How to Write Your First Novel

Be an only child. And/or spend vast amounts of time alone, whether you like it or not.

Write your first story when you are seven. Make it long. Make it controversial. Refer to images gleaned from Life magazine—Thalidomide babies, for example—so that grownups will be impressed and give your story a lot of attention. Submit a contest essay to the Mattel Toy Company on the subject of what you want to be when you grow up. Write, “I want to be a writer, because it’s the kind of job that lets you stay home with your husband and babies.”

Watch your parents when they think you aren’t watching. Notice the subjects they tend to revisit: your looks, your future, your talent, your lack of good common sense. Have the kind of selective memory that clings to statements like “Someday, all of this will be yours.”

Don’t write all the time. Turn cartwheels. Ride your skateboard. Climb trees. Read the same books over and over: The story of the Wright Brothers. Charlie Brown comics. Biographies of Gallileo. Romances by Mary Stewart. Epics by Taylor Caldwell. A Wrinkle in Time, about a young girl who’s smart but clumsy and not pretty and doesn’t fit in anywhere and has a crush on the boy next door and saves her entire family. Believe in God. Remember your dreams. Obsess about the end of the world. Take French from the prettiest teacher at your school. Notice how speaking French makes her even prettier, especially when she teaches the vowel, “u” as in “une soeur.” Pursue other interests that allow you to spend vast amounts of time alone. Paint your piano pink and play the theme from the Pink Panther on it. Make obsessively realistic drawings of the Breck girls while watching “Farenheit 451” on television. Scour your house for the best places to hide your books so that the Thought Police won’t be able to find them.

When you are thirteen, take note of Françoise Sagan, the world’s youngest published author. Repeat her name, endlessly, (Françoise Sagan, Françoise Sagan) and the name of her novel (Bonjour Tristesse, Bonjour Tristesse). Vow to beat her record. Start writing your first novel in your parent’s basement on an oily old Smith Corona. It is about a young girl who’s smart but not pretty and doesn’t fit in anywhere and is kidnapped with her baby brother and the boy next door and who saves her entire family, making everyone realize what a treasure she really is. Do not finish this novel. Do not show it to anyone.

Watch the same movies over and over. Notice that no matter how virtuous and loyal the brunette is, it is always the morally suspect blonde who wins true love. When no one is listening, attempt to speak aloud especially exotic character names like Marius and Marnie, actor names like Louis Jordan, Leslie Caron, James Shigeta, Miyoshi Umeki, Sydney Poitier.

Keep diaries—the kind you lock with tiny ersatz gold keys. Hide them in the same places you’ll hide your books from the Thought Police. Make peace with the fact that you will never be Françoise Sagan or look good as a blonde. Make peace with the fact that no one is ever going to pronounce the name “Kallos” as anything other than “callus.” Take note of the fact that fictional characters with the first name Stephanie are always old maids and usually bitter. Invent pen names. Write them on the inside of your dime store diaries. For a first name, choose from Haley, Hillary, Taylor, Millicent, Christina, or Tippie; your last name will be St. James, Pleshette, or Connery.

Write in dime-store diaries until you are eighteen. After that, grow up. Keep journals. Hide these too. Never re-read them, but save them all.

Go to college. Start misbehaving. Major in things that allow you to spend more time alone. When you are 21, go with your musical theatre actress/roommate to an audition and accompany her as she sings “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” On a whim, try out for a play. Get cast. Impress people with your ability to concentrate, honed over many years of spending vast amounts of time alone. Heed these same people’s compliments. As a result, spend the next twenty years in a career for which you are completely unsuited, but which gives you the ability to stand up in front of an audience and give a decent reading.

Keep writing. Keep hiding the things you write.

When you are thirty-something, change your life: get a file cabinet! Now you have a place for all the diaries and journals you never re-read and the stories you never show anyone.

Have many unhappy romantic relationships. Escape them by writing. Surround yourself with cats who will sit on your keyboard while you cry and try to write.

When you visit your parents, notice how much stuff they have.

Some day, all of this will be yours.

In 1986, try to write a short story involving human attachment to objects, cleverly changing the names of your parents so that they will be unrecognizable. Never to show this work to anyone; bury it in the file cabinet.

Have the good sense to fall in love with and marry someone who majored in English, knows what a participle is, and can dangle it. Show him your writing. Be emboldened by the fact that he not only likes it, but laughs and cries at it.

Join a writers group. Revise that old short story about your parents and show it to your writers group. Despair when your writers group informs you that it isn’t a short story after all; it’s the first chapter of a novel.

Become an atheist.

Have beautiful noisy boy children who offer to carry your laptop for you, deliver Peeps and Hot Wheels cars to you office while you’re working, and pretend to understand what you mean when you tell them that Mommy is working on her “big book.”

Steal without compunction other people’s family stories: your best friend in 5th grade, a preacher’s kid named John who had six brothers with names all beginning with “J.” Steal their words: the stage manager who said, “I came to him like a pilgrim.” Cultivate a benevolent form of schizophrenia. Do not become alarmed when you start hearing voices, especially the voice of a nice little old Jewish lady who reminds you that you’ve always been inexplicably and profoundly affected by the Holocaust and hey doll, shouldn’t that be part of this book it’s taking so long for you to finish?

Do NOT clean the bathroom. Write instead. Write when you can, even if it’s only five minutes. Write what you can, every day, even if it’s only a paragraph, a sentence, a word, a semicolon. Tell yourself that you are a writer, especially on semicolon days. Send ten dollars to PBS in thanks for providing high-quality children’s programming so that you can continue to write semicolons while your kids watch “Clifford the Big Red Dog.”

Create as many obstacles as possible. Tell yourself you’re stupid. Try to quit. Throw fits: it’s too damned hard! Consider other careers, it’s not too late: Physical therapist! Medical transcriptionist! Yoga teacher! Registered nurse! Surround yourself with people who will not let you do this: your husband, your writer friends. Hear a radio interview with Robert Ludlum, who used to be an actor, published his first book when he was 48 years old, and spent the next thirty years writing. Vow to match his record.

When in doubt, reach deep into the file cabinet and pull out the story you wrote when you were seven. Re-read it. Remember that you’ve always known what you really wanted to be when you grew up. Remember all the reasons why. Realize that what you write doesn’t really belong to you anyway, none of it is really yours, you had only the smallest hand in getting it done, so it’s okay to finish.

So, finish. Put your own name on it, the name your parents gave you, because in the end it’s one of the few things that actually does belong to you. Take a long time typing T, H, E, E, N, D. Pet the cats. Hug your husband. Watch some PBS with your babies.

And then start planning your next essay: HOW TO WRITE YOUR SECOND NOVEL.