So You Want To Be A Novelist?

The following originally appeared on the website

Bruce DeSilva at Manhattan's Mysterious Bookshop

Bruce DeSilva at Manhattan’s Mysterious Bookshop

You say you think maybe you could write a novel? What are you waiting for? If you have imagination and talent, it’s easier than you think.

Q:  But I make pizzas all day, help Becky and Bucky with their homework on school nights, ferry the kids to ballet lessons and soccer games on the weekend, and have to clean the garage, mow the lawn, wash the car, walk the labradoodle, and fight with my ex. How can I ever find the time?

A:  Write five hundred good words five days a week. That’s not much, right? It’s just a sixth-grade writing assignment. If you do that, you can finish the first draft of an 80,000-word novel in thirty-two weeks. Can’t fit that into your busy schedule? Then write five hundred words a day two days a week. You can accomplish that just by curtailing your Late Show with David Letterman habit. At that pace, you can complete a first draft in eighteen months. Oh, and screw the garage. Everybody’s looks like that.

Q:  Huh. Do you practice what you preach?

A:  Yeah. My garage is a toxic waste dump.

Q:  I meant the writing part.

A:  That, too. I wrote my Edgar Award-winning first crime novel, Rogue Island, while I was working full time as a senior editor at The Associated Press. Providence Rag, the third novel in my hardboiled series featuring investigative reporter Liam Mulligan, is being published in hardcover and e-book editions on March 11. The new book has already scored starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Booklist. Now that I’m a full-time novelist, I write a thousand words a day. If I accomplish that after a couple of hours, I can give myself the rest of the day off or come over to walk your damned dog. But if I don’t have a thousand words after eight hours, I have to keep my butt in the chair until I do. Don’t let yourself be intimidated by the seemingly enormous task of writing a novel. Set a realistic goal for yourself, stick to it, and you can get the job done.

Q:  What if I get writer’s block?

A:  Choose not to.

Q:  Easy for you to say.

A:  Yeah, it is. Before I was a novelist, I worked as a journalist for forty years. Journalists don’t have writers block. They don’t wait for inspiration. They don’t wait for their muse to show up. They write every day, whether they feel like it or not, because it’s their job. Journalists know that writer’s block is for wimps.

Q:  Calling me names now?

A:  Sorry. To be fair, writer’s block is caused by fear—the fear of writing something that isn’t up to your standards. Get over it. Give yourself permission to write crap. Nobody has to see it but you, and once you get something down on the page, you can rewrite it and make it sing.

Q:  How do I decide what to write about?

Rag Cover 2A:  If you’re really a writer, you see characters and stories everywhere you go. Why is that little boy crying in the train station men’s room? What’s in the briefcase the business man walking through the airport has handcuffed to his wrist? What was your brother Dennis thinking when he bought that hideous diamond pinkie ring? Who’s the guy your aged Aunt Thelma sneaks off to see on the third floor of the nursing home, is he after her money, and who’s slipping him the Viagra? Notice them, and these characters will be with you when you wash your car and walk your dog. They’ll work on your subconscious, and eventually they’ll start talking to you in waking dreams. When they do, you’re ready to write.

Q:  But what genre should I write in?

A:  Write what you read—but don’t just read like a fan. Read books the way kids back in my day used to take car engines apart and put them back together to figure out how they worked. Read for pleasure, sure, but also read for craft. By the time I started working on my first crime novel, I’d read thousands of them.

Q:  What do you tell people who aren’t big readers?

A:  That they’ll never be a writers.

Q:  I want to base my main character on my crazy sister Peggy, but I’m afraid that if I do, she’ll get pissy and make my life miserable.

A:  If she gets mad, ask her if she thinks she’s really like that nutty character in your novel. When she says, “Of course not,” ask what makes her thinks the character is her. Besides, if you don’t write the book you want to write, you’ll be miserable anyway.

Q:  Maybe I could set my novel in some weird place like Ulan Bator, Mongolia, or Burbank, California, to throw her off.

A:  Only if you’ve spent a lot of time there. You need to know your setting well so you can make readers see, hear, and smell it. As my writer-friend Thomas H. Cook says, if you want to know why place is important in a novel, imagine Heart of Darkness without the river.

Q:  You seem to know a lot about this stuff. When I’m done, will you read my book and tell me what you think?

A:  Oh hell, no.

Q:  Why not?

A:  Because I’m busy with my own writing. Besides, I need to clean the garage, mow the lawn, wash the car, walk my Bernese mountain dog, and fight with my ex. Don’t ask an established writer to read your stuff unless he is a very close friend—or unless you can threaten to post naked pictures of him and Roseanne Barr on Twitter.

Q:  So who should I show my work to?

A:  When you’re writing, don’t show it to anybody. When you’re done, pick out one or two people who actually know something about writing to look it over. But don’t show it to too many people. Their conflicting opinions will confuse you.

Q:  What about my three best drinking buds? They’re all dying to read it.

A:  No they aren’t. They’re just saying that. And if they read it and think it sucks, they’ll lie to you.

Q:  I’m a senior citizen. Is it too late for me to start?

A:  Of course not. I wrote my first novel when I was sixty three and my second when I was sixty four. After they received rave reviews, my publisher rewarded me with a new, three-book contract. The third novel, Providence Rag, is my best to date. I’ve got another completed novel in the can, and I’ve made a small start on two more.

Q:  What about my twenty-three-year-old grandkid, Billy? He’s got an MFA in creative writing, and he wants to write novels too.

A:  Tell him to wait until he’s lived a little. He doesn’t have anything to write about that a sane grownup wants to read.


About Bruce DeSilva

Crime Novelist
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