I have been working on my novel for over four years, and I still don’t have a first draft. This doesn’t seem like the right way to do it. But it is my first novel. I don’t really know what I’m doing.

How Not to Write a Novel (Maybe)


In November 2013, I dove into National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), hoping to convert a short story into a full-length young adult fantasy. I won the challenge of writing 50,000 words in one month, mostly by writing whatever came into my head. Even though I won the challenge, what I wrote was not a novel. Still, I kept writing. Through the following year and into the next, I plugged away at my draft.

By then I had over 100,000 words.

As I reviewed my work, I found that most of what I’d written was exploring where my protagonist came from: her past, her connections, her world. But I couldn’t figure out how to convert my words into a compelling story with a real plot.


So I started experimenting. First I wrote an outline. It took months, several spreadsheets and piles of notecards to pull something together. By September 2015 I had an outline. I was excited to have a plot and a direction. I was glad to have the messy complexities in my head organized in neat boxes on a spreadsheet.

markers in a mug on top of laptop

Time to dive back in to writing. Except that it soon became clear that I didn’t know much about the world of my book. I had a general idea of the places things would happen, but oh, so many questions. How did the mists keep my lost lands isolated? What was Jacquard’s circus like? What did a talking hawk look like?

I had spent two years skimming over these niggling details, but they weren’t going away on their own. So I committed myself to researching and building my world. With so many unknowns, I had no idea how to organize my process. My thoughts felt like they had been caught up by an inexperienced juggler who was spinning them in circles, then dropping them in disarray.

Eventually, I came across a worldbuilding tutorial that made sense to me. Based on Genesis, the process provided a sequence which brought some order to my thoughts. I could focus on weather patterns, for example, knowing that I would figure out geography in a later step.

bulletin boards, lamp and desk

“I spend the first few months researching a multitude of facts, history, and materials, not knowing if anything I am studying will be of use to me in the artwork.”

Maya Lin, Boundaries


Even though I relished the learning of this phase, I was constantly questioning myself: Am I wasting my time? Is this too much detail? Not enough? Is any of this even relevant?


I gave myself a few months to build my world, but by the time I finished, two more years had passed. Two years! And the truth is that it’s still something of a mess. Throughout the process, I reversed decisions and questioned my choices. Not all parts of the world agree with one another. And I know, I absolutely know, that things will evolve further as I write.

But I now have a deeper, more intuitive sense of my story. I am doing what I need to do to write my book. I try not to judge—as hard as it is to navigate the mysteries of the creative process—I try not to judge, and I keep working.


“This is your novel and only you know how to write it.”

Roxane Gay, “NaNoWriMo Pep Talk” 



I don’t know how to write a novel. At least, it’s clear that I don’t know how to write it efficiently. So, who am I to decide whether my process is working or not? Despite my impatience, I enjoy the work of unearthing obscure knowledge. I love discovering unexpected passageways. And I hope that in the end I’ll succeed in bringing to light some hidden chamber of my heart.

Better get back to work.

turquoise metal chair with sun pattern









go to Research—Writing Process for writing resources, including links to the worldbuilding tutorial I used, and some great outlining advice

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