novel writing

Vintage typewriter with once upon a time...

So you’d like to write a novel. Then here’s Dr. Lamb’s prescription: take two aspirin and lie down till the desire goes away.

Just kidding. Truth is, if you’re really a writer, you will write, no matter what. And if you’re not, well, I hope you’re at least a reader. Writers need readers and readers need writers, n’est-ce pas?

But I brought up the subject because an aspiring writer, a young girl, teenager, asked me the other day how to go about writing a novel.

I don’t think she was happy with my answer, but it was the truth: There is no one way to write a novel; in fact, there are about as many ways as there are writers. That’s why you won’t get much help from the advice of other writers.

James Clavell, author of Shogun and other novels, said he simply wrote one sentence after another until he’d written 100,000 words, which is about the length of the average novel.

Maybe so, but that probably is no help to a clueless beginner – which is what I was at one time (and I still consider myself a Work in Progress).

Truman Capote, author of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, bragged that he simply “threw words into the air and they landed on the page in the right order.”

He lied.

Joseph Heller, whose first novel was the runaway best seller Catch-22, said he had to have “the perfect first sentence” before he could begin.

Don’t follow his example, either. He didn’t publish another novel for 20 years! Moreover, he titled his second novel Something Happened, and critics panned it, saying, “Nothing did.”


What was the book’s “perfect first sentence?”

It was: “I get the willies when I see closed doors.”

The sentence is only so-so, I think you’ll agree, but its lesson is first-rate: Don’t waste your time waiting for perfection. If you’re going to write a story, no matter what, try this instead:

Start with The Day That Was Different, e.g. the day you decided on a career or path in life; the day you met the person you wished to marry; the day a doctor said you had but six months to live – in other words, the day after which nothing was ever the same again.

Next, decide on a point of view from which to tell the story:

  • First-person POV (“I did this”) is easiest and is a reader favorite because there is no intermediary between the author and the reader.
  • Third-person POV (“He/she did this”) allows the author wider range and scope;
  • Second-person POV (“You did this”) is seldom used because of its obvious limitations.

Now resolve to write a minimum number of words per day. (Stephen King’s goal, 2,000; Hemingway’s, 250)

Then apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and write.

But while you sit there waiting for something, anything, to get you going, you might try a superstitious ritual of a famous writer or come up with your own.

  • Steinbeck sharpened 12 No. 2 pencils to a perfect point before he could summon his muse.
  • Capote wouldn’t begin or end a piece of work on a Friday nor would he write in a hotel room numbered 13.
  • Victor Hugo wrote in the nude.
  • The poet Dame Edith Sitwell liked to lie in a coffin before beginning her writing day. Her critics urged someone, anyone, to shut the lid and seal it.

Now you’re ready. Keep going until you reach THE END.

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Robert Lamb

Robert Lamb

I grew up in Augusta, Ga., where I attended Boys' Catholic High. After service in the Navy, I attended the University of Georgia, majoring in English, and then began a (wholly unexpected) journalism career on the old Augusta Herald, an evening paper, and ended years later in Atlanta at The (great) Atlanta Constitution, which I left in late 1982 to write The Great American Novel. That goal has proved remarkably elusive, but my first attempt (Striking Out, in 1991) was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award. My second novel, Atlanta Blues, spent a few minutes on the best-seller list in (at least) Columbia, S.C., and was described in one newspaper’s year-end roundup as “one of the three best novels of 2004 by a Southern writer.” My third novel won no honors but at least didn’t get me hanged; titled A Majority of One, it is about a clash between religion and the Constitution over book-banning in the high school of a Georgia town. For my next novel, And Tell Tchaikovsky the News, I returned to an Atlanta setting for a story about the redemptive powers of, in this case anyhow, “that good rock ’n’ roll.” I've also published a collection of short stories and poems: Six of One, Half Dozen of Another. One of its stories, “R.I.P.,” was a winner in the S.C. Fiction Project in 2009. Before retirement, I taught creative writing and American literature at the University of South Carolina and its Honors College, and feature writing in its School of Journalism. I maintain a now-and-then blog at boblamb.wordpress.comand I walk my dog on the beach a lot at Pawleys Island, S.C.

  1. Trevor Stone Irvin

    I think you mean James “Clavell” wrote Shogun.

  2. Jeffry Scott

    That’s a good piece, Robert, and a good piece of advice. There was that joke we’ve all heard about how all reporters have a novel in them and the world is a better place if it stays there. I say just have at it. Write what you want, however you want. If you write to be liked, loved, and — especially — to be paid, you’re writing for the wrong reason. You write because you’re a writer. Need anything more come of it beyond that you’re satisfied with what you wrote, it’s the best you could manage, and you said what you set out to say? If it’s liked, loved, or paid for, then all the better; you’re one lucky son of a gun. As for Capote, and how he wrote, this story: His so-called “non-fiction novel,” “In Cold Blood” is a masterpiece; there is no doubt. But: how much of it is true? There were allegations when it was published Capote fabricated scenes that he knew were untrue. After it was published, and he became famous, he suffered from writer’s block — or maybe it was just too many drugs and alcohol — for the rest of his life. His second so-called non-fiction novel, “Hand Carved Coffins,” was published in 1979. He claimed it was “a non-fiction account of an American crime.” It was a hell of a story. Gripping. Beautifully told. To me, a better story than “In Cold Blood.” The names were changed, and locations kept vague for liability reasons, Capote said. Because of that, you couldn’t fact check the story. (I tried, just out of curiosity, and even went so far as to call the Kansas state prison system to track down a lead — but I got nowhere). Years, later, after Capote’s death, a British journalist went to Kansas and talked to people and and bit by bit debunked the story, discovered it for what it was: a literary hoax. Some of the facts were true, sure; but many were made up. And all of them were far-flung and disconnected. The central story was a lie. I have always loved Capote’s writing. He was a gifted story teller. A poet. But, in the end, he was a fraud. So when I read what you wrote about Capote — that just sort of tossed sh-t in the air and it landed on the page, in the right order — I thought: You know what? THAT, I believe.

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