Could you write a novel in just one month? That’s a question that many people will struggle to answer during November’s National Novel Writing Month, when each participant tries to write a 50,000-word novel in a month. As the event kicks off, Mark Hochberg, professor of English, shares his thoughts on novel writing:
Q: What is your opinion of National Novel Writing Month?
A: There are plenty of people trying to write novels all the time, and novels of quality take longer than a month. It’s more likely to be a matter of years to write a novel rather than weeks. James Joyce had a line, either about “Ulysses” or “Finnegan’s Wake,” that it took him seven years to write it, and it didn’t bother him if it took the audience seven years to read it. I think it’s a gimmick, and I don’t know what purpose it serves. It makes novel-writing sound like a trick. Doctor Samuel Johnson in the 18th century had a line, “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.” To write well is a painstaking craft, and takes time. So, in a short answer, I don’t think Novel Writing Month is a good idea.
Q: How have novels changed in recent years?
A: One way novels have changed in recent years is that they have become less culturally significant. Through much of the 20th century, the novel was the premiere literary form. The important writers were novelists, and it would be a big cultural event if someone like Ernest Hemingway came out with a new novel. Today, the novel doesn’t have that same stature.
The novel used to be the primary realistic form of literature. It gave you a picture of what contemporary life was like, and was accessible to a large middle-class audience. I think the serious novel today tends to be written more for people who are students of the novel rather than readers in general. A lot of people who 30 or 50 years ago would have aspired to being novelists are now writing different kinds of things online, even creating forms on the Internet. They’re making interactive things, even writing narratives for online games. It’s a changing form, and I don’t know what it will look like in 10 years.
Q: What is the most important part of writing a novel?
A: One novelist said having comfortable underwear so it doesn’t ride up when you’re sitting at a desk all day writing. I don’t know how to answer that. Writers go about writing different ways. They have different habits, different ways the writing process works for them. Some writers have to have the whole novel worked out in their heads before they begin to write. Other novelists get an idea, sometimes just an image, a conversation, and they’ll start writing and not know where it’s going to go; the author discovers what he has to write as he’s writing it. The British novelist E.M. Forster said, “How can I know what I think ’til I see what I say?”
Q: What are some common mistakes that amateur novelists make?
A: I think the biggest, and this I’ve learned from teaching writing short stories, is underestimating your audience and thinking you have to make things too obvious and explicit. What I tell my students is, assume that your reader is at least as smart as you are. That, I think, is the main problem that beginning writers have. They want to tell the reader too much instead of showing the reader by dramatizing a situation or a character or a thematic dilemma through the action. Readers don’t like to be lectured to. Part of the pleasure of reading is picking up what is being intended through the action and the dialogue. It’s a little bit like the pleasure of getting a joke. The sense of accomplishment from understanding what a writer is doing without having it explained is one of the great pleasures of reading.
Q: Do you have any particular advice for aspiring novelists?
A: Get a day job. Most people who write novels never end up getting published. Then, if you get published, selling any number is a long shot. If you’re going to do it, you have to do it because something in you needs to write, not because you think it would be a neat way to make a living, because it’s not a neat way to make a living. There are very few novelists who can make money from it.
~Laura Bitely ’14, Juniata Online Journalist