Write a Novel on a Napkin

I used to dream one of being one of those writers who could get on the bus every day, a yellow pad of paper in hand, and after a few weeks of doing so, step off with a novel. Or perhaps record a literary revelation on a restaurant napkin.

While I don’t think it a very easy task to write a full-length novel on a slightly soiled napkin (world’s largest sheet of paper, anyone?), the concept of writing a couple-sentence “novel” is actually helpful to condense your ideas.

It’s also a lot easier to develop your story skills by first starting off with a tiny novel, and then applying some of the same techniques to your fantastic soon-to-be book. For example, let’s take what is arguably considered the best 6-word novel in history:

“For Sale:

Baby shoes.

Never worn.”

This 6-word novel is often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, although that has not been proven and is widely controversial. However, the author tells a story with the content of an entire novel in only a few words. The first line is like a title, setting up certain expectations in the reader. By the end of this super short story, our expectations have been twisted and we are surprised. We never read the story the same again.

That’s how novels are often structured, too! Our expectations are set up, and by the time the end of the story comes, we are surprised and, at the same time, feel that the ending was inevitable. This is no easy task, but we can practice creating this “oh” moment in much fewer words. Say a lot with a little. Lydia Davis’s Collaboration With Fly is another of my favorites.

So if the idea strikes your interest, why not give it a shot? Use it to solidify an idea for a full novel, or use it to get ideas, or to practice saying things concisely, or to fill up that random paper napkin you stuffed in your pocket and forgot about.

I can’t say I’ve written a fifty thousand page book on the back of a napkin on my way home on the bus. But I can say I’ve written a whole story in one sentence (the one in the photo at the top of this post is one of my own). And that’s no small task.


Published by laurenhallstrom

Lauren is the author of two CIPA EVVY award-winning novels, both written when she was a teen. She writes contemporary fantasy for tweens and young adults. She holds an undergraduate degree in English at Colorado State University and currently works in a public library. More often than not you can find her there - promoting lifelong learning, staring off into space, and dreaming up new stories.

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