What it’s like to write a novel

Writing a novel is often compared to birthing a baby. A new thing begins its life growing it inside you, then you bring it out into the world on a specific day. And hopefully, everyone will coo about how wonderful it is.

Chick Hatching dreamstime_12036145

Human birth is gross, let’s just look at this fuzzy chick instead.

I’ve also heard the editing and revision process compared to cleaning up after a baby: it’s messy but necessary. The problem with the baby analogy, though, it that it suggests a novel is one untouchable unit that must be loved unconditionally. No one would surgically fiddle with a baby’s face to make it more appealing (other than the creepiest of pageant moms). And saying that a novel’s plot has flaws is not the same as insulting someone’s small child. Most importantly, it’s usually a bad sign when a writer is so attached to their novel that they see it as their perfect, special baby. Novels need to be viewed as pieces of subjective work, amalgams of words that can be rearranged for the better. This is especially true in the ebook era, when it’s possible — and fairly simple, actually — to go through a published book and fix errors.

So if I don’t think writing a book is like having a baby, what is it like? Uhh. Hmm. It’s like … sitting at a desk on hundreds of separate occasions, putting one word after another until you’re satisfied with the whole bulk of it. That’s not a metaphor, but it is true. Writing long-form fiction is a lot of work and it often feels as such. Except for those rare few people who hammer out a novel in a few passionate sittings; their experience is as rare as a lightning strike.

Right, back to the metaphors. Well, I write in a relatively organic way. I begin with a basic idea and some characters, but I let the story flow as it’s going to. I often feel like the story is water — some naturally occurring entity — and I’m the household plumbing that directs it and lets it flow. Sometimes the first showing is cloudy or the wrong temperature, so I keep letting words pour out until I get some writing I’m satisfied with.


But sometimes the writing process is more frustrating than that. I’ll stare at my open Scrivener file for hours, finally get into it and start composing sentences, and then have to leave for work ten minutes later. Those times, I find writing more like I’m a reptile shedding its skin. I start out with an idea of how this’ll progress, and I know the end is worthwhile. But the actual happening takes longer than I thought. I’m indescribably itchy while I wait for my process to unfold; I’m blind and agitated. Maybe I need to wait and think deeply about the story? Maybe I need to just grab a loose edge and yank? I’m never sure. This metaphor is usually how I feel when a novel is more than half completed, and its details and logistics are giving me trouble.

Writing a book is a very individual process, so I’m sure there are thousands of possible analogies. They all fit to some degree. They can touch on the complex emotions a writer experiences while trying to express a book’s worth of thoughts. At least we’re getting some mental exercise!

Got an analogy for what the writing process is like? Whether you’re a writer or not? Share in the comments!

6 Comments on “What it’s like to write a novel”

  1. indytony says:

    For the first time in my life, I am writing a sustained piece of fiction (a trilogy of short stories). I like the baby analogy quite a bit. The “conception” happened when a burst of creative energy suddenly struck me and began to multiply in my mind. Since then, I decided to write 2 scenes a day (about 1,000-1,500 words) which takes from 1-2 hours. I equate this to the “exercise” a pregnant woman does for the child in her womb. I’m careful to also read good literature (nutrition). I’m saving most of the “editing” for when I have a working draft. I’m not sure what you would compare this to – perhaps Lamaze class and walking around the mall while you’re having labor pains. I don’t think the “birth” happens until it gets published.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    • Your structured progress does fit the pregnancy analogy pretty well, indytony. Maybe birth is when you have a finished draft, and the publishing is when the child has been taught enough skills to handle a first day of preschool …? Not sure. Anyway, best of luck with your trilogy!

  2. Christa says:

    I like hearing about your own writing process, Heidi. I totally identify with the question of waiting and deliberating over a story, or going right at it. As much as I’ve written over the years — even in writing academic essays presented that problem — I don’t usually know what to do.

    • Haha, glad you appreciate my rambling!

      I’ve heard that accomplished, multi-million-selling authors often have a weird fear of being exposed as a fraud. Like they just got lucky on the first few stories and they don’t actually know how to write. So I guess it’s a natural dilemma to look at a blank page and feel like you have no idea what to do.

  3. I really like your metaphor about the water and plumbing system. I think for me, writing a novel is like the life cycle of a butterfly. The butterfly starts off as an egg (the initial idea of the story). Then the egg becomes a caterpillar and gets to work, eating, eating, and eating some more. Basically all it does is eat, and that’s the equivalent of a filling the story with all the words that come together to form the plots and scenes and characters etc.
    When the caterpillar is ready, it moves to the next stage and becomes a chrysalis. This is where all the big changes take place, and with the story, it’s where all the chops and changes and edits occur to transform the story from a draft, to a publishable piece (from caterpillar to butterfly).
    When the newly formed butterfly is ready, it goes through the final stage of pushing its way out of its cocoon – which, like going through the query/ submission/ self-publishing stages, is no easy task. But once accomplished, the butterfly is revealed in all its glory (the book is finally complete and available to share with the world). :)

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