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Keith Oatley, Ph.D.
Keith Oatley Ph.D.

How to Write a Novel

Do people all have a novel inside them?

Writing a novel is something that many people try, and even more people think about. The most important thing to know before you start is that you don't have a novel inside you. It emerges only as you begin to write.

With an idea for a novel, you can, of course, just sit down and pour onto the paper or computer screen what's in your head: a mind-dump. It's an important first stage. A mind-dump is not unlike writing a letter. So for instance, Jane Austen wrote a lot of letters, many of them to her sister Cassandra. Some of Jane Austen's handwritten letters and drafts of her fiction can be seen in an on-line exhibition of New York's Morgan Library, click here.

The principal purpose of conversation and of letter writing is to maintain and develop relationships with people we know. Each utterance is a small piece of access to one's mind. So skilled are people at conversing and, in Austen's days, at letter-writing, that the words just stream out. Look, for instance, at the letter at the top of Page 2 of the on-line exhibition, by Jane to Cassandra on 2 June 1799. There are no crossings out.

Writing a novel has a different purpose, and needs a different method. The purpose is to enable the reader to create imagined scenes, to get to know characters better than most people one knows in ordinary life, and to enter the minds of these characters. The method for constructing a piece of writing with this purpose includes the idea that the words that come first to mind are usually just starting points. For a novelist, paper serves not so much as a medium of communication (at least at first) but as a medium of thought. You can see Jane Austen's fictional thoughts in actual progress in the first manuscript of the Morgan Library's online exhibition. It's part of a draft from a novel she didn't publish called The Watsons, which is full of crossings-out, that is to say full of thinking.

In fiction the writer first has to put something on paper, then move into the role of reader and read what was written, then move back again, change it and write some more, and go back and forth many times. The writer uses the externalized thoughts to change them and to produce better thoughts, by crossings out of what has been written and the substitution of something different. These are movements towards creating something that will work not just for someone close, but for an unknown reader whom the writer imagines him or herself to be when reading the externalized thoughts. Almost all writers of fiction write in this way so that they can see how externalized thoughts actually work when they are internalized again, and to see how to improve them, in their construction of paragraphs that will enable the reader to imagine a whole fictional world.

Image: Sketch of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra Austen.

About the Author
Keith Oatley, Ph.D.

Keith Oatley is professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, researcher on the psychology of fiction, and author of three novels.