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  • Amanda Phillips

On Writing #1: Hiking Up to the Novel

If writing a novel feels like a monumental task (it is), here's another method to add to your pile of methods because novels are intense and you should come ready.


Novels are scary shit.

Well hey, that's all right. Maybe what worked for me will work for you. Writing is about confidence - confidence in your honed skills and insight as a living creature, suffering and enjoying this world with all of the rest of us. Confidence is also the bravery to take on one word at a time and just see what happens. And then, when you don't like what has happened, to keep taking on words until THE END. After that, of course, there's the whole editing thing, but we're not going to talk about that here.

In any case, I'm just going to make this easy because writing is hard enough (it's also magical, wonderful, and your goddamn lifeblood, but okay).


Yeah, lifeblood.

If the hardest part is getting to THE END, naturally we should practice getting there. So that's my advice, that's the big secret: practice getting to THE END.


If you've never written a poem before, now's the time to do it. You know why? Because poetry is easy. Good poetry is complex, sure, but poetry on its face is easy and that's where we want to start. We want to practice getting to THE END, so no matter how you feel about poetry, just do it. Pull up your favorite word processor, pen and paper, or typewriter (you vintage demigod), and prepare to dazzle yourself.

Step 1.1: The one-line poem. Yes, that's it. One line, one perfect metaphor or analogy in one perfect sentence to say it all. You might also choose to write a haiku, whatever you prefer is fine. I don't know your life. I just know you're here to work up to writing a novel so that's what we're going to do.

The night sky is a ripped bag of stolen diamonds.

Step 1.2: All right, nice work. Let's get a little more technical with the cinquain because I believe in you. Read up on the rules if you don't already know them, and then get back here and continue with me.

We are

not who we are,

white eyes in a black sky,

suffocating on our own breath,


Step 1.3: Go to Writer's Digest List of 100 Poetic Forms for Poets and start from the beginning, the middle, the end, I don't care. This step is your own and I'm not going to tell you how many times to repeat it, but my suggestion is variable. If you're a veteran writer of poetry and shorter forms of fiction but have never finished a novel, carry on to the next step. If you're just starting out and don't have a mass of unfinished stories scattered around your desktop or hidden in forgotten folders-in-folders, then think about repeating this step 25 to 50 times. Maybe even 100 times. I mean, there are at least 100 poetic forms on that list, so why not? It might be insane, but whatever. This is the rest of your life we're talking about, your career as a writer, your craft, your dream, so bookmark this page and the one from Writer's Digest and come back when boot camp is done.


One hundred times.


I love this part. There's something satisfying about finishing stories and that's why you're here. So if you're just coming back from Poetry Boot Camp, welcome back. Don't forget to start sending out your good ones for publication. You might want to have a look at somewhere like Duotrope or Poets & Writers.

Step 1.1: The Dribble is a complete story told in 50 words. Beginning, middle, end. If you're a fan of Blake Snyder's Save the Cat like I am, then go ahead and divide up the words to match the pacing of Snyder's beats. Check out Savannah Ghilbo's breakdown for some math. The Setup is the first 10%, which equates to 5 words. Yeah, you get 5 words to set the story up and that's it. Then something happens, boom! The Catalyst. Try for two words. Then there's the Debate, three words. Break Into Two, one word. B Story, one word. Fun and Games, 15 words (seems like a lot now, doesn't it?). Midpoint, one word. Bad Guys Close In, 12 words. All is Lost, 1 to 2 words. Dark Night of the Soul, 7 words. Break Into Three, 1 word. Finale, 4 words. Final Image, 1 word. And then cut where you can to make it fit into a 50-word Dribble. Fun as shit, am I wrong?

Step 2.2: The Drabble, not to be confused with the Dribble, but to totally be confused with the Dribble. It's essentially the same exact thing as the Dribble, but the Drabble is 100 words instead of 50. So double your section counts from last time and begin anew. Feels good to stretch the legs.

Step 2.3: Longer microfiction. For those of you who have contracted writer's claustrophobia, take a breath. You're going to be able to use adjectives and adverbs in this step because you have the room to do so. Repeat this step two times, once for 200 words and again for 300 words.

Step 2.4: Postcard fiction can range anywhere from 30 to 500 words, but we're starting at 400 words and repeating this step for 500 words. That's two more stories in the bank and, if you've been following me through, you should have five pieces of flash fiction that fit the dimensions of what City. River. Tree. accepts in terms of submissions. (That's the little fiction rag that I run with Aric, so obviously I'm partial, but there are SO MANY good flash fiction markets out there, so shop your stuff around get a writer's resume started).

Step 2.5: Sudden fiction normally ranges anywhere from 750 words to 1,000 words. I'll do the math for you: repeat 4 times for 750 words, 800 words, 900 words, and 1,000 words.

Step 2.6: Just kidding. You did it. You fucking did it. You graduated Step Two: Flash Fiction and are a guaranteed better writer on top of it all. You're ready to move on.


Fuck yeah. Strong.


This one is the big one, at least for me. I had to come to terms with the fact that if I couldn't write a solid short story from beginning to end, there was no way I was going to make it through a novel, let alone a novelette or novella.

Step 3.1: Write a short story, or two, or three. Give yourself some wiggle room with the word count, but have a clear destination in mind. Try to get there before you stumble over 7,500 words. I'd recommend experimenting with various lengths between 2,000 words and 7,500 words until it's no longer scary. Remember: you don't have to finish these in one sitting like you might have with the flash fiction. In fact, you probably shouldn't. I hear that 2,000 words seem to be the exhaustion point for most writers, myself included. Remember to take breaks and give your creative pool a moment to refill from the muse-tinted rain (what the hell is even that?).

Step 3.2: We're moving right along to the novelette. I'd recommend writing just one of these to boost your writing confidence. You could even be super old school and write THE END at the end, which counts for 2 words, by the way. I'd recommend aiming for 15,000 words. That's double your longest short story if you went for the beastly 7,500. Give yourself 60 days to bang it out. That's just 250 words every day and an easy way to build your writing stamina.

Step 3.3: The novella, at long last. This one is wild with the word count, too. It ranges from 15,000 to 40,000 words. I'd challenge you to write 30,000 words, though. I mean, take your pick, but something about 30,000 feels right, especially since we've been doubling up with the word count for a while now. Again, feel free to write as many novellas as you wish - or as many short stories, or poems, or whatever your heart desires. The point is to build your confidence, stamina, and to stretch your storytelling abilities from beginning, to middle, all the way to THE END.


That's right, you can do it now. I'm sure you always could, but you can do it now, too.


This is entirely your step to take. You've already proven that you can write poems, flash fiction, short fiction, and both of the novel's younger siblings. If you weren't prepared for it before, you certainly are now. You're also a far better writer because everything you write makes you better for having written it. You know how to get from start to finish. Maybe you wrote something earlier that has grown into a sapling of your first novel, or perhaps a novel to come.

Go forth, my child. Your novel awaits.