The Tao of Writing a Novel

I love a good paradox. A paradox is a statement that on its face cannot possibly be true; it contradicts itself. The most famous and simplest paradox is:

This statement is false.

If the statement above is true, then its contents tell us that it’s false. But we’ve established that it is true! On the other hand, if the statement is false it admits that it is false, which makes the statement true. It hangs in the balance between true and false, tipping one way or the other depending on your gaze, daring us to make a choice.

The beauty of a simple paradox is that it forces us to grapple with the nature of truth and falsehood. What seems wrong on its face forces us to parse each word, or challenge our assumptions, or see a common idea from a different angle.

Taoism embraces the paradox as a path toward truth. One might say that the surest way to truth is by falsehood. I know this is true of my writing. If I’m stuck writing a novel, it’s often because I’m scared that when I start writing I’ll head off in the wrong direction, writing a novel that’s not meant to be. So I stare at a blank page, paralyzed. I know that if I write, I’ll write what is wrong.

And that’s precisely what we are meant to do. Heading down the wrong path allows us to close off that avenue from further exploration. If focuses our attention on what might be true. Repeat this process a few times, and you’ll find the way.

Chapter 63 of the Tao Te Ching, one of the foundational works of Taoism, is a bullet list of what appear to be paradoxes:

Practice non-action.
Work without doing.
Taste the tasteless.
Magnify the small, increase the few.
Reward the bitterness with care.

Never has perfect writing advice been so cleverly hidden in plain view. I could break each of these lines down into entire chapters of writing advice until I had a novel about writing a novel. The more you dwell on them, the more depth and truth leaks out, which is how paradoxes often work. The chapter goes on…

See simplicity in the complicated.
Achieve greatness in little things.

Everything you need to know to be a better writer. It’s all right here.

Make your plots easy to understand, for all their twists and turns. Distill them to their pure meanings. But find details and elegance in the smallest of descriptions — the song of porcelain on porcelain as a teacup is lifted from a saucer, the brush of hair on a bare shoulder. Taste the tasteless: give the reader a sense of what it is to be there, even in pitch black. And do this all by embracing the strenuous effort of sitting still, alone with your thoughts, doing nothing, which is by far the most herculean thing anyone does these days.

Most of all, reward the bitterness with care. Bring tension to your story and within your characters. Don’t let your worlds be perfect, nor your grammar, nor your characters. And don’t you dare pretend to be flawless yourself, especially as a writer.

Which leads me to the Tweet that inspired this blog post. It was a tip from my friend Wesley Chu, who has advice for anyone contemplating writing a novel:

Occasionally a good paradox cloaks itself in tautology. What Wesley is saying here appears true by its very construction. Writing is an act of doing. You must sit down and put words together. If you don’t think you can, it’s because you aren’t. And if you aren’t, you won’t.

The paradox hidden in Wesley’s simple truth is a very personal one for me. I never thought I could write a book. For twenty years I tried to write a novel and gave up every single time. Twenty years! I probably left fifty or sixty book ideas to die barely completed. I didn’t think I can, and I couldn’t.

But I also didn’t think I could when I did. I wrote my first novel in a flurry of self-discovery and self-doubt. The more the novel grew, the more the weight of my inadequacy mounted. It was like that tractor pull device that slides up over the roof as the truck makes progress … the very act of progress serving as an impediment to progress.

Such is writing.

With every novel written, the way of writing novels grows more cloudy. The doubts only increase. Finishing a novel often feels just as mysterious to me as starting a new one. How had I done that? I’ve written sequels with more mystification than the novels that proceeded them. I’ve gone into every novel thinking that I couldn’t do this. So it seems Wesley is wrong. I don’t think I can, and yet I do.

It would seem that Wesley is wrong in another way: In my experience, the people with the most talent have the most crippling self-doubts. The people with the least talent are the most confident. Talent in art grows by absorbing great art, and there is no way to be a student of art without being humbled by the self-made comparisons. We will never be as good as the things we admire. That’s the nature of admiration.

When I see people say as Wesley does here that self-doubt should be the end of trying, a part of me wants to shout and rebel. It wants to rise up and say Fuck That Noise! The people with doubts are the very people who should be writing! They are the only people who should be writing! No one should ever write but without confidence!

And here is where simple truth leads to paradox and back to truth, because Wesley Chu is of course right in every possible way.

What changed for me — and ended twenty years of failure — was a writing conference in Charlottesville Virginia. I was there as a blogger, covering the conference and nabbing interviews with some of my favorite crime writers for a website I’d started with a friend. At the time, I was reviewing books because I was incapable of writing them. The more I reviewed them, the more I knew I shouldn’t be writing them. I was full of admiration.

One of the writers at the conference that I admired was Charles Todd, which is actually a writing duo of mother and son, Caroline and Charles Todd. I attended a panel they were on, and at one point, a member of the audience asked how they could go about writing their first novel. Caroline practically leapt out of her chair and slapped her hand on the table with great force, near-shouting: “You stop thinking about writing a novel. You stop telling people you’re writing a novel. You stop dreaming of writing a novel. And you write!”

My hair was blown back. Seriously. I went home from that conference and didn’t write my next review. I didn’t read my next book. I sat down and wrote my first novel. In a week. Seven days. 75,000 words. Twenty years of failure gone, poof, just like that. Because I stopped not just thinking that I couldn’t do it… I stopped thinking about it at all. I concentrated on doing it.

As Yoda says: There is no try.

My first reaction upon seeing Wesley’s Tweet was to disagree with the simplicity of his truth. I don’t want to dissuade artists from trying. I want the reluctant greatness in every artist to be expressed and tested on the open market. I want those with doubts to fill worlds with characters who are consumed by their doubts. The more you think you can’t write a novel, the more reason you should. The more qualified you are. The more you have something worth saying.

But that’s not what Wesley is saying. He’s one step past this. He’s at the act of sitting down in front of your keyboard, that blank screen rising before you, years of mocking — decades of mocking — turning now into nothing but sweet potential. It’s okay to think you can’t write a novel. Live there, grow there, learn there. But at some point, stop thinking. If you’re thinking you aren’t doing.


Chapter 63 of the Tao Te Ching, and everything you need to know on writing a novel, ends with this:

In the universe the difficult things are done as if they are easy.
In the universe great acts are made up of small deeds.
The sage does not attempt anything very big,
And thus achieves greatness.

Easy promises make for little trust.
Taking things lightly results in great difficulty.
Because the sage always confronts difficulties,
He never experiences them.

I know you think you can’t do it.

Wesley knows that too.

And we both think you’re wrong.

13 responses to “The Tao of Writing a Novel”

  1. Had missed your blogging. I’m still writing. I’ve never thought I couldn’t, just that there were pieces of craft I needed to figure out.

    Volume 2 of the PC trilogy is seriously underway, and the 3rd is plotted and drafted until the end.

    Good writing!

  2. Love this line: ‘The people with doubts are the very people who should be writing! They are the only people who should be writing! No one should ever write but without confidence!’ I am nearing final publisher edits on my first novel, knowing as soon as I’m done, I have to pick up Book 2 in the series and produce something. I am terrified it won’t be good enough, doubting the start I made last year, believing I can’t possibly do this again. Thanks Hugh. Feeling PUMPED!

  3. Thanks, I needed the motivation.



  4. Catherine Violando Avatar
    Catherine Violando

    Excellent, as always. It boggles my mind that you can see a tweet at 3:30 and respond so eloquently a few hours later.
    It took me 5 minutes to get this far in my comment!

    Seriously, I came across this accidentally. I haven’t been writing, or even reading much for a while. I get wrapped up in the day-to-day slog and don’t come up for air. I’ve been thinking about how to break out of it and pursue other interests. I want to expand my business. I feel the call to help people, but I don’t know what that looks like. You encouraged me a couple of years ago to write Elise’s continuing story and it still sits in my brain. I was hoping it would move to my heart and find a way out…

    And along comes your message, telling me to get the hell out of my head and just do it. Whatever “it” may be.

    Thanks Yoda.

  5. Thank you. I’ve missed your sage words.

  6. This is something all of need to read, whether we’ve meant to write for decades or just finished whatever we were last writing.

    My own literary purgatory seems never ending. I feel incredibly alone. This is a reminder that those who awe me are in turn awed by others, and that we make the way by moving forward. Each step reveals the next step, but sometimes looking two steps ahead and expecting to see the path is self-defeating. That gnawing lack of confidence can indeed be a good thing, as long as it can be brought to serve that other thing that always seeks to escape, to find itself expressed.

    Thanks for the advice, and the wake up call. Back to my book.

  7. You probably know this but for those who might not, Ursula K. Le Guin also loved studying the Tao Te Ching. She did a translation. You can find it on Amazon:
    Best, Kat

  8. Belinda Govatos Avatar
    Belinda Govatos

    You inspire me, Hugh. Thank you.

  9. Yes!

    Sidebar: where in the world are you? Come to Maui!

  10. Thank you!

  11. Thank you for reminding me that I write, first and foremost, for myself. All the other labels only have meaning once I. have. written.

    I needed to be reminded of this because I’ve forgotten the joy of doing.

  12. Thank you, Hugh. I needed this post.

  13. Can’t thank you enough for this Hugh. Just crawled out of hiding in the back of my clothes closet (literally) after a serious beat up of self-pity and found this. Saved the day. Back to my writing desk.

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