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

Flawed Heroes and the Quest for Purpose

CJZma5oUEAIDqQWIn my Author’s Note for Less Than Hero, I mention how the story, at its heart, is about figuring out what you’re supposed to be doing with your life.

That’s a common theme in my novels. Finding your role. Your purpose. Your reason for existence. While my stories deal with issues such as discrimination, the consumer culture, celebrity worship, and the over-medication of our society, they’re really quests by the main protagonists to find meaning in their lives.

With Breathers, Andy Warner is trying to find his purpose in a society in which he has no purpose. In Fated, Fabio is looking for meaning in his monotonous and unfulfilling immortality. In Big Egos, my identity-challenged hero is searching for the role he’s supposed to play. And in Less Than Hero, my main protagonist, Lloyd Prescott, is searching for something more than the life he’s fallen into. Call it happiness. Call it ambition. Call it passion. Whatever it is, Lloyd can’t seem to find it. He’s not exactly broken, but he’s most definitely lost.

I’m a fan of flawed heroes: protagonists who don’t have it all together or who don’t know what the hell they’re doing. As Lloyd says:

“Not everyone has their shit figured out. Sure some people do. They’re the ones who actually stick to a plan and make all the right choices and end up with the life they imagined. For others, we discover that trying to win the lottery isn’t a viable plan for living happily ever after.”

When it comes to writing fiction, I think it’s important to create characters who  struggle with their choices and their failures because we can relate to them. They’re like us: victims of inertia, lacking direction, filled with self-doubt.

Main protagonists who are perfect and who always say and do the right things are unrealistic and boring. If you want a knight in shining armor, go read a romance novel. Prince Charming isn’t wanted here.

I think part of the reason my characters are constantly looking for meaning and answers is because that’s what humans do: we search for meaning and answers in our lives. But more than that, the existential angst and motivations for my characters come from the realization that, as blossoming humans, we were sold a false bill of goods about what it would be like when we were adults.

When you’re in your teens, you look at adults and think you know more than they do about life and how to succeed at it because hey, it doesn’t look that difficult. In your early twenties you discover that you didn’t know as much as you thought you did but now that you’re an adult you’ll figure it out soon enough.

In your thirties you discover that the expectations you had of what your life would be like haven’t lived up to all of the beer commercials and romantic comedies you’ve been fed over the years.

When you get to your forties, it finally dawns on you that no one knows what the hell they’re doing. Not even your parents. Everyone’s just doing their best impersonation of Indiana Jones and making it up as they go.

So I guess in a way, my characters are trying to figure out what the hell they’re supposed to be doing because so am I. Maybe one day I’ll come up with an answer. Until then, I’ll just have to let my characters keep doing the work for me.


Filed under: Less Than Hero,The Writing Life — Tags: , , , — S.G. Browne @ 8:21 pm

New York City is Superhero Central

Certain cities are synonymous with famous fictional characters.

London has Sherlock Holmes.
Philadelphia has Rocky Balboa.
Tokyo has Godzilla.

But when it comes to caped crusaders, New York City is superhero central.

NYC2The Fantastic Four live in New York City. So does Iron Man. Spider-Man grew up in Queens, Daredevil was raised in Hell’s Kitchen, and Captain America was born on the Lower East Side. Even Superman and Batman exist in fictional versions of The Big Apple.

So when I started writing Less Than Hero, my social satire about a group of clinical trial volunteers who test experimental pharmaceutical drugs and become C-level superheroes, there wasn’t any question about where the story would take place. In addition to its superhero pedigree, New York City has a definite energy to it that made it appealing as a setting for my novel.

While I live in San Francisco and have never called New York City home, I’ve had the pleasure of taking more than half a dozen trips there since 2008 and I would always take the time to sit down on a bench and take out my journal and try to capture specific New York moments.

Like the time I saw a living statue dressed up like a fairy in Central Park and wondered what it would be like to be her boyfriend. Or when I rode the Staten Island Ferry and listened to all of the foreign languages that sounded like a symphony of voices. Or when I sat on the steps of Union Square and watched people play chess at makeshift tables while a group of Hare Krishnas chanted nearby.

All of the above journal entries wound up as scenes in Less Than Hero.

While writing the novel, sometimes I would find myself wanting to set a scene in a certain park or location or restaurant that I may not have had a chance to visit when I was in New York. So I would search the Internet for photos and descriptions to help flesh out my scene and make sure the setting worked for what I had in mind.

deluxe food market2For instance, in Less Than Hero I have a scene that takes place in the Deluxe Food Market in Chinatown, just on the edge of Little Italy. I wanted a small, neighborhood grocery store somewhere in the Lower East Side / Chinatown area and did a search on Yelp! until I found the Deluxe Food Market.

I’d never set food inside the place, but the photographs and customer descriptions helped me to get a general sense of the smells and sounds and chaos of the place, which seemed perfect for what I wanted. So I used those details, along with my own imagination, to come up with the scene.

I also have a lunch scene in Chapter 11 that takes place in the East Village at an unnamed vegetarian restaurant.

Originally I’d written the scene as taking place at B&H Dairy, until I discovered that the interior layout of B&H was too small  for the scene as I’d imagined it. I went on Yelp! and found the Lan Cafe (now apparently closed), which had the right interior layout and location but the menu didn’t work with the dialogue I’d already written and wanted to keep. So I blended the two restaurants, using the interior and location of the Lan Cafe and the menu of B&H Dairy.

CEfnAERUEAAwVU_In addition to the Deluxe Food Market and the B&H Dairy/Lan Cafe, I have scenes that take place at Cafe Reggio, Curry in a Hurry, Dunkin’ Donuts, the Carnegie Deli, Stromboli’s Pizza, Starbucks, Westerly Natural Market, the Mahayana Buddhist Temple, the Staten Island Ferry, the Waldorf-Astoria, Union Square, Sara D. Roosevelt Park, Tompkins Square Park, Madison Square Park, Washington Square Park, Battery Park, various locations in Central Park, several different subway lines, and the steps of the New York Public Library.

While I’ve been to the majority of these places at one time or another during my visits to New York, I still conducted additional research using different websites, Yelp!, and Google Maps to help construct my scenes. Sometimes I took liberties with the details in order to make the scenes work the way I wanted, but novelists are allowed to to that. We are, after all, in the business of writing fiction. So every now and then, we have to tailor reality to fit our imagination.


Filed under: Less Than Hero,The Writing Life — Tags: , , — S.G. Browne @ 6:57 am

Beyond the Keyboard: Less Than Hero

B82pUXECAAAKNl3This is the next installment of my Beyond the Keyboard series, where I pull back the curtain, so to speak, on the ideas that inspired my novels and provide a peek into the creative process behind them. (You can find my previous posts for Breathers, Fated, Lucky Bastard, and Big Egos by clicking on the titles.

Up next, my new dark comedy and social satire about superheroes and our country’s love affair with prescription drugs: Less Than Hero.

The Pharmaceutical Seed is Planted

Back on October 4, 2003, I was sitting in a hotel room in Ventura watching TV at 10pm when a commercial came on for some kind of prescription drug that promised to help cure abdominal cramping with one of the side effects being that it might cause abdominal cramping. I found this both asinine and amusing and wrote it down in my journal, although I wouldn’t come back to it for nearly five years.

It’s relevant to mention here that in 1997, the FDA approved Direct-to-Consumer marketing of pharmaceutical products in the United States. Prior to that, there were no TV commercials for prescription drugs. And the proliferation of ads for prescription drugs continued on cable and network television so that by 2008, you couldn’t watch the boob tube for twenty minutes without being told that you might be really sick and need the latest miracle drug.

Guinea Pig, Guinea Pig, Let Me In!

Sometime in 2008, I came across several articles about professional guinea pigs: people who make a living on the margins of society by volunteering for paid clinical trials where they beta test pharmaceutical drugs being developed for consumers. These Phase I clinical trials test the efficacy and side effects of a drug on more or less healthy subjects, paying anywhere from $200 to $10,000 depending on the length and requirements of the clinical trial.

The idea for doing something centered around prescription drugs had been percolating and when I read about this fringe culture of professional pharmaceutical drug volunteers, I knew I had to do something with it. The question was: What?

The Superhero Connection

For a number of years I’d toyed with the idea of writing some kind of superhero story, but none of the ideas resonated or seemed original. While I was (and am) a fan of the superhero genre (specifically films and TV shows rather than comic books) and enjoyed the standard superhero films (Superman, Batman, Spider-Man), none of them resonated with me on a creative level.

Instead, I was more inspired by films like Mystery Men, with its humor and heroes who were ordinary people with odd talents who just wanted to make a difference; X-Men, which appealed to me with the concept of mutants and its social commentary on prejudice and discrimination; and Unbreakable, because it was about an ordinary man discovering his extraordinary abilities and, eventually, a purpose that gave his life meaning.

So at some point in the creative process, I realized that these guinea pigs, at least the fictional ones gestating in my head, would be my superheroes. They would develop mutated abilities from all of the prescription drugs they’d tested. And I would use them to make social commentary on the pharmaceutical industry and the over-medication of our society. So in a way, the three films that inspired me helped to shape Less Than Hero, which, to an extent, encompasses aspects of all three films.

Fun Facts

  • The genesis/inspiration for both Fated and for Less Than Hero occurred at 10pm exactly 30 days apart, which is relevant because…
  • Less Than Hero, which takes place in New York and deals with issues of fate and destiny, shares the same time and universe as Fated
  • So for those who have read Fated, you might notice cameos by Fabio, Destiny, Karma, and others, as well as several shared scenes
  • All of the superhero names given to the characters in the novel share the same first letter as their regular names
  • While the novel is narrated in first-person POV by Lloyd, there are six interludes in the novel narrated in third-person POV
  • All of the possible side effects of drugs mentioned in the novel were taken from pharmaceutical company websites and from Drugs.com
  • The only two countries that allow Direct-to-Consumer marketing of pharmaceutical drugs are New Zealand and the United States

The Writing Life: You Are Not Alone

“The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing: isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination and consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing, and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.”

The above quote was taken from Robert De Niro’s presentation for the Best Screenwriting category at the 2014 Academy Awards. I don’t know who was responsible for writing the words spoken by De Niro, but whoever wrote them perfectly captured the mindset of a writer.

Writers are a unique animal. We sit for hours alone in front of a computer, making up imaginary worlds populated with imaginary people, often spending more time with our fictional creations than with real human beings. You can make the argument that when it comes to certain people, this isn’t always a bad thing.

The problem is that we spend so much time alone in our own heads that we often feel isolated—not just physically but emotionally. Most of our closest friends and family, even our spouses or partners, no matter how much they love us and care about us, they can’t always relate to how we feel when something isn’t working. They don’t know what it’s like to be lost or stuck creatively. They don’t understand how the 500 words we managed to squeeze out of our heads and fingers one bloody letter at a time during four frustrating hours feels like utter failure compared to all of the writers on Facebook and Twitter pumping out 5,000 words. Before lunch.

And so, many of us sit there in front of our computers, alone and struggling, thinking that all of these other writers who are more prolific or successful than we are have it all figured out and know what they’re doing and we believe that no one else is going through what we’re going through.

The truth is, we are not alone.

Every writer experiences self-doubt. Sometimes it just couch surfs for a couple of nights, while other times it buys a timeshare and stays in your guest room for a month, but it’s there. Trust me. It’s there.

Self-loathing is another house guest who shows up in the mind of a writer, causing us to compare our writing to that of other writers and making us feel like we’re garbage and leaving us wondering why anyone would ever want to read a single pathetic word we’ve ever written.

Procrastination only adds to the self-loathing, as we feel like losers for wasting our time playing video games or binge-watching Netflix or spending hours on Facebook and Twitter instead of doing what we’re supposed to be doing: writing.

We get moody when we’re not channeling our inner Fitzgerald or Vonnegut or Austen. We get depressed. We get anxious. We get frustrated. We allow a single negative one-star review from some moron on Amazon to completely ruin the thirty-two five-star reviews that sing our praises. And we experience envy and jealousy when other writers earn the success that we think we deserve.

It’s okay to feel these things. While you don’t want the envy and jealousy to control you, or allow the self-doubt to take up permanent residence, all of this is normal. It’s part of being a writer. Understand this and embrace this and know that this path you’ve chosen matters. You’re creating. You’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. And that’s more important than word counts or five-star reviews.

You are a writer. And you are not alone.

*This post appeared originally April 15, 2014, on SFSignal.com.

Filed under: The Writing Life — S.G. Browne @ 12:54 pm