7 Pieces of Expert Writing Advice for #NaNoWriMo and Beyond

Leonid Pasternak - The Passion of Creation
The Passion of Creation by Leonid Pasternak

So, you’re writing a novel in month, eh? Good luck to you, you hearty soul! Better get off the internet and into your manuscript. But wait, before you go, here’s some great fiction-writing advice, confessions, and commiseration from novelists that we dug out of the JSTOR vaults for your procrastinating, er, researching pleasure. (Hint: click on the names of the novelists to download the entire article PDFs for free!)

1. On Getting Down to Work:

“Wouldn’t it be nice if I could write a good novel? Well, that is what I have been trying to do all morning…This morning I decided to approach it all differently: daily I’ve got up, tea, & come straight to the typewriter to take up where I left off yesterday’s frustration, thinking Work Must Come First.” —William Gaddis

2. On Finding the Right Idea:

“If you’re me, you start with a topic or a theme: something that interests or concerns you. You know you’ve got to write a novel because that’s what you do…You don’t know what to write it about, really, but there are a lot of interesting things in the world that might trigger you off. And so you wait: you hang about until it occurs to you what you’re going to write about.”—Fay Weldon

3. On Creating Character:

“But what I needed to understand about my own work, and for a long time refused to, is that the way I have made most of my characters has been to start from life—a face, a stance, a real friend’s or acquaintance’s situation—and to narrow my eyes until all the real details disappear in a blur. What enters my line of vision then is all invented. Filling in the empty form. It is fiction as a means of completion, the ending of the sentence that begins ‘What if… Say someone were…'”—Rosellen Brown

4. On the Importance of Plot:

“My goal is always, especially with fiction, to grab the reader’s attention and hold it until the end of the book, either with a story or with language. I never start out trying to prove a point or illustrate some type of idea. If that happens, then it is great. But if I gave myself that goal, my work might fail miserably as fiction. The point of writing fiction for me is first to tell what I hope is an engaging story.”—Edwidge Danticat

5. On “Writing What You Know”:

“There’s no way you can write about anything that you know as well as yourself. In a certain sense, whatever is imagined is always based in some way on an inner sense of self.”—Paula Fox

6. On Making it Ring True:

“I am compelled to believe that writing ‘comes right’ when the writer is willing to submerge himself completely in his people and their way of life. I had to learn how to go back and walk with my characters the streets of Happy Hollow.”—William A. Owens

7. On Overcoming Your Fear:

“…if you’re asking how to force yourself to take a risk, I think you have to start by being curious about your resistance and fear. What seems threatening to you about the kind of project you want to attempt next and why? Start to answer those questions—start to poke around in there and draw blood—and I expect the little vampire in you will take over. The part that will cannibalize you and everyone around you to get the job done.”—Fiona Maazel

Don’t forget that JSTOR can be a great research resource for a novelist. Just saying.

JSTOR Citations

Selected Letters

By: William Gaddis

Conjunctions, No. 59, Colloquy (2012), pp. 8-57


An Interview with Fay Weldon

By: Mara Reisman and Fay Weldon

Modern Language Studies, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Winter, 2008), pp. 32-49

Modern Language Studies

On Not Writing A Novel


The American Poetry Review, Vol. 8, No. 6 (NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 1979)

American Poetry Review

Edwidge Danticat

By: Edwidge Danticat and Garnette Cadogan

BOMB, No. 126 (Winter 2013–2014), pp. 104-110

New Art Publications

Paula Fox

By: Lynne Tillman and Paula Fox

BOMB, No. 95 (Spring, 2006), pp. 24-29

New Art Publications

Writing a Novel—Problem and Solution


Southwest Review, Vol. 40, No. 3, ANNUAL LITERARY NUMBER (SUMMER 1955), pp. 254-261

Southern Methodist University

Fiona Maazel

By: Fiona Maazel and Justin Taylor

BOMB, No. 124 (Summer 2013), pp. 74-79

New Art Publications

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