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How to Write a Great Novel

Here is how a range of leading authors describe their approach to writing—a process that can be lonely, tedious, frustrating and exhilarating.

NICHOLSON BAKER
Most days, Nicholson Baker rises at 4 a.m. to write at his home in South Berwick, Maine. Leaving the lights off, he sets his laptop screen to black and the text to gray, so that the darkness is uninterrupted. After a couple of hours of writing in what he calls a dreamlike state, he goes back to bed, then rises at 8:30 to edit his work.

ORHAN PAMUK
Turkish novelist and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk often rewrites the first line of his novels 50 or 100 times. “The hardest thing is always the first sentence—that is painful,” says Mr. Pamuk, whose book, “The Museum of Innocence,” a love story set in 1970s Istanbul, came out last month.

HILARY MANTEL
She’s an obsessive note taker and always carries a notebook. Odd phrases, bits of dialogue and descriptions that come to her get tacked to a 7-foot-tall bulletin board in her kitchen; they remain there until Ms. Mantel finds a place for them in her narrative.

KAZUO ISHIGURO
Mr. Ishiguro, author of six novels, including the Booker-prize winning “Remains of the Day,”typically spends two years researching a novel and a year writing it. Since his novels are written in the first person, the voice is crucial, so he “auditions” narrators by writing a few chapters from different characters’ points of view. Before he begins a draft, he compiles folders of notes and flow charts that lay out not just the plot but also more subtle aspects of the narrative, such as a character’s emotions or memories.

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