S.G. Browne

How to Write a Novel

Wondering how to write a novel in today’s chaotic world filled with countless distractions? Here, let me help.

First, pick a space in your home where you will do your writing. Someplace where you can cultivate your creativity. Ideally this will be separate from your communal living or gathering area and where you’re less likely to lounge, take naps, or turn on the television. Preferably in a room without windows and with a lock on the door to keep out inquisitive family members and housemates.

Once you have your writing space picked out, populate it with the tools you’ll need to nurture your writing: a desktop or laptop computer; a comfortable chair; pens and pads of Post-It notes to write yourself reminders and inspirational quotes about writing; a bookcase or some bookshelves filled with your favorite books or classic novels, with at least one shelf dedicated to books about how to write a novel; a stack of empty journals that you vow to write in daily and fill up with ideas and observations but that will remain in a stack on your desk or on your bookshelves, gathering dust.

With your writing space set up, turn on your computer and open your preferred writing software. Microsoft Word, Scrivener, Google Docs, and Vellum are some of the more popular and widely used programs. Spend several hours or days deciding which writing software is the best one for you. Second-guess this decision whenever your check your social media accounts to see what other writers are using.

After you’ve decided on your writing software and opened it up, type the title of your novel on the first page. If you don’t yet have a title, type a working title or placeholder title. You can come up with a title later. The important thing is to not get bogged down with trivial matters so that you can begin the process of putting words on the page.

Directly beneath your title, type your name. Spend several hours or days typing different variations of your name, with or without initials or with an alternate spelling of your first or last name because you saw another writer spell it that way and you think it looks more professional. More like a writer. Spend several more hours or days deciding on whether to use your real name or a pen name. Spend at least a week researching whether or not you need to file a DBA with your city to register your pen name as a business.

Once you have your author name figured out and have filled out any necessary or unnecessary paperwork required by your local jurisdiction, type your author name below your title or working title and then hit ENTER multiple times until you reach the top of the next page. Eventually you will learn to insert a PAGE BREAK instead but for now you don’t need to worry about that. You can always clean that up in your edits, which will take twice as long as writing the novel in the first place.

At the top of the second page, type Chapter 1. Spend at least twenty minutes going back and forth between using the Arabic numerals for the chapters or spelling out the chapter numbers, instead. Do an internet search for Arabic numerals and discover an article from 2019 in which 56% of the people surveyed think Arabic numerals shouldn’t be taught in school. Share this article on your Facebook and Twitter profiles and then go back to your novel. Decide to spell out your chapter numbers. You will probably go back and forth over this aesthetic multiple times during the writing and editing process.

After you’ve decided on the format of the chapter number, hit ENTER once or twice and then hit the TAB button. Eventually you will need to replace all of the TABS using paragraph formatting but don’t worry about that now. You don’t want to get caught up in the minutiae of manuscript formatting. That can all be fixed later. You are now ready to start writing your novel.

Stare at your computer screen for several minutes. Notice all of that blank, white space beneath the chapter heading, stretching out like an endless, white void. Feel the nagging self-doubt creep into the back of your head as you stare at the daunting blank screen, at the chasm of whiteness that you’re somehow supposed to fill up with words and sentences and paragraphs; with scenes and plots and characters; with a beginning and a middle and an end.

Continue to stare at your computer screen, your fingers hovering above the keyboard before rubbing your chin in contemplation, then rubbing your eyes because you’ve been staring at the blank, white screen for what feels like two hours without typing a single word. Run your hands through your hair in frustration, then change the chapter heading to spell out the chapter number before deciding to go back to using Arabic numerals. Stand up and walk around the room. Think about going to the kitchen to get a snack and something to drink to help clear your mind. Maybe a caffeinated soda or a cup of coffee to help stimulate your creativity.

Return to your computer fifteen minutes later with a cup of peppermint tea because you remembered that if you drink coffee after 4:00 p.m. you won’t get a good night’s sleep. And you don’t have any soda because you’re trying to cut down on sugar.

Sit back down at your computer and take a sip of your tea. Do another Internet search, this time about the nutritional contents of different sodas, and discover that there are 39 grams of sugar in a single can of Coke. A 12-ounce can of A&W Root Beer is even worse with 45 grams of sugar, although Mug Root Beer only has 28 grams of sugar. Decide that amount of sugar doesn’t sound so bad. Try to justify taking a quick trip to the store to pick up a six-pack of Mug but then realize that you’re just procrastinating and that your novel isn’t going to write itself.

Exit your web browser and take another sip of peppermint tea. Decide that peppermint tea is a poor substitute for root beer. Drink the tea because it’s soothing and because the warm mug feels good in your hands. Set down the mug on one of the coasters you bought from Out of Print Books, the one for Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Wonder if writing a novel could be considered a catch-22. Remember that you’re supposed to be writing your novel.

Take a deep breath, run your hands through your hair again, rest your fingers on your keypad, and start typing.

Type the first word, then the next word and the next until you have your first sentence. Type the next sentence after that, then another sentence until you have your first paragraph. The opening to your novel. Feel a sense of satisfaction. Of accomplishment. Go back and spend thirty minutes editing your opening paragraph until you realize the initial draft was better. Hit the UNDO button until you get back to your first version. Hit ENTER.

Realize that you have single line spacing and wonder if it should be double-spaced instead. Spend ten to thirty minutes searching the Internet to find out what the standard format is for manuscripts. Spend another fifteen to thirty minutes on Facebook asking other writers about line spacing and document formatting and getting conflicting answers that just make you more confused. Check to see how many people have liked or commented on the article you posted about Arabic numerals. Be disappointed that you don’t have very many likes or comments. Scroll through your news feed for another twenty to thirty minutes. Exit your web browser and return to your novel.

Highlight your opening paragraph and change the spacing from single space to double space. Realize that you’re using your writing software’s default font, which is Cambria 11-point, and wonder if this is the preferred font and size for novels. Spend another twenty minutes searching the internet to see what the best font and font size is for writing novels. Spend another ten minutes learning the difference between serif and sans serif fonts.

Once you have your tabs, line spacing, font type, font size, margins, headers, widows, orphans, and other paragraph and page layouts and formats figured out, you’re ready to continue writing your novel without any distractions or interruptions. Except for when you get an email notification. Or spend your time checking your Facebook and Twitter accounts. Or consult an online thesaurus to find that word you’re looking for. Or perform an online search for something related to your story and end up using all of your scheduled writing time reading articles and emails, instead.

You can install internet-blocking software such as Freedom or RescueTime that can restrict access to distracting websites and apps and help you to remain focused on your writing. Spend another thirty minutes to one hour researching the best option for you and then another thirty minutes deciding if you want to pay for a premium version of the software. After installing your preferred internet-blocking software, turn it on for your desired length of time and continue writing. Realize that you need to install the software on your phone but convince yourself you can leave your phone in another room so you’re not tempted to check it every time you receive a notification.

Read over the first paragraph you wrote. Edit it at least five more times before moving on to the next paragraph. Do the same with your second paragraph. And the next one. And the next one. Spend more time editing the first page of your novel than you did writing it.

Check your cell phone when you get a text notification because you didn’t leave your phone in another room like you told yourself you would. It’s a close friend who you haven’t communicated with in months. Text them back and forth until your friend calls you. Answer your phone. Spend forty-five minutes talking to your friend. Tell them you’re writing a novel. Feel offended when they don’t ask enough questions about your novel. Or else be evasive when they do ask you questions because you haven’t written as much as you’d expected. Make a promise with your friend to stay in touch more often even though you know you won’t keep your promise.

Realize that it’s now time to make dinner. Leave your writing space and go make dinner. Eat dinner in front of the television, streaming a series on Hulu or Netflix or Amazon Prime. Vow that you will only watch one episode while you eat dinner before you go back to working on your novel. Watch at least two more episodes. Decide it’s too late to get any more work done on your novel and spend another one to three hours streaming more episodes, checking social media, or playing video games.

Go to bed. Promise that you’ll wake up early to write before going to your day job. When your alarm goes off the next morning, hit the snooze button three times. Wake up and get out of bed. Decide that you need some exercise since you’ve been spending so much time sitting in front of your computer. Get some exercise. Take a shower. Eat breakfast. Go to your day job. Promise yourself that when you get home, you will spend more time writing and less time watching movies, going on the internet, or texting friends. Break your promise.

Spend the next three months to three years writing your novel. How long it takes will depend on the number of hours each day that you write, how much editing you do while writing your first draft, whether or not you use the internet-blocking software you installed, how often you answer your phone to talk to friends and family members, and how much time you spend on social media. But with all of the software programs, How-To books, and online resources available to writers today, writing a novel has never been easier.

Filed under: Novels,The Writing Life — Tags: , — S.G. Browne @ 6:42 am

Join Me For Story Hour on 9/9

Join me this Wednesday, September 9, at 7pm PST for Story Hour, a weekly reading of speculative fiction and weird stories. Story Hour is hosted by authors Laura Blackwell and Daniel Marcus, who created the reading series back in April as a way for readers and writers to connect during these unusual and unprecedented times.

The format of Story Hour focuses on complete short stories that can be read in 20-25 minutes. As most of my stories tend to run a bit longer than that, I’ll be reading a slightly edited version of my story “Dr. Sinister’s Home for Retired Villains” that I self-published as a Kindle short several years ago.

I’ll be sharing this installment of Story Hour with author Sally Wiener Grotta. So I invite you to come on out and join us on Wednesday at 7pm PDT. You can join Story Hour through Zoom or Facebook Live. Links to both options can be found at the Story Hour website.

Hope to see you there!


San Francisco is a Ghost Town & Union Square is a Haunted Forest

A good friend of mine mentioned that a woman who lives in San Francisco called my friend a colorful euphemism for female genitalia that rhymes with “swat” for suggesting that San Francisco is a ghost town. Now, I don’t know who this woman is who lives in San Francisco, but if she doesn’t think that San Francisco is a ghost town, I’d like to know how she manages to get around the city with her head so far up her ass.

Last Friday at 5:00pm I walked from Telegraph Hill down Grant Avenue, across Columbus, and continued along Grant through Chinatown and into Union Square. This was during what should be the height of rush hour through North Beach, China Town, and Union Square. That’s Union Square up at the top right, taken from the corner of Powell and Geary. Below is another photo of Union Square from the opposite corner at Stockton and Post, along with a photo of Powell Street from Post looking south toward Geary.

On the bottom left is Grant Avenue in Chinatown, just past Clay, looking about two blocks south to California Street. On the bottom right is California at Grant, looking east all the way down to the Southern Pacific Building at One Market Plaza. And below them is a landscape photo of the intersection of Broadway and Columbus in North Beach. At approximately 5:30pm on a Friday night. I’ll let you be the judge as to whether or not San Francisco is a ghost town.

But while San Francisco is on a virtual lockdown–with restaurants, bars, cafes, movie theaters, nail and hair salons, hotels, clothing stores, and  every type of business shuttered or boarded up–there are still signs of commerce in neighborhoods throughout the city as some restaurants and cafes remain open for limited business, providing meals and beverages to go. So even though foot and vehicle traffic in these neighborhoods has fallen to the point that prime shopping and dining hours resemble a Twilight Zone episode where it’s always Christmas morning in an alternate reality where Santa Claus is a mob boss, a sense of normalcy persists. Or at least the pretense of normalcy.

The same cannot be said for Union Square.

In Union Square, other than the Westin St. Francis, nothing is open. Not Saks Fifth Avenue. Not Sears Fine Food. Not DSW. Not Tiffany & Co. or Victoria’s Secret or Louis Vuitton. Not Starbucks or Nike or The Apple Store. Not Macy’s or Neiman Marcus or the Sir Francis Drake Hotel.

Where there should be tourists walking along the sidewalks and in and out of hotels and storefronts; where there should be customers enjoying the variety of world class fare provided by the restaurants and filling the outside tables on Belden Place; where there should be cable cars clanging their way up and down Powell Street and traffic flowing east and west along Geary and Sutter and Post there is, instead, only a smattering of residents and tourists wandering along the streets in wonder or in a dazed disbelief and a handful of cars passing through the intersections at every green light.

There is no sense of normalcy here.

Instead, there is a palpable sense of dread, as if the apocalypse has already happened and this is the inevitable result of what happens when the end of the world comes knocking. This apprehension is heightened by the dozen or so homeless people who have not shaken hands with sanity in quite some time and who shuffle along in silence or who stand upon the empty stage of Union Square and scream and shout unintelligible curses to an empty theater.

While Fisherman’s Wharf has a similar eerie vibe to it–lonely and melancholy, the streets deserted, the restaurants and souvenir shops and tourist attractions closed up, not a tourist or street performer to be found–Fisherman’s Wharf feels more as if it’s asleep, enchanted in a deep fairy tale slumber, waiting for the spell to be broken so that it can awaken and resume it’s story.

Union Square, conversely, feels more like a haunted forest where you’ve become lost and the crows have eaten the bread crumbs that you left along the trail to help you find your way out and eventually you expect to stumble upon the front door of a cannibalistic witch who invites you in for a nice warm meal.


Filed under: Coronavirus,San Francisco — Tags: , , , , — S.G. Browne @ 7:15 am

Signs of the Times in the Age of Social Distancing

So we’re 10 days into the Shelter-in-Place directive for San Francisco that was put into place on March 17 and eventually extended to all of California just a couple of days later. Nearly two dozen other states have followed suit, with calls for social distancing included whenever we’re out and about for essential items, or because we need some fresh air and exercise, or because some of us are complete idiots. But for the most part, daily life is completely different and surreal for a good portion of the population in nearly half of the country.

Walking around these days in San Francisco, you don’t have to venture far outside of your shelter to come across signs of how life has changed. Some of the signs are physical signs, set up on the sidewalk by the Palace of Fine Arts, posted on residences by the SF Department of Public Health, or taped to trees outside of Swenson’s Ice Cream parlor on Union and Hyde.

Others are signs posted on the doors or windows of restaurants and coffee shops, informing customers about social distancing protocol and directing delivery drivers where to go to pick up orders for delivery. Also, when you’re walking around San Francisco and you come across multiple Starbucks locations that are closed up, you know the end is nigh.

There are also signs painted on the boarded up windows of bars like the Mauna Loa in Cow Hollow, Reed & Greenough and Donahue’s in the Marina, and Shanghai Kelly’s in Russian Hill–the boarded up windows themselves a sign of just how quickly our life has changed and how much of what we have taken for granted is no longer available to us.

After all, the bar is a symbol of social interaction, where people gather to share a drink and conversation and whatever else might follow. Now that outlet is literally boarded off, leaving us to drink alone or on video chats or prompting creative pub crawls from room to room where we can literally crawl to the next drink.

Still other signs are less literal and more symbolic of how our lives have changed over the past couple of weeks, from the virtually empty streets that we encounter driving or walking around the city, to the bounty of empty parking spaces in North Beach and Telegraph Hill, to the lines of customers waiting outside of Rainbow Grocery or Gus’s Market in the Mission–everyone standing six feet away from the person in front of or behind them. It may not be the dystopia we imagined or deserve, but it’s the dystopia we’ve been given, so we’re working with what we’ve got.

There are a few silver linings. For the most part people aren’t acting like douche bags, except for the bicyclists, who still don’t believe that STOP signs apply to them. But people seem to be friendly and understanding, since we’re all going through this together. And there’s less traffic and fewer tempers flaring, probably because there aren’t any Lyft and Uber drivers looking for passengers or stopping unexpectedly or double parking everywhere.

And Bob’s Donuts is open for take out, but they only accept credit cards and only one customer at a time is allowed inside the store. But it’s worth the wait. And in addition to their To Go food menu, Tacko on Fillmore is offering 16 ounce margaritas or draft beers for $3.00 to go. So you can still get your social lubrication. It’s just not quite as social as it used to be.


Fisherman’s Wharf is Lonely and Melancholy

My walking tour of San Francisco during the Shelter-in-Place directive and the mandate for social distancing continues with a stroll along Fisherman’s Wharf. But first, here’s what the parking situation looked like on Scott Street between Lombard and Chestnut in the Marina just before 11:00am. (NOTE: You’d think that the Marina Psychic would have seen this coming, but I guess that’s why she doesn’t have many customers.)

My walk started out on Chestnut Street, which had some businesses with windows boarded up to prevent any potential looting. Yes, looting. So that’s part of the precautions being taken by those stores that are closed up for the lockdown.

But there are restaurants along Chestnut and in the Marina still open for business, albeit limited to take-out and/or delivery and many have limited hours. This list includes, but is not limited to:

  • World Wrapps
  • Le Marais Bakery
  • Delarosa
  • Dragon Well
  • Super Duper Burgers
  • Peet’s Coffee
  • Noah’s NY Bagels
  • Saiwalks

If you have the means and the inclination, there are plenty of businesses such as these throughout San Francisco that could use your patronage to help their chances of still being around once the shelter-in-place restrictions are lifted.

Yes, I know. I said this was going to be about Fisherman’s Wharf. But I got distracted. It’s easy to do when you’re walking around the neighborhood you’ve known for the past 14 years and everywhere you look there’s something that is either shocking, strange, or surreal. Or a combination of all three. These are strange times indeed. Now on to Fisherman’s Wharf!

But first, here’s a photo of an outdoor Fitness Court along Marina Boulevard just across from Webster Street, where half a dozen fitness-minded types are working out using communal stationary rings and bars without wearing gloves and without wiping down any of the surfaces before or after they work out. No reckless flaunting of recommended pandemic hygiene to see here. Move along.

So now we finally come to Fisherman’s Wharf. While my previous two entries in which I explored the Marina and North Beach neighborhoods took place on the weekday during the morning hours, all of the photos below were taken at the height of lunchtime on Saturday. Specifically on Saturday, March 21, the first weekend of spring on a warm, sunny, perfect day.

For those of you who have never been to San Francisco, or for those of you who live in the city but avoid Fisherman’s Wharf like the plague (rim shot…thank you, I’m here all week), a normal spring Saturday afternoon would entail sidewalks and restaurants and stores filled with tourist and customers. Instead the streets are deserted, the restaurants and souvenir shops closed up and empty. It’s as if the entire area has fallen asleep and is waiting to wake up.

So rather than including commentary about the photos, I’m just going to post them because I think they speak for themselves.