The Novelist: What’s the Big Idea in Fiction?

fiction kathleen overby

One thing is certain. Lying on the floor is no way to write an article.

I can tell you, all you’re going to figure out is that your vacuuming is overdue. And that you have a massive and growing cobweb in one corner of the ceiling. Lit in competing layers by the desk lamp directly below and one naked light bulb dangling beside, its fibrous strands are like the white thatch above an age-pocked face with the other, empty light sockets gaping back like big hollow eyes.

Grandmother, what big eyes you have!

Go ahead. Lie there on the floor a little longer wondering why you don’t have proper light fixtures installed in any of your sockets and why you have a grandmother with wispy cobweb hair on your ceiling when Laura has a snake on hers and why she hasn’t fixed her plumbing.

Your grandmother has big eyes and Laura has a big sestina and we want to know what is the big idea of The Novelist. Maybe if you lie there for another hour, something will come to you. But don’t stay there until morning. The book will be over and you’ll still be sprawled on the floor under the cobwebs trying to figure how long the story took and how she managed the time frame the way she did.

It may have worked for Laura. But can we remember, for a moment, Laura was a fictional character? People really don’t lie around on the floor under snaking ceilings—waiting to die, or for novels (or articles) to write themselves. (I suppose you could argue that if Mary Shelley were flat on her back looking at either Laura’s ceiling or yours, it might help explain where Frankenstein came from. But it won’t get you very far with Genji and Murasaki.)

A fine scene that would be. Shelley, Murasaki, and you, stretched out on the carpet pondering the thinking process of a fictional ad copy writer with a weakness for Twitter, getting nothing done. And old Mario Vargas Llosa would be upright in a chair at the writing table, feet up off the floor for fear of a worm.


We’re reading The Novelist: a novella, by L.L. Barkat, together over the next couple of weeks. We’d love to hear what you’re thinking about the story, about the characters, even about the process of writing fiction. Perhaps you’d share your thoughts from some of the first set of questions from the reader-crafted discussion guide:

  1. At the opening of the book, the main character Laura resists the concept proposed by author Mario Vargas Llosa—that a writer has “a worm.” What language and past experience does she use to resist it? Why do you think she resists? By the end of the book, has her resistance proved useful?
  2. The book includes various writing sources, writers, and genres that Laura contemplates along the way: Letters to a Young NovelistPlot & Structure, Mary Shelley, Murasaki and her Tale of Genji, fairytales, poetry, autobiographical fiction. What starting-points do these bring to the writing classroom or the writer?
  3. What are some key writing lessons that Laura learns through her thinking process?
  4. The Novelist suggests that a good story will put its main character into a “muddle stage” in the center of the story. In The Novelist, does Laura find herself in a muddle? If so, what is its nature?
  5. How long does it take for the story to take place? What writing devices does the author use to manage this time frame?
  6. What is the big idea in this book?

For next week, take a look at the second set of questions.

Download the discussion guide.

Read the first chapter online.

Buy The Novelist: a novella:

Photo by Kathleen Overby, all rights reserved. Used with permission. Post by Lyla Willingham Lindquist.


Buy a year of Every Day Poems, just $5.99— Read a poem a day, become a better writer. In November we’re exploring the theme Surrealism.

Every Day Poems Driftwood


  1. says

    Jumping in at #3 I’ll offer this thought, or thought string, depending on how it shakes out: I think one of the biggest key lessons learned by Laura is that the process of writing doesn’t always include writing. It can’t ever ONLY include writing. It includes wrestling with snakes and looking for tea baskets and sifting through mind files of encounters with lovers and deciphering childhood memories and discovering why the hell it even matters anyway if she writes this book/poem/blog/story/grocery list. A writer can’t forbid herself from indulging in the muddle phase, but she also can’t linger for too long I suppose. But it’s a process that does require discipline… and sometimes that discipline comes in the form of allowing ourselves room for the process without succumbing to settling for forceful, heartless, disconnected writing. Hmmm… okay. That’s a whole string of thoughts from my own muddled space inside.

    • L. L. Barkat says

      I love this, Donna. It’s my “writing starts with living” bit from Rumors of Water.

      What amused me about Laura was that she didn’t know she had so much to work with. She didn’t understand that all that living could be bundled up and spun into words.

      Or maybe she knew and was afraid. :)

      I wonder what the biggest obstacle is for most writers. Do they not realize that the big idea they need is already accompanying them every day? Or do they actually realize it and are just afraid?

      • Donna says

        I wonder that too and think it’s both. I know for me it is mostly fear – writing, for me, pulls everything inside UP from the depths and sometimes it’s really a scary thing to do. I wasn’t kidding in Artists Way when I said that if I do this I am calling on my therapist to help LOL! :) I don’t mind sharing that bc I think this is such a valuable resource to have someone who can help in that capacity. I’m luckier than it seems bc mine writes so she gets it, why this matters to me! Okay so fear stops me unless I write as if I am watching the person, in the third person sense. I have much better luck if I write “She” and “her” and “they” than “Me, Mine, We”. But I always wonder how people (writer people) have the courage to publish anything authentic and important to their own stories when the characters/situations may be recognized by those they were fashioned after? I can NOT figure that out for myself yet. So I steep and fiddle, and here I ask. What do others do about that?

        • Donna says

          And yes, I think Laura knew it eventually – it seemed to emerge right about the time the book ended and I screamed at my ereader NOOOOO … NOT YET!

          • L. L. Barkat says

            that’s what I like. A reader who can’t let go at the end :)

            Think about it, though. This is where most writers go wrong. They keep writing past the time they should. How to know what the balance is for a reader is tricky. Did you at least get most of what you wanted? :)

          • donna says

            Oh yes, I did. 😉 It was a perfect ending. I learned through that experience that paper in you hands books give you clues as you get toward the end – ereaders do not. Poof. You’re there. Done. I was unpleasantly surprised to be at the end, but I think the ending was perfect because, to me, it seemed clearly to be a new beginning… if there WAS a next page I imagine it would be Laura easing out of the muddle phase and onto the real page 1.

        • L. L. Barkat says

          At some point, more when I was doing public speaking, I realized that if I felt/thought something, chances were that a good percentage of others had felt/thought it too.

          So I began writing for those people, and not focusing so much on the fact that I had to feel/think the stuff first, to get it on the page.

          Somehow it worked.

          And I do a lot of closing my eyes and saying, “Whatever.” Because if I don’t, as you say, I might as well go be a gardener instead. (Since I don’t mind worms, this would be an option, but I really rather like being a writer, so it’s a good deal of eye-closing for me :)

  2. L. L. Barkat says


    Were you really on the floor? Did you get the cobwebs down? 😉

    Maybe it *does* help to get on the floor. It’s a perspective change, after all. It also helps us to realize we are being, perhaps, a bit dramatic in our cries about writer’s block.

    Personal favorite line is from the next chapter, “Maybe she should get up off the floor now and make a cup of tea.” (am I allowed to have favorite lines? :)

    • says

      Cobwebs are still there, yes. Was really on the floor, yes. My editor suggested it. My vacuuming is overdue.

      I’m not sure lying on the floor would help in most cases, but here, where there is precedent for it in the story, it gave me the perspective and a starting place.

      I could use some fancier light fixtures, though.

      • donna says

        I loved it. BAM it put you right IN the story, but NOT in the story at the same time. Plus it made me laugh at my own sneaky cobweb that I noticed yesterday in an impossible location.

    • says

      I don’t know that I experience what I would call “writer’s block.” There are days when I have nothing to write, and I don’t worry about it much. My dramatic cries typically arise from feeling like I am outmatched by the subject. And usually, if a patient editor (I happen to have one), unfazed by my drama, will point me in a direction, I can move forward.

      Or at least get up off the floor.

  3. says

    I’m here to speak up for the worms, how they take to loam, burrow deep in the folds of imagination’s earth, letting themselves be plowed up, cut up, reworked and stitched back together. Sometimes you can even recycle them. They can be slippery but once you hook them, you’ve got them good.

    “The Novelist” knew how to hook and cast her worm.

    • L. L. Barkat says

      I have to say that this is where I identify with Laura. I seriously don’t like this image of Vargas Llosa’s. But I don’t mind worms at all, in general, if they are in the garden.

      Guessing I could never be a tequila-drinking writer. 😉 Though I could maybe be the person who put the worm into the bottle.

      Did this image resonate with you Maureen? Do you experience writing as “parasite” or at least something that eats at you until you get the words in their places?

      • says

        I can’t say I’ve ever thought of or experienced the writing life as parasitic or all-consuming, certainly not as Vargas Llosa or Thomas Wolfe thought of it. However, I do think the image of the worm conveys remarkably well how we live with an idea once it springs up, twists and squirms and burrows deep, until lodging and taking hold firmly in the imagination.

        Vargas Llosa talks about a novel’s origination as “a daydream, a kind of rumination… that occurs only in the mind”. What could be a more fertile source? The mind is the loam on which the worm feeds.

    • donna says

      The worms were most compelling for me, probably because I go through phases that feel this way and now I have this perfect metaphor to go with it. I love the way you describe it, too, Maureen… slippery. I have used that many times with a bar of soap metaphor, but that’s such a hopeless grabbing and chasing and regrabbing. The worm, burrowing deep, cut up, reworked and stitched back together by their very nature, and unlike a bar of soap it is INTERNAL. Problems that seem to have no solution are like a bar of soap… but this writing thing is not only like digging up worms, but it is the worm… much roaming around inside compelling me to release it with every written word… but with every word it just grows longer and longer still, never to fully exit my body. I’m left exhausted by the effort sometimes, and then a long rest is called for. Sometimes resting is a part of it, then. Muddling. Wrestling worms. Expelling them. Resting. A life cylce all it’s own. Not so different from the natural world – as if writing were more organic than not.


  1. […] And this is the way you will know that your editor loves you: In the late hours of the evening, she will instruct you to do push-ups. Ten of them. Right there in your office, on the floor next to your desk. The same floor where she once told you to lie down and stare at the ceiling until the words started. […]

  2. […] And this is the way you will know that your editor loves you: In the late hours of the evening, she will instruct you to do push-ups. Ten of them. Right there in your office, on the floor next to your desk. The same floor where she once told you to lie down and stare at the ceiling until the words started. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *