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Why you can’t hack your novel

Productivity is such a a ubiquitous buzzword these days, it’s easy to fall under its spell. I must confess to downloading nearly a dozen productivity apps and reading countless posts on how to “hack your life,” “hack your morning,” and “hack your writing.” While some have been helpful, others have taken far more of my time than they have given back.

The truth is that writing fiction is often a slow process, even if you consider yourself a fast writer. There’s really no way to hack your writing, unless you want to come off sounding like, well, a hack. There’s no way to streamline it to the point of complete efficiency if you hope to create any kind of art. The novelist who deletes nothing is the novelist who has written an unwieldy and bloated book. If your final draft hasn’t shed a lot of pages and a character or two, then you probably haven’t done the real work of revising.

Some writers with a steady, serious work ethic and a supportive publisher manage to write a novel each year. I admire them. Although that level of efficiency has eluded me, I certainly believe it is possible to write and revise a novel in a year if you treat your writing as a serious day job, many hours a day, butt in the chair and all that. On the other end of the spectrum are writers like Dona Tartt, whose mindbendingly beautiful The Goldfinch was a more than a decade in the making.

In 2013 Tartt told Julie Bosnan of The New York Times that she had written scenes for The Goldfinch as far back as 1993. “That’s the way it’s been with all my books,” Tartt said. “Things will come to you and you’re not going to know exactly how they fit in. You have to trust in the way they all fit together, that your subconscious knows what you’re doing.”

The subconscious is a slow-burn kind of instrument. A race for productivity squeezes out the air a novelist needs to allow his or her subconscious to do the hard work of stitching disparate observations, ideas, and characters together into a thing of wonder.

It may surprise you to learn that I love NaNoWriMo; it’s both motivating and inspiring, especially if you struggle with getting started. But one should never view marathon writing binges as a substitute for the long, hard work of writing, failing, and writing again.

The productivity evangelists would balk at the real work of writing.

After all, isn’t it a failure of time and efficiency to spend so much time studying something that will ultimately fall by the wayside, to spend so many pages on a scene that will ultimately be cut? A novelist’s research happens daily, in the people we encounter, the places we go, all the minor observations that build, over time, to create a perspective on the world. And we do the more traditional research too: if your protagonist is a scientist, you should read deeply in the science she practices. If your protagonist is a chef, you should seek to understand what that world is like by interviewing a chef.

While you are collecting experiences and observations, while you are reading and becoming more knowledgeable and more adpet at language and syntax, your subconscious is there in the background, seeking out the associations that will come together to make a creative whole.

Here’s the hard, beautiful truth about writing:

  • Only a small amount of the research you do actually makes it into your novel or story.
  • No matter how well you plan, many of the paragraphs and pages you write will eventually end up on the editing room floor. Not because you weren’t writing as efficiently as you could be, but because you grow during the course of writing a book. As you write — as you do the hard, thoughtful work — you learn which way the book needs to go. You discover what is dragging the story down, and what you need to build it back up.

If your goal as a writer is simply to be productive, you will always let yourself down. If your goal is to do your best work, you will be a much better, more genuine writer. Maybe what we need, to go along with slow food and slow living, is a slow writing movement.

Today’s Challenge: Slow Writing (from the 10 Days of Beautiful Failure Challenge)

Find a quiet space, or at least a place where your mind can feel quiet. (While I need silence to write, I have friends who are calmed by the mild chaos of a cafe). Once you have found your place, once you have uncapped your pen and opened your notebook, write slowly. Don’t think about how many pages you’re going to “produce.” Don’t check your word count. Don’t abandon a tangent because you think it really has no place in your novel, story, or memoir.

Just write. Slowly, with equal parts ease and concentration. Instead of flying through it, feel it deeply. Take time to sip your coffee. Write slowly, fail beautifully, and breathe.

Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of five novels and two story collections, including most recently the psychological thriller THE MARRIAGE PACT, which has been published in 30 languages. She lives in Northern California and leads the Novel Writing Master Class series.

NYT bestselling author of the THE MARRIAGE PACT and THE YEAR OF FOG. Caffeinated in Cali. Books at Write with me at

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