Why to Write a Novel While You’re In College

So, this post at, let me see, Write to Done, caught my eye: 3 Reasons to Write a Book in College

Because I wrote my first fantasy trilogy while I was in grad school. I actually did have three reasons, and here they are:

A) I was avoiding doing the statistical analyses necessary to write my master’s thesis.

Or, I mean, maybe avoiding other associated tasks. I sure remember avoiding the stats, though. This was also in the era when you’d tell your computer, “Okay, run paired t-tests for these 27 variables” and then you’d go to lunch. If nothing went wrong, the results would be waiting for you in an hour or two. If anything did go wrong, of course, you’d have to start over.

Ah, those were the days! Printer paper had edges you had to rip off, too, generating swoops of paper strips for the kitten to play with.

B) I wanted to improve my typing speed.

I’d just taught myself to touch type, so I was typing various essays and things that I liked in order to increase my speed, and starting to write a novel was another way to do that.

C) I read a fantasy novel and thought, “You know, I absolutely COULD do better.”

I have to admit, I do not remember which novel that was, but I guess I owe a debt to the author for writing a not-very-great novel and thus inspiring me to take a stab at doing it better.

I’m guessing that “A way to avoid doing your crucial statistical analyses” is not going to be offered as a reason for why you should write a book while you’re in college, partly because you’re seldom doing statistical analyses while you’re an undergrad, but mostly because obviously it’s better to do your homework promptly, not write a novel in order to avoid doing your homework. Though, I mean, if you’re going to put off doing your homework, at least you’d have a novel to show for all that procrastination, so there’s that.

I’m also guessing they’re not going to pick improving typing speed as a reason, but I think that this is actually a good reason. Quite a lot of students are slow with typing because they just don’t get enough practice typing at length on a real keyboard. If they write a novel, they will get faster for sure.

Also, one more very important reason:

D) I had time.

You may feel that you’re busy when you’re in college, but if you’re a traditional student, you really aren’t all that busy, probably. Do you have a small child or three? No? A full time job? No? Then you most likely do have time to write a novel, far more time than you may have during the decade when you’re just out of college and building a life. This is even more true when you’re an undergrad than when you’re a grad student.

I’ll pause here to add that I’m in awe of any writers who manage to write books when they DO have small children. Wow.

Anyway, sure, back to the linked post! What are the “three reasons to write a book in college?”

Here they are, paraphrased somewhat.

1) Express your deeper beliefs. Do you have views or beliefs that aren’t reflected around you in college? Writing a book can give you a release. It’s entirely your project, free of judgement. 

Goodness, I would never have thought of that. Seriously, I would not.

I was thinking: Write a story. Write a good story. Have fun writing a story. I was not thinking: Express your deeper beliefs.

But … sure, I guess? If you find that motivating? To me, that looks kind of like, I don’t know, setting out to write a statement of personal philosophy, but that’s not a book, that’s an actual homework assignment I was actually assigned, twice. I didn’t enjoy it either time. I would never in a zillion years sit down with this in mind.

2) You’re ready to write a book. You’re already in college. If you’ve made it to college, you have the raw ability to do this. It’s just a matter of believing in yourself and making it happen.

Well, I wouldn’t have said that either, quite. I would say that you might have the raw ability to start to learn how to write a novel, which of course you actually learn by doing it.

Or you might not be ready to even start learning how to write a novel. Although I work with some students who are quite good at writing, I also work with many basically illiterate students. They’re even passing English Comp I. But that doesn’t mean they can write a sentence that means what they think it means.

On the other hand, hopefully most students who are even thinking of maybe writing a book are basically on good terms with the muse of language. (Yes, I was thinking of Slushkiller by Teresa Nelson Hayden when I wrote that sentence.)

3) Make yourself stand out when it comes time to write a resume.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think this is an insane reason to write a book. Does the author of this post actually write books? Are they familiar with how many hours of your life that takes, especially when you’re just figuring out how to do it at all? For crying out loud, there are ten thousand other things you can do for this purpose, and virtually all of them will take much less time.

I notice the author of the post is unknown. It just says “guest” and there’s no information about this person.

Well, my advice is, absolutely do not write a novel just to be able to say on your resume that you wrote it. Seriously, no, do not do that.

The actual best reason to write a novel:

Write a novel because you think it might be fun to write a novel. Write a novel to find out if you can write a novel and if you enjoy writing novels.

Don’t do it to enhance your resume or to show off to other people that you can write a novel. Get your mind away from external validation. That’s really unlikely to be a helpful focus.

And if you want it to be a good novel, forget about expressing your deepest beliefs. Just write a story and trust that those beliefs will settle way down deep in the subtext as long as you don’t try to force them into the text.

Also, just a tip, but those statistical analyses or whatever need to get done eventually, so probably you should do them.

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12 thoughts on “Why to Write a Novel While You’re In College”

  1. Four posts ago, you asked for recommendations: I’ll mention one again: Garth Nix “Abhorsen”, books 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6. Book 4 is both a bust and unnecessary.* Book 2 starts slowly, with the protagonist stuck in a rut. Book 6 is a very good tragic prequel.

    *It’s the backstory of The Interregnum–a very evil time–from the eyes of a major villain as she slowly goes bad after falling to temptation. Yeah, no.

  2. Very very no.

    I did read the first book ages ago and wasn’t drawn in, but I do see people mention it rather often. The first one is still on my shelves, I believe, so I guess I should bring it upstairs and give it another try.

  3. Going out on a limb and saying that the author of that post probably writes very different things from what I read – even when I agree, something written primarily to send a message is usually a slog. I don’t go for didactic.

  4. If your belief are so profound that the world would benefit from them, you should probably write them in non-fiction, so as to not confuse the readers.

    John Gardner apparently said that a lot to his writing students. He also startled them by observing that people read books because they are interesting, and they should consider what they know that’s interesting.

  5. Blech, message fiction. I like seeing different beliefs and values in characters when it makes for an interesting story, but if your character becomes a sock puppet for your obsessions, they cease to be interesting to me, even if I happen to agree with the message.
    I do love your reasons for writing your initial novel, Rachel. The original post . . . I don’t really agree with. If you don’t think a novel would be a fun project, if you are writing it simply to articulate your worldview and pad out your resume, maybe you should write a manifesto instead, is all I have to say to the original poster.

  6. Blech, message fiction, is absolutely always my response to any obvious preaching in any novel, no matter whether I agree with the point of view or not.

    I think perceptible preaching is a serious failure of the writer’s craft.

  7. Ditto, to E.C., and I also like Mary’s report of John Gardner’s teaching.

    I can write a reasonable essay, but really don’t have the creative spark, mental agility and communicative insight and skills to write readable, interesting fiction about real, lifelike characters, and considering I have just a slight touch of the kind of traits that family members have who are diagnosed with Aspergers or mild autism, I don’t think I could gain that by practicing. Tracts and treatises are very different from good stories.

    But in the original article, I notice the guest writer never states one should write a novel, a book of fiction – at one point she even states explicitly that having a book published *about a relevant topic* is good for your career prospects. For me, a book about a topic is more likely to be a non-fiction book. So for instance if you want to work for a religious or political organisation, writing a tract about your religious experiences or an ‘exposé’ on (how you were persecuted for) your political views could really be useful – though I wonder how she expects a book like that to get published, I don’t know how discerning and critical the specialist publishers in those genres are, or if she equates the costly vanity publishers with getting professionally published by a commercial publisher.
    If you want to work as a film critic, write film reviews, make them interesting, and you could maybe bundle them up into a vanity press collection to put on your resumé…

  8. Wes and I started writing a novel together when I was halfway through vet school. He had moved away to finish his degree and it was a nice way for us to keep connected and have a fun thing to work on together long distance.

  9. Oh, have you heard of letter-game novels? Where two people each take a character and write back and forth to build a novel?

    The excellent Sorcery and Cecilia started that way, as a letter game between the authors.

  10. @ Camille & Rachel,
    I love letter-game novels! My friends and I had a three-way one going for a little while, with characters from Greek mythology in a noir mystery setting. We only wrote about a third of the way through the story, but that was a good time. Sorcery and Cecilia is a really fun read. I still want to know about Squire Bryant’s goat. Whatever happened to the poor creature that caused the friends’ separation?

  11. Rachel, you haven’t read Sabriel? I am shocked, and highly recommend it. (Some nostalgia plays into that, I’m sure.)

    Also, I mostly agree about book 4, except it is so well written. If I have to read a tragedy (I’m looking at you, high school English classes), then I would read this instead of nearly everything else I was assigned.

    I just finished reading a work that counts as message fiction. “Perceptible preaching is a serious failure of the writer’s craft” is exactly what I thought (but much better phrased).

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