Good Writing Advice: Not everything you write has to become a novel

Said another way: Don’t take yourself too seriously.

On Monday I went to see Lauren Oliver. After her reading, Ms. Oliver took questions and talked a bit about her writing process. She mentioned at one point that she is ALWAYS working on something, and that if she finished one book on Tuesday she would start another on Wednesday.

“WHAT?” squeaked my inner editor. “How!”

And so I raised my hand and calmly asked her, “So how much do you have planned going into a new book?”

She answered,Β  “Nothing.”

Then she laughed and said that wasn’t entirely true; she’d been writing long enough that she always has a steady stream of ideas on backlog to work from.

Still, a principle remained: she always had to be working on something, and as such was willing to write without being secure in the knowledge that what she writing would end up a novel.

“I’m not sure why people think that way,” she said (referring to a writer’s mindset/need to have ALL work end up a book). Earlier that evening she’d mentioned writing 40 pages based on her first core concept for Rooms, and having to put it down for a while because 40 pages in she’d realized she just “hadn’t found the story’s heartbeat.”

So what’s the big stigma with false starts? Why are we (am I) so afraid of them? They’re still writing, aren’t they?– and don’t they allow us to explore possibilities, conduct trials and errors, flex our writing muscles? Are they not still valuable? Do we not learn from them?

Perhaps more importantly: Wouldn’t a mindset of exploration free us from the crippling pressure of writing a book in the first place?


13 responses to “Good Writing Advice: Not everything you write has to become a novel”

  1. Great post and insight.
    Oliver’s comments resonated with me, I often consider, ‘could this become a book someday’ and a lot of time the answer is yes; Probably because I’m still a new, young-ish writer, but also because I have a lot of false starts already. Like Oliver says, always working on something.
    These false starts don’t have to stay false starts forever, though. Revisiting past starts can be a great way to explore, like Pratchett with Gaiman’s Good Omens draft. Coming back to false starts and rewriting them can be an excellent way to explore, as long as there isn’t a rigid expectation set in place. πŸ™‚
    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Yes! Exactly! One never knows where one’s writing might lead them; even if it doesn’t manifest itself into a book beautifully and at once, it might become the fodder for one someday (or alternatively, show us what *doesn’t* work).

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Dominika!

  2. It is funny how I’d usually rather stare at the blank page than write something that would come to nothing. Definitely seems more logical to write SOMETHING because then at least you have it to look back at, and who knows if it might be the start of a book one day. I’m having trouble on my WIP today, so maybe I’ll write a couple pages of the MG idea that’s been brewing, just for fun…

    1. I’m the same way! But what Lauren Oliver said has really got me rethinking that mindset. “Easier to edit crap than nothing,” right? I just hate not having a direction. But I’m starting to think more and more that in writing we must frequently give ourselves permission to do things, and perhaps that writing as exploration is one of them.

      Also– a new MG idea! Oooh…

  3. This is wonderful advice! I feel like since I initially started only writing short stories, I have an advantage as far as not wanting everything to turn into a novel. But it is hard sometimes to write something not intending on it to be seen by anyone.

    1. Definitely! Which is also why I have to really work to get myself not to edit as I go– to write as poorly as I might, as long as I get the story down. And if you’re writing to see how an idea will shape up and where it goes, it only makes sense not to fret over every sentence, right? (‘Cause who are you going to let read if you don’t love it? πŸ˜‰ )

  4. I think we’re just too accustomed to measuring progress/success in things–things we can see, touch, feel, things we can exchange for goods and services, etc. We’re always looking to satisfy and build up the external whereas free writing is all about building up and nurturing the internal. In actuality we know it’s still time well spent but we lack the patience sometimes to really let ourselves explore, especially those of us who feel the pressure to just be discovered. Lauren’s been there, done that so no wonder she can be so mellow about her writing.

    1. One perennial challenge of being a writer is definitely the lack of external validators/yardsticks of progress. And I totally hear you about the pressure.

      I agree it may be a luxurious way of thinking (that it’s okay if our efforts falter and end up scrapped or put aside for years). But I also wonder if, as I said to Aubrey just above, an inherent part of writing isn’t giving ourselves permission to explore (and fail) time and time again.

      Writing is such a mystery. HOW DOES IT EVEN.

  5. Interesting. I had a few ‘false starts’ earlier in the year, i.e. novel outlines that I’d started to plan and even write the first chapter, only to hit a brick wall pretty fast. It’s tempting to think of those as failures – i.e. what’s wrong with me, can’t I finish anything? But maybe that’s not the way to think of them. It’s all still writing, and hence good practice; and one or two of those ideas might yet be resurrected one day, or become part of something else. It’s not a waste.

    Plus, I have followed projects through in the past and written complete books, so I know I can do it if I believe enough in the idea.

    1. That is just the mindset I am trying to adopt in writing daily, even when I’m not actively writing a book– that there is still value in the act of writing itself, and hopefully in conditioning the brain to create! (And you make a good point, too– you never know when something you set down might be used later!)

      Finishing projects/seeing them through to the end is important, too. Perhaps the trick with that is being able to identify early the ideas we want to see fully realized.

  6. What fantastic insight and advice! So often I get discouraged when something I have written I realize has no place in my novel and feel that it was a complete waste of my time and energy. I agree with Christopher that you never know, the piece that is “useless” might certainly be useful later on, and you are still WRITING!

    I’m so happy I came across your blog! Looking forward to reading more! πŸ™‚

    1. It was especially meaningful advice for me, since I am between novels and, despite much brainstorming and even planning (I had a fair start on one idea and then scrapped it), I haven’t yet arrived at a solid idea of what I want my next book to be. Not actively working on a book makes me feel incredibly restless– but the act of consistently writing is still important and meaningful nonetheless!

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, and for saying so about the blog πŸ™‚

  7. […] ties back to some recent writing advice that really resonated with me: that not all of one’s writing efforts need be towards a novel […]

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