Why You Need to Write an Awful Novel

Note: If you’re already an accomplished writer with a novel or two under your belt, shoo. Git! You already know the routine, so get back to writing.

You need to write an awful novel this NaNoWriMo.

It took me writing two bad novels (we’ll call them Godawful: the Abomination, and Less Awful but Still Shit) before I wrote Ismira. I’m like the King of Swamp Castle in Holy Grail.

Writing those bad novels taught me more than any seminar or writing class ever could. They taught me to pace myself. They taught me that I would get better with each attempt. Best of all, they ensured me that I could actually write something novel-length. It could be done!

You probably have some doubts (you better have some). I certainly did the first time I wrote a novel. If I could talk to my then-self, here’s how the dialog might go:

Younger Me: Do I have a unique idea for my novel?

Me Now: No, and no one has for hundreds of years, so stop sweating it. What matters is that you have a story that you desperately want to tell, and that you tell it in your own way.

Younger Me: Fine, but do I have the stamina to make it past the first chapter? I’ve tried and failed to complete a novel so many times.

Me Now: If you make a routine and don’t slow down to let self-doubt catch up with you, you’ll be fine. Go for a run or a walk, let your ideas stew, and then write. To quote Stephen King:

Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.

Younger Me: That’s all well and good, but when I’m facing the dreaded blank page, it feels like —

Me Now: Hush. As soon as you start writing, it will stop being blank. If you have to, write something completely unrelated to your novel. Write what you see outside your window, write why chocolate chip cookies are clearly superior to sugar cookies, or pull a Finding Forester and write something from one of your favorite books. The physical act of typing or writing gets your brain into writing mode, and before you know it, your own words will start to flow — your own ideas will surface. And stop fretting over perfect wording. That’s what revisions are for.


Something else that helps me to get started: pull down a few novels from the bookshelf and read random passages. Feel the flow of words and get into the rhythm. Then sit down and write.

So what made the difference between my first two awful novels and Ismira? Practice of course. That and a passion for what I was writing.

The story of a trans girl who found a new way to overcome her hormones was the seed. It was the start to a dystopian mystery that grew in the back of my mind for more than a year. It was an idea I returned to again and again.

Last November I started writing. This October I finished my first good novel. I published it. It’s getting positive reviews— something only my dearest friends would have given my first two novels (in the way a parent dotes on their child’s finger paintings). None of it would have happened without writing an awful novel first. Well, two awful novels, but do we really have to keep bringing that up?

Maybe your first novel will be amazing. Maybe it’ll be a masterpiece! (If so, don’t tell anyone, because they’ll hate you.) It’s more likely to be… in need of improvement. And that’s okay. It’s a critical step along your path to becoming the novelist you always wanted to be.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Visit Gordon at gordonclemmons.com