Essential Advice for Not Writing Your Novel

Novels are hard. They’re long, complex pieces of work which must track multiple plots and character arcs in order to satisfy the reader. New and aspiring writers often struggle with the form, and even authors with a dozen or more short stories under their belts can run into trouble.

As someone who’s been avoiding writing since at least late 2005, I’m glad to offer these essential pieces of advice on successfully not writing a novel.

Catch up on Housework

Have you seen your kitchen sink lately? (No, really. Have you? I can’t remember the last time I saw mine under all those dishes.)

Follow Shiny Things

Remember that feeling you had when you first thought up your novel? How excited you were by the pure, untrammeled potential awesomeness of your story?

Well, it turns out that actually writing a novel after that initial head rush is hard work. You’ve got to make sure the words on the page actually carry meaning to people who aren’t you. You’ve got to track plots and subplots, and tie everything together with a satisfying ending. Theoretically.

If you’re like me, it’s never going to match up to the glory of your first imaginations.

Although the lure of holding a finished, published, novel that can be read by other people is strong, it’s much easier to just give up and skip to the fun part: Coming up with a brand new shiny idea!

If a new story isn’t shiny enough, try a blog post (like this one!) or consider picking up a new hobby. Painting miniatures is expensive and time-consuming, and an excellent choice for someone who’s looking for an alternative to finishing a long-term project like a novel.

Or how about a second job? A third?

Research Rabbit Holes

As an academic librarian, I know all too well the importance of research. I also know that it’s easy to think you’ve done “enough” research.

But ask yourself this: What will you say to experts on 17th century English spaceflight proposals if you get the details of John Wilkins’s breakfast routine wrong? How will you live with yourself with a mistake like that hanging over your head?

Don’t know where to start? Wikipedia has never not led me down a research rabbit hole yet.

Procrastinate

As the saying goes, “Never do today what you can conceivably put off until tomorrow.”

Do you really need those words today? What difference will it make in the long run? If you finish your novel in March 2031 instead of December 2020, who’s even going to notice?

Besides, you can always catch up later.

Set Unrealistic Expectations

One of the best ways to not write a novel is to set yourself up with absolutely unrealistic expectations.

When paired with procrastination, this technique is almost unstoppable: you can kick off an endless cycle of getting behind, excoriating yourself for getting behind, and promising you’ll make up for it by writing 3,300 words a day instead of 1,600.

Rinse. Lather. Repeat.

This technique’s real strength, though, is its versatility. Compare the world-building of your novel to The Fifth Season or Ancillary Justice. Ask yourself if your characters have as much appeal as Hermoine Granger and as much personality as Harry Dresden. Is the plot as intricate as Game of Thrones? Does it change the way you look at reality as much as watching Blade Runner when you were fifteen?

The key is to make your plans as grandiose as possible. Don’t settle for writing a novel people might enjoy. Examine in detail every potential flaw of your as-yet-unwritten novel and ask yourself: is it worthy of an Astounding Award? (Or, if you’ve already disqualified yourself from that by not not writing too many other things, a Hugo?) A Nebula?

How about a Nobel Prize? I mean, Kazuo Ishiguro won one of those and he writes fantasy, so…

Read the Comments on a Recent News Story

On second thought, don’t.

Not even not writing a novel is worth that much self-inflicted pain.

Put the Cart before the Horse

If—even after all of the above—you find yourself close to finishing your novel, you can give yourself some breathing room by changing your focus to things you’re not ready for yet.

Look up agents.

Read think pieces on trends in your genre.

Trawl for cover artists.

Write award acceptance speeches.

Browse IMDB and figure out if it’s really the best choice to get Michelle Yeoh to star in the movie adaptation of your (incomplete) epic wuxia/secondary fantasy/thriller/mystery opposite Patrick Stewart, or whether a Malese Jow/Sean Connery pairing would be better. And who would direct it: John Wu or Jackie Chan? Is Wong Kar Wai too much of a stretch? (Maybe you should add in an unrequited love story sub-plot so he’s a better fit.)

If you’re really a masochist, consider how many TVTropes pages could conceivably hold entries on your novel.

Video Games

Enough said.

Experiment

There are as many different ways of not writing a novel as there are authors.

While the items on this list worked for me, even the most dedicated of novelists sometimes find themselves in possession of a completed first draft, a polished manuscript, a submission packet complete with query letter, pitch, synopsis, and author endorsements, or—heavens forfend!—a publishing contract.

This can be very discouraging, but don’t give up.

The beauty of writing is there’s always another project you can pour your heart into. There’s always another chance to daydream instead of putting the hard work into completing a draft. Always another chance to devise ever-more-complicated ways of plotting scenes and tracking character arcs instead of actually writing the scene and showing the character growing in a way that would satisfy a reader. There’s always another tomorrow.

Next time you don’t write a novel, try something new! Sooner or later, you’re bound to succeed.

Stewart C. Baker

Stewart C Baker is an academic librarian, speculative fiction writer and poet, and the editor-in-chief of sub-Q Magazine. His fiction has appeared in Nature, Galaxy’s Edge, and Flash Fiction Online, among other places. Stewart was born in England, has lived in South Carolina, Japan, and California (in that order), and currently resides in Oregon with his family­­—although if anyone asks, he’ll usually say he’s from the Internet.