Here’s the vision: You, at a little cottage on a cliff overlooking the sea. Or no, wait, make that the south of France. Or maybe a townhouse in Greenwich Village. You rise early (but not too early), waft still half-dreaming to your charming antique desk (did we mention that you’re thin in this fantasy?), and give yourself over to a morning of inspired creativity, your brilliant novel pouring out of you.
Then, lunch with your editor, an afternoon sifting through fan mail and negotiating movie deals, and, as night falls, you enjoy a large martini with a handsome, admiring companion named Raoul.
O.K., the Raoul part I made up, but the rest of it is pretty much what life is like for a novelist. Or at least believing it can be like that is one fiction most novelists share.
How can you too live the dream life of a famous novelist? The first and most important step, I’m sorry to inform you, is to write a novel. The good news is that writing a novel is a lot easier than getting thin or finding a guy like Raoul.
Here are the eight essential steps to getting started:
1. Don’t wait for a great idea. Among the most common and most crippling of misconceptions about writing a novel is that you need a Big, High Concept Idea before you get started. And that, if you were thunderstruck by such an idea, the novel would then write itself.
Rather, you can launch a novel with as little as an image, a snatch of conversation, a vision of a character. The magic isn’t in the idea or its relative strength, but in how you build on it.
2. Don’t wait for inspiration. Ever feel like you want to write a novel, but you’re just not inspired? Me too! Four and a half days out of five! Inspiration is real, but it’s also rare and unpredictable, and waiting till it hits to write is like waiting until you’re wild with desire to have sex.
3. Don’t do the laundry. People who want to be writers often ask me how I discipline myself to get work done at home, and I tell them I have one very simple rule: Never do the laundry. Not during your work hours. Don’t just throw in a quick load. Don’t put it in the dryer, because otherwise it’s going to start smelling moldy. Just don’t do it. Once you let yourself do a little laundry when you’re supposed to be writing, it’s a slippery slope. If you have any doubt as to the effectiveness of this advice, consider that it’s the kind of thing no successful male writer needs to be told.
4. Write every day. Unless you’re already living unencumbered in that cottage by the sea, you probably don’t have time to write. You have to make time. And it’s better to make a little bit of time, even half an hour, every day than to try and write all day Saturday.
Why? Because your characters and your story will stay more vivid in your head. That will make it easier for you to continue thinking about your writing during all the time you’re not writing. Because your skills will stay more limber. And because, if you only give yourself half an hour, you won’t be tempted to fill 15 minutes of it with laundry.
5. Forget reality. I’m amazed by how many people — educated, literate people — don’t know the difference between fiction and nonfiction. When I tell them I write novels, they pause for a moment, then ask, “Is that fiction?” Many would-be writers are similarly confused. They think that writing a novel will be easier if they start with real events, if they create characters based on real people, if they write what they know instead of going to the bother of making stuff up. I’m here to tell you: Not only is fiction by definition made up, it’s easier to write that way. Easier to write about an old lady you created off the top of your head than about your grandmother, easier to write about a marriage spun from thin air than about one just like your own. So stop looking to reality for your inspiration, and start inventing.
6. Start with your characters.Where do you start inventing? With your characters. Whether your initial idea is a movie-worthy elevator pitch or a wisp of creative film, you start at the same place, by figuring out who the people are who are going to try to kidnap the president or repair their relationship. Begin with their names. Then move on, one by one, to their hair color, and what they eat for breakfast, and who they call when they wake up scared at 3 a.m, and what they’re scared about. Keep going until you’re not sure whether you made them up or knew them in college. Until your fiction is realer than reality.
7. Know your title.This is a tip stolen from Elmore Leonard: Before you begin, think of a perfect title. A title that not only makes you want to write the book to go with it, but that you can see on the book jacket, that you can imagine will make millions of people want to read it.
8. Know your ending. You may not have to have every detail of your plot worked out before you start writing, but you need to know where your characters are heading and where they’re going to end up. Otherwise, it’s like taking off on a road trip without having any idea whether you’re aiming for California or Florida. You’ll end up driving around in circles.
Is that all there is to writing a novel? Well, no. But it’s a good start. For further tips, read Elizabeth George’s Write Away. Take a class. Join a writing group, but don’t give them too much power.
But mostly, step away from the washing machine, sit in front of your computer, and start by imagining you’re in a cottage, maybe by the sea.