Some Friendly Advice

National Novel Writing Month is November, so everyone sharpen your pencils and prepare for a thirty-day sprint, at the end of which you might have something that, if you squint, could be a pretty good story if you were able to spend more time on it, but you couldn’t because the whole point is to finish it in the thirty days allotted1.


I do think that the best thing about everyone being able to write and distribute their novel is that there’s a whole lot more out there to try to read. Because I don’t know if you’ve noticed (surveys and sales figures tell me you haven’t), but literature is in a bit of a state2, in that everyone’s writing the same goddamn book. Oh, I don’t mean that in the Willa Cather sense, I mean it’s the same. goddamn. book. Sometimes it’s the story of driftless ennui and the true meaning of emotion set in space, or at a university, or against the backdrop of some Eastern European country’s civil war, or at a university, or among the jet-setting upper class, or among the impoverished lower class, or with zombies, or at a university. My point is: 80% of the dumb nonsense that gets published as fiction – literary or otherwise – is generally less worthwhile than just watching fucking Magnolia again. There’s no stakes, nobody loses anything, nobody gains anything, and, as the story inevitably pulls to a close on some scene of two people who have learned a lesson about themselves doing something incongruous, the only thing we, the reader have gained is another baby step toward death and another fucking story to throw on the pile in which nothing is ventured, and nothing gained.

But there is a way through! I’m by no means a professional, but I am always right, and so here is some advice, from me, the person who reads all this crap, to you.

There is nothing less interesting than someone else’s sex life.

Take something away from your characters – no matter how real they are to you, they’ll never be real to us unless we care about something that happens to them.

A university is not a good place to set your novel.

Write what you know” is not to be taken that literally.

We have more than enough stories that consist of nothing more than Americans who get married to high-society people in foreign countries and then have a problem. We have more than enough stories that consist of nothing more than high-society people in America who are married to immigrants and then have a problem. We have way more than enough stories where “character development” includes “married to an ethnic or religious minority.” Your characters are free, obviously, to marry who they want, but holy jesus don’t make the story about the end of their marriage because of cultural difficulties unless you’re actually saying something about them.

Minorities are not props. Poor people are not props. Rich people are not props. People are not props. Stop using people as props.

There is nothing less interesting than someone else’s sex life.

Setting does not take the place of story.

Emotional turmoil does not take the place of character.

A case of the sads does not count as loss. If your story isn’t about loss, it should be funny. We do not have the relationship with your characters that you do, so bringing them to the edge of peril and then bringing them back is like having to explain the joke.

It’s called “backstory” for a reason.

There is nothing less interesting than someone else’s sex life.

If you aren’t good at description, describe your friends to someone until they know who you’re talking about, then give the reader half that much information. If you’re good at description, remember that a scene is not the same as a story.

You probably are not good at description.

Rape is not character development. Dead parents are not character development3. Getting dumped is not character development. Character development is the way the character reacts, not the things that happen.

If you can’t answer, coherently, the question “what happens in your story” you have not written a story.

For the love of god, hurt your characters. Kill the kid. Kill the dog. Kill the spouse. Kill something. Except for the car. There are no good stories about a car that’s broken down.

If your characters meet over the course of the story, they should do so in a way in which you, yourself have actually met someone. I know that this may make it seem like it’s a good idea to set your story at a university. It isn’t.

If you’ve only ever seen one writer do something successfully, you probably can’t do it.

There. Is. Nothing. Less. Interesting. Than. Someone. Else’s. Sex. Life.

There is nothing wrong with writing something funny.

Literary” is a genre just like anything else. This goes both ways.

The less information you give people, the less you run the risk of getting caught making shit up.

Write what you know” is still the best advice.

Well, it’s the best piece of advice that isn’t “don’t set your story at a university.”

Or “there is nothing less interesting than someone else’s sex life”

1 – really the best gift of National Novel Writing month is the lesson “just because it’s long enough doesn’t mean it’s good enough.” Rewrite, people.

2 – I’m not saying it’s worse. People have disagreed with the direction, focus, popularity, reasons for popularity, binding, typesetting practices, reading habits, purchasing habits, and headware choices of other readers or non-readers or less-readers since the dawn of the novel. I’m sure storytellers from Skald to Shibaibanasi, from Orators to Olupitan have had complaints about the agency of the characters and the lack of resonance, but at least they didn’t have a professional critical structure set up to give it to them.

3 – unless Batman is the main character of your story.

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