how to write a novel

Dear Susan,

I am finally determined to make writing a priority. Can you suggest an amount of time I should devote / set aside for writing each day?


A woman emailed me recently to ask me how to write a novel. Since I’ve written a bunch of them, I responded with what has worked for me. Keep in mind, this advice isn’t just about how to write a novel, this is about how to get started doing anything creative. Here is my answer:


Dear A,

In answer to your question, I would suggest that you start with writing 20 – 30 minutes, three to five days a week. Set a kitchen timer–or the timer on your phone–and sit in the chair or at the desk and write until it goes off. If you’re in the middle of a scene, keep going. This is the minimum time. If you can do more, keep going. Time is never wasted when writing, even if you don’t end up using a scene.


Also, it helps if you can write at the same time every day and in the same place, so that your body and your creativity gets used to showing up.


Turn off any devices that will distract you. Don’t answer the phone. Don’t check email. Lock the door. No visitors. Avoid anything that you usually use to distract yourself. You know what these are!


Suspend judgment. Tell the inner critic to f***k off. Repeat it often and loudly. You wouldn’t want to do this at the grocery store, but if you live alone, it works. 🙂 


Write a “shitty first draft” (as Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird). First drafts are always shitty. Get used to it. If the inner critic weighs in, you know what to do. In other words, be willing to make mistakes! It’s part of the job.


Don’t tinker, fret, judge your writing or worry that you’re not good enough. Every writer does this, but it is counterproductive and a waste of time. Self-doubt kills writers. Pretend you are good enough. Fake it till you make it. Keep going until you write the next scene in a first draft and then the scene after that and then the scene after that. 


Start with 20 – 30 minutes, then work up to an hour. If 30 minutes breezes by, then write for an hour. Add a minute or two every day. You will learn very quickly how much you can do before you are creatively exhausted. This is a wonderful feeling by the way, and worthy of pursuit. You may even have the urge for a cigarette afterward. 🙂


Most importantly, experience the joy of writing. The joy of connecting to your creative side and expressing what you find there. In the service of this joy, tell a really good story. Write the book you’d like to read.


how to write a novel

Thoughts? Questions? What would you add to this response? xo


P.S. I am an ex-shrink who writes novels. Check out my books here.

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