On the Writing of Novels

I joked about writing a novel a few days ago, but the truth is that I feel as far from writing a novel as ever before.

Seriously, just thinking about it makes me feel like this:


It’s similar to a one-legged man who has always dreamed of climbing mount Everest. He arrives at base camp and gets a taste for the effects of high altitude and the difficulty of, well, climbing the world’s highest peak with half as many legs as is typically needed. In other words, he gains an appreciation for the immensity of the task, and the romantic glow which accompanied the thought in his mind is replaced by a stagnant dread.

Recently I discovered that my brother is into writing electronic music, and being musically inclined myself, I asked him to show me how he does it. I figured I could take a look at the interface and whip up something decent sounding in a few minutes. Well, not so much. He uses an online interactive in-browser set of tools that is as expansive as it is complicated and intricate, from mixing boards to effects pedals to wave synthesizers and loops, each with dozens of settings and adjustments. I didn’t even know how or where you could even start putting notes down, never mind putting together something with any more complexity than The Itsy Bitsy Spider in C major.

Even if I could manage to produce a sound that I liked, and wrote a little hook, to think of building upon that layers and layers of individually tailored sounds and beats and loops, each requiring a mastery of minutiae, is just overwhelming. The effort required to focus all your faculties on tiny details all while holding in your mind a vision of the entire piece so that each created section fits cohesively within the whole is simply staggering. And writing a novel is just like that. In that sense, even the most basic and formulaic novel is an impressive achievement, never mind creating believable characters that draw you in emotionally, scenes that play out in the readers’ minds with 1080p clarity, story arcs that are suspenseful and thrilling, and a depth of humanity and honesty that moves the work from mere entertainment to literature.

Maybe, I hope, I’ll get there someday. But for now I’m sticking with bite-sized pieces that my mind can wrap itself around. I’ll leave the grand weaving to others who feel so inclined, and heartily cheer when they do it. It is no small task. My humble goal this month is to submit a short story I’ve written to the CBC Canada Writes Creative Non-Fiction Competition. All the previous winners seem to be legit published authors with actual credentials so my expectations are low, but that’s not a reason not to try!

So here’s to you, novelists: well done, well done indeed.

*slow clapping*

2 thoughts on “On the Writing of Novels

  1. Hi Phil!

    Really enjoying your blog here. On the writing thing, we should chat sometime…I think people can and should write, be it small bite-sized pieces as you describe, or even try something bigger. There is a book I would recommend called: “The Right to Write” by Julia Cameron. She talks about how we all have creativity within us that can be expressed and should be expressed, and that we all have something to say. She goes against so many “rules” about what defines someone as a writer, including the fact that you do not have to wait to get the acclaim of the New York Times Best Sellers list to finally say you are a writer.

    I understand the sense of fear or of being overwhelmed with the idea of writing a whole book and a good one at that, but that’s the problem. If we just sit and think of all the famous writers of great literature and let that hang over us like an impossibly lofty goal, we will just shrivel up in our little corner and stagnate – OK, maybe I’m exaggerating there, but you get my point. Even so-called great writers had to start somewhere, and they wrote and wrote and wrote. Tolstoy didn’t sit down and suddenly “War and Peace” streamed out of his pen onto the paper in front of him. He did it a step at a time, a line at a time and a page at a time…over hours and days and months, with tons of editing thrown in.

    God made you unique, with your own unique viewpoint, experiences and voice. You already express your uniqueness in this blog and it is refreshing, challenging and thought-provoking. I say ignore the goal of greatness or amazing wit or creating some kind of literary masterpiece. That is just stifling to creativity. Start where you are, write about what you know and how you feel. Wait a minute, you are already doing that! You already have some of the basic ingredients to writing – you may just need to carve out time to write regularly, and then just do it, try out ideas that you might have for a novel, practice, write! You are a writer Phil. So just keep writing!

    Lots of love from your aunt. 🙂

    PS You’ve riled me up! I need to get back to writing myself!! 🙂

  2. Haha thank you so much for this wonderful response! I really like some of the ideas you shared from that book – I might check it out after I make a bit more progress on my pile current books. You are absolutely right that over-thinking is stifling to creativity, and it reminds me of a speech I read by Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin & Hobbes, that said something similar.

    Your comment makes me think that I need a bit of a paradigm shift. Instead of seeing any and all new writing, whether a blog or an article or a book, as being inherently in competition with every other piece of writing out there (resulting in a sense of fear/insecurity), it would be far more freeing to see all of it as not only personally beneficial to the authors but also as part of a cooperative cultural artistic effort. Or something like that.

    I sincerely hope you ‘get back’ into it too!

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