The XX Factor

Advice to Dahlia Lithwick, From a Professional

This is a guest post by crime novelist Laura Lippman, in response to the Dahlia Lithwick’s fabulous attempt in Slate to write a chick-lit novel in less than a month.

Dear Dahlia,

Welcome to the world of fiction writing. And while I know you have already offended some writers with your blithe assumption that you can write a chick-lit/mommy-lit book in a month, you might well be able to do it. Joyce Maynard wrote Labor Day in about that much time, although it’s worth noting that she was at a writer’s colony at the time. Lawrence Block can write a novel in two weeks, but then, he’s part of a generation of writers, including the late Donald Westlake and Evan Hunter, who came of age at a time when prolificity was the only way to make a living. Every year, the Internet hums with people trying their hands at NaNoWriMo , trying to write a novel in November. And it has only 30 days! It can be done. Not by me; I average nine months to write a draft and this year I’m actually taking 12, to which most people say: “Wow, you really churn them out.”

But there are a couple of things you need to know. First of all, readership is not as strictly divided between genders as you seem to think. There’s not a #1 best-selling author alive who doesn’t have a big share of women readers. Trust me, Lee Child is not selling millions of books to men alone and it’s not men who are showing up at his book-signings with fresh-baked cookies and Reacher Creature t-shirts. In a recent New Yorker profile, Ian McEwan recounted how he and his son tried to give away novels in a public park and not a single man would take one. “When women stop reading,” McEwan concluded, “the novel will be dead.” And there are men who read female-centric books. I know a guy in Michigan-father, Detroit Lions fan, handy with tools-who is beside himself when Jennifer Weiner publishes a new book.

And while I suppose there are women who read only one type of book, I don’t know any. In the past month, these are the books I have read or listened to on my iPod: Assassination Vacation , The Partly Cloudy Patriot , Too Fat to Fish , The Slippery Year , Dark Places , Liberty , Diamond Ruby (a galley of a book to be published next year), Dark Entries (Ian Rankin’s first graphic novel), Trouble , This is Where I Leave You … can you find a pattern there? The only thing I see is that I like audiobooks read by people with distinctive voices (Sarah Vowell, Artie Lange, Garrison Keillor), and I tend to avoid crime fiction when I’m in the throes of writing one of my own, although I made an exception for Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places.

So when you ask women why do “we” like to read this or that, it’s almost impossible to answer. I like a good slit throat now and then, although I have never read as much spy fiction as I should. (I recently shocked my husband by revealing that I have yet to read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold .) Some of my best friends write about vampires, but I find myself hugging the wall at that particular dance, just not getting it, although I am completely unambivalent about my pride in Charlaine Harris, one of those overnight sensation twenty years in the making.

And here’s the thing you should know about Charlaine, who writes the Sookie Stackhouse books that inspired HBO’s new hit, True Blood . Charlaine didn’t start with a type or a genre. She didn’t say, “I’m going to do Anne Rice but with a dash of crime fiction and a sprinkling of the paranormal.” She started with characters and a situation that intrigued her. At the time, no one believed in what she was doing, not even her agent, if I’ve got the story straight. But Charlaine, who had already written two excellent mystery series, persevered.

One of my heroes, James M. Cain, was always being compared to Hemingway and Hammett. Eventually, he bristled, and wrote these words in his introduction to The Butterfly : “You’re being a little naive, you know. We don’t do it that way. We don’t say to ourselves that some lucky fellow did it a certain way, so we’ll do it that way too, and cut in on the sugar. We have to do it our own way, each for himself, or there isn’t any sugar.”

A character, a situation. That’s what you need to write a novel, not a pinch of Bridget Jones and a dash of Slummy Mummy. How fast you can write it will depend on your own build, whether you’re a fast-twitch or slow-twitch writer, if you will. But here’s a little math: Your first installment-a size 8 is shameful? Oh, dear-came in at 1,700 words, give or take. To write a novel in a month, even one with 31 days, you’ll need to average 2,500-3,000 words a day.