• 100 Tips That May (or May Not) Improve Your Next Novel

    Ryan Chapman on the Craft and Practice of Writing Fiction (and Drinking Gin)

    Writing fiction demands time and discipline. That’s obvious. Less obvious is the cruel, possibly fitting paradox that the core of its successful practice cannot be articulated. James Baldwin put it this way: “I doubt whether anyone—myself at least—knows how to talk about writing.” The title of this piece may imply I disagree with Mr. Baldwin, or at least half-disagree with him. But if I’ve learned anything from writing novels, editing others’, teaching undergrad and MFA students, and debating literature in dive bars with impassioned friends and insensate strangers, it’s the value in talking about writing. The trick: admit it’s all ephemeral. Good writing advice is like a single gallon of gas. It will get you going, just not terribly far.

    This is as it should be. Even short-term palliatives are still helpful, and writers will take anything they can get to allay the profession’s ever-present anxieties. (To say nothing of the other ever-present anxieties of being alive in the year of our lord 2024.)

    What works for me may not work for you. What worked for you this morning may not work tomorrow. And what doesn’t work for anyone still has value… somehow.

    I started this compendium while avoiding my novel The Audacity. That’s my invisible 101st piece of advice: befriend procrastination.


    1. If your story opens with a dream sequence, it must end with one as well.

    2. Drafts often suffer from characters defaulting to the four S’s: smile, stand, sigh, and stare. If you come across these moves in your fiction, excise and reconceive.

    3. Your writing should embarrass you at least a little bit. If it doesn’t, you haven’t written anything of substance.

    4. Don’t write about love until you’ve had your heart broken. And sadness is not heartbreak; heartbreak is heartbreak.

    5. Emojis… Sure. I guess.

    6. Write the book only you can write.

    7. Write the book only John Grisham can write.

    8. Your writing should be timeless…

    9. …But also of its time. And outside of time. And time itself.

    10. Everyone craves the respect of their peers. The trouble is, your peers are writers.

    11. Do not read Goodreads reviews.

    12. Do not read YouTube comments.

    13. Do not read special anniversary editions of Time magazine sold at grocery-store end-caps memorializing classic rock bands.

    14. Do read novelists’ correspondence and diaries. I’m partial to Virginia Woolf and Graham Greene. Mario Vargas Llosa recommends Flaubert’s letters to Louise Colet: “Although Flaubert was a misanthrope and his letters are full of tirades against humanity, his love for literature was boundless” (tr. Natasha Wimmer).

    Eat all the plums from all the iceboxes. Apologize to no one.

    15. Llosa again, on writing one’s first novel: “Those writers who shun their own demons and set themselves themes because they believe their own aren’t original or appealing enough are making an enormous mistake. In and of itself, no literary theme is good or bad. Any themes can be either, and the verdict depends not on the theme itself but rather on what it becomes when the application of form—narrative style and structure—makes it a novel.”

    16. Wear a suit and tie while you write. Specifically, a single-breasted navy with notch lapels in a tropical merino wool and little to no padding in the shoulders. As for the tie? Go nuts.

    17. Comity is fine for a dinner party, but terrible for literature. Inherently polite writing has the shelf life of avocados.

    18. Step away from your screens and devices. Go outside and touch grass. Grab a blade of grass, uproot it. Look at it. Look at it closer, longer. Then eat it.

    19. The word “that” is among the ugliest in the English language. Try and avoid it. If you’re using it as a conjunction, often the line will be stronger without it.

    20. Acknowledgements for novels should be kept under two pages. You may add an additional page for every 400 pages of novel.

    21. If you’re stuck, imagine the actor Mahershala Ali playing every one of your characters. That guy can do anything.

    22. If you haven’t reread a novel at least four times, you have no business writing one. Nabokov: “One cannot read a book; one can only reread it.”

    23. The writer spends an inordinate amount of time with their brains, which is the most annoying organ. Know when yours needs a break.

    24. A writer’s only measure of success is the well-wrought sentence. And a six-figure advance.

    25. One cannot write without a writing practice. Habit and consistency are paramount.

    26. But not really? Write wherever you can, whenever you can. John Wray wrote his novel Lowboy while riding the subway. So did Kevin Nguyen with New Waves.

    27. But rituals are important. Light a candle, play the same music, vote in off-year elections.

    28. And keep your rituals to yourself. Even if you’re productive. Even if you’re advancing aesthetic possibility. Even if friends comment on a sudden numinous glow about your person. Trust me. You don’t want word getting out and the price of goat’s blood spiking.

    29. The composer Max Richter is great for soundtracking your writing sessions. If you want something slightly more propulsive, there’s Steve Reich’s Drumming. Slightly more abrasive? Try Fuck Buttons’ Tarot Sport. Much more abrasive? Liturgy. Especially their song “Generation.”

    30. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. Oh? Everyone is doing it? Well, their stuff is shit. Your stuff is shit too? Great! It pays better.

    31. If you’re stuck, do a shot of ouzo, put on the 1985 film Legend on mute, and improvise all of the dialogue.

    32. They only sell peeps around Easter, but those guys are pretty shelf stable.

    33. It’s impossible to write historical fiction while wearing sweatpants. Poetry, yes.

    34. Read broadly. Whatever genre you dislike or dismiss, read at least two novels in that style. Be snobby only about quality.

    35. Writing is difficult; failure, the norm. It can surprise you when it’s going well. If you’re in the midst of a particularly strong session, bite down on a stick.

    36. Trust the process.

    37. Love the process, honor the process, obey the process.

    38. If you’re having difficulty with self-imposed deadlines, create a “Ulysses contract” with a friend. (This is akin to an accountability buddy.) As Odysseus approached the Sirens and the deadly reefs surrounding them, he plugged his sailors’ ears with wax and tied himself to the mast. He could now enjoy the seductive, deranging chorale and, no matter how much he commanded his crew to divert their ship, know they couldn’t hear him. Attempt something similar with someone you trust. Give them a stamped envelope containing a donation addressed to a cause antithetical to your morality. Tell your friend to mail it if you don’t hit your writing goal. Then get writing.

    No matter where you are in your career, remember there are always people above and below you. And, sadly, more productive than you.

    39. Embrace the German idea of sitzfleisch. As long as your butt is in the chair, and you’re not on the internet, you’re writing.

    40. If you meet a famous writer, ask them for restaurant recommendations. When they say something like, “The White Onion is my favorite for Italian,” repeat this back to them: “You’re saying The White Onion is your favorite?” After they confirm this, write down their exact quote. Now go write a novel titled The White Onion.

    41. Here’s one I’ve heard from a few writer friends. Before your book comes out, write the worst review you think it could ever receive.

    42. If your only free time is the hour or ninety minutes before work—or before the rest of your household wakes up—invest in a coffee maker with a timer. Aim to get coffee into your mouth within sixty seconds of your alarm; it’ll help you avoid the snooze button. The coffee doesn’t have to be good, just strong.

    43. Find your life partner at a young age. Being single in one’s twenties and thirties has all sorts of advantages, but it’s hell on writing routines. A partner is great for stability and encouragement.

    44. Every fourth book you read should be in translation. You wouldn’t solely eat American cuisine, would you?

    45. Every third book you read should be older than you are.

    46. Read The Paris Review‘s “Art of” interviews. Get a subscription and read the online archive, or buy their collected volumes.

    47. The first letter of the first word of each chapter of your manuscript should form a secret message for scholars and obsessives to discover later.

    48. Be restrained with your exclamation points…

    49. …and profligate with your interrobangs.

    50. Most people are poor readers. Some writers are, too. Learn to read properly. That means rereading, that means reading with pen in hand, that means reading slowly.

    51. Learn a second language. Nothing helps you discern the oddities and peccadillos of English like seeing how another tongue arranges grammar into meaning.

    52. Do drugs.

    53. Don’t go into debt to get an MFA.

    54. 99% of the time you can cut the word suddenly from your drafts. Same with immediately.

    55. Watch Joachim Trier’s film Reprise.

    56. If you’re struggling with revision, print out the draft. Cut each sentence into individual strips and papier mâché them into a sculpture of your head, scaled 2x. Once it’s dried, place the sculpture over your head—create eye holes at your discretion—and just sit like that.

    57. If you’re looking for solid, minimalist writing software, use WriteRoom.

    58. Read James Wood’s How Fiction Works. Annually.

    59. Also read Zadie Smith’s essay “That Crafty Feeling.”

    60. It’s well and good to find motivation in arranging, per Coleridge, the best words in the best order. Spite works too.

    61. The legendary editor Roger Giroux coined the term “ooks” for books that were published but still unfinished. Don’t write ooks.

    62. Two epigraphs is fine. Three’s really pushing it.

    63. Make friends with sculptors and painters.

    64. No matter where you are in your career, remember there are always people above and below you. And, sadly, more productive than you.

    65. A writer is interested in the world. If you meet someone who seems boring, ask them follow up questions. Nearly everyone is four follow-ups away from divulging something insane, memorable, or true.

    66. Don’t rely on the televisual. Unlike other media, literature can engage in the gustatory, the olfactory, and the tactile.

    Since nobody knows what they’re doing, successful authors create myths around themselves by necessity—it helps with interviews.

    67. Is your fiction merely a series of photographs? In other words, do your sentences catalog static images? (“She was taller than everyone else in the bar, and she wore a red raincoat two sizes too large for her narrow frame.”) Think about motion. Bring us into the fiction of your fiction: “She dipped her head under the pub’s doorway and expertly avoided the mounted bell, unbuttoned her massive raincoat—blame wine and eBay—and tried to inhale her dry shampoo over the odor of Friday-night desperation.”

    68. Never worry if your characters are likable. Engaging, authentic, legible—sure. But not likable.

    69. Listen to Rebecca Makkai’s lecture “The Ear of the Story.”

    70. Work in retail or food service at least once. Ideally both.

    71. You might read over your story drafts and find characters frequently starting/beginning to do things. “Dana went to the kitchen and started to make coffee. Another lonely Friday. Another lonely month. She began tearing up.” There’s nothing wrong with this, per se, but some readers may wonder, Did she ever make the coffee? What’s the difference between tearing up, and beginning to tear up?

    72. Eat all the plums from all the iceboxes. Apologize to no one.

    73. Verbs drive sentences. If your prose feels flat, try Douglas Glover’s tactic of circling every conjugation of “to be.” Can you rewrite those sentences with different, more vivid verbs?

    74. Err on the side of classic dialogue tags like she said, he asked, they replied. Ornate tags feel like you consulted the thesaurus (she queried). Other times they signal your direct speech doesn’t stand on its own and requires the buttressing of he demanded.

    75. Speaking of dialogue tags: limit their adverbs. Unless you’re diving headfirst into genre, it’s distracting to read she replied suspiciously and he said joyfully.

    76. Ok, more on adverbs. Those indicating habit and summarized behavior preserve a storytelling tone, in the sense of someone telling a story, at bedside or around the campfire. “He always ate late,” “She never wore shorts,” etc. If you want that tone, go for it. Otherwise, words like always, never, and usually inhibit the reader’s deeper engagement. Don’t tell us what they usually do. Tell us what they’re specifically doing right now. We’ll infer habit from there.

    77. Apprenticeship prose often lacks dynamism. Don’t tell us how something is unchanged, or continues unabated. Write its interruption. It’s not, “Mrs. Dalloway always had the servants buy the flowers.” Or, “The servants usually bought the flowers, but today Mrs. Dalloway would buy them herself.” Woolf gives us everything we need with, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

    78. Oh, and reread Mrs. Dalloway.

    79. Backup your files. In the cloud, on an external hard drive, whatever. Just do it.

    80. Marry rich.

    81. Go on solo walks. Ambulation supports the writing mind. (No podcasts, no music.)

    82. Writing is profoundly selfish, and time is zero-sum. Acknowledge and extend gratitude to those in your life whose labor enables your own.

    83. If you’re attempting a longer fiction project, with either experimental structure or an emphasis on plot, create a knowledge board. Mystery and thriller writers use these—as did Téa Obreht, for her novel Inland—to ensure its information is judiciously apportioned across the text. Buy a posterboard or whiteboard, orient it horizontally, and draw a straight line from left to right, midway down. The space below the line (i.e., the bottom half) is the author’s space: write inside of it every piece of information that must be conveyed by the text somewhere in the novel. These should be brief: “John Doe dies,” “Body is found,” “Suspect #3 disappears,” “Murderer is revealed,” etc. The top half of the board is the reader’s space, with the horizontal line acting as their progression through the text. The left border represents the first page; the center, the novel’s halfway point; and the right border, the last page of the novel. Take each item of information from the author’s space and plot it on the line. For a formulaic whodunit, you’d mark the crime close to the left side/first pages, and the discovery of the perpetrator near the right side/last pages. If you already have a draft, plotting it will help visualize the reader’s journey through it. Is there a clump of revelations, followed by barren longueurs? Can you switch items around to create suspense or new emotional valences? You can also reverse-engineer an existing novel via knowledge board.

    84. Always remember: The heart is a lonely hunter. The liver is an underpaid gatherer. The spleen is a truculent layabout.

    85. Superlatives tend to undermine meaning, or at least inhibit it. For example: “He was undoubtedly one of the handsomest men I had ever seen—the dark blue eyes opening out into lashes of shiny jet were arresting and unforgettable.” Undoubtedly, handsomest, ever seen, arresting, unforgettable… This is a nervous sentence. It doesn’t trust itself or the reader. It’s also from an early draft of The Great Gatsby. Susan Bell highlights the line in her essay on Fitzgerald’s editing process. Here’s the same sentence, from the final text: “His tanned skin was drawn attractively tight on his face and his short hair looked as though it were trimmed every day.”

    86. Another lesson worth gleaning from Fitzgerald’s revision: Stop describing characters’ eyes. Challenge yourself to illustrate a person through literally any other part of the body.

    87. The armpit, for instance, is underrepresented in fiction. Amend this.

    88. When two people are talking they rarely use each other’s names. (Unless they’re fighting, condescending to each other, or having sex.) Explicitly invoking names is a cinematic convention you can disregard in direct speech.

    89. Buy house slippers.

    90. If you’re starting a sentence with conjunctions like “but” or “although,” try cutting the word itself. Often the period from the preceding sentence implies as much.

    91. Good taste means disliking a work of art everyone else extolls, and vice versa. Figure out what it is about these works that moves you so.

    92. Great fiction—and especially great short fiction—holds something particular and ineffable at its core. Laura van den Berg calls this a story’s “alien fish,” and advises her students to revise toward it, safeguard it, keep its absence present.

    93. Opt for a London Dry like Botanist or Citadelle. Store it in the freezer. Dolin is serviceable for the vermouth; keep that in the fridge. I prefer a slightly “wet” ratio of three ounces gin to three-quarters of an ounce vermouth. Add to a mixing glass with plenty of ice. Add a dash of orange bitters, then stir, strain, and serve. (I keep coupe glasses in the freezer, too.) If you have a sweet tooth, try Hayman’s Old Tom Gin. For something extra briny, try Fundy gin, with a vermouth rinse.

    94. Know what word you should use? “Ersatz.”

    95. Since nobody knows what they’re doing, successful authors create myths around themselves by necessity—it helps with interviews. Look forward to the day you can extract myths out of all this frustration.

    96. If you’re midway through a long project, free-write outside of it every now and then. Give yourself a prompt—like one of Kelly Link‘s—and set a timer. Speed through a messy draft. These short pieces and go-nowhere exercises in style keep you limber.

    97. Hone your sensibility. This is obvious, but it demands patience, discipline, and a high tolerance for risk.

    98. Jazz! Jazz? …Jazz. (Jazz.)

    99. Beware: Some prompts will seem like a good idea but fizzle out, and stubbornness demands you make another pot of black coffee and brute-force your way all the way to, I don’t know, a hundred discrete pieces of writing advice. And maybe you really only ever had a dozen pearls of wisdom—for instance, avoid at-hand phrases like “pearls of wisdom.” You vamped, and you joked, and you finally crawled within inches of the finish line. You switched your second-person perspective from the reader and toward yourself, which is the kind of intra-textual change in the enunciatee you’re sure Rebecca Makkai would disapprove of. (Listen to “The Ear of the Story!” Really!) The article flails about; the article collapses. Maybe you can hide behind some Latin.

    100. Caveat lector.


    The Audacity by Ryan Chapman is available from Soho Press.

    Ryan Chapman
    Ryan Chapman
    Ryan Chapman is the author of the novels The Audacity (Soho Press, 2024) and Riots I Have Known (Simon & Schuster, 2019). His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Sewanee Review, The Believer, and elsewhere. He teaches at Vassar College and the Sewanee School of Letters, and is a contributing editor to BOMB magazine. He lives in Kingston, New York.

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