…or so you might think.

There are a lot of ways authors… hell, people in general… find their way to this point, but for aspiring authors, I have a feeling that point is reached after too much exposure to people like me.

That said, I have never once in my now thirty-five year career as an editor and author actually said anything like these words to any single author ever. It would never occur to me to say that. But with all the advice I offer, and all the advice I read from other authors and editors and agents—people who offer advice to authors—I understand the danger that this advice, especially in aggregate, runs of coming across as: There is one best way to do this and so if you aren’t doing exactly this or experiencing exactly this as you’re writing you’re absolutely doing it wrong and you will die hopelessly unpublished.


Let me brush this aside right away, using words I know I’ve used before:

Fiction is a form of art, and art, by definition, can not be perfected. There is no one way to accomplish the writing of a novel. There is no best way to accomplish the writing of a novel. If, at the end of your writing process, whatever that may have looked like, if you hold in your hands a finished manuscript that speaks to you, you have succeeded in writing a novel, even if neither the novel nor the process in any way matches the novels that Stephen King writes, or the process by which he writes them, as described in his book On Writing.

Here are two examples of things I worry authors are getting too worried about.

Often I read authors saying, in some form or another, that at some point in their writing process, their characters “take over,” and start dictating the story to them, as though the author has lost all control. This may be true to some degree or another for some authors, but if you don’t necessarily experience that, does that mean you’re “doing it wrong”? Well, if it does, that means Vladimir Nabokov was doing it wrong through his entire successful career, based on this response, in a Paris Review interview, to that idea having been expressed by E.M. Forster:

My knowledge of Mr. Forster’s works is limited to one novel, which I dislike; and anyway, it was not he who fathered that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills, although of course one sympathizes with his people if they try to wriggle out of that trip to India or wherever he takes them. My characters are galley slaves.

So now it’s established that one or the other of E.M. Forster or Vladimir Nabokov was doing it wrong and one of them should have been doomed to failure. The fact that that did not happen means you, as a completely separate individual from both Forster and Nabokov, will interact with your characters however it makes sense for you, and however they get you to a satisfying conclusion.

I’ve dismissed the idea of a “plotless novel,” but in so doing have I done you all a disservice? William S. Burroughs said this to The Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1984:

I myself am in a very old tradition, namely, that of the picaresque novel. People complain that my novels have no plot. Well, a picaresque novel has no plot. It is simply a series of incidents. And that tradition dates back to the Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter, and to one of the very early novels, The Unfortunate Traveler by Thomas Nashe. And I think Celine belongs to this same tradition. But remember that what we call the “novel” is a highly artificial form, which came in the nineteenth century. It’s quite as arbitrary as the sonnet. And that form had a beginning, a middle, and an end; it has a plot, and it has this chapter structure where you have one chapter, and then you try to leave the person in a state of suspense, and on to the next chapter, and people are wondering what happened to this person, and so forth. That nineteenth-century construction has become stylized as the novel, and anyone who writes anything different from that is accused of being unintelligible. That form has imposed itself to the present time. 

But does that mean we all have to write like William S. Burroughs now? Or can we accept what Allan Gurganus said, also in a Paris Review interview, just this spring:

Plot confuses beginning storytellers by sounding so extruded, mechanical. Simply put, plot is what your characters most want and whatever they will do to get it. I am always attracted to characters having a hard time. Fiction can be summarized as “and then something went terribly, terribly wrong.” The more specific the hero’s trouble, the more unconventional his wish or obsession, the greater chance the story has of saying something new and helpful.

That warms my pulp-inspired heart, but I am also a Burroughs fan, because no one wants to read the same novel over and over again. Give me variety or give me death!

Big, complex plot? Fine by me! Wandering exploration of the inner working of a heroine-addled mind? If you can pull it off!

If you got there—got that novel done and you have that warm feeling like you’ve really captured something—I do not care how you got there! Does it adhere strictly to some formula? Okay, I guess, as long as I can’t see the superstructure. Did it spill out of you in some kind of altered state of consciousness where you felt entirely at the mercy of the Muses? Um… sure!

If it works it works. And though I will continue to offer advice on the subject of writing fiction, I will continue to assume that you will do with that advice as you will: ignore it, think about it and use bits of it, try things and get a good result but then modify it to suit your needs… and so on into infinity. As long as there are brilliant new novels for me to read every year, well, I’ll let Johann Wolfgang von Goethe have the final word:

I am more and more convinced that whenever one has to vent an opinion on the actions or on the writings of others, unless this be done from a certain one-sided enthusiasm, or from a loving interest in the person and the work, the result is hardly worth gathering up. Sympathy and enjoyment in what we see is in fact the only reality, and, from such reality, reality as a natural product follows. All else is vanity.

—Philip Athans

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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Pingback: About This Writing Stuff… | Phil Giunta – Space Cadet in the Middle of Eternity

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