Tom Robbins on Writing Your First (Travel) Novel

I received a pep e-mail today from the folks at National Novel Writing Month. A bit of advice on the craft of writing your first (travel) novel from Tom Robbins, a published author:

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When you sit down to begin that novel of yours, the first thing you might want to do is toss a handful of powdered napalm over both shoulders—so as to dispense with any and all of your old writing teachers, the ones whose ghosts surely will be hovering there, saying such things as, “Adverbs should never be…”, or “A novel is supposed to convey…”, et cetera. Enough! Ye literary bureaucrats, vamoose!

Rules such as “Write what you know,” and “Show, don’t tell,” while doubtlessly grounded in good sense, can be ignored with impunity by any novelist nimble enough to get away with it. There is, in fact, only one rule in writing fiction: Whatever works, works.

Ah, but how can you know if it’s working? The truth is, you can’t always know (I nearly burned my first novel a dozen times, and it’s still in print after 35 years), you just have to sense it, feel it, trust it. It’s intu itive, and that peculiar brand of intuition is a gift from the gods. Obviously, most people have received a different package altogether, but until you undo the ribbons you can never be sure.

As the great Nelson Algren once said, “Any writer who knows what he’s doing isn’t doing very much.” Most really good fiction is compelled into being. It comes from a kind of uncalculated innocence. You need not have your ending in mind before you commence. Indeed, you need not be certain of exactly what’s going to transpire on page 2. If you know the whole story in advance, your novel is probably dead before you begin it. Give it some room to breathe, to change direction, to surprise you. Writing a novel is not so much a project as a journey, a voyage, an adventure.

A topic is necessary, of course; a theme, a general sense of the nexus of effects you’d like your narrative to ultimately produce. Beyond that, you simply pack your imagination, your sense of humor, a character or two, and your personal world view into a little canoe, push it out onto the vast dark river, and see where the currents take you. And should you ever think you hear the sound of dangerous rapids around the next bend, hey, hang on, tighten your focus, and keep paddling—because now you’re really writing, baby! This is the best part.

It’s a bit like being out of control and totally in charge, simultaneously. If that seems tricky, well, it’s a tricky business. Try it. It’ll drive you crazy. And you’ll love it.

– Tom Robbins

Founding Editor
  1. I (probably foolishly) started NaNoWriMo yesterday and at least I am following some of Tom Robbins’ advice: I definitely don’t know the whole story in advance and things are already getting out of control. I’m just hoping the “being totally in charge simultaneously” thing kicks in sometime before the end of November.

  2. Hey, Amanda, I signed up but in the back of my mind knew that I really didn’t have the time to dedicate to it. It’s a really great concept though and I happened to find out about it just when I started considering writing my own novel. As they say: “Maybe next year.”

  3. I’ve said “maybe next year” for the last three years and this time I’m trying the “if you want something done, ask a busy person” approach, and so far I’m doing okay .. but it is only November 4. Or in some time zones still November 3 (I need every hour I can get).

  4. Lol … it’s definitely something I could’ve done last year or even the year before. Even though 1,600+ words per day is quite a bit of writing.

    However, all of my free time is occupied with writing for Vagabondish!

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