100 Things About Writing a Novel

What to do—and when to do it

Alexander Chee
A typewriter. https://www.flickr.com/photos/22017189@N00/2621358221
Timothy K. Hamilton / Creative Commons

1. Sometimes music is needed.

2. Sometimes silence.

3. A novel, like all written things, is a piece of music, the language demanding you make a sound as you read it. Writing one, then, is like remembering a song you’ve never heard before.

4. I have written novels on subways, missing stops, as people do when reading them.

5. They can begin with the implications of a situation. A person who is like this in a place that is like this, an integer set into the heart of an equation and new values, everywhere.

6. The person and the situation typically arrive together. I am standing somewhere and watch as both appear, move toward each other, and transform.

7. Alice through the looking-glass, who, on the other side, finds herself to be an Alex.

8. Or it is like having imaginary friends that are the length of city blocks. The pages you write like fingerprinting them, done to prove to strangers they exist.

9. Reading a novel is the miracle of being shown such a fingerprint and being able to guess the face, the way she walks, the times she fell in love incorrectly or to bad result, etc.

10. The novel is the most precise analogy the writer can make to what was seen in the rooms and trains and skies and summer nights and parties where the novel was written, as the writer walked in moments with the enormous imaginary friend before returning to the others, which is to say, the writer’s life.

11. Or you are at a party and hear someone call your name outside the window, and when you get there, a dragon floats in the night wind, grinning. How did you know my name? you ask it. But you already know it’s yours.

12. You write the novel because you have to write, in the end. You do it because it is easier to do than not to do. After all, a dragon has come all this way and it knows your name.

13. Typically, a novelist’s family will not believe the novelist to be someone who does “real” work, even after the publication of many novels.

14. It is said that families should try not to punish their writers. I am the one who said it.

15. The family of the novelist often fears they are in the novel, which is in fact a novel they have each written on their own, projected over it.

16. For the novelists in your life I have heard it said that it is better if you pretend they do something else and that it is always attended to and doesn’t need your attention in the slightest. And then when asked for support, muster an enormous enthusiasm.

17. Attempts to find out what the novel is about on uninvited occasions will meet with great resistance.

18. If I do not answer the question What is the novel about? or How is the writing going? it is because my sense of a novel changes in the same way my knowledge of someone changes.

19. You are looking for the sort of answer you can rely on later, when you see the book, and so am I. But my answer will evolve into the entire book, and so whatever I told you may have almost no relation to what is eventually found there.

20. If I seem cagey, it is because I am not a liar and hate being considered one, due to an accident of craft. But also, if I tell you the idea, and the description disappoints you, the novel can be lost.

Novels in progress have many faces.

21. Novels are delicate when they are being written, if also voracious. They move around my rooms, stripping half-finished poems of their lines, stealing ideas from unfinished essays, diaries, letters, and sometimes each other. Sometimes, by the time I get to them, one has taken a huge bite from the other.

22. There is usually no saving the poem in these circumstances, or at least not yet.

23. There is no punishing a novel in these circumstances either, because hunger has its own intelligence, and should be trusted. It is dangerous to be a new novel around another new novel in the years they are each being written, but they know this.

24. Revision, meanwhile, turns something like laundry into something like Christmas.

25. This is because a first draft is like scaffolding; often it must be torn down to uncover the thing being built underneath. Which is to say, some second drafts, when they emerge, have very little visible relation to the first.

26. The first draft as a chrysalis of guesses.

27. Novels in progress have many faces. The novel as jailer, say. You in a small dark room with no answers to any of your questions, and no one seems to hear your pleas, not for days, months, years. Indifferent the entire time to all requests for visits or freedom. Hard labor too.

28. Or the novel is a Champagne Charlie. The limo pulls up, there’s a stocked bar and an entourage. A lover you haven’t met yet already mad at you for not calling enough, arms crossed, pretty face steamed.

29. Or it is the Fugitive, arriving at night through an open window. Not quite a dream, it carries a work order signed by the president of your own dream factory. You recognize your handwriting.

30. As the work proceeds, the factory is near the roads leading back and forth to the jails, and the Champagne Charlies can be seen heading in and out. Sometimes it is clear that the prisoners and the party are trading places (the entourage fits in the cell). Sometimes not.

31. The Fugitive leans out the window, watches, has guessed that the limo and the jail cell are the same.

32. Or it is the Lover. Impatient. It wants you to know everything. And it won’t stop until it’s done telling you. Factory, cell, limo, it doesn’t matter where you are or with whom: the conversation will not stop. It is not endless but is long;, it is longer than the writer can contain, and so it gets written down and is born that way.

33. Thus you may discover the novel is a thought too long to fit in your head all at once until after it is written.

34. Your hats still fit. But inside you there’s more room.

35. Think of a dream with the outer surface of a storm and the inside like the surface of your days as you have sometimes found them. The novel being the only way to lead anyone to the entrance of those days.

36. A stranger on the street, walking up to you, grabbing you by the lapels, and walking away with you quickly, with passports, money. You fall in love as you leave immediately, together.

37. The novel coming not from the mind but the heart, which is why it cannot fit in your head. Why, when you hear it, it seems to be singing from somewhere just out of your sight, always.

38. For the duration of the writing, your heart may believe the novel is a liberator. You will not deny it this belief, as you do at other times in your life, because you are distracted by the story. It is why you love novels more than you think you do when you read them.

39. You are in love with the unmet ending–you long for it. It is the radio station that plays only when your radio is in this one corner of the room.

40. The heart’s ruse is nearly over. This entire time, it has convinced the novel it was only following along.

41. This game it has played with the novel, like the date that begins with love’s possibility but ends with the memory of the other, the one you lost or who lost you and who you fooled yourself into thinking was gone from your heart forever but instead, reappears in a mask, that of the stranger you kiss against the wall in the street at night.

42. Of course a novel is also a mask.

43. Not for the novelist. Not for the reader. But for something else the novelist brings in from the back of the tent like a lion on a chain.

44. Do not notice the slashes in the novelist’s shirt, the welts along the arms and legs. Do not try to decipher them. If the lighting is right you will see them only when you have the chain in your hands and you are ready to let go. You will remember then. The cuts will make you try to imagine what the novelist went through. This is also a fiction, but you will not write it down, and it will leave on the wake of the next thought you have.

45. Unless, of course, you are also a novelist, and then sometimes it is your next novel. You wake to realize you are in the back of the tent.

46. I think of novels as being like a visitor from another planet, the sentences being like the circuits of a vast and beautiful machine that communicates the creature. A creature of pure meaning.

47. Or a distant relation I’ve never met, from another country and with a language barrier between us. He tries on clothes and wigs I give him, hops on one leg, imitates strange animal noises, and soon I have the wig. I am hopping, hopping, hopping.

48. With my other hand I am taking notes.

49. Everyone has a novel in them, people like to say. They smile when they say it, as if the novel is special precisely because everyone has at least one. Think of a conveyor belt of infant souls passing down from heaven, rows of tired angels pausing to slip a paperback into their innocent, wordless hearts.

50. If it is like the soul, it is a soul you can share, like the gnostic one, externalized, with a womb.

51. What if the novel in you is one you yourself would never read? A beach novel, a blockbuster, a long, windy, character-driven literary drama that ends sadly? What if the one novel in you is the opposite of your idea of yourself?

52. The novelist as a circus attraction with many limbs, a horse with eight legs or three faces or two heads.

53. Now we are back in a tent, but another tent altogether, that of a circus.

54. We discover we are the animal made to learn tricks in order to please something with a whip.

55. Kneeling in the sawdust, juggling plates, we hope the crowd cheers, though we cannot see them past the lights.

56. All the while, we know that in some cultures we would be revered as gods. In others, put to death.

57. Of course, this almost never happens.

58. And then sometimes, it does.

59. The novel for which you can be killed is a picture someone is trying to hide of what is inside whoever it is threatening to kill you for writing it.

60. You did not know this was what you were doing; you were only trying to take a picture of the landscape. You thought of yourself as a bystander; you saw something you thought you should try to say this way. In the corner of the photo, something you do not quite recognize, not right away.

61. When you look closely at the picture, in it is a map left behind by a stranger who says, This is the way to the treasure, and then this is the way o–

62. The piece that is missing, hidden somewhere but calling, describing itself to you from behind the walls of your days.

63. Would it be beautiful or devastating to write the one novel if it was the only one you had? And what then, to discover that was the one?

64. Perhaps sometimes the angels are tired and out of their hands slips not one novel but five, twelve, one hundred, one thousand. A library for a soul.

65. They will never come back for them, but when the novels appear, the tired angels will smile quietly instead, and pass invisibly through the bookstore, remembering.

66. Remembering that in fact no one has only one.

67. The novel and God are always being declared dead. Both are perhaps now indifferent to this, if either really can be said to exist.

68. Imagine for now they pass the time in the Kitchen of Life, telling jokes, each trying to tell if the other’s feelings are hurt.

69. God feels confident He is having a comeback. Also the novel. Each is jealous, does not want to say this to the other, not directly.

70. The novel is being sold in vending machines in airports. God points out that there are no vending machines for God.

71. Are you sure, though? the novel asks. And then adds, I feel like you could do something about that.

72. Tell me about it, God says. This being one of the things the novel can do.

73. Sometimes it is the ship, sinking, and you, you are the captain, running around the deck, having decided not to go down with it, but to save it, to head for land all the same.

74. The ship, moved, returns from its fascination with the deep.

75. It would be easy to forget that sometimes the shipwreck saves the ship or the captain. Sometimes one or the other remembers this at the touch of the rock.

76. Think of Nemo in his submarine, touring the submerged treasures of all of the failed voyages in all of history. A library of unfinished novels could be like this.

77. Or like the buckle of a belt, worn by an islander who found it in a reef, and seen years later by the original owner’s friend when he comes to land. Where did you get this? the explorer asks, and then asks to be taken to the wreck.

78. It is like the language the explorer must learn even to ask the question.

79. What is it you want from me? the novel asks.

80. What is it you want from me? the novel tells you.

81. Everything in here is about you, the novel says.

82. This feels like a trick to keep you reading it or writing it, a lie that is also true. And this is another thing a novel is.

83. In the novel, the true things often run around like children under sheets, playing at being ghosts. Otherwise we would ignore them. Not now, we would tell them if they arrived without their sheets.

84. Go to your room, we would say, and wait for me. And then we sob when we get there, to see they are gone.

85. Novels do not take orders well, if at all. They are not soldiers, usually, or waiters. They do badly at housework and will not clean silver.

86. Novels do not wait. They are poor chauffeurs.

87. Novels are good with children but are considered untrustworthy tutors for the young. And yet there we are, as soon as we can crawl, pulling them off the shelves.

88. Cheever said of the novel that it should have the direct and concise qualities of a letter. To whom and by whom?, I wonder, as I think also of how I feel this is true. I want to argue briefly–it is not a letter from the author to the reader–and then I stop. It is not a letter, just like a letter. This being the kind of question–to whom, from whom?–that, if you sat with it, could begin a novel.

89. For most, novels are accidents at their start. Writers lining the streets of the imagination, hoping to get struck and dragged, taken far away. We crawl from under the car at the destination and sneak away with our prize.

90. This is because the novel begun deliberately is so often terrible, with the worst qualities of a bad lie, or a political speech given during a campaign. The writer turned into something like a senator.

91. In your room after the successful accident, you wake. Something is left in your hand.

92. It is a letter. Or like a letter.

93. Beside your bed is you, the one who writes the novel, in disguise, funny hat and all. Hoping to understand. Do not look too closely at the ridiculous mustache. Listen. Surreptitiously, against your hand, write down what is said. In its elaborate disguise it acts out the answers.

94. The novel is a letter from the novel to the reader, and dictated to the writer by the writer.

95. But what is it about? you might ask, and then the novel recoils.

96. I just need to get a drink, I’ll be right back, the novel says. Do you want anything?

97. Days later the novel returns. I wasn’t with anyone else, the novel says. There’s only you, the novel adds, even as the writer fears it has taken up with others. Imagining pages across the other desks of the neighborhood.

98. There’s only you, the novel says again.

99. You are out in the street, outside the novel’s window, screaming into the wind. Please, you say finally, finally quiet, uncertain of how to go farther.

100. The novel is already at the door. Waiting, but just for a little. It is the lover again, impatient again. Wanting again for you to know everything.

Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night and the essay collection How To Write An Autobiographical Novel. He is a full professor of English and creative writing at Dartmouth College.
Originally published:
April 1, 2018


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