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June 3, 2014

Writing a Novel as a College-Aged Human: A Guide


For those of us who aren’t Stephen King or Donna Tartt, which should be everyone --- unless you are reading this, Stephen or Donna, in which case, hello! --- writing a novel is a strange, complicated and occasionally ridiculous undertaking. Writing time has to be balanced with other obligations. There is no certainty that there will be some kind of payoff in the end. And, when you are between the ages of 18 and 22, there is the added complication of Not Sounding Like a Douchebag when you tell people you are writing a novel.

Many people in this world are writers or aspiring writers. I obviously can’t speak for all their experiences, but here is a rough guide, based on what I have learned along the way in Writing A Novel As A College-Aged Human.

1. Don’t tell family and friends you are writing a novel. Disappear alone for long stretches of time without explaining yourself. They will make comments that suggest they are worried about your sanity. Give them vague smiles in response to these comments.

2. Surf your favorite authors’ websites for their “writing tips” sections. Most have them. Some have useful tips; some only have suggestions like “Read a lot! Follow your dreams!”

Regardless, you may learn something --- even if what you learn is that your favorite writer gives rather unhelpful advice. Spend hours surfing the Internet for these things instead of actually writing.

3. When you are far enough in the process, now comes the part where you begin telling people. Either that, or invent an elaborate excuse for your disappearances --- because as you get into it, you will disappear more frequently.

Beware, once you tell people, they will then ask the dreaded Question of Doom: “Oh, what’s it about?”

This is equivalent to asking a recent graduate, “So, what are you planning to do now?” Or asking your single 30-something cousin, “So, is there anyone special in your life?”

Responding is tricky. Usually, the question arises in polite small-talk settings. And so, even if you want to respond by storming away, unfortunately that is frowned upon in most human interactions.

You have answer with something. But you don’t want it to be too vague, like,  “It’s about a guy in a place and stuff happens to him.”

On the other hand, if you’re too specific, what if someone steals your idea? Or laughs at you because it sounds stupid when it’s boiled down to one sentence?

“It’s about a guy named Jeffrey who lives on the beach and becomes entangled in a plot to train dolphins as assassins.”

There are a few ways to address this. The first is that if you’re worried about getting laughter or blank looks, you can then follow up with, “Just read it, it’s better than it sounds, I promise!”

Or a more aggressive deflection, like, “Hey look, there’s cousin Perry, why don’t you go ask him about the state of his love life?”

Another approach is to simply go on faith that friends, family and polite small-talkers will not laugh at you or steal your idea, and they will trust you to write a better dolphin assassin story than they would.

But if all else fails, the safest response is, “I’ll tell you when it’s finished.”

4. Now that you’ve written a decent portion of it and have an idea of where it’s going, try the immortal tip: Write drunk and edit sober. If Hemingway said it, it must be good advice, right?

Realize that all this results in is overconfidence while writing (This is so good! I’m such a genius!) and subsequent crushing of your hopes and dreams while editing (This line I’d thought sounded poetic makes no sense! This is the worst thing anyone has ever written! I should win awards for how bad I managed to make this!).

5. Finish it in a marathon of overcaffeination. Once it’s done, step away from it for at least a week or two. Then, re-read it and either have a moment of, “Hey, this isn’t so bad” or a moment of, “This needs so much more work that I want to drown it in a pool of my tears.”

Either way, now you have a novel, or a draft of one. Congratulations! You made it this far and only scared away a handful of potential friends or admirers!

Print it out. It looks different on paper than it does on your screen, and it’s easier to pick up mistakes you’d overlooked. If you feel bad wasting trees…well… double-side it and make the font small.

Finally, after all of this, friends, family and polite small-talkers will then start to ask that other question: “Are you going to publish it?”

Distract them by saying “Oh, look, there’s cousin Perry! Why don’t you go ask about the state of his love life?”