Writing a Novel is Not Like Running a Business

Paul Graham is one of the founders of Y Combinator, a very successful incubators of tech startups. He has funded and instructed companies like Dropbox, Airbnb, and reddit, amongst others.

The other day, I started reading Graham’s many essays about business and technology, and I was struck by one point he made, in “Startup = Growth.” There, he argues that a startup is not like a normal business.

Let’s start with a distinction that should be obvious but is often overlooked: not every newly founded company is a startup. Millions of companies are started every year in the US. Only a tiny fraction are startups. Most are service businesses—restaurants, barbershops, plumbers, and so on. These are not startups, except in a few unusual cases. A barbershop isn’t designed to grow fast. Whereas a search engine, for example, is.

When I say startups are designed to grow fast, I mean it in two senses. Partly I mean designed in the sense of intended, because most startups fail. But I also mean startups are different by nature, in the same way a redwood seedling has a different destiny from a bean sprout.

I was struck by this point not because I have a great idea for a startup, but because I’m a writer and a novelist. Graham’s distinction captures something about novels that has been nagging at me lately.

A good novel, a successful novel — it’s not like other forms of good writing. If most writing is like running a barbershop, writing a novel is like creating Google.

I don’t know whether to feel good about this. Probably it would be nicer, it would be fairer, if writing a novel were more like running a small business, like being the manager of a restaurant or a well-paid plumber. Novelists, collectively, might be happier.

Perhaps this is why novelists are so fond of using the language of regular employment and discipline. You always hear novel-writing described as a “marathon,” you hear about “honing one’s craft,” you hear about the importance of “showing up for work each day.” And all of this is true. Paul Graham would never suggest that the founders of Google worked less hard than the founders of a barbershop.

But I think he would argue that the founders of a new, aspiring startup need to work differently to the founders of a regular business.

I was recently at a large conference for writers, the AWP Conference in Minneapolis. I was talking to a friend who, several years ago, published a novel that ended up being very successful. As we talked, I occasionally sensed that she was almost embarrassed about talking about that novel, as though there was something phony about continuing to discuss work she had done so long ago in the past, work that (I assume) had felt just as challenging, as difficult, and as exhausting as most writing always is.

I wanted to say then, but didn’t know how, that she had no reason to hold back. I wanted to say that a good novel like a full-grown redwood, and there aren’t that many redwoods out there. This thing called novel-writing certainly requires regular, hard drudgery, but it isn’t only about that.

If I were to visit a restaurant, and all the awards nailed to the wall were from five years ago, I might not feel that excited about my impending meal. Who cares what the daily soup tasted like five years ago? But not every human project is like this. If Paul Graham and Y Combinator were to never fund another good startup, they would still be paid to give speeches and seminars into the indefinite future, because Airbnb exists and they helped create it.

It’s a different kind of achievement.

Similarly, my friend had written a successful novel. That was all the justification she needed —  the book exists on another plane of significance. It would presumably be worth the price of admission to AWP, or any other conference, to hear her explicate and detail the writing of such a work, to ask her question upon question, and then return the next year to ask more questions.

I’m currently reading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. I’m only halfway through, so I need to hold off before making a final judgement, but from the first 200 pages, I can say that The Magicians is really exceptional. There is a bravado to Grossman’s re-writing of Harry Potter and Narnia that is breathtaking, a scope and scale that eludes one’s full intellectual comprehension. And this quality becomes obvious very quickly. From the first couple of chapters, The Magicians feels different to most kinds of reading experiences. More complexity is being juggled, a greater intensity is looming, more reflections of real life and past literature are circling.

The first fifty pages of The Magicians feel like they have a redwood in them, not a bean sprout.

The Magicians

So. If this is all true, what does it mean for those of us who want to write novels?

I think it means we need to take more risks. Our preconceptions of what our novel should be are almost certainly too small. As we go about constructing and drafting our novels, we should keep an eye out for ideas that seem terrible or stupid, ideas that make us grimace, ideas that contradict everything we have in mind.

If you are stuck with your novel, and someone advises you to do something with it that makes you feel unwell — a plot twist that appalls you, a narrative stance that appears crude or unsustainable — this may well be a sign you should consider doing it.

Because the idea may actually be terrible and stupid. Or it might only seem that way because one’s ego is attempting to protect itself. The small, walled self is trying to keep the novel from growing too large.

“You’d expect big startup ideas to be attractive,” Paul Graham says, in his essay “Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas.” In other words: one might expect a truly great business idea to fascinate every venture capitalist who heard it.

But this has not been Graham’s experience at all. The boldest plans, he explains, “tend to repel you.”

One of the more surprising things I’ve noticed while working on Y Combinator is how frightening the most ambitious startup ideas are. In this essay I’m going to demonstrate this phenomenon by describing some. Any one of them could make you a billionaire. That might sound like an attractive prospect, and yet when I describe these ideas you may notice you find yourself shrinking away from them.

Don’t worry, it’s not a sign of weakness. Arguably it’s a sign of sanity. The biggest startup ideas are terrifying. And not just because they’d be a lot of work. The biggest ideas seem to threaten your identity: you wonder if you’d have enough ambition to carry them through.

… It means these ideas are invisible to most people who try to think of startup ideas, because their subconscious filters them out. Even the most ambitious people are probably best off approaching them obliquely.

If a friend came to you and said they were going to write a novel that mashed together Narnia and Harry Potter with the sort of raw-edged, grown-up sensibility one finds in uber-literary novels about brilliant, unhappy New Yorkers by Jonathan Lethem, you would probably warn that friend off. The premise seems too enormous to make sense. It seems like two or three novels uncomfortably attempting to share a front cover.

You would, however, be wrong.

Perhaps one skill that a great novelist needs, therefore, is the ability to spot the correct crazy ideas, the seeds that contain redwoods. Or maybe no one has the power to consciously do that, but what a great novelist can do is to be more open to such ideas when they arrive.

As we aspiring writers build our novels, we should stay on the outlook for that unpleasant sensation of wrongness and excess, and we should feel excited by its presence. Something large is attempting to enter the story.

We should treat the feeling of being overwhelmed as a hint that here, at last, is a path worth following.

What is the Hands On Literary Festival?

Hello everyone,

I’m still getting back to normal after the Hands On literary festival and masked ball in New Orleans–an amazing time.

The Hands On Festival is a four-day writing conference, now in its second year, which my wife and I run with the help of friends and the remarkable New Orleans writing community. At this moment, we’re back in Knoxville, trying to relax and rewind, excited to start the planning for the next festival, scheduled for the last few days of 2015. 10919015_10100640200998889_8925025802051682707_n My role in the festival is largely technical: I do the design work for the posters and brochures, write a lot of the promotional text, troubleshoot the website and so on. The heart of the festival–and all the really hard planning and administration–comes from Jeni. She has a genius for this kind of thing. The festival is her vision, and it’s a remarkable experience, these last two years, to watch it unfold.

Here’s how I would explain that vision, and the festival’s purpose:

It’s hard to be a writer alone. Part of wanting to write is the desire to share one’s spirit and individuality with others. While, of course, that’s the end goal with publishing novels, plays, essays, and poems–to make what is inside my consciousness, my being, join someone else’s consciousness and being–for most of the arts, this process of creation and publication is very slow. Years go by and you feel like you have nothing to show for it. So it’s enlivening, en-spiriting, to meet with other writers, and to meet more people who love books, and see in them the same long, wonderful process you’re going through.

On a practical level, too, it’s good to make friends with people like oneself, and this isn’t always easy. Particularly in America, everything is so spread out, and distances are so vast, it can be hard to form specific, intentional communities among the miles of freeway and Taco Bell.

Writing conferences offer a way to do this: to meet up for a few intense days, and forge a community that can then live on through the Internet until the next meeting. And one particular conference that many writers want to go to, or feel they should want to go to, is AWP. AWP is the largest conference for certain segments of the US writing crowd, and it’s unparalleled for hearing your heroes speak, for listening to great craft talks, and for discovering exciting small presses and literary magazines in the enormous book fair.

However, AWP is so big now, with upwards of 10,000 attendees, that it is also exhausting and overwhelming. Some years, to get a seat in the audience of the more popular panels requires such a struggle and advance planning that it’s hard to really feel receptive once the talking begins.

I’m delivering a talk at a panel at this year’s AWP, and I’m really excited about it. I imagine there’ll be a few hundred people in the audience, and I hope I’ll get to talk to lots of them afterwards. But there is an undeniable truth that when a conference reaches that size, not only does the scale itself become daunting, but everyone starts to feel like there is a hierarchy of attendees. One feels injured and irritated by the feeling of not being high up enough on the writing totem pole, and this feeling limits the opportunity for the en-spiriting I talked about earlier.

Alternatively, there is another kind of conference, a retreat where the focus is on sheer writing, on getting pages drafted in a judgement-free zone. From my very limited experience of such conferences, they can be amazing chances to get work written. You have no choice but produce something when your seven classmates are also in the hotel library scribbling away–the muse is kicked into gear and surprises you with how much she has stored away. Plus, because everyone is doing the same thing–writing–you feel a great sense of community as the festival proceeds.

Yet, while I love attending that second kind of conference, I think it’s okay say that it’s not quite what the Hands On Festival is aiming at. At the Hands On Festival, it’s more about presenting finished, or halfway completed work, than about starting something new — although that does happen. We arrive, we share the work that best represents us, we explain what we’re struggling with in our current projects, and form new friendships based on the art and arguments we have shared. 10847473_10152504454055965_4168501445659837703_o Jeni’s vision is to create a writing conference where writers share their best work and ideas, where scholarly papers sit happily alongside a reading of family memoirs, but where everyone has a really great time, and where everyone feels like an equal, able to talk to and befriend anyone else in the festival they choose. 10899954_10152521379575965_6480188511332119346_o How she achieves this result is partly her own magic, but from what I can tell, it also involves hosting receptions most evenings, with food and wine, where the whole festival gathers to hang out. And it involves choosing key note speakers who contribute to that “Hands On” feeling, who seem excited to be around the energy of other artists. The first year, Dinty W. Moore was brilliant, and, for this latest festival, Joy Castro was kind of dazzling. She wowed everyone with her keynote address and with her willingness to talk to everyone and ask questions. IMG_0665 That spirit of the festival also seems to be connected to New Orleans. NOLA is a dangerous, troubled city. Yet it seems interested in beauty in a way that few other American cities appear to be. Its architecture and cultural traditions appear to the newcomer like an embodiment of the artist’s inner self, and so it’s natural, if you are a creatively-inclined person (i.e. that you are a normal human being), to suddenly feel at home there.

As a result, you experience the festival’s readings, the book launches, the introductions to several authors of a specific small publisher, as well as the discussions of craft and politics and history in a relaxed, encouraged, at ease state, eager to talk more with the participants once the hour is up.

The festival ends with a masked ball on New Year’s Eve. This is a chance to have a drink, eat tasty food, dance to classic 80’s hits, to dress up and look good in a mask. Then, on New Year’s Day, when everyone is feeling tired and grateful, the whole conference has (or has had the last two years, at least) a standing invitation to visit the house of local writer and historian Nancy Dixon, where she serves up food to get you started for the year in the right way.

You realise, all of a sudden, that you’ve made firm friendships with exactly the sort of people you were looking for, and then you travel home, recharged.

I think the festival’s third year, 2015, will be the best yet. I’m looking forward to watching Jeni start planning it, and hope to meet you there.