Advice on writing a novel by Mario Vargas Llosa

Mario Vargas Llosa (1936, Perú) was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature in recognition of his remarkable career and body of work as a writer.  The Academy awarded him the Prize “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.”  He has written over 30 novels and began writing plays in the 1980s.  He has recently taken to the stage as an actor in his own dramas.   The 76-year-old has been described as “a promising young actor” by Aitana Sánchez Gijón, one of his costars.


Following is my translation of “Consejos a un joven novelista,” Advice to a young novelist.


  1. Only those who enter into literature as they would enter a religion, willing to dedicate all their time, their energy, their effort to their vocation, will be able to become true writers and write a piece that will transcend them.
  2. There are no precocious novelists.  All the great novelists were, in the beginning, apprentice writers whose talent was forged on a basis of perseverance and conviction.
  3. Literature is the best thing ever invented against misfortune.
  4. In every work of fiction, even in the freest burst of imagination, it is possible to trace a starting point, an intimate seed, viscerally linked to the experiences of the person who created it.  I will venture to say that there are no exceptions to this rule and that therefore pure invention does not exist in the literary realm.
  5. Fiction is, by definition, a sham- a reality that isn’t, yet pretends to be- and every novel is a lie that impersonates the truth, a creation whose power of persuasion depends exclusively on the effective use of certain sleight of hand and prestidigitation techniques akin to those used by magicians in the circus or the theater.
  6. The authenticity or sincerity of a novelist is made up of this: knowing his or her demons and serving them according to his or her strength.
  7. The novelist who does not write about what stimulates and excites him deep inside, and coldly selects issues and topics in a rational manner thinking that this is the easiest way to achieve success, is inauthentic, and probably, because of it, is a poor novelist (even though he may achieve success: best seller lists are full of very bad novelists).
  8. The bad novel with little or no power of persuasion does not make us believe in the lie it is telling us.
  9. The story in a novel may be incoherent, but the language that describes it must be coherent for the story’s incoherence to successfully fake being genuine and have life.
  10. In literature, sincerity or insincerity is not an ethical issue, but an aesthetic one.
  11. Literature is pure artifice, but great literature hides it while mediocre literature betrays it.
  12. To tell a story through writing, every novelist invents a narrator, his or her representative or plenipotentiary in the work of fiction, who is himself a work of fiction, as, like all the other characters, he is made up of words and lives only because and for that novel.
  13. Time in a novel is based on psychological, not chronological time.  It is a subjective time that, thanks to the novelist’s talent, has the appearance of objectivity, which provides the novel distance and differentiates it from the real world.
  14. It is important to know that every novel has a spatial point of view, a temporal point of view, and a point of view on the level with reality, and, even though it may not always be obvious, the three are essentially autonomous, different from each other, and the way in which they harmonize and combine results in the internal coherence that is the novel’s power of persuasion.
  15. When telling a story, unless a novelist imposes certain limits on himself, (in other words, does not resign himself to hide certain information) the story he is telling will have no beginning and no end.