So You Want To Write A Novel: Part 1


In my last article, I discussed the question of why you write, which is a fairly broad inquiry. Now I want to zero in on a particular form of writing: the novel. Why do you want to write a novel?

Merriam-Webster defines a novel this way: “an invented prose narrative that is usually long and complex and deals especially with human experience through a usually connected sequence of events.” Let me put that in my own words and with my own spin: A novel is a long-form storytelling that, although it is fiction, reveals truths.

The first question that comes to mind when someone tells me he or she wants to write a novel, which typically may range from 70,000 to 100,000 words or more, is “Why?” That seems like a pretty basic question, but it’s one you really need to answer before you get started. After all, that’s a lot of words. And that translates into a lot of work.

And there are not many things I’ve done in my life that are more frustrating. Trying to find just the right words to give my sentences a punch. Trying to find just the right traits to give my characters depth and make them jump off the page. Trying to shape the right attitudes to make my dialogue crackle. And trying to fit my story into a structure that makes it . . . well, that makes it make sense to the reader.

Not only can it be frustrating, but writing a novel is a goal in which success (however you define it) is never guaranteed. To the contrary, chances are not half-bad that you will fail in the ultimate goal of actually finishing your novel in the first place.

So, let me repeat the initial question: Why do you want to write a novel?
There are probably as many motivations as there are people, but I suspect most can be boiled down into several broad categories. For some, a novel-writing career may offer an opportunity to leave an unpleasant job—to simply walk away from a rigid schedule, uncooperative co-workers, or unbearable bosses. By comparison, staying at home, controlling your own time while hunched over your computer, spinning yarns, holds great appeal.

For others, it may all be about ego. You want to see your name on the cover of books in bookstores and your smiling face peering out from the photo on the book jacket. Or see your name on the opening credits of a movie that has been adapted from your novel.

If that’s your motivation, my advice is to not quit your day job. Your everyday world may better fuel the fires of your ego than will writing. If you don’t believe me, just wait until you have enough rejection letters from agents and publishers to paper the walls of your house. Writing can be an experience in ego-shattering humility.

Some of you want to get rich. You see John Grisham’s name in Forbes Magazine, or that of Fifty Shades of Grey author E.L. James, and you say to yourself, “I think I could live quite nicely on thirty million dollars a year.” Well, if you’re in this to get rich, I’ve got advice for you as well: Buy a lottery ticket; your chances are better.

And, at least for me, I’m not pretentious enough to claim that I write because I “need” to, as I’ve heard some writers say. Not to be too cynical, because I recognize that may not be pretense for some, but I certainly have no burning need to write. What I do have, though, is a desire to write—a “want to.”

Why? Because for all its frustration, I enjoy it! I like creating characters out of whole cloth, combining the best and worst features of people I see around me. I like setting events in motion and seeing how my characters react. I learn a bit about myself as I watch them make their choices—and wonder whether I would have the good sense to avoid their mistakes, or the courage to stand up for my convictions the way they do.
I like wondering what’s going to come out of their mouths when they open them to speak. I like being able to have them say the things I want to say but never would, whether out of fear, common sense, or bad timing. You know what I mean by bad timing—it’s when that great retort comes to you about thirty seconds too late, only to be forever lost. But when you’re writing a novel, you can put those perfect words in your protagonist’s mouth even if you have to do it in a rewrite.

I find that I put a little bit of myself into everything I write. When I read something I have written and know, deep down, that I’ve done the best I can, I feel satisfaction within myself. And that’s not a bad reward.

Some of you may feel the same way I do. You have a story you want to tell. It’s been rattling around in your head for years, monopolizing valuable brain cells, distracting you from your job, your family, your friends. You’ve got to get it out of your head and down on paper, and if someone buys it, that’s just gravy. If that’s what motivates you, then congratulations; you’re on to something.

Now, once you’ve answered the question of why you want to write a novel, the next inquiry is how. In future articles, I’ll talk about getting started, and then I’ll introduce you to what I call the “Nine Keys of Dynamic Storytelling.”


Mike Farris, a retired entertainment attorney and litigator, was lead attorney in the lawsuit in Fort Worth that involved royalties to the Fifty Shades of Grey book trilogy, which resulted in a $13.25 million judgment in favor of his client.  He collaborated with his client to write a book about the case, the award-winning Fifty Shades of Black & White: Anatomy of the Lawsuit behind a Publishing Phenomenon. He is the author of four other non-fiction books, including the Hawaiian true crime books A Death in the Islands: The Unwritten Law and the Last Trial of Clarence Darrow and Poor Innocent Lad: The Tragic Death of Gill Jamieson and the Execution of Myles Fukunaga.  In the world of fiction, Mike is the author of ten published novels, including thrillers such as The Bequest and Manifest Intent, and the Hawaiian historical fiction Isle of Broken Dreams.