Adventures in Retirement: Your Journey to Writing the Great American Novel
By Dr. James R. Gregory

Why on earth would anyone want to write a novel? 

You may have a story to tell and lots of time on your hands. So, you boldly announce to the family, “Today is the day I’m going to start writing the great American novel.” Yes, the day has come. The pencils are sharpened, and legal pads are stacked, even though you will do the work on your computer. This is it Day #1. 

And so, it begins. A cup of coffee may get you going. 

Your spouse sees you procrastinating and gently encourages you, “Write the darn thing, for goodness’ sake, and stop saying you’ll write a novel someday. You say that like you are threatening your family. I know you can do it; you write nice letters and have a way with words. Just sit down and get started.” 

After you made your announcement to the family, your son spotted you having another cup of coffee and looking out the window. “How’s that book coming along? Are you going to write about the grass you keep staring at in the backyard?” 

“No, son, I’m looking for inspiration. I know the story I’m after, but I’m unsure where to start. I’ve got the characters developed in my mind, but I’m unsure where the action begins.” 

Your son has already categorized this discussion as past tense and responds, “Huh? What?”

“Never mind.”

Even your dog knows that you are putting things off and decides to cooperate by bringing her leash to your daughter to take her for her morning walk. Your daughter announces that she is late for school and can’t take Coco for a walk today. Coco knows her tone of voice and, without hesitation or complaint, pivots to you. Why not? I’ve got nothing else to do. 

Starting the novel is only the dawn of your problems. Once you find the traction to get going, sustaining your energy over the first chapter is satisfying. After all, you’ve been planning to write this book for years, maybe even decades, so the first paragraph, even the first chapter, is usually a slam dunk. Then, you come to the second chapter. Yikes, you realize that you’ve never considered the second chapter. 

Now that you’ve started your book, when people ask what you are up to, you can look off into the distance and wistfully say that you are working on your novel. That is a viable excuse that can be used for about 3.5 years, and at that point, people are going to ask, are you “still” doing that? You’ll know that excuse has run its course when they ask you, “When are you going to do something useful like learn to play golf?”

Another unexpected problem occurs when trying to decide where to end your novel. It’s like trying to land a plane when you’ve never had flying lessons. You know you are near the end because the characters have done everything you’ve wanted them to do, and going on with the story without conviction might be anticlimactic, which is one of the deadly sins of writing. You will also know it is time to conclude your story because you’ve lost your stamina. Bring it to an end…land that plane even if it kills ya. 

Writer’s block isn’t in your imagination; it is a real affliction that can strike any time. You begin to sit and look at your story, but nothing happens. You would rather take the garbage to the curb than write a word. Help the kids with their homework? Sure. Just don’t force me to write, or I’ll scream. Writing that next sentence is the only known cure for writer’s block. When you write the dreaded next sentence, another sentence will follow, and soon, writer’s block will be in the rearview mirror. [PRO-TIP: The next sentence doesn’t have to be good or relate to the main plot. It is just used to prime the pump]

Have you ever considered just how long a novel is? The word count of a novel starts at 40,000 words, which is just the starting line. The Hobbit is 95,022 words, A Game of Thrones is 292,727 words, War and Peace is a whopping 587,287 words, and Atlas Shrugged is a mere 561,996 words. 

Have you ever read a book where you sense the author is struggling to reach the novel’s minimum word count? It is a pain in the neck to read chapters that seem like they were wedged into a story to meet a word count goal—you can spot them a mile away. If you are starting out as a writer, consider testing your skills by writing a short story that requires only 1,000 to 7,500 words to qualify. 

Alternatively, writing a novella with a word count of 17,500 to 40,000 puts you into a league of writers and literature that are very respected, such as The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, Animal Farm by George Orwell, and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Other modern novellas include The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote. My personal favorite is The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. 

I love writing novella-sized stories. My new book, Zephyr’s War, coming out in August, is 25,265 words and is a perfect weekend escape. Novellas feel natural and allow me to write a beginning, middle, and conclusion without forcing more words to meet an arbitrary goal. One of my followers called me the “King of the Short Reads,” which I took as a compliment (I’m not sure if it was meant that way). 

I like to write in the style of stories I like reading. In other words, I enjoy stories that have a purpose, a lesson, or make you feel satisfied. I enjoy reading the whole story in a dedicated period (e.g., a weekend, a long flight, or a day at the beach). I also like books that tie up loose ends – “Don’t leave me hanging, bro!” 

It would help if you liked your own writing because once you finish writing your first draft novella, you must read it many times before it is released to the public. You read it once to catch all the obvious mistakes. Then, reading it aloud to a spouse or dog would be best to ensure it resonates and sounds natural (believe it or not, that is an important step). Then you have a manuscript that you send to your book editor, who will find hundreds (if you are good) of mistakes and typos you didn’t catch. I love my editor because she will catch weird phrases you didn’t even know you used but might annoy a loyal reader (e.g., “Jim do you know you use the word ‘giddy’ when any of your characters are…”). 

So, now you have a complete and edited manuscript. You should receive the Nobel Prize for Novels for achieving this lofty accomplishment. Unfortunately, that isn’t the way it works. A finished manuscript only puts you at the starting line for working with a publisher. I’ve worked with both giant publishers and small ones, and they all take at least a year (more likely two years) to finish your book and get it on the bookshelves of stores (or online with Amazon). 

Self-publishing is also an option that can speed up the process a scooch, but it won’t help you sell books. And ebooks are all the rage for self-publishing these days. Amazon offers a service called Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) that will walk you through the steps necessary to get your book up and selling on their Kindle format. Don’t forget audiobooks, which will be demanded by those who don’t have time to read but will listen to your book while driving or sleeping (or both). 

But books in any format won’t sell themselves. You need to market them, and for marketing to be successful, your book must be relevant to your target audience. At this point, your marketing skills are more important than your writing skills (yes, you heard that right). 

Few things are more humbling than to get your first $.78 royalty check after you have invested thousands of manhours and untold riches into the process of crafting a priceless work of fiction only to get a 78-cent freakin royalty for your hard work. Don’t despair there is always next month’s royalty check. 

In conclusion, I ask the same question I started with, “Why would anyone want to write a novel?” My definitive answer is, “It beats the heck out of me.” 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Dr. James R. Gregory spent his career as a business consultant focused on building corporate brands. He wrote numerous business books about creating value with intangible assets. In 2013, he sold his company, retired, and started his second career writing for fun and became a novelist with books including the international bestselling book Small Fortunes, and his new book (which can be pre-ordered from Barnes & Noble), Zephyr’s War. More info at


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