Writing a novel: It gets easier, but also it doesn’t

Illustration of a person using a typewriter on a paper crumple-littered desk, as sheets of paper go flying out of the typewriter.
Yoonseo Lee/Staff

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I’ve always loved stories. As a child, I would ask everyone I knew, “If you were to write a book, what would it be about?” The people I asked were rarely self-proclaimed storytellers and never writers, but often they would spin stories for me anyways to satisfy this sudden and new curiosity. I would listen to their outlines filled with magic and home and family, and I came to understand that the only distinguishing feature of writers was that they wrote.

I’ve found that nearly everyone has a story sitting within them, waiting to be told. But writing something as long as a novel is a daunting task. Life moves on. It rushes past quickly. Stories die untold, forgotten in the daily motions we follow. The first draft is rarely written.

The problem of the unwritten first draft is what every would-be novelist endeavors to solve for themselves. How do you suffer the first draft? How do you find the way to get through it?

NaNoWriMo has just ended. It’s one of the many paths to a finished book that has been created for writers. Short for National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo is an annual event that challenges authors to write 50,000 words in the month of November. For reference, “The Great Gatsby” is a little more than 47,000 words.

The event is known for prizing the messy first draft. In the rush to reach the word count goal, people forego meticulous writing in exchange for words. The event encourages people to test their limits. People who have never written a novel before — and even those who have — can push aside their worries over the quality of their writing and instead focus on the simple task of getting the writing done. As the NaNoWriMo website says of its participants, “They enter the month as elementary school teachers, mechanics, or stay-at-home parents. They leave novelists.”

This mad dash churns out first drafts and has writers crawling out of the woodwork. In 2019, more than 450,000 people participated in the event — and those are just the authors that officially registered on the website.

It works for some people. For others, it doesn’t.

In an interview over the phone, Melanie Abrams, author of the novel “Meadowlark” and a lecturer specializing in creative writing at UC Berkeley says, “Writing is a marathon, not a sprint.”

As a more methodical and deliberate writer, Abrams would rather not attempt the NaNoWriMo challenge and has found her own recipe for success: setting low, achievable wordcount quotas.

“Writers will have different amounts of words that they have per day, and I’ve done as few as 500 and as many as a thousand,” Abrams explains, adding that she tries not to stray from whatever word count she sets for herself.

She isn’t the only writer to follow a systemic quota. Terry Pratchett, known for his expansive “Discworld” series, dedicated himself to writing 400 words a day for more than three years while working a day job.

Interestingly, Abrams opposes the idea of writing in sprints. She consciously chooses not to write more than her word quota once it has been met. According to Abrams, writing in excess one day can discourage you the next day by setting up a momentum and pace you can’t maintain.

Georgina Kleege, author of “More than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art” and program director and faculty adviser of UC Berkeley’s creative writing minor, uses a different system with a similar concept.

“What I’d recommend to writing students is to block out a short amount of time every day. Even half an hour. Everyone has half an hour,” Kleege said over the phone.

Both methods intend to ingrain a novel in your life, keeping it alive within you from day to day. By writing in short spurts, the story stays in your mind, nebulously floating around while you clean the dishes or go on walks until you return to your desk to pour it all out.

I’m reminded once more of how being a writer rather than someone with a story demands, well, writing. But the most distressing advice to give someone who wants to write is, “Write.”

“It’s like brushing your teeth. Sometimes you might forget to do it, but you’re gonna feel a little funny. And then the next day, you take it up again. It’s useful to make it a habit,” Kleege said.

I’m reminded once more of how being a writer rather than someone with a story demands, well, writing. But the most distressing advice to give someone who wants to write is, “Write.”

Kleege, Abrams and many other authors have recommended the tried-and-true method of sitting down and actually writing. But what of the silence? What of the moments when you sit down to write and nothing steps forward?

These methods of getting through that first draft are meant to help combat these stifling feelings, but even authors who have found their way confess to floundering.

When asked about what she struggles most with when writing, Kleege responded wryly after a pause, “Everything.”

In the same vein, Abrams said, “Writing is just so painful.”

It’s a scary feeling, standing at the foot of the 50,000 steps that will lead to a finished first draft. It’s impossible to know where a story will take you or, perhaps more pressingly, how life may draw you away from the story.

As a result, much of writing requires trust: trust in yourself and trust in the future.

Adam Silvera, author of “They Both Die at the End,” promised himself he would publish a book by 25 and has since published nearly half a dozen more. It took Margaret Mitchell ten years to finish and publish “Gone with the Wind,” the only novel she ever wrote.

A story isn’t told until it is told. The most certain advice one writer can give to another writer is, “Write.”

Contact Courtney Le at [email protected].