top of page


pen and paper with a to do list
A LOT of People Say They are Going to Write a Book One Day. Most Don't.

“When I have some time, I’m going to write a novel.”
“When I retire, I’m going to write a novel.”
“I have this great idea for a novel . . . let me tell you about it, because I know you’re a writer.”

If you’re a writer, in particular a novelist, you’ve heard all sorts of versions of the above three statements. If you’ve ever tried writing a novel, you know how absurd those statements are. Or, at least, you know how deluded the people saying those things are in terms of how easy they seem to believe writing is. Writing is hard. It’s time consuming. It’s a struggle between what the ideal novel will look like in the end, versus what it actually becomes after you’ve written it. If you haven’t yet attempted to write a novel, you should ask yourself one question: Do I have what it takes to be a novelist? The answer may or may not surprise you.

If you’ve been writing for any period of time, you understand the process, at least in theory. Writing short stories or poems or short nonfiction are great. Writing a novel is a different beast. Here are a few things I’ve learned from writing novels (I’ve written nine or ten, one of which has been published). The others are in various stages of editing or with my agent as we prepare to send out into the world (i.e., to acquisitions editors at publishing houses).

Nothing writers do is set in stone. Every writer has their own process. But, in general, some form of the below has to be accomplished in order to have a completed novel (which, to me, means a novel that you can send out to agents if you don’t have an agent, or send to your agent so she can send out to editors).

  1. You must write. I know this sounds obvious, but there are a lot of people who consider themselves writers that don’t write. They make excuses—I’m too busy. I’ll get to that after work or when I’m on vacation. I only write when the muse strikes me. Etc., etc. If you’re not writing, you’re not getting the words down, and novels, I hate to break it to you, are full of words.

  2. You must read. Reading is, I assume, why you want to write. You’ve read a book or books, and fell in love with the characters, the scenes, the dialogue, the way the narrative made you feel. The first book I ever read that pushed me into action, cliché as it is, was On the Road, by Jack Kerouac. I read the novel for a college course, fell in love with it, sold all my things, broke up with a girlfriend, and jumped in a car to drive cross country and experience the United States for myself. Reading allows you to understand and study how writers accomplish what they accomplish. So, read. A lot.

  3. You should know the rules (so you can break them). There are a lot of “rules” that writers learn during the process of writing. Many of these rules are acquired informally during the process of writing, meaning you pick up what works/what doesn’t work through the process of writing and reading. Other writers learn these rules through MFA programs in creative writing, and by reading books on writing and the writing process. When we first start out as writers, we mimic other writers’ styles, their dialogue, their flowery prose, whatever. It’s normal. It’s often encouraged, as well. Some people copy entire novels they enjoyed in order to “feel” what it is like to write such a book. However you go about learning the rules, just make sure to do it. The one rule you’ll learn later in the process is this: if it works, it works. But you have to put the 10,000 hours toward the craft of writing. Unless you’re a prodigy, there’s just no way of getting around it.

  4. You should be open to constructive criticism. This is one of the hardest things a writer need endure. Criticism is a difficult thing to accept, because while someone is telling you what’s good about your writing, they’re also telling you where you need improvement. A writer, if she is to become a novelist, must understand that criticism helps you—it does not harm you. At least it doesn’t harm anything but your ego. You will not learn a thing about writing (or improve your writing) unless you can take criticism. Whether or not you use that criticism is up to you. You’ll learn to recognize useful criticism from criticism that isn’t useful. Again, that’s just part of the process of writing. You don’t learn from pats on the back; you learn from failure. So, as they say, fail better.

  5. You’re going to need to edit. Let me rephrase that. You’re going to need to edit if you want to write a good novel. Today, in the world of self-publishing, anyone can “publish” their novel. All too often, I see novels being sold on Amazon or wherever that either haven’t been edited or were “edited” by being run through spellcheck. I’m sorry to say, but that isn’t editing. Editing requires self-editing, which means you, the author, goes through the work revising, adding, cutting, rewriting, proofreading, running spellcheck, line editing, making sure there’s a plot (although I know some writers believe plots aren’t important), ensuring there’s a story and that the novel isn’t episodic, that characters are well-developed (unless they’re minor characters), and a million other things one need do to ensure the novel is worthy of publication, whether traditionally or self-published. A first draft, no matter how well written, isn’t a novel—it’s the start of one. If that upsets you, maybe you’re not up to being a writer. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But people tend to not want to write subpar books. I’m not saying there aren’t any out there—we all know they are. But why contribute to that? Wouldn’t you rather have a novel that people want to read? I know I do. That’s why it takes me so long to get a novel to where I want it to be. You may get there sooner than I will. And that’s fine. But don’t take shortcuts. Shortcuts will only hurt what you’re trying to do.

  6. Don’t expect your first novel to be published. Now, I’m not saying it doesn’t happen—it does. But most published novelists have years of experience writing novels that never see the light of day. They’re practice novels. They’re novels where you’re learning how to write. Where you’re learning what you do well and what you don’t do well. Writing your first novel is a fantastic accomplishment. Most people never write a novel or a book. They just don’t. It takes a certain type of person to sit down in front of a blank piece of paper or a blinking cursor and dream up a story and characters and a world where people (or dragons, wizards, animals, or whatever) live and breathe and struggle and strive to achieve their goals irrespective of the hurdles before them. Novelists know that in order to succeed they cannot give up.

man climbing a mountain with repelling ropes pine trees in the back
Writing a Novel is Like Climbing a Mountain: It's Hard. It Takes Effort. And You Put One Foot in Front of the Other, Never Giving Up.

I personally believe novelists are born wanting to write. I can’t not write. It’s just not something I can do. If I’m not literally writing, I’m reading, or I’m thinking about writing. I used to carry notebooks around, jotting down my writing notes. Now I use my phone, but it’s the same thing: I’m writing. And thinking about writing and taking notes and doing research for your writing is all part of the process. But novelists never stop writing. They don’t quit. It’s what separates the writers from the people who want to have written.

There are more “rules” to becoming a novelist, but as I mentioned, the process is different for everyone. Some writers pump out two or three novels a year. Others take a decade to write a novel. I’ve written first drafts in three weeks, and other first drafts in 10 years. I don’t allow myself to get frustrated by it, because it’s my process, and I’ve accepted it. Writing, like anything, is a calling. Writing a novel is an investment that takes devotion, humility, an understanding of psychology, a love of words, a passion for stories, and much, much more. It’s very rewarding, at least I think so. There’s nothing else in the world that I enjoy more than writing something I think has legs. I strive daily (I write seven days a week) to write the book I want to read. I won’t ever reach that goal—I don’t think any writer really does. But I know that I do everything I can to be the best novelist I can be. And that takes sacrifice. But it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. Because I’m a novelist. And I’m proud to be one.


Cully Perlman is a novelist, short story writer, and a Substantive Editor. He can be reached at  


Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page