Are you writing a novel?
September 30, 2002 9:16 AM   Subscribe

Are you writing a novel? An article in the NY Times urging would-be authors to pack it in. Given the quoted stat (that 81% of Americans 'feel they have a book in them'), and extrapolating it for the rest of the world, that still means that there are roughly 12,887 unwritten books out there in me-fi land. Is this true? And has anyone actually written theirs down?
posted by jonathanbell (59 comments total)
I've started drafting mine, but the problem with the Great American Novel is that there aren't enough Great Americans left to make it marketable!
posted by oissubke at 9:18 AM on September 30, 2002

posted by Witty at 9:20 AM on September 30, 2002

Speak for yourself duuuude.
posted by Witty at 9:21 AM on September 30, 2002

Umm, I recently started a screenplay, does that count?
posted by greengrl at 9:24 AM on September 30, 2002

Well, what I really want to do is direct.
posted by KnitWit at 9:29 AM on September 30, 2002 [1 favorite]

Hmm, and I had planned on writing mine in November...
posted by togdon at 9:29 AM on September 30, 2002

81% of Americans 'feel they have a book in them'

They should probably see a doctor, then.

Thank you. I'll be here all week.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 9:31 AM on September 30, 2002

A snotty, bitter article made only more snotty by the fact that the author has published at least one book ("I can do it, but you can't, dummy"). Seems like a clever scheme to limit competition, which means that we should all start writing books immediately.
posted by Kotch at 9:33 AM on September 30, 2002

Who is this Epstein? Has anybody read anything he's written other than this article? Sounds to me like he's (rightly) worried about the competition.

I've had three novels published and, yes, I have a book or two in me still.

For those of you who've never had the time to sit down and WRITE that book that's in you...I invite you to NaNoWriMo with me in November ;).
posted by realjanetkagan at 9:35 AM on September 30, 2002

I wasn't sure about writing, so for fun, I started a photo blog.

Why it's up to #2 today, I don't know! Maybe Bill Quick linked to it again!
posted by scudder at 9:36 AM on September 30, 2002

I have had an itch to write a book for a while now. And I probably will, when I feel "the time is right". I could care less if it ever gets published, or seen by anyone but a few friends and anonymous web-travellers. I thought the whole point of writing was to enjoy it and, if possible, share it with others. Anyone hoping to strike gold by writing is really behind the times, IMO.
posted by Dark Messiah at 9:36 AM on September 30, 2002

Not as many know this, but in real llife I'm Robert James Waller.
posted by UncleFes at 9:37 AM on September 30, 2002

I have started to write a novel, but have gotten no further than the planning process. I have given characters names, and written down a brief synopsis of each chapter. I want to make sure that i know what i want to write before i start. Far too often authors have "something" to say, and say absolutely nothing.
posted by sourbrew at 9:37 AM on September 30, 2002

I've been a "professional" cartoonist for the last four years, but publication for me hasn't extended beyond my college newspaper... I have a more popular presence online. I definitely have a graphic novel or two in me.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 9:39 AM on September 30, 2002

heh. togdon beat me to it. I'll be using Oct to do a little pre-plotting and research. See ya there, togdon. It's crazy but it's fun because it whips you right thru the fear factor and spits you out the other side.
posted by realjanetkagan at 9:39 AM on September 30, 2002

My friend is writing a book. I read it without him knowing...
Sorry Adam Friend it's really really bad.
posted by ollybee at 9:48 AM on September 30, 2002

My Novel: Future Pasts
by Ms.JaneDoe

I went to the store one morning to buy a peach, but the only ones they had were too hard--the skin a slick shine, discolored; not like a peach at all. In fact, it was an apple.

The End.
posted by Ms.JaneDoe at 9:48 AM on September 30, 2002

What I want to know, is why anyone should be discouraged from writing?

Writing usually means thinking, and I'd rather have 81% of Americans writing crap, as long as they're thinking.
posted by Dark Messiah at 9:49 AM on September 30, 2002

I confess to having committed a book, and I appear to have found a publisher for it (negotiations start this month). A novel, however, I don't have "in me."

Who is this Epstein? Has anybody read anything he's written other than this article? Sounds to me like he's (rightly) worried about the competition.

Epstein is the author of this, among other things.
posted by thomas j wise at 9:53 AM on September 30, 2002

Does this strike anyone as just a tad ironic? (be sure to read the first couple of reader reviews)
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 10:00 AM on September 30, 2002

sorry, missed thomas on preview . . .
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 10:01 AM on September 30, 2002

I study BA Creative Writing, and we were told at the start of the course, in no uncertain terms, that none of the class would ever become famous writers, of any genre.

Not that that put anyone off. Writing (imo) is its own reward. Usually.

It's interesting to note that the people telling us this were (published) writer/lecturers.
posted by armoured-ant at 10:08 AM on September 30, 2002

Epstein is correct to the extent that most people who think they can write a book don't actually have the skill to write a good one, or even a bad one; writing well takes practice, as does writing commercially (although not necessarily the same set of practice skills as writing well). Most people who set out to write a book will get flummoxed pretty quickly because it's a lot harder to do than people suspect (yes, I speak from experience -- a book I am a contributor to is out this week, in fact).

Epstein is wildly wrong in saying that people shouldn't even try to write a book. The vast majority of the skills it takes to write a book are ones that people can learn. I can't knit a sweater, but if I learned how to knit, I'd eventually be able to make one. Most people can't write a book NOW, but could write a book IF they worked on the craft of writing.

The books these people could write right now might not be worth the effort, but the books they could write after working on it would be at least no worse than the books that are already out there.
posted by jscalzi at 10:09 AM on September 30, 2002

I've written two books. This one, which is an okay book of novellas and short stories, and this one, which is pretty darn good, even if you don't like fantasy. The thing about this article is that the author needn't have bothered writing it, if his sole purpose were to convince people not to write. If 81% of Americans say they have a book in them, and there are 80,000 books published in the US each year, then you're looking at a success rate of about 1 in 3,000 per year. I think his basic idea, though, is correct. Nobody actually wants to write a novel. Writing a novel is really hard and really boring. People want to have written a novel, which is a vastly different thing.
posted by vraxoin at 10:15 AM on September 30, 2002

posted by matteo at 10:35 AM on September 30, 2002

hehehe.... yeah... 81%... sure... most self described "writers" can't get past that "Weather was nice today. I went for a walk", one paragraph weblog entry. Writer's block, or no writing aptitude?

It takes some serious skill to be a decent writer. Some people have that skill, but most people just think they have that skill.
posted by Witold at 10:40 AM on September 30, 2002

81% of Americans think they have a good book in them! I though this country was supposed to be illiterate. Clearly there's an overlap here where people don't know how to read a book still think they can write one.

I'm not sure how accurate a number this 81% really is -- though it does seem like many people I know wish they could write something "if only they had the time." Which makes about as much sense as saying "I'd really like to try a case, if only I had the time" or "One of these days I'm going to get around to curing a sick person."
posted by herc at 10:40 AM on September 30, 2002

I just broke 160,000 words and I'm about ready to call it a first draft. It's my first novel and I learned how to write it in the process of writing the first 50,000 or so words. I hooked up with a writer's workshop that is free and open to the general public. The whole process has been an absolute pleasure and very educational. Good workshops are treasures and I definitely can recommend open ones now. I think I'm a lot better off than if I'd paid a few hundred bucks every couple of months to attend a for-profit workshop run by some pro with a chip on the shoulder like Epstein.

I could give a rat's ass if my book get published or not - instead, it's been a great way to crystallize a lot of internal pondering that otherwise would have gone to rot. Epstein's article is absolutely disgusting. The last thing the TV soaked world needs is to be discouraged from introspection and creativity, not to mention literacy.
posted by badstone at 10:44 AM on September 30, 2002

I used to want to write a novel, then I had to go and read a bunch of Pynchon books and everything I write comes out like a graph theory proof.
posted by neustile at 10:52 AM on September 30, 2002

So the Times is printing rejects from The Onion now?
posted by sacre_bleu at 11:07 AM on September 30, 2002

I wrote a book for Penguin Australia a couple of years ago, and I'm just finishing my second. I never dreamed of being a writer. I just seemed to be good at it and fell into it as a career.

The pay sucks and there is often a great personal cost (both financial and emotional cost, that is). And the book that you spent four or five years writing will sit on bookshelves for two or three months tops and then disappear.

And nobody will read your book anyway, as likely as not.

It really is a crappy business. And I think that, unless you're a little deranged, you'd be much better off becoming a bean counter or doing something practical.
posted by chrisgregory at 11:08 AM on September 30, 2002

nobody will read your book anyway, as likely as not. ... you'd be much better off becoming a bean counter.

Yeah, but bean counters have to write reports, and nobody, but nobody, reads those. At least I know that I'll (re-)read my book.
posted by rory at 11:46 AM on September 30, 2002

But bean counters get paid liveable wages.
posted by chrisgregory at 11:48 AM on September 30, 2002

I've completed a short story and a follow-up novella I like enough to put up on my own site. There are a number of complete and incomplete ones sitting in my harddrive datin all the way back to 1989 (though my embarassment of the prose makes me deny their existence). Epstein can shove it.
posted by linux at 11:54 AM on September 30, 2002

I feel the need to make a graphic novel, or try anyhow. I have an awful time when it comes to plot, however. I can create characters and settings but plot... man, it's like a brick wall goes up as soon as I start trying to think about it.

So, do any of you writer types have any tips for a poor schmuck like me? Maybe a suggestion for a good book on how to write?
posted by picea at 11:55 AM on September 30, 2002

I've written two novels during the last year, both of which still need extensive revisions before they're ready to be sent out.
I doubt that anyone but me and maybe a few close friends will want to buy novel #1, at least, but I would fervently dispute the author's claim that the book is therefore "not needed, not wanted, not remotely necessary."
If I want to write the book, what's wrong with writing it? Writing makes a fine hobby--a better hobby than a career, probably, considering the state of the publishing industry.
Better to have written, and not been published, then to never have written at all, as far as I can see.
posted by Jeanne at 11:58 AM on September 30, 2002

Interesting interview with Epstien about his book "Snobbery" on WMFU's Speakeasy. He doesn't seem like such an evil guy to me.
posted by dydecker at 12:01 PM on September 30, 2002

I'm working on a novel that's really sort of a collection of short stories with an interweaving theme and location. But, I'm beginning to feel a bit Proust about the place as it's taking me *much* longer to actually get it done than imagined.

As to the question of it being good...sheesh, who knows? I'm the worst judge of my own times I think it's brilliant, the other times it requires force to keep me from shredding everything and becoming a herb farmer. :) It's been pointed out that I'm a tad moody.

Anyway, if you want to read one or two of my short stories, I have some posted at my rants page...feel free to read them and tell me that the shredder isn't such a bad idea after all. ;) (Note, I've only got 2 up for now...I'm still tweaking the others...a never ending process it would seem.)

disclaimer for the easily stuff is a bit ooky and contains adult themes, demonology and a bit of elegant pornography...if you're easily creeped out by the whole naked, screaming, covered in blood fiction may not be your best bet. ;)
posted by dejah420 at 12:09 PM on September 30, 2002

Maybe we should write a few novels right here on this thread, just to spite this Epstein character. I'll start...


He waltzed into the airport with a bag of explosives in one hand and a bag of money in the other.


Lily Evans knew that seventeen items was too many for the Express Checkout line, but when you've just gotten a $200 haircut by master stylist Gregor Fabul, surely none of the nine people behind you in line would pay attention to the pints of Haagen-Dazs you are buying to eliminate the still-bitter taste of your recent breakup with David.


Mark Kendall Adelman, professor emeritus of English literature, stared at the ticket as if it were an emissary from the beyond announcing a change in his luck once and forevermore.
posted by skimble at 12:17 PM on September 30, 2002

I think Epstein is plain wrong. When someone told science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon that 95% of science fiction
was crap, he replied, "95 percent of everything is crap." Playing percentages, if more people wrote, we'd have a larger 5% that's the cream, the good stuff. The more people that write, the better.
posted by paladin at 12:29 PM on September 30, 2002

Stephen King outlines the way he feels is the most efective way of becoming a professional writer in his book On Writing. Basically, he says build your professional writing experience like you would a resume: short pieces published anywhere you can at first, then longer/more involved pieces at the larger/more prestigious literary mags, and when you accumulate enough, acquire an agent and have them negotiate a novel contract for you.

Approach a publisher on your own with a completed novel in your hand, and you're just another psycho with a screed. Come to them through an agent and a background of published work, and you're a serious potential author.
posted by UncleFes at 12:33 PM on September 30, 2002

To which I would add, anyone serious about writing owns a copy of these: A B C And a subscription to this doesn't hurt a bit.
posted by UncleFes at 12:39 PM on September 30, 2002

Yes, I write novels - at the last count, six of them. No-one wants to publish them, of course, although I have sold two short-stories. I'm not part of your 81% as I don't live in the US. It's hard to get anything published these days, regardless of the work's quality, as editors are only looking for more product, more clones of the stuff that sells and if you don't fit into the box, you get rejected.
I disagree with anyone forbidding people to write. So what if your first novel is bad? Stick it in the back of a drawer and forget it, or maybe get it out again later and make it better. The only way to learn how to write is to do it.
posted by tabbycat at 12:53 PM on September 30, 2002

There are other kinds of books to write besides novels. I've always found good nonfiction - historical and/or adventure, especially - comparable or preferable to most novels. It's interesting, and it (most likely, in at least some form) happened!

I'm working on my fourth travel guide, and although I do occasionally find myself chewing on fiction ideas (and will probably flail away at one some day) I get in more than enough sitting-in-underwear-in-front-of-the-computer hours as it is. My next one will probably be a travel narrative, because God knows there aren't enough of those out there already.

Write for yourself, and make your money elsewhere.

"There are three rules to writing fiction. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." Somerset Maugham
posted by gottabefunky at 2:24 PM on September 30, 2002

Dammit, I got here too late and all the good snarks were taken. I love that Epstein wrote a book called Snobbery, kinda sums it up for everybody. 81% of Americans want to right a book? Good. It's better than everyone starting a rock band or writing a screenplay. (no offense to anyone starting a band or writing a screenplay. I just seem to be surrounded by future rock stars and Woody Allen wannabes.) At least bad books sit quietly on the shelf and mind their own business.

I am however reminded of some advice I received once: Do not discuss your writing in public - it's like discussing ones irritable bowel syndrome or herpes sores
posted by elwoodwiles at 2:41 PM on September 30, 2002

I'm about half done. (Although, the website does not have all the text on it that' I've written).

Considering I've been working on the thing for 4 years though, ugh. I've given myself a deadline of the end of 2002 to finish.
posted by delmoi at 3:39 PM on September 30, 2002

I've written two books. One is an unpublished (and very likely unpublishable) Douglas Adams ripoff which I wrote in high school with a friend. I also wrote book on Web animation for Waite Group Press which was, for reasons unrelated to the book itself, canceled after I'd turned in the final draft.

The former can actually be downloaded from my Web site...

Now if you count the manuals I've written, that's at least a dozen more books. And all those have been published. ;)

But I still have a few science fiction novels in me... in fact, I've been planning them for the last fifteen or so years.
posted by kindall at 4:06 PM on September 30, 2002

I wrote a book for Penguin Australia a couple of years ago, and I'm just finishing my second. I never dreamed of being a writer. I just seemed to be good at it and fell into it as a career.

((bites tongue, counts to ten, returns to desk job taken as a last resort to pay rent and student loan bills after getting an M.A. in Creative Writing))
posted by redshoes3 at 4:19 PM on September 30, 2002

disclaimer for the easily stuff is a bit ooky and contains adult themes, demonology and a bit of elegant pornography...if you're easily creeped out by the whole naked, screaming, covered in blood fiction may not be your best bet

((runs eagerly over to dejah's site to see))

Speaking as someone who started off as Perhaps Potentially Promising who has now been staring at the cement wall of writer's block for years....the article conflates two different things: writing and publishing. Admittedly this seems written tonge-in-cheek, and it comes from the age of "books" such as (for example) I Want To Tell You, which can be described as being "written" only in a very loose sense, but it comes off as plain snotty.

And what does he teach? Creative Writing! Never underestimate the bitterness of a Creative Writing teacher. Once you've slogged through the godawful mess of graduate student manuscripts three or four times a week you do start to wishing everyone would just shut the hell up and leave you to your Trollope.
posted by redshoes3 at 4:25 PM on September 30, 2002

Map prods for NaNoWriMo.

I think Epstein is full of crap, but I can see how he could get into the position of believing what he's saying -- it's defensiveness; you do something for a living, you build up a little bunker around it to protect yourself. Tech support people tell "stupid user" stories, and some get really uppity and bent out of shape about how stupid people just universally are -- which is absurd. Most people are pretty bright, just not so good with their computers. Same for folks who write -- they're not unqualified to write, they're just not so good at it. Yet.

And as long as we're pimping unfinished novels, this page is where I keep my abortive attempt from last year's NaNo, along with some newer stuff.
posted by cortex at 4:28 PM on September 30, 2002

I compiled a lot of things I'd written into a "book" last year. Then I "self-published" (read: Kinkos and a bookbinding kit) five copies, one of which I sold to a hippy chick. All in all, a promising start towards literary superstardom.

I also started writing a novel two years ago. I got 32 pages in, to the first relatively difficult dialog-driven scene, then totally gave up. Later, I thought it would be easier to write as a screenplay, so I tried that and didn't even get quite as far as the time before.

Last summer I helped a lady edit her second book as a friend-of-a-friend type of favor. It fit pretty squarely into the "romantic fantasy" category, which is far from my cup of tea. It was cheap, trite genre fiction, but it didn't claim to be anything else, and it sold (is selling, rather) fairly well. The whole time, I felt jealous about how she was just able to sit down and write something, whether it aspired to greatness or not. If 81% of people think they have a novel in them, then I say good luck and no hard feelings.
posted by Hildago at 4:28 PM on September 30, 2002

Like a great many other folk, I started a novel in college. It was about a power struggle within a religious cult between the charismatic leader and his more pragmatic assistant. There was money laundering and sex and insanity. Then Jim Jones forced all his adherents to drink cyanide-laced kola and I lost all heart. I tossed the manuscript in the garbage.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 5:01 PM on September 30, 2002

Aaaaak! Damn you spell check! It was, of course, cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:31 PM on September 30, 2002

Where was this guy before I wrote that damn book? Could have saved me a lot of trouble, if I'd only known.

Oh, well. I've already written it and published the Chinese version. Might as well try to get it published in English.
posted by Poagao at 9:15 PM on September 30, 2002

Hmm. According to the "recent survey" in the article, 81% of people "have a novel in them". Ironically, according to the National Adult Literacy Survey, 21-23% of people "displayed difficulty using certain reading, writing, and computational skills considered necessary for functioning in everyday life."

So, it's possible that everyone who doesn't want to write a novel is functionally illiterate. Worse yet, there's some overlap.

Just kidding, of course.
posted by Hildago at 10:10 PM on September 30, 2002

Like a great many other folk, I started a novel in college. It was about a power struggle within a religious cult between the charismatic leader and his more pragmatic assistant.

Secret/Gravy: I wrote my first novel after dropping out of college (Duke) about a charismatic religious leader. Based on a real-life couple known as the UFO Messiahs Bo and Peep, who few people knew anything about way back in those days (mid-70s). I had a hero and heroine wandering the U.S., based on the many cross-country wanderings I was doing back then, who got mistaken for the UFO leaders. And who then, without knowing why, are pursued by the UFO followers wanting to kill them, because -- when they (supposedly) will rise from the dead in three days -- that will make the UFOs taking everyone to the next dimension show up.

I really liked the idea (kind of North By Northwest meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind), but -- especially because I kept sticking in my real-life adventures into this fantasy story, and also because I really didn't know what I was doing -- it wasn't much of a novel. And, fortunately, was never published. But imagine my surprise 20+ years later when the real Bo and Peep, who I had been so obsessed with, but by then had totally forgotten about, turned out to be Do and Ti of the Heaven's Gate cult.

(I still can't figure out how to write a good novel. The book I did publish, in 1993, I mostly copied out of my local newspaper).
posted by LeLiLo at 10:31 PM on September 30, 2002

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must not rewrite except to editorial order.
4. You must put it on the market.
5. You must keep it on the market until it is sold.

That's from memory---because I had Heinlein's "rules" posted on my wall all the time I was trying to get there. The wording may not be exact but that's how I got published. You want to get published? Do that.
posted by realjanetkagan at 11:58 PM on September 30, 2002

Very very close, realjanet. I just came across his rules in a Notepad file on my computer the other day. #3 is really:

3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.

and in #4 and 5, Heinlein uses the words "the work" instead of "it."

My favorite new find as a novelist is Bill Fitzhugh. On his site -- which is an uncommonly nice site for a writer -- he has these rules:

Bill Fitzhugh’s Tips on Writing a Book

(1) Come up with an idea you love.
(2) Outline the story to see that it works -- but be willing to let things evolve differently than originally conceived.
(3) Do research if you don't have extensive experience in the area you will be writing about.
(4) Write.
(5) Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite.

posted by LeLiLo at 9:39 AM on October 2, 2002

i finished a screenplay on may 1st. i wrote a 17000+ word story for the blogathon. i'm now sandwiching the two together--along with a bunch of my victoryshag entries (written 140 of those so far)--to write a novel. i'll be damned if epstein will stop me. and, if he tries, i'll make him a character in it. ;)
posted by dobbs at 1:49 PM on October 4, 2002

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