Just Because You Can Write a Novel, That Doesn’t Mean You Should

When I was 21 I started writing a novel.

Well, by “writing” I mean I bought a fancy moleskine and nice pens and wrote down little vignettes of no consequence while riding the bus back and forth to class. Clever quips, character sketches, you know, the annoying shit that makes a person feel creative without actually doing anything, ever.

It was about a young 20-something guy who dated an overbearing, controlling girl who didn’t “get” him. During the novel he found the girl of his dreams, learned to love himself, and, I’m not even kidding, the denouement involved him decorating his bedroom with posters of the bands he loved. Because he was apparently not allowed to do that before?

He was also an English major who looked and sounded exactly like me. It may or may not have been autobiographical. Worst of all, its working title was Strong Enough to Break, which I stole from a documentary about Hanson.

It went nowhere. As in, I never even wrote a first sentence. But had I been disciplined, I would have actually written that piece of shit. That thing would have existed, for no other reason than the fact that I was obliviously miserable in my relationship.

I’m thankful every day that Strong Enough to Break died on the vine. I’m thankful I never started writing it. I’m thankful that I realized how vapid and self-centered it was. Most of all, I’m thankful that I was able to let the story go. Because, for some writers, that first story lingers. What seemed important at 23 or 24 can still seem important at 30, even though it’s usually not. It was their cradle of civilization, the crucible they were forged in. Good luck convincing them it doesn’t mean anything to anyone else.

I thought about my long-forgotten novel a lot while reading The Futures, the debut novel by Anna Pitoniak. It, too, concerns itself with very particular, somewhat childish events from two characters in their early 20s. It reeks of Pitoniak’s old boyfriends, anxiety-fueled job searches, high school crushes on star athletes, and what’s become one of the more tired, unrelatable characters in fiction: the struggling, privileged, young, white person in New York City. Ultimately, it doesn’t feel like fiction.

In The Futures Julia and Evan fall in love as undergrads at Yale. She’s blonde, beautiful, and rich. He’s on a hockey scholarship, and grew up in a Canadian logging town. They move to NYC after graduation when Evan gets a job at a hedge fund. Julia, who has only known a life of ease, feels overwhelmed by the pressures of the real world.

Shockingly, things go awry. Evan’s job is stressful. He works a lot. Their sex life disintegrates. She gets wrapped up with ex-boyfriends. It gets complicated, you guys. Why won’t Evan pay more attention to her? Why won’t companies hire her?? Should Julia give up on four years with Evan and re-kindle things with one of her two interesting exes???

Only then did I see it clearly: everyone was figuring it out. Everyone except me. I had no passion, no plan, nothing that made me stand out from the crowd. I had absolutely no idea what kind of job I was supposed to get.

On the day The Futures was published, Pitoniak penned an article for Literary Hub about how she learned how to write by being an editor at Random House. She observed the work of talented, established writers for years, during which she learned the tricks of the trade. Quite literally. Things like how to pace your story in order to keep someone reading, why you should cut down all extraneous detail, the benefits of focusing almost entirely on plot, etc. Essentially, she learned how to write by numbers.

In the end, it worked. Pitoniak can write. Not in a style I particularly enjoy, but I find it hard to find objective fault with it. It’s simple, straightforward, easily digestible, and yes, compulsively readable.

But that doesn’t make a good story. And a good story is the one thing a writer isn’t able to glean from other writers. Either you’re creative or you’re not. The craft of writing can be broken down to a complicated form of math, essentially. It can be taught. But you can’t teach someone to be interesting.

Do you know what writing about being 22 and broke means when said writer is in their 30s? That nothing else since has been worth commenting on.

I was rooting for this book. I was absolutely Pitoniak’s target demographic. I’ve been through a lot of what Julia and Evan went through. I was broke for years after school. I had a tough time navigating complicated, heartbreaking relationships. I moved across the country. Twice. I made mistakes. I was clueless when it came to my career. I was scared. All the time.

The Futures should have been a harrowing experience for me. It should have hit so close to home that reading it was a difficulty. Because twenty-something life is interesting, and relatable, and great fodder for great literature. But when it’s this myopic, when it appears this autobiographical, when it’s about living in New York City when the author lives in New York City and finding and losing the star hockey player from a logging town in British Columbia when the author is from British Columbia, it falls on deaf ears.

Anna Pitoniak seems to feel like the education she received as an editor at Random House was the best thing for her. After reading The Futures, I’m not so sure.

13 thoughts on “Just Because You Can Write a Novel, That Doesn’t Mean You Should

  1. I agree that those first ideas are often horrendous when you look back on them. The difference between the two extremes is the discipline to finish. To me, the story is more important than anything else. Pacing, grammar, character development are a part of the story, too, but there’s not going to be many readers if a well-written book has a bad story. Thank you for sharing.


  2. Is that a real quote from the book? Like, for real? That sounds like a blog post. From a lifestyle blog. The title of which would be something like “Finding my Voice” or “Living my Truth” and would probably feature the author wearing various pieces of sponsored clothing and accessories.

    “But you can’t teach someone to be interesting” is such a sick burn!! I love it!

    As you know I’m reading debut novels right now. I’m reading Franzen’s which he’s frequently mentioned being embarrassed by now. Though it’s about people in their 30s-50s. I read Colson Whitehead’s, which is about a struggling 20-something in New York but is one of the strangest and most original books I’ve ever read (Plus he wrote it in his 20s!) So, it can be done!

    And um. When I read “Hanson documentary” I legit thought you mean Rick Hanson. I’m old.


    1. It is absolutely a quote from the book. That’s far from the worst one I could have chosen, actually. At times it feels like she ripped stuff straight from a diary. The book was unintentionally funny, that way.

      I agree that it can be done (re: writing a good book in your twenties). I’ve read a lot of them. But they’re absolutely hit and miss. Again, it comes down to how genuinely interesting the writer is. Lots of people can write. The craft isn’t the hard part (at least it’s not the part that makes or breaks a book). The Futures really showed me that you can have all the technical ability in the world and still write a piece of garbage.

      (I should point out that this book has been quite well reviewed. Beats me as to how.)


  3. PS do you still have your notebook? I used to write terrible crap, not for a novel but just like… crap, in a draft email to myself. The fact that I deleted it when I was 24 or so is both VERY VERY good but also distressing!


    1. I don’t think I have anything from my early twenties. Definitely from my mid-twenties, though. Luckily it’s stuff that came after the stuff I referenced here. I’ve read some of it years later and it’s not nearly as embarrassing.


  4. Amen to alllll of that! Haven’t we all daydreamed about our first novel. I wrote about 50 pages of a “love story” about a girl working in a mall and falling in love with a boy who worked at a coffee shop, while I was working at the mall and had the biggest crush on the guy at the coffee shop. Figures..

    I put The Futures on my to-read list as soon as I heard about it, but following a colleague’s review (very similar to yours) I quietly removed it. Now I’m glad I did. Your thoughts are so well articulated here .. Perhaps your not-so-debut novel wasn’t one to pursue but I honestly think there is one in your future!


  5. bahahaha this really made me laugh, but I agree with all your points. It was a silly book, but I found it compulsively readable! And of little to no consequence…almost like chick lit?


    1. Yes, it was extremely readable. It was a breeze, for sure. I strayed away from calling it chick lit–I feel like it can sound a bit judgmental coming from a man–but you’re bang on. In retrospect, the cover for this book is kind of interesting. Given the subject matter I wouldn’t have been shocked for it to be baby blue with a cartoon girl in a dress on the cover. But they put this cool cityscape shot on the front, and it completely changes the way your brain *wants* to interpret the book. Quite interesting!

      Liked by 1 person

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