Writing a Novel Is Rocket Science

This will sound immodest: I’m a pretty good writer.

I don’t excel at much else. Sure, I’m a good friend, daughter, sister, life partner, and mom, an OK cook, a better cookie-baker, a decent though occasionally distracted driver, a reliable employee. I’m definitely not good at sports or art or music or gardening. I can sew passably well, but nothing too complicated. I speak a second language, but I’ve gotten rusty at it, and I’ve forgotten how to crochet and knit. When I wrap presents, the folds aren’t crisp and clean, the tape-work is often sloppy.

But writing, it’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was six, and people have told me I’m pretty good at it.

The problem with being a pretty good writer is it lulls you into complacency. Just because you can write pithy correspondence, solid poems, essays that get published, and short stories your well-meaning college professors tell you are New Yorker-worthy doesn’t mean you know a damn thing about writing a novel. Writing a novel will kick your butt. You’ll be amazed by the amount of stuff you don’t know, no matter how many novels you’ve _read_ in your life.

I’ve often said writing a short story is a sprint and writing a novel is a marathon. But that metaphor doesn’t capture the convoluted complexity of novel writing. Think about how much gets left out when novels are turned into movies. Writing a novel is rocket science. It’s intricate and exacting. Get one plot detail wrong and you have to go back over your careful calculations from start to finish.

So why write a novel? Why not just stick to the “easy” stuff?

I’ll write about those questions soon, and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the meantime. I’m also contemplating a post about “Publish or Perish,” the New Yorker’s article about the iPad, the Kindle, and the future of publishing. Stay tuned.


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