6 Bad Reasons to Write a Novel…and 6 Good Ones

by Anne R. Allen

So you think you want to write a novel?

You're not alone.

According to a New York Times study done a decade ago, 81% of Americans "think they have a book in them". With the indie ebook revolution, I'm sure the percentage has grown.

Of course, most of that 81% won't ever write a word. There's an old, unkind joke that says, "Most people think they have a book in them. And that's where it should stay." It's true we aren't suffering a dearth of books. Just look at your Twitter feed.

I honestly believe not everybody is cut out to write book-length narrative.

And that's not a bad thing.

The problem lies in the fact that lots of people think learning to write a novel or memoir is somehow easier than learning to paint, play an instrument, compose music, or design clothing. For some reason, many people think all you need is a keyboard and a block of time and….voila! novels happen.

But those of us who do it professionally know that learning to write novels is a long, tough slog. It's also hard on our friends and loved ones. It always takes longer than we expect.

Nobody's born with the knowledge of how to craft a novel any more than anybody is born with a perfect golf swing or a great operatic voice. No matter how much native talent you have, you need to study and practice a long time before you're going to be able to create something that will appeal to readers.

So people need to make sure they really want to embark on the journey before they start down the book-writing road.

There are lots of fantastic ways to be creative. Don't get locked into the idea that writing books is the only path to creative expression. Book length-narrative may be on the way out. Short stories, personal essays, novellas, and blogposts are increasingly popular—and can be lucrative as well.

And not everybody has the talent or inclination to create with words. There are many, many ways to be creative.

Years ago I was in a writing group with a man who struggled with every sentence of his WIP. The group tended to be hard on him because he didn't seem to grasp the concept of conflict in a scene, and his characters were stereotypical lumps who mostly sat around musing.

He dropped out of the group and I ran into him two years later. At an art show. His. His paintings were fantastic: vibrant and creative and alive. He'd found his medium.

But he said he still felt guilty about this abandoned novel. I asked him why.

He said he felt that writing was "serious", while painting was "play."

He basically thought he should write because he didn't enjoy it.

I say that's exactly why NOT to write. If writing novels doesn't feel like playing, try another medium.

There's an odd prejudice in the writing world in favor of novels.

People who write and publish great short fiction or poetry are often pressured to write a "real book". And even television and screenwriters are sometimes disrespected by by people stuck in a 19th century mindset who believe "real writing" is reserved for novels.

That kind of thinking is simply out of date. The short story is undergoing a renaissance, and television is where the most creative, innovative writing is happening today. Television writers like Matthew Weiner, Vince Gilligan, Jenji Kohan, and Shonda Rhimes have become superstars in their own right.

There's nothing intrinsically "better" about writing books than any other form of creative expression. I firmly believe that everybody has a creative self that needs to be nurtured, but that creativity may express itself in hundreds of different ways—all of which enrich our culture.

Why be a mediocre novelist when you might be a great painter, poet, stand-up comic, potter, gardener, designer, or chef?

Please note I do not want to step on the dream of anybody who REALLY longs to write a book. Below are 6 excellent reasons to write one, even if nobody is ever going to read it but you.

We need to hang onto our dreams. As Damon Lindelof said in the Daily Beast last month, "media-induced cynicism is humanity’s real enemy."

We are inundated by dream-smashers and cynics who love to squash any sincere efforts at creating art.

Cynicism is easy; art is hard.

Lindelof also said, "It’s so easy to be infected by cynicism. It’s so easy to be mean. It’s so easy to tell somebody who is a dreamer, 'Come on, really?' And when you see their face when you do that to them, there’s no worse feeling in the world than understanding that you’ve just unintentionally crushed someone’s dream."

Jane Friedman echoed his sentiments in a post on her own blog titled The Age-Old Cynicism Surrounding the Dream of Book Writing. She thinks we're entering an era of "universal authorship" where everybody will be a creative writer, so the act of creating fiction won't be seen as anything special and literally everybody will be an author of some sort.

That may be—although I'm not completely convinced—but novels still exist as an art form and I don't think everybody on the planet is able to craft a good one. Or is emotionally equipped to enjoy the process.

I think a lot of that 81% who think they have books in them are motivated by the wrong reasons.

The people who are actually squashing dreams may be the people telling you that writing a novel is somehow superior to composing a song or throwing a pot or nurturing a rose.

Any writer who has been in a critique group or done much beta-reading has probably run into some wannabe writers who are obviously not going to make it, often because they're writing for the wrong reasons.

Here are six of them:

6 Bad Reasons to Write a Novel

1) To Make Money

Sigh. Anybody who's been in this business for any length of time will tell you why this is a bad idea. Bob Mayer put it very well in his March 15th blogpost:

"If you desire to write a novel because you want to have a bestseller and make a bundle of money, my advice is to play the lottery; it will take much less time and your odds will be about the same, if not better, and I can guarantee that the work involved will be much less. The publishing business makes little sense and it’s changing faster than ever before; the 'gold rush' of the self-published eBook is long past."

2) Revenge

When I was working as a freelance editor, the majority of manuscripts brought to me were revenge memoirs (or thinly-disguised memoirs) designed to hurt someone who had "done wrong" to the writer.

These things were usually hot messes. Some were pages of nonsensical late-night ranting. Others were attempts at satire so one-sided they fell flat, and others were victim sagas.

No editor can make something like that readable.

Besides you can get yourself sued.

3) To Show Off How Smart You Are

Some of us get labeled "nerds" early in life, and our defense is often to talk in long sentences using big words in order to look down our noses at the dummies who don't understand us.

I have to admit to using the word "exceedingly" in many conversations at the age of seven. I could also trot out several quotations in Latin and Greek (my father was a Classics professor at Yale, so I had a good source of ammunition).

I was so sure I was impressing people.

But the truth is that stuff doesn't make you popular in 2nd grade and it sure doesn't get you readers when you're an adult.

Unless you're writing for an esoteric academic journal that's seen by ten people including the editor and his long-suffering student assistant, you're not going to succeed by showing off your knowledge of little-used Latinate words and obscure historical factoids.

Readers don't care how smart you are. They care about compelling characters and a good story.

4) To "set the record straight" about something that happened in your past

A lot of unpublished and self-published memoirs are written by people who want to tell "what really happened" in a rotten situation like family abuse, workplace bullying, or military SNAFUs.

Writing this stuff down is fantastic therapy. But it doesn't usually translate into anything another human being will want to read. There's a reason shrinks get paid the big bucks. It's exhausting to listen to people's tales of woe.

Exploring these issues with writing can spark a creative idea that might blossom into a piece of fiction or poetry or a painting or other work of art, but don't expect a lot of people to want to experience the raw material of your pain.

You have to be an accomplished writer to turn that kind of pain into art.

5) Your third grade teacher said you have "talent."

This may have been what happened to the painter I mentioned in the introduction. I see it all the time.

In fact, this post was sparked by a question I saw recently on Quora. Somebody had decided to write a novel, but he said he didn't know anything about storytelling and he didn't much like being alone and he didn't like to read or write very much and didn't want to be bothered to learn about craft or stuff like that.

Why did he want to write a novel?

Because somebody told him he had writing "talent."

It probably happened in his formative years, poor guy, and he's been trying to live up to it ever since.

I know that telling kids they have talent seems like a great idea. It builds their self-esteem and makes them more confident and happy.

And I'm not saying we should stop being encouraging to our kids, but make sure you praise ALL their talents. But when somebody gets the idea they have a "special gift" in only one area, it can backfire.

For some people, it can paralyze them with fear about living up to their potential.

For others, it can instill a sense of entitlement that can make for really bad art. And keep them from doing stuff they really might actually enjoy.

For more on this, see my post on "Is Talent Overrated?"

6) You Like Telling People You're a Writer

Saying you're a writer gives you a certain cachet at parties. Or some people think it does. It's certainly easier to explain why you've been in that minimum wage job for five years if you add that you're supporting yourself while working on a novel.

And that's fine…if you're actually working on a novel.

But if you haven't actually written more than a grocery list in the last three years, and you never got past that "It was a dark and stormy night" opener, you may not be cut out for this profession. And that's okay.

A writer writes. If you don't write, you're probably not a writer. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Instead of getting defensive and angry every time somebody asks how that book is going, find something you actually want to do.

And if you're one of the people who would simply rather read a book than write one, then THANK YOU!! Readers make what we do possible.

And 6 Good Ones

Some people are born storytellers whose destined medium is the book. These people think in terms of stories from the time they can talk. They have to write. It's like breathing.

Here are some signs you may be a born novelist.

1) You see stories everywhere

Every newspaper headline gives you an idea for a plot. Every stranger's tale of woe makes you think of putting into a novel.

And every time you get a cup of coffee in you and somebody to listen, you start telling them about the great ideas you have. You get more and more animated as you tell the details about your characters and their backstories and….your friends' eyes glaze over, your girlfriend texts that she's moving to France, and nobody's returning your phone calls.

That story is itching to get out of you, but you're putting it in the wrong place. It belongs on a page. Don't worry if it's any good or not. Nobody will know unless you write it down.

Writing skills can be learned. But the ability to think up stories can't. You have a gift. Use it.

2) 100s of characters are living in your head (even when you're on your meds)

Whenever you read a news story about odd human behavior, you wonder who those people are and what motivated their behavior.

Before the end of the news piece on the surge in bank robberies by senior citizens, you've got a whole scenario going and you know what all the characters look and sound like.

You know Gladys and Myrtle robbed those banks because they needed money to finish their craft projects. Because craft supplies cost so much more than they can charge for the finished products on Etsy, they have had to turn to a life of crime to afford all those needlepoint kits and crochet patterns. The bank teller who refused to give them the money, Holly-Ann Wiggins, is a crafter herself, and she recognised them from their You Tube video on tatting...

If random people pop into your brain at regular intervals and beg you to tell their stories, you're probably one of those people who has a novel in them. Or three or four or ten.... 

3) You love being alone with your own thoughts

Authors need to be alone a lot of the time. If you're a born writer, you cherish and crave your alone time like a visit to a lover.

Anybody who needs immediate feedback or has abandonment issues when left alone for a few days is going to have trouble writing for the long periods of time it takes to compose whole books.

If your other possible life paths include lighthouse keeper, park ranger, or sailing around the world solo, then you've got one of the major talents that helps you become a successful novelist.

One of the best things ever written about being an author is Michael Ventura's 1992 essay "The Talent of the Room". Ventura—a veteran novelist, journalist and screenwriter—tells aspiring writers the most important talent they need to succeed is the ability to be alone in a room. If you haven't read it, do. It might help you decide if you're cut out for this life.

4) You're a patient, self-motivated person who can endure hardships while keeping your eyes on the prize

If you like long-term projects and you don't rely on outside validation for your sense of self, you have a much better chance of succeeding as a novelist.

Some things come with the territory. You can pretty much guarantee you're going to have to work at day jobs to pay the bills long after you'd hoped to be writing full time.

You're also going to get lots of flak from your friends and family who can't figure out why your project is taking so long.

If you can tune it all out and hang onto your dream, getting energy from your characters and finding joy in your story, you've got what it takes to write a novel.

5) You're great at thinking of worst case scenarios

Always imagining the worst? Paranoid? Anxious?

Can you write that stuff down instead of panicking?

You may have a novel in you!

Novelists need to be able to put their characters through the worst possible challenges for hundreds of pages before they reach their goals. People who shy away from conflict and drama may be able to write lots of fabulous prose, but if they can't think of enough awful things to happen to their characters, they won't be able to write successful novels.

A novel or memoir about smart, happy people having a great time in the good old days when everything was perfect is not going to attract a lot of readers. Humans want stories. And stories need conflict. If you've got dramas going on in your head all the time, they may help you write a compelling book.

6) You're in love with words… and sentences…and paragraphs...and chapters

If you're a person who verbalizes thought—who is always looking for just the right word to describe that shade of blue, that feeling, that pang of cosmic pain—you've got writing in your soul.

If you go to look up a word in the dictionary and find yourself lost in it for hours…you're probably a born writer.

But you may not necessarily want to write book-length narrative. I know a lot of people writing novels who prefer writing poetry or short fiction.

A novelist has to be able to see the big picture: not just the word or phrase or exquisite image, but the paragraph and the chapter and the story arc.

Poets who write novels will usually say it's because they want to make money. Which takes us around back to #1.

Don't let yourself be bullied into giving up your favorite medium. Writing novels only for money is like buying lottery tickets as a retirement plan. Not the best choice.

Thing is, the chances of most novels to make money are about the same as the chances of most poems. It's not a big number.

But some do. I always list contests here for poetry, essays, and short fiction as well as novels. Some story and poetry prizes are more than the average advance on a novel. Don't discount the short form if that's where your muse is most comfortable.

Write what you LOVE. Not what anybody—not even the third grade teacher who lives in your head—says you should.

Instead heed the words of the great Joseph Campbell and follow your bliss. If you don't find that bliss alone in a room with a keyboard, don't let anybody beat you up about it. Go out and find it!

That WIP will still be sitting in your files if you find out your bliss was there all along.

John Steinbeck said, "If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. "

If you have that "aching urge" that can't be soothed by anything but writing a book...go write one!

What about you, Scriveners? Have you always been a storyteller? Do you love to be alone? Do you think you might rather paint or compose music than write? Have you ever felt trapped in one medium when your soul longs for another? 


 Here is the cover for the fifth book in my Camilla Randall series of comedy-mysteries. 


A comedy about character assassination, online review bullies, and Richard III. Also a cat named Buckingham.

Launching in early July from Kotu Beach Press

I am so in love with this cover by Keri Knutson of Alchemy Book Covers!

Anybody who would like a pre-launch review copy of the ebook, contact me at annerallen dot allen at gmail dot com.


 Sherwood Ltd. is only 99c this week on all the Amazons!
also available at 
iTunesScribdInktera, Nook, Kobo, and Smashwords
And in paper from Amazon and Barnes and Noble

"It's an hilarious lampoon of crime fiction, publishing and the British in general. Anne Allen gets our Brit idioms and absurdities dead to rights...Its digs at the heroic vanities of micro-publishing and author narcissism are spot on...Whether you enjoy crime suspense, comedy or satire - or all of them together - you'll have enormous fun with this cleverly structured romp. Highly recommended!" Anne is "obviously a Brum lass masquerading as a Yank"...Dr. John Yeoman

Follow Camilla's hilarious misadventures with merry band of outlaw indie publishers in the English Midlands. Always a magnet for murder, mischief and Mr. Wrong, Camilla falls for a self-styled Robin Hood who may or may not be trying to kill her. It follows Ghostwriters in the Sky, but can be read as a stand-alone. (And sets the scene for So Much for Buckingham)


BARTLEBY SNOPES CONTEST   $10 FOR UNLIMITED ENTRIES. Compose a short story entirely of dialogue. Must be under 2,000 words. Your entry cannot use any narration (this includes tag lines such as he said, she said, etc.). These are the only rules. 5 finalists will also appear in Issue 15 of the magazine. Last year they awarded $2,380 in prize money. Deadline September 15, 2015.

Rattle Poetry Prize The annual Rattle Poetry Prize offers $10,000 for a single poem to be published in the winter issue of the magazine. Each entry can contain up to 4 poems. 10 finalists will also receive $200 each and publication, and be eligible for the $2,000 Readers’ Choice Award, to be selected by subscriber and entrant vote. Entry fee $20 (includes subscription) Deadline July 15th.

Golden Quill Awards Writing Contest: Flash, Poetry, and Short fiction categories. Entry fee $20 for stories and poetry, $15 for flash fiction. The theme is TRANSFORMATION. Deadline July 15.

Glamour Magazine Essay contest.  FREE! Theme: "My Real Life Story". Prize is $5,000 and possible publication in Glamour Magazine for personal essays by women, between 2,500-3,500 words. Enter online or by mail. Open to US residents aged 18+.Deadline July 15th

MARK TWAIN HUMOR CONTEST  Entry fees: $12 Young Author or $22 Adult. 7,000 words (or fewer) of any original work of humor writing. Submissions must be in English. Submissions are not required to be in the style of Mark Twain or about Mark Twain. 1st Prize: $1,000 (Adult), $600 (Young Author). Other cash prizes! Deadline July 10, 2015

Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest. Entry fee $10. Your story should in some way touch upon the publication's mission: Celebrating America — past, present, and future. Think Norman Rockwell. No profanity or graphic sex. Any genre. No previously published stories, but they can have appeared on your blog. Between 1,500 and 5,000 words. Deadline July 1, 2015

Big Beautiful Wellness Creative Writing Contest. NO FEE Poems up to 30 lines Fiction or Nonfic between 1000 and 2000 words. $100 first prize. Theme: Body-positive living. Looking for inspirational, positive stories. Deadline July 1.

Writer's Village International Short Fiction Contest Prizes totalling $3200! And every entrant gets a critique. (which makes this a great deal.) Any genre of fiction up to 3000 words. Entry fee $24. Deadline June 30th.

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