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“Writing Novels: It’s a Habit” by J Mulrooney


I’m sometimes asked how you write a novel.  The best advice I ever got was “500 words a day.”  That’s it. It’s a habit you get into, like orange juice with breakfast, cat videos on Facebook, or complaining about things you’re not going to change.  

500 words is two double-spaced typed pages.  I have small crabbed printing, so 500 words is about what I get on two single-spaced pages of a notebook.  On a good day, or if I’m strapped for time, I might do that in an hour, sometimes less.

Getting started can be tough, so the best practice is to end your 500 words with a few notes on what comes next: Sister Marguerite buys pistachios to burn down the convent – fire insurance? or Sex scene: Larry asks Madge to be more vocal in bed.  Madge: “Did you put the clothes in the dryer?” Sex life not improved.  When you open your notebook tomorrow, you know what to write next.  A writer I know advises stopping in the middle of a sentence: Madge raised the axe, looked into Larry’s confused face, and –  Cut it off there.  Pick that up tomorrow and you’re right back in the middle of the argument.  

Forgive yourself when you miss a day.  The 500 word imperative is about today and tomorrow, not yesterday.  If you commit to 500 words but miss Tuesday and Saturday, that’s okay.  At the end of the week you’ve still got 2,500 words. Miss a couple of days every week?  You’ll still have 10,000 words at the end of the month. The pages accumulate. Do that every month and that’s 60,000 words at the end of six months, about 240 pages.  There’s a draft of your novel.

Writing novels is a lifestyle.  You have to be able to sustain the work over time.  Writing becomes a habit, another thing you do every day.  You don’t win a marathon with an inspired burst of energy, you win by running 35 miles a week, week after week and month after month.  Novelists are marathon runners.

Get to it.  

Mulrooney will be teaching a miniworkshop on writing dialogue and running a writer’s workshop at Writers and Books in April 2019.  You can find details on his courses here.

He is the author of An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity, a novel which made him a Campbell award finalist for best new writer of science fiction and fantasy, and The Day Immanuel Kant was Late, a book of stories.