About That Novel
By Evan Hunter


If you haven't got an idea for one, forget it. If you haven't
got an idea you want to express on paper, in words,
forget it. If you prefer putting paint on canvas, or rolls on
your pianola or in your oven, forget it. You're going to be
with this novel for a long, long time, so you'd better have
thought about it before you start writing. When it's ready
to be written, you'll know. You'll know because you can't
get it out of your mind. It'll be with you literally day and
night. You'll even dream about it—but don't get up and
rush to your typewriter. Go back to sleep. Only in movies
do writers get up in the middle of the night with an
inspiration. The time to go to the typewriter is when
you're fresh and ready to do battle. There will be a
battle, no question, a siege that will seemingly go on
forever. So sit down, make yourself comfortable, and

No outline at first, except the loose one in your head,
draped casually around the idea. The thing you are
trying to find is the voice. This is the single most
important thing in any novel. The voice. How it will
sound. Who is telling the story? Why is he telling it? If
you're sixty years old and writing in the first person
singular about a 16-year-old high school student,
beware of the voice. It may be your own, and that is
wrong. If you're writing in the third person, you can
change the tone of the voice each time you switch to
another character, but the voice itself must remain
consistent throughout. The voice is your style. Except in
my mystery series, I try to change my style to suit the
subject matter of any novel I'm writing. I've come a
hundred pages into a novel using the wrong voice, and
I've thrown those pages away and started a new search
for the right voice. Don't worry about spending days or
weeks trying to find a voice. It will be time well spent.
You'll know when you hit upon it. Things will suddenly
feel right.

Once you've found the voice, write your first chapter or
your first scene. Test the water. Does it still feel right?
Good. Now make your outline. First of all, determine
how long the book will be. The average mystery novel
runs about 200 pages in manuscript, but a straight
novel can be something as slim as Love Story or as
thick as Gone With the Wind. You are the only person
who knows in advance what your story is about. You are
the only one who can figure how many pages you will
need to tell this story. Take out your calculator. Are you
writing a 300-page novel? OK, how many chapters will
you need? The length of each chapter will be
determined by how much you have to say in that
chapter. If you're depicting the Battle of Waterloo, it
might be a trifle difficult to compress it into 10 pages. If
you're writing about a man putting out the garbage, you
probably have only a scene, and you'll need additional
scenes to make a full chapter.

Outline the novel in your own way—never mind
freshman high school English courses. I've outlined a
40-page chapter with just the words "Father-son
confrontation." The outline is you, talking to yourself on
paper. Get friendly with yourself. Tell yourself what you,
as the writer, want to accomplish in any given chapter.
"OK, now we want a big explosion in the garage, and
we want to see all these goddamn flames, and smell
the smoke, and we want neighbors running over with
garden hoses. Bring the little girl in at the end of the
scene, shocked by what she's done." Got it? Talk to
yourself. You don't have to outline the whole book. Just
take the outline as far as your invention will carry it.
Later, when you've written all the chapters you've
already outlined, you can make another outline of the
next several chapters. If a chapter is needed between
something that has happened before and something
that will happen later, and you don't know what to put
between those two slices of bread, just type in the
words "scene missing." You'll come back to it later.
You're going to be here awhile.


Set yourself a definite goal each day. Tack it on the wall.
Ten pages? Five pages? Two pages? Two
paragraphs? It doesn't matter. Set the goal, make it
realistic, and meet it. If you're writing a planned
400-page novel, it will seem impossible ever to get it
finished. Four hundred pages may be a year away. But
your daily goal is here and now, and it's important to set
that goal and meet it so that you'll have a sense of
immediate reward. At the end of each week, on your
calendar, jot down the number of pages you've already
written. Store your kernels. Watch the cache grow. Keep
the thing moving. If it bogs down, if you're supposed to
write a tender love scene and you've just had a fight
with your accountant, put the anger to good use. Jump
ahead and write the Battle of Waterloo chapter. Don't
stop writing! It's easier to go fishing or skiing—but sit at
that damn typewriter, and look at the four walls all day
long if you have to. There is nothing more boring than
looking at the walls. Eventually, if only to relieve the
boredom, and because you've made a deal with
yourself not to get out of that chair, you'll start writing
again. At the end of the day, read over what you've
written. If you think it's lousy, don't throw it away. Read it
again in the morning. If it still looks lousy, do it over
again. Or if it's still bothering you, and you don't know
why, move on. Keep it moving. The nice thing about
writing, unlike public speaking, is that you can correct
all your mistakes later.


The only true creative aspect of writing is the first draft.
That's when it's coming straight from your head and
your heart, a direct tapping of the unconscious. The rest
is donkey work. It is, however, donkey work that must be
done. Whether you rewrite as you go along—taking that
bad chapter from the night before and putting it through
the machine again from the top—or whether you rewrite
everything only after you've completed the book, you
must rewrite. But be careful. You can hone and polish
something until it glows like a diamond, but you may
end up with something hard and glittering and totally
without the interior spark that was the result of your first
commitment to paper. Try to bring to each rereading of
your own material the same innocence you brought to it
the first time around. You will be rereading it 20 times
before you're finished. Each time, ask yourself what you
intended. Do you want me to cry when I read this
scene? Well, are you crying? If you're not, why aren't
you? Find out why you aren't. Did someone say
something that broke the mood of the scene? Is the
field of daffodils too cheerful for the tone of the scene?
Has your heroine stamped her foot when she should
be tearing out her hair? Work it, rework it. When you
yourself begin crying, you've got it.


How do you know when you're finished? You're finished
when you're satisfied. If a scene is right the first time
around, leave it alone. Tell yourself, "Terrific, pal," and
leave it alone. You'll know you're getting to the end
because you'll suddenly slow down. When that
happens, set smaller goals for yourself. Instead of
those five pages today, make it three. Your pace is
slower because you don't want to let go of this thing.
You've been living together for a long, long time, you've
let this smelly beast into your tent, and you've grown to
love it, and now you're reluctant to have it gallop out over
the sands and out of your life forever. The temptation is
to keep it with you forever, to constantly bathe it and
scent it, groom it and curry it, tweeze its lashes and tie a
bow on its tail. Recognize the temptation and recognize,
too, that everything eventually grows up and leaves
home. When you've done the best you can possibly do
at this time (there will be other books, you know), put
the manuscript in a box, give it a farewell kiss, and
send it out into that great big hostile world.


Where do you send it? Be exceedingly careful in
choosing your agent or your publisher. Don't send the
book to anyone who charges a fee for reading it or
publishing it. In the real world of publishing, people pay
you for your work. The Association of Authors'
Representatives, Inc. (if you decide to go the agent
route) will send you on request a list of reputable
agents in the United States. The address is P.O. Box
237201, Ansonia Sta., New York, N.Y., 10003. Just write
and ask, enclosing a self-addressed, stamped
envelope. If you decide to submit your manuscript
directly to a publisher instead, a long list of publishers
looking for various kinds of novels appears in The
Writer every year. Although some publishers today have
given up reading unsolicited manuscripts, many others
still maintain reading staffs, and their sole purpose is
to search for publishing possibilities. Send the novel
manuscript out. One publisher at a time. Multiple
submissions are frowned upon except when an agent
is conducting a huge auction, and then the publishers
are made aware beforehand that the book is being
submitted simultaneously all over the field. Choose a
publisher who has previously published your sort of
book. Don't shotgun it around blindly. If your novel
espouses atheism, don't send it to a religious


So now your monster is out roaming the countryside,
trying to earn a living. No, there it is in the mailbox.
Damn thing. Wish you hadn't given it life at all. Tear
open the package. Nice little noncommittal note.
Thanks a lot, but no … . Despair. Chin up, kiddo, send it
out again. But her it is back again. And again. And yet
again. Plenty of publishers in the world, just keep trying.
Pack it, send it, wait again. Why? Why wait? Why set up
a vigil at the mailbox? Why hang around the post office
looking like someone on the Wanted posters? You
should be thinking instead. You should be mulling a
new idea. Don't wait. What you should be doing is—


If you haven't got an idea for one, forget it. If you haven't
got an idea you want to express on paper, in words,
forget it. If you prefer putting paint on canvas, or rolls on
your pianola or in your oven, forget it. You're going to be
with the novel for a long, long time, so you'd better have
thought about it before you start writing. When it's ready
to be written, you'll know.

Write it.

© Evan Hunter


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