Books. Open book with pages by rosa from the Noun Project

How Not to Write a Novel

When the world started shutting itself in, the talking bobbleheads started telling everyone that this was your moment. Isaac Newton invented calculus during the plague! Just imagine what you can do with all this free time.

Here’s how he (probably) did it, according to the 10 minutes of wikipedia-grade research I’ve put into this:

  1. Having no work obligations.
  2. Having no family obligations.
  3. He could social distance at a family estate because he had a family estate to go social distance at.
  4. There was no Netflix at his family estate.
  5. Being way smarter than you.1

And good for him. Maybe if don’t have to worry about money, work, or small children, this is totally your moment and all you have to do is delete social media.

This, of course, is not a letter about calculus. I never took calculus.

This is about extreme hobbies, creative endeavors that you do on overdrive.

When I was a kid I loved writing. I still love writing, but my teenage self actually believed he was well on his way to becoming a professional author, and why not, he finished a few novel length stories, he had a few excellent people to draw feedback from (both friends who were voracious readers and the occasional generous professional editor). He wrote what he read—science fiction, adventures full of world-building, the occasional myth-heavy monster drama.

Technically, a novel is at least 50,000 words, which comes out to a skinny 200 pages and change. That’s what the NaNoWriMo folks aim for. Can you sell that? Probably not, and I don’t want to confuse writing a book with writing a commercial book. You can play the piano for fun without aspiring to play the Kennedy Center.

How did he do this? No idea, he was crazy. I remember an Excel spreadsheet that tracked a 2000 word per day quota, which he dialed down after learning that was about Stephen King’s pace and it really wasn’t sustainable.

I also remember discovering that as long as you were writing in a spiral notebook, your sonorous math teacher had no idea what you were writing and frankly had better things to do than bother caring.

Note to self: I think I just figured out why I never took calculus.

I gave this up right around the time I started making movies. Filmmaking, like trying to write a book, is another all-encompassing activity. It’s a logistical project that I can only compare to planning a wedding, except unlike a wedding you either need to learn to bake the cake yourself or recruit a friend who’s excited about it.

So that’s what we did. I’d be in the middle of finals at Mizzou reading fresh edits of the script between exams, watching audition tapes on my phone while sitting in an airport on a business trip, staying up late to research cameras and microphones so we could stretch our limited hobbyist budgets and still get nearly professional quality. This went on for years.

The deeper we got into adulthood the harder it was to keep this up. Careers get more demanding. Relationships and puppies take up time. We knew we’d finished our last feature film for the foreseeable future, and short films would be a rare occurrence.

That makes sense. By definition, extreme hobbies probably aren’t things you can do forever.

It didn’t vanish, but it waned.

In theory, if you have one or two of Newton’s criteria, you have some more time on your hands. I see the temptation: with nothing else to do, why not pick up a big, challenging, once in a lifetime creative project.

But can you really do that during the most stressful historic event of your life? I don’t know. My attention span has seen better days, my memory is shot, and whatever capabilities I had to get lost in the zone — flow state, I think the kids call it — have gone missing, last seen in a coffee shop that’s not going to make it to the other side of the shut down.

Does that mean you have to give up and just re-watch the entirely of How I Met Your Mother instead? Not necessarily. For starters, you should definitely not watch past at most Season 4. And while I’m not writing a book any time soon, I can write something, even if it’s disjointed, aimless blend of creative nonfiction and character studies with no potential to stretch beyond the three pages of scribbles where it lives. I don’t have the time or the discipline to make something, but I can work on plenty of nothing.

And why not? It’s not like there’s anything else to do.

People used to ask me why we were making movies. I don’t remember what I would say. These were huge projects, and while we’d always submit to festivals, experiment with digital sales, we knew nobody bought indie movies anymore, we could talk a pretty good game, we could put out a good product, but there was no commercial potential.

Then we started showing them in theaters and it was very cool, and nobody asked the question anymore. Cool is its own cause. Or, if you want to paraphrase Aristotle, the highest good is the one you do not because it’s a means to an ends, but just because it’s fucking awesome.2

We didn’t need thousands of people to see our work to be happy with the result. Theatrical screenings were incredible experiences, standing ovations are fun, but our best work as artists and creative folk, I’m with Joy, is the one the fewest people saw.3

Around the time we were finishing I’m with Joy, I started writing again. I was new in DC, and being my second new city, thought I had this down to a science. I knew how to meet new people, find new things, build new habits: trivia teams and obsessive concert-going being the best of it.

But in between all this I found myself itching for things to do in the evenings where I had no plans that didn’t involve another damn screen. I started scribbling in a black notebook, just because, with no rules or purpose except to break every rule I’d ever been stuck with. I didn’t want an ambitious new project, I just wanted to play piano by myself late at night.

I’d only write fiction I couldn’t possibly film, throwing off constraints I’d been working with for years. Maybe I’d finish it, maybe I wouldn’t. It was allowed to be bad and aimless and sometimes devolve into absolute nonsense. In a world full of goals and purposes, let this be chaos.

Some time later the techno-self-improvement industrial complex would discover journaling and reflection. They decided that everyone should become Marcus Aurelius, because deep down we are all just like Roman emperors. By definition, self-improvement is not a thing done for its own sake, but whatever floats your longboat.

A little over six years later, I’m midway through Volume 8 of these meandering notebooks. Some of the material has turned into blog posts, including One Weird Trick to Destroy Western Civilization. Some, strung together, form 20,000 words of a half-baked novel about a mad scientist who really believes he can change the world, but never stops to ask if he should. It’s got some good characters, some fun segments, not nearly enough depth to fill in the gaps between the beginnings and the end, and after playing around with it for 5 years I have no plans to finish it, much less ever show it to anyone.

So how do you not write a novel? By putting pen to paper on and off with no real plan and no discipline. By accepting the fact that this is just sketching and drafting. If anything comes out of it you want to show people, cool, and if not, give yourself permission to do the thing for its own sake.

You won’t get anything out of it besides an interesting way to pass the time. But then again, that’s kind of the point. The talking bobbleheads are wrong. I’m not looking to invent the next calculus or finish a masterpiece. And you probably aren’t either. I just wanted something to do while there’s nothing else to do.

And that’s fine.

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