Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

How Not to Write a Novel (or much of anything)

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 04•13

Jessica P. Morrell©
A story needs rhythm. Read it aloud to yourself. If it doesn’t spin a bit of magic, it’s missing something. Esther Freud

Inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, in 2010 The Guardian newspaper asked authors for their advice on writing productivity. Superstars such as Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Neil Gaiman, Richard Ford, Jonathon Franzen, and PD James weighed in on their tips for churning out pages. These tips ranged from ‘hire a good accountant’ to ‘get rid of adverb’s to ‘do back exercises since pain is distracting’. With tongue firmly planted in cheek here is advice on how not to write a novel or much of anything else.

Quit your day job so that you’re wallowing around in your bathrobe most of the day amid unstructured time as your money runs out, your confidence withers, and your spouse mutters dark threats.

As long as you’re at it, you might as well slip back into bed. After all, sleep is important, as are dreams, and daydreams. In fact, adopt prone as your favorite position since you never know, inspiration just might alight while snuggled under quilts and blankets.

Do not develop a routine or schedule, instead write when the muse winks your way. Never matter that this only happens around the full moon or more unfortunately when a lunar eclipse occurs, or when your wife asks you to mow the lawn.

Lean on your spouse, roommate, your writing group, your therapist and the barista at your favorite coffee shop for emotional support. LOTS of emotional support. After all, writing is torture, and you’re an artiste, right?

Seek empty praise whenever possible. We all know that writers need heaps of accolades in order to thrive.

Ignore criticism, feedback and advice. And while you’re at it, ignore ALL experts. Thus never attend a class, workshop, or conference, never crack a book on craft, and don’t allow your precious manuscript in the hands of a story consultant or book doctor.

Adopt writerly affectations. Here’s where creativity pays off as you don beret, pipe, red knee socks with garters, a velvet blazer, monocle, and stooped posture. Or, you could just become unshaven and slovenly. It beats writing.

Don’t learn how to be your own editor. In fact, eschew revision since most certainly each of your ideas are golden, each phrase a pearl.

Loathe life and thus develop frustration, anxiety, insomnia, depression and crippling despair which impede you from accomplishing pretty much anything at all. Then start blaming your symptoms on the people around you when your story and your world starts crumbling.

Develop  a chip on your shoulder and sour attitude about the publishing industry, agents, and authors who seem to glide to success with the ease of a butterfly.

Write from your need to vent about your lousy childhood, your ex-husband, or ungrateful children. Better yet, when writing about people who’ve done you wrong, be sure to imbue them will all sorts of ugly attributes including bad breath, vanity, flatulence, and incurable acne.

Brew another pot of coffee and gulp down a cup while wandering around your office. And another. And another. After five, switch to gin.

Instead of writing send emails to everyone you’ve ever known and play Solitaire by the hour. Check out your Facebook pals. Tweet about what you’re going to make for lunch. After lunch Tweet about the movie you’re going to see later that evening.

Avoid reading in the genre you’re writing. You don’t want another author’s methods to rub off, after all. In fact you’re probably best served by not reading altogether or choosing only out-of-print tomes.

Start projects. Lots of projects. Do not complete anything. Let alone a chapter.

Do not write about life and love and relationships and philosophy and pain, feelings and family. It’s better to write about evil overlords with violent mood swings, demonic beings who exist only to destroy humankind, existential angst, kidnapped beautiful princesses who fall desperately in love with the nerdy protagonist who strangely resembles the author, and dank dungeons scattered with bones. Realism is for sissies.

When in doubt, blame the world for your shortcomings as a writer.

Join a critique group that’s a bunch of fluffy bunnies and sunshine, fueled by wine. Make that lots of wine and praise and agreement which makes the artistic soul soar while criticism kills the muse.

Ignore the fact that readers cannot see inside your head and create stories that seem to take place on an empty sound stage inhabited by faceless, unidentifiable story people who are as mysterious as fog. Never utter a stage direction or ask the actors to lower their voices.

         Since you’re the God of your novel and story world, when it comes to plotting, never ask yourself why. Especially don’t wonder about murder motives and why fits of rage are breaking out on your pages with alarming frequency, why your characters fall in love with cads and bimbos, and why you’ve set the story in Istanbul when you’ve never visited the city. Because after all your capricious genius doesn’t need to toil overmuch and randomness and whimsy are the path to great storytelling.

If it was good enough for Dickens, it’s good enough for you. After all, Ebeneezer Scrooge is one of the most famous characters of all time. So just for the hell of it, chisten your characters with pretentious and offbeat names like Hieronymus, Beelzebub, Hortense, Prospero, and Minerva, ignoring the fact that your characters don’t live in Victorian England or long-ago Rome. While you’re at it, you can pretend you’re a brainless celebrity and bestow scratch-your-head-at-the logic names on your literary offspring such as Moon Unit, Apple, Kyd, Prince Michael, or Rocket. Then there’s Nevaeh (heaven spelled backwards) or using names that signify attributes such as Sincere, Justice, Noble, Calypso, Colt, and Cash but I need to stop this list since I could go on for days.

As for the actual words on the page: lard your story with filigreed symbols, motifs, tropes, bad metaphors, euphemisms, and purple prose. Language is, after all, for lavishing onto the page in bold, florid strokes. So bring on those round, melting orbs of day, nights of sighing, bedeviled anguish in claustrophobic rooms, and afternoons of longing so eloquent they threaten to burst your bulging heart seams and create wound dew. On the other hand, you can create worlds using beige prose that is so pallid that each sentence limps rather than gallops to a conclusion. This means the bland verbs you use most often are either passive forms of ‘to be’ or get, put, look, move, see, and saw, and your nouns are barebones (house, car, tree, bird, dog, boy, object). The answer, my friends, isn’t blowing in the wind—your style should simply never intrude.

Create characters who all sound alike—wry, urbane, and raffish—able to drop one-liners at the drop of bowler, which inexplicably your main character, who tends to be peevish and preening for most of your pages, wears year round along with pin stripes.

Use exclamation points! Lots of them! After all, your story is exciting and readers need to pay attention to your most intense moments!!

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  1. Judith says:

    I will only take the time to add three more:

    – As opposed to “never attend a class, workshop, or conference, never crack a book on craft,” – attend every class, workshop and conference out there! Spend all of your time at classes, not writing. This is especially potent when fueled by…

    – Believing that you’ll be discovered at the class, workshop, etc., and your special genius will be recognized, relieving you of the burden of writing in the scary dark for a while where you don’t know for sure if you’ll be able to produce good work.

    – As a corollary to “attending every class” – read authors’ blogs – they are genuinely full of good insight and you can use the support – instead of getting to work on your story…

    Oops! Gotta go. 🙂


  2. ‘A script arrived at my house, the title page read Pulp Fiction, and I loved it,” says Danny DeVito. DeVito had a first-look deal with TriStar. “I had just spent a weekend at the White House, and there was a lot of talk that there was too much violence on the screen, and Hollywood should address it,” says former TriStar chairman Mike Medavoy. “So I read the script, which I liked a lot, and there was one scene that is really extremely violent, where they shoot someone in the back of the car and there are pieces of his brain splattered all over. The director and I had a discussion, and I said, ‘That is really over the top, and you’re going to get blowback.’ He said, ‘But it’s funny!’ It turned out he was right. The audience thought it was funny, and it did not get the blowback I thought it would get.” However, TriStar passed on making the movie.

  3. Yeah, well, the inspiration of a new story is exciting. But if you wind up not finishing ninety percent of what you start, guess what happens. After a few years you’ll have written 100 beginnings, 40 middles, and only 10 endings. Which means you’ll be great at writing beginnings, only so-so at middles, and you’ll suck at endings. Which means you will almost certainly keep faltering between the middle and the end of every story, which means you’ll keep giving up and not finishing . . . Rinse, repeat.

  4. Your writing brain every day – ideally at the same time every day (I know this can be hard in the festive season). But I do believe that after a time it becomes a habit and your brain gets ‘geared’ into writing mode at that time every day. Writing daily keeps your head in the story – it keeps it flowing. For most Mums this time is either going to be at night after the kids have gone to bed, or early in the morning before they’ve woken up. I wouldn’t advise doing both – sleep, and that wonderful dream-time just before sleep, is VITAL.

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