, because you don’t see them as part of your Natural Gift (and hence as mysterious and obscure) but as skills that you’ve learned, and each successful instance of a Category Three skill in your work will generate a distinctive sense of pride and satisfaction, and you’ll start casting around for opportunities to make use of them, instead of clenching up defensively whenever the prospect of, say, writing dialogue comes into view.

Then one by one you move things from Category Two to Category Three, because Category Two was just a fake-out category to make you feel better about how much stuff you had to work on. You’re only allowed to keep one thing in Category Two, it turns out. (A fun game is to look at famous authors and identify their one Category Two item; everyone has one.) The trick with that single remaining Category Two weakness is to pick projects for which that element is unnecessary, or to arrange all the other elements like fortifications around the empty space where the missing element should be, or to set up neon signs pointing at the empty space… there are a lot of options.

At this point, if you’ve put in the work, you’ve successfully improved all your skills (apart from those Category One Natural Gift ones, which you should be very careful about messing with). Now you’re at the next level, and the flaws in your work will be glaringly apparent to you, which means it’s time to start over.

About the Author

Gabriel Roth

Gabriel Roth’s first novel, The Unknowns (Little, Brown, 2013), has been published in five countries. His essays and criticism have appeared in The New York Times, among other publications. He holds an MFA from San Francisco State University. He a senior editor at SLATE, and the editorial director of the Slate Plus program.

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