How to Write a Novel

(This quick piece originally appeared on the website of the Indiana Authors Award, where I am privileged to serve as a panelist this year)

One of the new and joyful things about my life since moving to Indy a couple years ago is getting to hang out at Butler, where I have been privileged to work as an adjunct professor in the MFA program in writing. It means I get to pal around with cool novelists like Dan Barden and Mike Dahlie and Allison Lynn, but also that I’ve had to think seriously about a very hard question, which is how do you teach people to write?

Don’t get me wrong. You can learn to write. In fact, you should—writing is not, I repeat not, a magical inborn gift that grows inside the lucky few, or that only emerges when the muse deigns to descend from the heavens and blow her golden trumpet or blah blah blah. Nothing drives me so bonkers as the romantic gauzy idea of the writer as conduit, rather than creator, as if writers (especially fiction writers and poets) just lounge and loaf, Whitman-like, under shady trees until the words appear, illuminated and glistening and syntacticly impeccable.

Nonsense! (As Agatha Christie would say: jiggery-pokery!) Writing, like all things worth doing, requires skill and training and practice.

But then how do you teach it? There is no secret to writing a book.

Or, rather, there a thousand overlapping and interlocking secrets, including “come up with a good idea,” “make a good outline,” “know when to ignore your outline,” “get a good night’s sleep,” and “stop checking your email so much.” Also “trust your instincts,” “know when your instincts are misleading you,” “conflict is the engine of narrative,” “don’t worry so much about what other people think,” and “stop checking Facebook so much.”

See? There are a lot of things to learn. One can never finish learning all the things there are to learn, which means you should probably just start writing and find your way forward—which is another not-too-shabby piece of advice. But the best—the very best—piece of writing instruction I think I’ve got is to learn to read. And I don’t just mean achieving functional literacy (although I am a big, big fan of achieving functional literacy, which is why I love Indy Reads), I mean learning to live inside a piece of fiction. Love a book or hate it, you need to learn to see how the writer built the thing—to walk around in there and see where the beams and the posts are, see where the stairs creak and why, see how many windows there are and how the light comes in.

A lot (most?) of what I know about being funny in fiction I learned from Charles Dickens; a lot (most?) of what I know about the slow build of suspense I learned from Patricia Highsmith. What I teach my students (I hope) is to learn occasionally from me; frequently from their fellow students; and most of all and always from books and authors.

That’s why you always see writers at libraries. They want to be surrounded by books and authors, like pandas want to be surrounded by bamboo. Go to the Central Library in downtown Indy, on any given day, (or any other library or any other day) and you’ll likely see them, hunched over tables, pecking away, surrounded by the stacks—the writers in their natural habitat. Don’t get too close, or they might get spooked and spill their coffee. One of them will be me.

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