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The Giant Butt-Kicking How to Write a Novel Post

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I have been answering a lot of questions lately — interview questions, article questions, questions in fanmail, questions from writers — and there’s one sort of subset of questions that I get all the time, so I’m going to answer them here. It’s these:

“How do I start writing my book? How do I write my novel? How do I finish my novel? Do you have a daily routine? How much work do you do before you start writing your novel? Should I get a degree in English? Do you edit while you write? How do you get around writer’s block? How do you get past the “this feels silly” thoughts?”

All of these questions are really one question: “How do I write a book?”

And the answer, which I will explain in depth, is a simple two-parter:

1 – You decide to.

2- Butt in Chair.

Now, since I can hear the disgruntled sighs from here, let me ‘splain. First of all, my process will never be your process, because I am me and you are you. The most logical and best writing process is the one which most perfectly meshes with your personality. So for me, in all things, I want to know where I’m going but not too much about what I’m going to find on the way there. You’ll be different. Somehow. I promise.

Anyway, I can tell you, however, that those two principles stay the same.

I’m sure you guys are tired by now of hearing me harp on the fact that the spoken and written work makes your intention real. So if you say that you’re a confident person, you’re halfway there. If you say you’re going to write a novel, it makes it real.

Not this: “I have a novel inside me.”

Not this: “I will write a novel when I have more time.”

Not this: “I will write the novel when I figure out how to start.”

No. This is what you say: “‘I’m writing the novel. Starting now. Not only that, but I’m finishing it.”

And then you open up two things on your computer. First of all, the blank word document, where you type in a working title (ODDS BODKINS: A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A HOMICIDAL FAERIE) and the date. And then you open up your calendar. And you find out which days you can carve out regular hours of time to write. It can be an hour. A half hour. A whole day. Whatever you can manage, as long as it’s regular and your brain can look forward to it. I wrote LAMENT while working full time — every Wednesday night I wrote from 8 p.m.-10 p.m. until the novel was done. When I got closer to the end, I added Sundays from 4 p.m.-6 p.m. That’s not a lot of time.

I didn’t check my e-mails during that time. I didn’t browse the web. I wrote my novel. I thought about it all week long, and then I wrote because that was the only time I had. Those four hours a week.

Time is not what you need. Intention is what you need. I read somewhere that John Grisham wrote his first novel on legal pads between court cases (one wonders if his clients suffered when he got into plot snarls).

Which brings us to principle two. Butt in chair. You can tell people you’re working on your novel. You can tell us you have it all out in your head. You can tell us that you know everything about all of the characters.

Great. Fantastic. I’m happy for you.

Talk’s cheap, unless it’s dialog and it’s adding to your word count. If you want to write a novel, your butt has to sit in that chair. Do not angst about whether it sucks. Do not edit as you go along. Just do it.

Now don’t get me wrong, most people do need some form of organization. There are a very tiny number of people in the world who are true pantsers — that can write by the seat of their pants, no outline, no synopsis, no plan. In my experience, there are far more people who think that they are pantsers. In reality, even the most spontaneous of people require some kind of structure (and I consider myself very spontaneous). This is where your personality comes in. How do you structure the rest of your life? As I mentioned before, I like to have ultimate goals but not a lot of structure on how to get there. So for me, it makes sense to have the idea, figure out the ending, and then write a two page synopsis that is very loosey goosey.

For others, they write detailed outlines that are ten or thirty pages long. Some make lists of scenes. Others do post it notes. Anything that gets you reasonably certain that you can travel happily through the plot on your way towards a logical ending. This is also when I put together my playlist, because I’m working out what sort of moods and themes I’m tackling during the novel. I spend a lot of time staring off into space. I also only spend a few days doing this. This process has to be finite, because while it’s important, it’s also not writing. It’s planning. It will never make a novel appear. Because while it looks like work, it is not really Butt in Chair.

I plan my plot. My characters, I keep in my head. Which is to say I carry a pretty dim view of character synopses and summaries and questionnaires. The only prep work I’ll do for my characters is to sometimes have them dictate a page-long history of their life to this point, in their voice, to help me figure out what they sound like.

The rest, to me, is just the procrastination before you really start writing. It’s not even really planning, because characters you figure out through their actions — through writing. The character sketches and questionnaires and doing Facebook quizzes in their personality? It’s because you’re afraid the novel will suck. So you do all these little tricks and summaries and detailed descriptions of your characters’ hair colors and birthdates and drawings of the characters riding bicycles, and all of that is fine, I suppose, but you and I both know that it’ll never get the novel written. Trust me. I’ve been there. Learn from my years of bad not-writing behavior.

What gets a novel written is writing it. And feeling silly and feeling like it sucks and still keeping on writing it. Will it be rocky and uneven? Well, duh. That’s what revision is for. But you can’t revise until you have a finished draft. And you can’t have a finished draft until you write. BUTT IN CHAIR.

Be honest with yourself. I think most people know when they are making excuses and procrastinating instead of really doing proper groundwork.

So that was my grand novel-writing butt-kicking post.

I highly suggest you shut down the internet now and get started.


Maggie Stiefvater
Hi, I'm Maggie Stiefvater

Professional novelist by day and artist by night. I live an eccentric life in the middle of nowhere, Virginia with my charmingly straight-laced husband, two kids, and neurotic dogs. I’m the author of the Books of Faerie (LAMENT and BALLAD); the bestselling SHIVER trilogy (SHIVER, LINGER, FOREVER), and THE SCORPIO RACES.

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