What are some of the challenges involved in writing a novel?

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Answered by: Tim, An Expert in the Style and Technique Category
So you're thinking of writing a novel?

That’s fantastic; hopefully you’ll be sitting next to Oprah a year from now promoting it.

There are many challenges in writing a novel, research, plot, sub-plot, character development...the list goes on and on - but this article will deal with one of the less obvious challenges.

For the purposes of this article we’ll assume that you have, or will tell people that you plan to write a novel. In which case the first thing they’ll say (at least 90% of the time) will be…“What’s it going to be about?”

Get used to it. After all – what would you say if a friend, relative or co-worker sprung that announcement on you? I guarantee you’d ask the same thing. It’s an almost reflexive response. Much the same as one would ask you the question “What color?” if you announced that you were planning to paint your house.

Unfortunately the answer to the question “What’s it about?” is not nearly as simple as the answer to “What color?”

“What color?”


Simple, direct, no need for lengthy explanations - unless “Blue with white trim” constitutes a lengthy explanation.

You wouldn’t delve into the specific aspects of the color, the mix ratio (even if you understood it) or the historic significance of that particular color scheme as it relates to your house. Why bother? You’re only painting a house; it isn’t The Mona Lisa for crying out loud.

However – we aren’t talking about painting your house. We’re talking about writing a novel.

If you’re talking to a nine-year-old who has trouble reading the funny pages an answer that is the literary equivalent of “Blue” will probably suffice, for example; “It’s about a guy who’s a boxer.”

This answer would most likely satisfy most nine-year-old fans and they would then move on to the next topic of conversation, which could range anywhere from insects to ballerinas (depending on gender).

So now you’re prepared to answer a nine-year-old. Unfortunately, you will almost assuredly be asked by someone slightly older. It is with that likelihood in mind that I offer this advice.

Be prepared - have three answers ready.

Not three different answers, just three versions of the same answer.

First you’ll need the short answer, preferably twelve words or less.

After that you’ll need a more detailed version where you’ll probably have to wrap it up in fifty words or so.

Finally you’ll need the long answer, the one that could take anywhere from ten minutes to an hour.

It probably sounds silly, but it’s the truth, I know because I’ve been through it. Allow me to break it down for you…

You’re in the break room, at a party or at your kid’s soccer game and somehow the topic of your (planned) novel comes up. Inevitably (and understandably so) you’ll be asked “the question.”

Be careful; don’t shoot yourself in the foot. Your answer must provide enough information to encourage them to ask for more and be short enough to avoid boring them to the point of changing the subject.

For example, suppose the predominant theme of your book will be the plight of the common man against the power of the establishment. Your protagonist will rise from the depths of obscurity to meet his foe head on and strike a blow for Joe Everyman. Naturally along the way he will be faced with challenges that will force him to dig deep within himself for the strength to continue and he will also meet his soul mate, who will provide him with that missing link to happiness. And you’re going to accomplish all of this with a sports metaphor.

Easy-peazy. After that answer people will be asking you to whom they should make out the check – right?

Good luck with that.

I’ll bet I lost half of you just by writing that imaginary synopsis.

Here’s the way it should happen…

“What’s your book about?”

“It’s about a nobody boxer who gets a shot at the title.”

Twelve words, but they have a very important role. Right away the people who are only asking out of politeness will feel as though they’ve fulfilled their obligation and move along. They’ll nod and say something inane like “Oh, that sounds good, did you see that game last night?” It’s actually best that way because they’ve done their duty and you didn’t waste energy trying to explain the complexities of the next Great American Novel to someone who would rather watch Cops than read your book.

What’s left after you’ve weeded out the polite conversationalists is a group who will actually follow up with something like…”Really, that sounds interesting, tell me more.”

If you make it to this point in the process it’s time to bring out answer number two, which could sound something like this…

“Well, it’ll be about a boxer who takes on a fight even though the odds are against him and he can never win. Sort of like the way the common man is locked in a constant struggle with the injustices of a society that seems designed to keep him down. On top of that he has an inner conflict between fighting for his beliefs and compromising his integrity.”

The idea here is to find the balance between a long-winded soliloquy that will cause their eyes to glaze over and a brief, direct answer that will let them know that yours is going to be a piece of literature worthy of their time, not to mention their money. But…and this is important, you can’t give away too much or they won’t need to buy the book.

If the conversation continues past this point, you may as well start planning how you’ll spend the cash from the sale because they’re probably hooked. Now you can go into the in-depth analysis, the theme and the symbolism. It will most likely turn into a Q&A session where all you have to do is just answer their questions and use their feedback to help you improve your story.

Just be careful not to give too much away though, after all, the ultimate goal is to make them want to buy the book.

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