This Is What It Feels Like to Write a Novel


I once likened writing a book to a long run.

A really long run.

Particularly, that part in the run when you’ve hit the wall, when the road stretches out into infinity in front of you.  When you feel like you’ve started running through molasses, when you feel less like you’re running so much as you’re picking up one foot and placing it back down on the exact same spot.  When you feel like you’ve run out of energy and you swear you’re going no where and the actual end is no where in sight.

And it’s true.  It does feel like that sometimes.  Sometimes it feels like a slog.  Like you’re dredging the swamp and coming up with muck.  It feels like murder with each keystroke, like each word has latched on to the back of your mind, the tip of your tongue, and refuses to come out.

But it’s not always like that.  The reality is that writing a novel is like any intricate, long-term endeavor.  It’s a complicated, nuanced, layered beast.

There will be days where writing a novel feels like riding a wave, pushing you on and making you wonder if it can always feel this way.  There will be days where writing a novel feels like pushing a car out of a ditch, cursing yourself for getting stuck in the first place.

Writing a novel can feel like picking at the ice with a chisel, methodically going over the ground time, and time, and time again.  It can feel exactly like the metal against the ice, little fragments loosening incrementally — tiny pieces of progress while you tire yourself out, hitting hammer to handle.

And then you get the moment where you hit just the right spot at the right time and the ice around you breaks and everything comes tumbling into place.

Writing can feel like that freefall, when the ice finally gives way and you go tumbling in and you become submersed with what’s around you.

Writing a novel can feel like a job interview, a first date — where you sit down across the table from your characters and go, “Tell me about yourselves.”  And you get to watch in awe as the characters take shape, sometimes in ways you never could’ve expected.  You get to learn about them in interesting and intricate ways, and they start to open up to you like a trusted lover.

Writing a novel is a reminder that you’re not their creator so much as you’re the gardener, there to plant the seeds and tend to their branches as they grow on their own.

Writing a novel can feel like entering a labyrinth, gently touching the walls as you work your way through, figuring your way out by constantly asking, “Why?”

“Why?” to plot points and scenes.  “Why?” to every single line of dialogue, every single action.  And you let yourself bounce around the maze, backing up when you hit dead ends, retracing your steps, all the while exhilarated and terrified that you have no idea how or when you’ll get out.

Writing a novel can feel like traveling: those rare days when the ice has broken and you’re in freefall and you’re not so much writing a chapter as you’re describing what’s happening around you.  When the characters are talking faster than you can write it down, when the room they’re in is now the room you’re in.  And when the wave finally crashes onto shore and you’re no longer tumbling, you come back to your kitchen, your living room, your office, doubting how much around you is real.

Writing a novel can make you feel like time traveling — because all of a sudden, there’s no more free time, and the morning slips away, and the sun has set, and you have to fight tooth and nail to get it all crammed into one day.  When the laundry is piling up and you’re behind on your day job assignments and you wonder if this endeavor is nothing but a dive into pure self-absorption.

Writing a novel feels like you never actually get away from your novel.  That the characters never leave you, following you as you get up from your seat; following you around with potential lines of dialogue, personality quirks, character flaws.  That the storyline follows you around, pitching new concepts or bemoaning a block.  The novel becomes your constant companion and even your morning coffee is spent alongside the story arc, the newest scene, the recent impediment.

It’s an endurance test.  It’s a journey into the great unknown.  It’s mapping out where you’re going to go, knowing full well you might discard the map two steps in.  It’s going in without a map and being deliriously excited and frightened with what you might find.

Writing a novel is a gamble.  It is a labor of love that might bear bitter fruit.  It is hours in front of a screen and over a notebook and away from your doubts and knowing full-well it might be a dead-end.  That no agent will bite.  No publishing firm will want in.  And yet you soldier on, because you didn’t really get to choose writing this novel.

And yet, in some ways you did.  You chose to sit down and write, even when you didn’t feel like it.  You chose to slog out another paragraph, refusing to stop until you’ve hit a certain word count, reminding yourself over and over, “You can change it all when you edit.”

Because writing a novel is not a tryst, a secret rendezvous, a crime of passion.  It’s a commitment to hold tight, even when the muses aren’t driving you into fevered inspiration.  It’s a promise that your resolve will be stronger than your self-doubt.  It’s a promise to write even when you don’t feel it.  It’s a promise to tough it out until you work past the roadblock, until you hit that passage that tumbles out effortlessly and reminds you why you’re doing this in the first place.

Because that feeling you get upon reading the last paragraph of a good book is only amplified when you’re the one who wrote it.  Because finishing a manuscript gives you a funny feeling of reality, a profound sense of accomplishment.  Because finishing a manuscript feels like crossing the finish line of a race, legs jelly and brain slightly fried, delirious with knowing that you’ve finally crossed that threshold.

Because writing a novel is like giving birth.  The period of gestation, of knowing that what is inside of you that is not yet ready to come out.  The arduous, messy, eternal struggle to bring it out.  The knowing that, in some ways, the journey doesn’t end because your idea now sees the light of day.  In fact, just like that child, the journey has just begun.

Writing a novel feels like an empty nest.  Soon enough, you’re entertaining new ideas.  You’re planting seeds and seeing what will grow.  You are playing out scenes and asking the innocent, “But what if…” and “But why?”  You are meeting brand new characters with brand new quirks and flaws.  And you venture out into the great unknown, ready to repeat the process all over again.



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