Writing the First Novel, a lecture by Richard Setlowe


Two types: 1. Wants to build a better mousetrap. 2. Wants the world to beat a path to their door. If you’re the latter, listen no longer–I have nothing to impart to you. These lessons are for building better mousetraps: attracting and entrapping the reader.


Secret fantasy many of us have: Writing the Great American First Novel.

We want to write 300-400 pages of brutally honest prose in which we are only thinly disguised as the main character. We won’t only triumph in ways we only wished we could in real life, but also get revenge for the thinly-disguised parents, exes, bosses, who never really saw our potential. We’ll send the manuscript to NY, who will hold us in suspense for a few weeks before giving us a six-figure advance. The book will soar to the best-seller list, and we will be lionized asa glamorous writer and make the cover of People.

Of course, the book will be sold to the movies, and Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, or Nicholas Cage will play the thinly-disguised us, having a love affair with several fantasy figures before, in the second novel, settling down with a soul mate and intellectual equal.

Writing students approach novel writing with these exaggerated expectations and nurture this fantasy.


“Writing is a craft, as well as an art, and that craft takes time to develop. Forget genius, forget inspiration. It takes time measured not in weeks or months, but in years. Hemingway said, ‘Write a million words.’ He wasn’t kidding.” -Dennis Palumbo

You’re not going to publish your first draft. Or your second. Or your third, or fourth probably. I’m not saying this to discourage you, but to free you. Be free to experiment, to explore blind alleys, To write and be bad. To be dissatisfied with your writing, and to keep writing.

So write a million words. Most first novels run from 100,000 to 200,000 words. Do the math.

“I have never felt like I was creating anything. For me, writing is like walking through a desert and all at once, poking through the hardpan, I see the top of a chimney. I know there’s a house under there, and I;m pretty sure that I can fig it up if I want. That’s how I feel. It’s like the stories are already there. What they pay me for is the leap of faith that says: “If I sit down and do this, everything will come out okay.” -Stephen King


Some people say you should not start writing until you know exactly where you are going. Stephen King argues otherwise, as do I. Publishers probably propagated this idea, and other non-writers who like to know what they’re paying their writers to write before they pay them. An outline is really more like a business proposal. It’s not a long-used system, but it’s not the best one. It’s logical, yes, but the trouble is, novels aren’t written by logic. “They emerge from some strange inspiration, a subconscious alchemy that transmutes our experiences and imaginings into a walking dreamlike narrative.” We really have to dig into our subconscious for ideas–that’s the wellspring of them. So where do we start?


Write the first major confrontation, action, dramatic event, etc. that comes to mind. That’s it. Just a scene of dialogue, action, a description, meditation, stream of consciousness, as you please. It doesn’t matter if it’s not the beginning–it could be the climax. I started writing at what became Chapter 23 of one of my novel. The thing is, you keep writing until the scene plays out. It’s the “chimney poking through the hardpan.” There’s already energy and tension there. By writing, you’re releasing creative energy. You can continue writing from there, until you get to the end, or else go back and fill in what needs to lead up to these scenes. It’s the seed from which your novel will grow. You don’t have to have the entire story. It’ll come.


Some work at a computer. I’ll take notes and write articles directly on the computer, but for fiction, I prefer scribbling with Bic ballpoint pen in drug store marble-bound composition notebooks. Writing both sides, I filled four of them. The fifth and most of a sixth were filled with random notes, research, newspaper clippings, notes that were vaguely related. Once I’d scribbled a good hunk, a chapter or two, I typed it up on my computer, making each chapter a separate file. Another novelist said he spent nearly a year just taking notes and thinking, writing in longhand or on an old-fashioned typewriter before actually writing the novel.

It’s not eccentric, it’s just getting the story to flow. That way, there’s less critical thinking when the time comes to write a full first draft. Keep scribbling. You don’t have to know the End, Act Three, Resolution, or any specific part.

So if you’re having trouble getting started, just sit down and start scribbling the first thoughts that come into your head. Words, phrases, doodles, sentences, descriptions, lines of conversation, and pretty soon you’ll be forming scenes, and eventually THE STORY.

“I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.” -Kurt Vonnegut


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