What Writing a Novel and Quitting Smoking have in Common

When I quit smoking everyone I knew still smoked. I didn’t have to buy a pack for the temptation find me. A friend would see me standing with my hands in my pockets and wave a cigarette in front of my lips. I didn’t have to ask for it. Hell, I didn’t even have to light it. As far as they were concerned, I looked wrong without it.

I was the type of smoker other smokers pointed to and said, “At least I’m not as bad as him.”

When I saw the cigarette smoking man, on The X-Files, hold a cancer stick to his tracheotomy, I took it as a signal to light one up myself. The filter in my mouth was trigger enough for me to light another.

My smoker’s cough sounded like a donkey heehawing. My phlegm was the color of coffee. My nicotine headaches lasted for days.

Smoking was a part of my writing process. At the end of every page I’d reward myself with a cigarette. When I was blocked I huffed and puffed throughout. I did my best Hunter S. Thompson impression, balancing the filter in my lips while my hands were busy typing. My keyboard looked like an ashtray.

All of my characters smoked. I wrote long descriptions of the clouds they blew. I used smoke as a tool for expressing how they felt in the moment.

I didn’t measure my walk to work in blocks. I measured the distance in cigarettes. The walk to the coffee shop was two American Spirits. Blockbuster Video was three. The walk to the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts was four.

I smoked a pack and a half a day. I’d walk to the gas station at two in the morning to make sure a pack was waiting for me on the night stand.

Cigarettes were an extension of my body. My mannerisms required them. My eyes said more with firelight. My smile was always lopsided. The habit was part of my expression.

Even my self portraits featured cigarettes.


I smoked indoors, before and after I’d brushed my teeth. I ashed into sinks, cans, and beer bottles. I smoked in bed. My cat stunk of ash. The smoke was so thick in the apartment anyone who stepped outside had red eyes, like they’d emerged from a pool of weapons grade chlorine.

One day I got so sick I couldn’t raise a cigarette to my lips. I had night sweats and fever dreams. I lost time, lying in bed for days. When I became lucid I tried to light a cigarette. It made me nauseous and lightheaded. This sensation was familiar. I’d gone a week without a cigarette before. The physical addiction had sweat its way out of my system, all I had to do was reacquaint the tobacco with my lungs.

Then I got an idea. What if I tested myself to see how long I could go without smoking? I wouldn’t tell anyone. My roommates, coworkers, and classmates smoked. If I told any of them I’d feel embarrassed when they caught me lighting up again, or worse, they’d test my resolve.

A friend who’d failed to kick the habit gave me the last of her nicotine gum. I had one precious sleeve of it, so I had to ration. I saved the pieces for when I felt like I was having an irrational anger attack, then I’d pop one in and park it in my cheek for as long as I could take it.

I didn’t out myself to my fellow smokers until I’d committed to quitting. It took months for many of them to notice. By then my cat was sniffing under my roommates’ doors to get her nicotine fix.

Former Smoker

When It’s Safe to Tell People You’re Writing a Novel

If you tell someone you’re thinking of writing a novel prepare to be heckled in a couple of months if you find yourself working slow.

Writing a novel is a lot like quitting smoking. It’s best to tell people once you’ve already commit to it, once you’re a few chapters deep. Identifying yourself as a writer isn’t the first step to becoming one. You have to develop the problem before you can admit to having one.

When I started coming up with stories I became annoying company. I read some information on writing online and took my false authority out on the town. I talked a good game, but I wasn’t really a player. I used my desire to be a writer as a conversation starter. I was a cocktail conceptualizer, a party going poet, and a social satirist.

I changed plot details based on reactions I was getting. I switched genres depending on my audience’s tastes. I renamed my heroes on the go. I spoiled my stories before I even started writing.

I got good at pitching, but failed to realize that I wasn’t writing. I was more of a bard than anything. I could tell a scary story at a camp fire, but I was a long way off from getting one on the shelf of a major retailer. By identifying myself as a writer I’d made it harder to become one. The instant gratification I got from telling stories substituted my need to jot them down.

Why You Should Keep Some of Your Story a Secret 

When a screenwriter pitches a movie to producers it’s not uncommon for them to compare it to something else. The script reader who gave the thumbs up to Alien said it’s like Jaws, but in space. Often the comparison is this meets that. It’s Die Hard meets Titanic. It’s 28 Days Later meets Love Actually. It’s Predator meets Jurassic Park (no wait, they already made that movie).

The problem with this strategy is it sets false expectations for your story. Everyone’s vision of Die Hard meets Titanic is going to be different. One person will imagine an action movie set on a sinking ship. Another will imagine a period piece about hostages, with a romantic subplot. Others will imagine Under Siege with Steven Seagal.

This is why most screenwriters will tell you not to pitch with a comparison, but to have one in the tank in case you’re asked for one.

Fledgling novelists might have comparisons impressed upon them when they pitch their story to friends. You might mention you’re writing a young adult novel with a strong female protagonist.

A friend might say, “Like Katniss Everdeen?”

If you say, “sure,” your friend’s expectations could warp your story into a dystopian future like something out of the Hunger Games. All of that friend’s suggestions will try to shift your story in a direction they understand. Do this enough times and your audience will suggest you write something homogenous and bland.

People want stories that are familiar only different, but if you invite comparisons before draft one you’ll forget the “only different” part.

When you turn writing a novel into an exchange expect this type of input from everyone.

Hollywood producers throw out “what if” questions to test a screenwriter’s flexibility during pitch sessions.

“What if it’s not a musical? What if it’s a martial arts movie?”

“What if the Hindenburg doesn’t crash in this version?”

“What if Hitler isn’t the bad guy? What if he’s the love interest?”

Your friends will do this because they want to hold up their end of the conversation. The problem with their suggestions is that they’re fleeting. Your friends might not be as invested in their ideas as they’ve led on. It’s just that the only thing you feel like talking about is writing, so they feel pressured to weigh in.

On the other hand, sometimes friends can get too invested. They’ll check in to see how their suggestions are coming along. If you say you couldn’t make their ideas work they’ll debate you into putting them back in.

I’ve had to explain to friends why I don’t want to name characters after them. I fear I’ll imagine that person in the role and I’ll feel weird about making their character do anything embarrassing. Now I have a rule that if you pressure me into naming a character after you that character is guaranteed a brutal death. No exceptions.

Closing Thoughts

If you’re telling people about plot developments you haven’t written, or outlined, you’re not writing. If you’re telling people you’re almost done, it will be a long time before you have anything worth showing. The half way point doesn’t come once you’ve reached the middle of the story. The halfway point comes when your first draft is finished, sometimes not even then.

Wait to tell people you’ve been working on a novel until you’re several chapters in. Tell them what it’s about when you’ve already committed to a direction. Keep some details to yourself and learn to have a conversation about something other than writing.


My audiobook Terms and Conditions is now free on Bandcamp. You can listen to it right here!

After getting a lot requests for prints of my art I decided to open a  store on REDBUBBLE where you can find prints and a whole lot more.


34 thoughts on “What Writing a Novel and Quitting Smoking have in Common”

  1. Reblogged this on series of dreams II and commented:
    Three informative topics. I can sympathize with you on the smoking, for I’ve lost family members to the effects of it. And I do agree with you about not telling everything you’re writing about at the on start of novel.
    It does seem that many, many writers have the same train of thought when it comes to ideas for writing. Coincidence?
    I worked with another art major once and she said that there’s not a painting that hasn’t been painted or drawn and not a story that hasn’t been written (topic wise). I feel that is true, especially when I pick up a book and see my own thoughts and lines in it. Scary!

    1. I know a lot of writers invite their friends into their process too soon when their ideas are fragile. A writer should have a chance to catch their plot holes and fix their character’s motivations on their own.

  2. Both of your topics have been a problem for me, as I must be the worlds worst doubter. Didn’t think I could write…and absolutely knew I couldn’t stop smoking. Then I had two heart attacks, one after the other. When the surgeon who had saved my life asked me to stop smoking, I had to agree. And so I did…and then with my new found life, I started to write.
    (and I haven’t looked back!)

    1. If you can quit smoking, go through a series of stressful life events, without picking up the habit again then you can do anything.

    1. It’s good to keep somethings secret until you know they’re going to work out. I quit smoking maybe 8 years ago, so I’m alright.

  3. Having read somewhere that you should tell people you are writing a book, to keep you motivated, I decided to try it out on my first novel. I told some of my regular clients that I was writing a book and guess what they asked me on every visit? Yep, that was it. ‘How’s the book coming along?’ It certainly worked for me, I’m on my eight book now. I’m reblogging if you don’t mind.

    1. I made a bad habit of telling people my word count. I’d boast about big surges in that number, but when weeks were slow my friends would call me out on the slow growth.

      1. Phew! Thank goodness I was never asked my word count. People mostly inquired as to what chapter I was on and I would give them a rough estimate and say that the chapters were never exact until the book’s completion. It’s probably a good thing that we put ourselves under a bit of pressure, it forces me to be more self-disciplined.

  4. So glad you quit smoking! And great advice about holding the cards close when starting to write. I waited until my first draft was done before I mentioned that I was writing a book. It was still too early to avoid the “smirks,” but the only way to avoid those is to hand out the printed book.

  5. I wish I had not told anyone when I started “writing” a novel. Though I quit my job to do it, so I kind of had to share the reason why. Both decisions were premature. Oh well! Though it’s too late for me to take this advice, I wholeheartedly support it and will pass it on.

  6. I’ve made this mistake for years. I stopped talking about plot and character this year, but I did tell my friends I want to publish next year. Mostly to keep me on track. Thankful that they’ve been enthusiastic without making suggestions.

  7. Drew, your writing here is always solid. But this one … particularly brill! I laughed! I cried! I hacked! (Just kidding on that last one: never smoked.) The topic and treatment were stellar enough, but the language choices and word pictures with which you crafted it … just woah. Top notch stuff!

    (I really DID laugh out loud several times, and got a *zing* of excitement, thinking, “This is some killer writing.”)

  8. I can absolutely relate being a somewhat fire side story teller with a smoke ring above my head as a halo, always on the verge of about to start and never quite starting, thinking tomorrow, tomorrow is the day and life kinda has a way of stealing away all time

  9. I’m glad you had at least one supportive friend (the one who gave you the gum.) Quitting smoking and writing a novel are both way more work than most people realize. Congratulations on committing!

  10. Ringing bells here on every frontI I smoked my way through Nano last year and still smoking through the edit. I loved that cartoon. You’d just have to slap that wee guy in the mush if he was a friend! Congrats on quitting and still writing. I’ll have to separate the two in my mind at some point. :/

  11. Dear Drew,

    I’ve been a journalist for 20 years and I’m now starting my writer career (first book will be published this year). I am trying to quit cigarettes but I feel this hurts my writing/creativity. Have you managed to keep up with your writing after you quit cigarettes? Was this a difficult struggle? The base question will be: do you feel that stop smoking interfered with the quality of your writing? If so, how did you overcame that?

    This seems a silly question but I will be very thankful if you take the time to answer.

    all the best,

    Patricia (ps – I’m Portuguese)

    1. Cigarettes are a stimulant and could very well give you a sense of alertness for creative writing. I compensate with coffee. I also used to use cigarettes as rewards for making progressing. The problem was that my nicotine tolerance was so high that I ended up smoking throughout the writing process, typing with one hand bringing a cigarette to my lips with the other. I’d say quitting smoking didn’t hurt my writing. My writing has only gotten better. This isn’t due to stimulant usage (i.e. caffeine) so much as it is persistence. I write better fiction today because I’ve put so much time in doing it. If I quit coffee, I imagine my work five years from today will be better because I’ve learned more since. I say if you’re thinking of quitting smoking do it.

      1. You’re right about getting better because we learn/practice and not because we smoke. Thank you 🙂

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