Should I write this novel?
April 15, 2018 7:16 AM   Subscribe

I have an interesting idea for a novel but I am not sure if I have the ability to write a novel.

I came up with an interesting idea for a novel which my friend also thinks is interesting.

The problem is I've never written anything longer than a short story. I'm concerned that I would get 20 000 words into the novel and discover that it is utter dreck.

More concretely, I am worried my characters will be cardboard cut-outs and that I would lose control of the plot and somehow run out of steam in the middle despite careful planning. Or that the plot will turn out trite and/or improbable. I know the backgrounds I want my characters to have but I have not figured out how to tie their stories together in a coherent plot. Do they all know each other? Do they meet at university or at work or?

I am not young and I have always wanted to write and publish a novel while I am alive. I am worried that I would be wasting hours of my precious free time on something that would be laughably bad.

Should I write this novel or not?
posted by whitelotus to Media & Arts (35 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
The only way you're going to find out if you can write a novel is to try to write a novel. The question is, will you use this idea, or another? And will you start now, or wait til NaNoWriMo?
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:23 AM on April 15 [4 favorites]

The 90-Day Novel offers excellet guidance in character development and many other elements of novel writing.
posted by Elsie at 7:34 AM on April 15

Should I write this novel or not?

I don't know. Nobody here knows. As a high school teacher, let me give you the same response and exercise I give to my kids: make a list of ten things you've done, then make a list of exceptional success one could expect in that endeavor, did you reach that (this is where my kids sigh heavily), and does that mean you failed?

I: learned to walk
I did not: master the Marc Jacobs catwalk

I: worked as a DJ in clubs
I did not: tour worldwide opening for Taylor Swift

I: put together 5 salads for the work week
I did not: get asked to be on MasterChef

I: got an awesome dog who is super clever
I did not: attempt agility training or actually much beyond the basics

I: took up running as a form of exercise and anxiety relief
I did not: complete a half marathon or break a 10:00 mile (okay, who am I kidding---I haven't ever broken a 12:00 mile).

So, you put this sort of thing together and you see that life is essentially made of the things we choose to do. We are what we do. And if I described what I've done as failure, then that would be really silly.

Only you can decide whether or not you want to write, but if you go into it with the expectation that writing is a thing you will do, then you've already won.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 7:41 AM on April 15 [54 favorites]

Yeah, write the novel. Write it badly. Then, you’ll either revise it until it’s not awful or decide you don’t care to, and you will still have written a novel.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:41 AM on April 15 [11 favorites]

I think, to write a novel, you have to be willing to waste hours of your precious free time on something that might be laughably bad. Your novel might be bad, it might be great, you probably will lose your patience with and want to quit a dozen times, you might actually quit or you might quit it and come back to it. But you can't know in advance and you can't guarantee anything. It requires a leap of faith, and then a hundred or three hundred or a thousand small hops of faith.

I believe that none of that time is wasted, no matter whether the end product is good or bad or whether there's an end product at all. If you want to write a novel, you should write a novel.

I like John Gardner's The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist, though there's some stuff in them that feels dreadfully old-fashioned, and Anne Lamott and Chuck Wendig and Stephen King's On Writing.
posted by Jeanne at 7:42 AM on April 15 [5 favorites]

What are you going to do with this time if you don't spend it writing a novel? Is it possible you might get something out of this time spent writing even if the novel doesn't turn out in a way you like?
posted by MoonOrb at 7:49 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]

You wrote this post, you can write a novel.

Writing is great in that if it doesn't work out it is easily modified! You're characters feel undefined towards the end, so go back and define them! You can ax entire scenes, remove subplots, fix plot holes.

You cannot do any of that unless you write.

Writing for me is enjoyable regardless of my ability to get published. Maybe one day. But right now I just enjoy it.
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:56 AM on April 15

You already know this since you write, but getting good at writing (like anything) takes practice and making mistakes and figuring out how to fix them. If you do write a novel, be kind to yourself and understand that the first one you write may not be what you want it to be and that’s just how that works. The only way the second one will be any better is if you write the first.
posted by Alterscape at 7:57 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]

Well, if you want to write a novel, you're going to have to accept that it may come out as dreck the first time around. But that's what you call a first draft. It's supposed to come out that way. The point of the first draft is to have something you can edit and revise into a polished novel.

After you finish the first draft, you either try to edit it yourself or you take the popular route and workshop it with other writers. They give you feedback and you give them feedback in return. If you want, there's also the option of hiring a paid editor (if you have the means), but that is not at all necessary. Also, a paid editor is not as fun as having a writing group to moan and vent with.

Since you write short stories and know how to do that, here's what you might want to consider before you start the novel: are you a plotter (write an outline first) or a pantser (write by the seat of your pants, don't plan in advance)? I'm a little bit of both. Short stories and poems for me usually come in one wave and I finish them in one go. Novels for me definitely take time and rewrites and workshops and edits. I write the draft first to get all the ideas down, then use outlining and planning to attack revisions.

Don't be afraid of the novel taking work. It's supposed to. If you figure out 20,000 words in that you need to start over, then you need to start over. But you look at what you did in those 20,000 words and you pluck out what you think worked and you use that.

Here's the rule: Never delete anything. Always save for later, even if you don't need it in that draft. You never know if you can use a character, scene, or idea later on.

Are there PMs on Metafilter? (Sorry, I don't use it that extensively outside of AskMeFi.) Feel free to contact me if you have questions.

Good luck!

P.S.: Stephen King's "On Writing". Great read.
posted by artful at 7:58 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]

Should I write this novel or not?
Short answer: Yes. If it's something you've always wanted to do, you should do it!
I am not young and I have always wanted to write and publish a novel while I am alive. I am worried that I would be wasting hours of my precious free time on something that would be laughably bad.
My friend Tom spent a number of years on this fence, having ideas for stories he wanted to write and publish but not sure he had what it took... he was in his late 30s when he made the conscious effort to go for it, and 10 years later he's published numerous short stories, two or three novels, and enjoys some critical acclaim in his genre. He hasn't quit his day job, but he's doing it, that thing that was in him for a long long time. I'm super proud of (and inspired by) him.
wasting hours of my precious free time
The only way to become better at anything is to spend time doing it. If you enjoy the act of writing in and of itself, then time you spend writing is not wasted, regardless of how satisfied you are with the outcome of any given project. A dead-end you run into in one project will help you steer clear of the same problem in your next project, and so on down the line. It can be frustrating when a project doesn't turn out the way you want, but that time is not wasted. Go for it!
posted by Funeral march of an old jawbone at 8:16 AM on April 15 [3 favorites]

Anyone can write a novel. Almost everyone's first draft of their first novel is terrible. Some extremely well-established authors wrote / write throughout their careers bad first drafts, or at least first drafts that were/are bad compared to the finished product. (There's a reason why publishers have "editors" and not "buyers.")

Fortunately for you, the problems you single out -- flat characters and implausible plot -- are actually one problem that can be handled at the outline stage. I say one problem because the plot IS the summation of the characters' background, starting position, and development through triumph and tragedy to an end point; the events of your novel matter insofar as they consummate or frustrate the characters' goals, create new goals, and fulfill or subvert the readers' expectations for how the characters should react to events.

Make the world's best 10-page outline. Revise it a dozen times. Workshop it if you can. You should feel a lot better about the obstacles for which you have the greatest concern.
posted by MattD at 8:17 AM on April 15

I've written at least half a dozen terrible novels! You should do it if it's fun for you. I write bad novels for the same reason I quilt and play piano and run and cook elaborate meals on the weekends -- because I enjoy doing it, not because I'm any good or because I expect to eventually make it big. So if you start writing your novel and you're having a good time -- whether you're enjoying thinking about your story, or the actual writing process, or re-reading the stuff you've already put down -- then keep going. If you hate it, then drop it. It's like any other hobby.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 8:20 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]

I didn't read the "more inside" part, because I don't have to. Yes, you should at least try. "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly."
posted by kevinbelt at 8:27 AM on April 15 [3 favorites]

Generally, I say write your novel. Or at least start your novel. You can decide not to finish it.

I am curious about what you feel like you’d otherwise be doing with your precious free time. I think that matters. If you’d be spending it starting an orphanage in a third world country or becoming a human rights attorney, maybe that would be a better use of your time. But if you’re like me and you’re spending your precious free time watching Roseanne reruns, write the novel.

And maybe put this quote by Jane Smiley over your desk: Every first draft is perfect because all a first draft has to do is exist.

And yes I said, thanks, that is brilliant.
posted by FencingGal at 8:41 AM on April 15 [6 favorites]

Eh, give it a shot. I write a book for NaNo every year and I suck at fiction writing. Every time I write them I realize I suck at this and nothing I wrote is worth saving or trying to work harder on it to get it published. I'll never be published and I'm probably fine with it because I don't want to have to pimp myself on social media to do so anyway. But at the very least, hitting 50k is an accomplishment and it gets the idea out of your head. You'll never worry about that idea again once you tried it, even if you realize you suck at fiction.

What happens if you don't try it? You just keep thinking about the thing for years and never doing anything, and you probably can't talk some friend into writing it for you. Either do it or don't.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:02 AM on April 15

Write it if you want to write it! Maybe it will be bad; who cares? If you enjoy writing it then that's all the reason you need. My hobby is photography and frankly a lot of my photos are pretty crap but I enjoy making them and that's good enough. Do it as long as you enjoy doing it; you'll have fun, learn a lot, and improve your skills—at the very least.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 9:08 AM on April 15

Ditto what everyone else said, especially Anticipation. If you enjoy the writing--not 100% of the time, but generally--then why call those hours wasted (even if the final product isn't publishable)? You can always stop writing it, you can always revise it, you can self-publish it if you find the traditional routes aren't working out. But I think people often regret what they didn't do more than what they did.

Besides, you and every other writer out there have a ton of resources available: books, classes and workshops, podcasts, and forums dedicated to the craft. Writing can be a lonely business, but it doesn't have to be the whole time.

You say you want to write and publish a novel. The latter is only partly within your control; the former is totally your call. So why not try?
posted by xenization at 9:18 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]

Writers are people who write. Pull an Anne Lamont in Bird By Bird and write a “shitty first draft”. That alone gets you farther than 99% of the folks who insist that they have a novel in them, all they need to do is write it down. If you really want to write your novel, you won’t be able to keep yourself from writing it. Writers are people who write.
posted by bookmammal at 9:18 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]

Yes, you should write a novel, a draft of a novel, whatever! And you should also make sure you have a decent keyboard / ergonomics -- can't make edits / write a second novel as comfortably if you got RSI hammering out your draft.
posted by batter_my_heart at 9:23 AM on April 15

I can pretty much guarantee that you don't have the ability to write a good novel. Nobody does. I've got a three-book deal with Random House and I don't know how to write a good novel.

What I do know how to do is write a bad novel. I also know how to rewrite a bad novel into a mediocre novel, and a mediocre novel into a decent novel, and a decent novel into a good novel.

You can definitely do the writing-a-bad-first-draft part. Maybe you can do the subsequent steps, or maybe you can't-- but you'll never find out if you don't get started on step one.

That said, the question of whether it's worth it depends on what you want to get out of it. As a matter of statistical fact, the odds are very much against you ever getting it published. If you spend years working on it and don't get it published, there will undoubtedly be other rewards -- the satisfaction of being the rare person who actually writes their novel, instead of just talking about it; a deeper understanding of structure that will enhance your pleasure as a reader; and so forth.

But if you invest all that work and don't get published-- and, again, that is the most probable outcome -- you will probably find it a source of frustration and regret. It might be more regret than you'd feel if you hadn't tried, or it might be less. It might be a regret that pales next to the rewards of writing, or it might be a regret that dwarfs them. There's no right or wrong way to feel about a creative project. It just depends on your particular temperament, and you know yourself best.
posted by yankeefog at 9:38 AM on April 15 [7 favorites]

Also, read the book “Art and Fear” by David Bayles and Ted Orland.
posted by FencingGal at 9:46 AM on April 15

Short stories are more difficult to write than novels.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:15 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]

I am not sure if I have the ability to write a novel.

How to become sure: commit to never writing a novel. This will remove all that pesky uncertainty, and all for the low, low price of wasting a good idea and shattering a beautiful dream.
posted by flabdablet at 12:04 PM on April 15 [4 favorites]

Write the novel! Accept that it will be crappy. The next one will be better. You might even go back and revise the first one. That's how we learn.

Everybody has to start somewhere, and creativity is hugely fun and empowering even if it doesn't result in "success" to the outside world.
posted by rpfields at 12:05 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]

I may never finish any of my works in process, likely will never publish - I just don't have the time or creative bandwidth left over after the job that keeps my family alive and housed - but I love my writing time and my brain is a better brain for it, just like many other hobbies people do with no expectation of a New York Times bestseller and fame and fortune.

All the stuff about what if it sucks or what if it's hard or what if I'm no good at it? Welcome to...being human, basically? Everybody'd have 20 novels written if it wasn't hard and complicated and tricksy to do well, for any measure of 'well'. What's the point of going through life having never ever tried something hard or uncertain?
posted by Lyn Never at 3:05 PM on April 15

Yes. I mean, what's the downside? You write a novel, maybe it turns out terrible (first drafts are pretty much always terrible), and you still did something that the vast majority of people have never done. If you don't even try to write it, you remain in the large group of people who have also never tried to write a novel. What do you have to gain by not trying? What are you doing with your free time now that you couldn't carve out an hour or so a day to write the novel?
posted by rtha at 3:17 PM on April 15

Eeeevery novel I write is garbage in the first draft. Every single one of them, and I am 10 years and 15 novels into a pretty all right publishing career.

I will tell you the thing I've learned: writing the novel teaches you how to write the novel. Every book is different; every book has its own needs and wants and quirks. Hammering out that first draft helps you figure out what the story is about, and who the characters are.

Revising is where you discover the novel you can sell. So commit to writing a shitty first draft. It's not wasted time. It's time spent learning how to write that novel, so you can revise it into the novel you have in your head.
posted by headspace at 3:33 PM on April 15 [5 favorites]

One bit of advice from Neil Gaiman I've found helpful: If you look at something you've read, try to find what's wrong rather than whether or not it's crappy. E.g., this character doesn't seem realistic, this description is confusing, this word is a bad choice. You can always fix things.
posted by zompist at 4:04 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]

The answer is, would you enjoy the process of writing the novel? If you would enjoy the process, then write it. If you would not enjoy the process, then don't write it.

It matters a great deal less if the novel is dreck than if you enjoy writing it. And even if the novel is dreck, if you enjoy re-reading it, then very likely you need to write dreck and stop being self conscious about it.

There are ten jillion people out there doing nanomo write and another ten jillion who are self publishing. You are not going to get a contract with Simon and Shuster. They publish hardly any novels any more. To get a contract with them you need to know Simon and to have gone to high school with Shuster. You might figure out how to write a novel and how to market it and get some sales but you are not going to get rich, or even support yourself for a couple of years on one novel. To do that you have to write lots'n'lots of novels.

Since this is not a financial investment of your time, it had better be something that makes you happy. This novel is gonna take the place of sleeping in, and watching TV and going out jogging, or whatever it is you do with your free time.

If you want to write a novel you have to set up a situation where it doesn't take grim discipline to write the thing, but instead a situation where you keep staying up late because you wanted to work on your story and had to tell yourself to stop and go to bed. That means you have to enjoy the writing. And that means that instead of being harsh and critical with yourself you should write the action scene that makes your heart pound even if it is hokey, and the description scene that puts you into an alternate reality, and a meaningful message, that really truly resonates inside you even if it is a personal one. The result may be dreck. But it will be good dreck. Write good dreck, not good writing.

Before you start writing decide that if you get 20,000 words in and decide to stop, or get distracted into writing something else, you will be very happy to have written that much. Don't forget that if you are enjoying the process of writing you will enjoy writing three different complete endings, or a just very short precis of what the un-written 40,000 words were going to be. So don't look at the novel as something you have to finish, look at the novel as something that, unfortunately, some day you will have to stop writing.

The end result is important but your novel will be more like a friend than a goal. It will be the thing you think about as you fall asleep, a kind of companion that goes along with you for the next few months. To decide if you would enjoy writing the novel, start writing it. Write some character sketches. Figure out what is making your characters cardboard. Is it the lifeless dialogue? Is it the fact that they merely fill stereotyped roles? Tinker with it.

Write chapter one. Put it away for three weeks. Then write it all over again, without looking at the other draft. Compare them. Chart out a time line of events. Put some random events into the novel that could conceivably happen and that might further the plot. See if they work and tie in to the scenes and events that you know you already want. Say you know basically what yo want to write for six chapters and then only know that yo will want to bring your two main characters together before the end after they both struggle alone for a bit. Random event: car accident, lost cat, an unrelated murder briefly thought to be the same serial killer, or the old woman has a dream about being young and dancing again. See if that new event helps you tie the different characters stories together. If the random event doesn't work, take it out and try a different one.

Play with your novel idea. Make up index cards with the various events. Shuffle the index cards and see if changing the order of the events inspires new ideas to tie things together.

To find out if you should write the novel start writing it. It may turn out that really you only want to write a short story based on the novel idea. Or it may turn out that it's not a workable idea. Or you may suddenly get a better idea that you can't bear to delay and choose to drop the novel so you can work on the new idea. But don't worry about results until you are doing the final editing.
posted by Jane the Brown at 7:03 PM on April 15 [3 favorites]

So many great answers, I'm having trouble choosing the best one!

seanmpuckett: I don't know if I'm going to use this idea but the end of this year will not be a good time for me so I definitely will not wait for NaNoWriMo.

Funeral march of an old jawbone: I am your friend Tom exactly! How inspiring!

FencingGal: Ideally, I would be spending my free time painting but it's probably more likely I'll be watching TV or films(great films but still passive consumption).

flabdablet: I love your answer!

yankeefog: I must admit that I will feel regret and frustration if I invested a great deal of time and am not able to get it published. Whether it will be less than the regret of not trying, I'm not sure.
posted by whitelotus at 11:30 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]

As someone who has written a novel that didn't get published, I must say I have never once regretted writing it

And I am a person who regrets most things
posted by criticalbill at 3:55 AM on April 16 [2 favorites]

If you really wanted to write, you would not be able to not write.
posted by charris5005 at 5:05 AM on April 16 [2 favorites]

I must admit that I will feel regret and frustration if I invested a great deal of time and am not able to get it published.

Again, you can make that true for sure if you approach the thing in the proper spirit of up-front commitment. Just resolve to abandon the project right before the revision and rework stages, guaranteeing that what you've made never has a chance to get polished enough to find a buyer. This will allow you to luxuriate properly in all the regret, frustration and bitterness you can bring yourself to muster.

It would of course be vital to rule out, very very early in the piece, any chance that the writing process might become enjoyable in and of itself, or that the sheer quantity of writing practice inherent in constructing a novel could help you find your way to becoming a passably good writer. You'd need to press ahead with gritted teeth while refusing to learn anything at all that the process might threaten to teach you. That time won't waste itself, you know.

But unfortunately, if you take my earlier advice and commit to never even starting in the first place, you actually can't be certain about how you'd feel if you had.

Certainty is just mean that way.
posted by flabdablet at 7:54 AM on April 16

For me, as you've laid out your options, writing this seems to have way too high of an opportunity cost. What else could you do that would be as satisfying of a checkmark that is less likely to be laughably bad?
posted by Pig Tail Orchestra at 10:01 AM on April 16

Go for it!
And, if you're unsure about your plot, theme etc, I recommend dropping your story into Blake Snyder's Save The Cat process. [yeah, he wrote it for films but I find it works just great for novels, simply consider each film scene to be about 5-6 pages of novel] and Michael Hauge has some good points on making sure you understand all your characters motivations and conflicts.
This stuff is way easier to figure out before you start writing am 80,000 word novel, trust me, I just tore apart a first draft where I had jumped into writing and now I'm looking at maybe being able to reuse a quarter of that first draft!
And, most importantly, have fun! Soul-wrenching, gut-twisting fun!
posted by drinkmaildave at 9:48 AM on April 17

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