How to Be a Novelist in 10 Easy Steps
1. First, try to be something else. Anything. Write journalism articles. Write ad copy. Write entries for reference works that require much research and pay poorly. Try to be a teacher. Try to run a business. When the novel keeps waking you up in the wee hours of the night, calling, “Write me! Write me! I want to exist!” give in, but only if you’ve tried everything else first.
2. Cultivate a bad memory. This is an important attribute for a good novelist. If you keep trying to remember things exactly as they happened, it is called memoir, and you get bad reviews if you cross genres. It is easier to forget your experience and just make things up. Robert Olen Butler said this. Or maybe Graham Greene. I forget.
3. Have experiences. No one writes wonderful prose by sitting in a locked room all the time. You have to go out and taste the world first with everything you have in you. Then lock yourself in a room and write about it. Like Proust.
4. Cultivate family and friends. Have an active social life. This will provide you with great material for your stories.
5. Safeguard your writing time from family and friends. Don’t be too social. Don’t say “yes” to everything. You will need you-time and head-space to create. It is hard to try to parent and write in the same area. You may look up from your novel to find a three-year-old sitting on your feet. You may be trying to write jacket copy as your five-year-old attempts to pry your fingers off the keys. There is a solution for this. It’s called Disney Jr. The subscription comes with free guilt.
6. Be vulnerable. But not too vulnerable. You need to feel deeply and be empathetic to create well-rounded, believable characters. But if you are too sensitive, you will never survive rejection and bad reviews. There is a line that must be drawn, but that line is always moving. Good luck finding it.
7. Build a writing community. Don’t let the agent you are querying be the first person, besides your mom, who has read you work. Your mom loves you and the agent does not. You need other people to read your novel and give you good advice on how to fix it.
8. Also, it is helpful to have someone to commiserate with when you tell the story about how the five-year-old actually had to pry your fingers off your keyboard. They will nod and sympathise with the guilt. And also understand that you actually said to her, your own child, “Just let Mommy finish this sentence, and then she’ll come play.”
9. When someone asks what you do, say “I write.” Admit this about yourself. It’s not a social handicap. It’s not in the DSM-V. Some of your favourite people are writers. We contribute to society; it’s not all selfish navel-gazing. Good literature is important to cultivating an educated, compassionate citizenry. So there.
10. Write. This should be #1, but I saved the best for last. You cannot be a writer unless you write. You cannot publish a novel until you have written one, and then revised it about a billion times. Dream as big as you want to, but then do the work. Plant your behind in the chair, and write.
A self-interview with the author of A Lesson in Manners, Misty Urban’s debut short story collection, published this spring by Snake Nation Press.
How long have you been a writer?
Always. I was born with it. My mother says I starting reading at 3, and at 5, I was writing stories for my sister. I admire those people who came to writing after other careers, who love it but could leave it at any time. I don’t have that option.
What’s the story behind A Lesson in Manners?
Now, that’s a story of perseverance, resilience, and just sheer good luck. I started writing the first, title story around 2000. I brought it to workshop and most everyone said, “I hate the second person.” I kept it in second person, I polished and polished it, I read Lorrie Moore’s Like Life for inspiration and polished it again, and then I sent it to a contest offered by Writers @ Work, and it won. I got a monetary award, I got to read the story at a conference in Salt Lake City, and then it was published in Quarterly West. I will always love Helena Maria Viramontes for being the contest judge and calling me in person to tell me she’d picked my story.
Naturally, after that, I thought doors would just swing open and there would never be another rejection. HA! Agents read my stories and asked if I had a novel, but I didn’t; I just had the stories. I kept working on them through three graduate degrees and then when I graduated and became an assistant professor of English, I didn’t have time to work on anything. When I left that job to become a freelance writer/stay-at-home mom/desperate housewife, I heartlessly sent my kids to daycare to give me a few hours a week to write. I polished up the last story I wanted for that collection, “Planet Joy,” and then sent the collection to a few contests so that I could feel like a real writer again. It was selected for the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award in 2015 and published in 2016. That’s a pretty long gestation period for a book of short stories. We’ll see if the next one takes as long.
Is the book funny?
No, not a bit. Sorry.
But there are lots of animals in it.
Yes. There’s a dog, an ivory-billed woodpecker, some fish—and some plants. Also people.
People minding their manners.
You’d be surprised. A lot of my characters make very poor choices. Most of them are in terrible or dangerous or heart-breaking situations. Some are just lost. I call it a how-to manual for dealing with love, lies, loss, and loneliness.
You’re right. That doesn’t sound funny. At all.
There’s a funny story about how the book came to be. When I was finishing up my MFA at Cornell and sending out some stories, I noticed several times I lost contests to this New York writer named Jacob Appel. I thought, “I need to learn to write as well as that guy.” Guess who was the contest judge who chose my MS for the Kennedy Award? Jacob M. Appel. We’re friends now. He’s still smart as all get-out, and I’m still learning from him. He’s a good bar to have.
Anything else we should know?
If you’re a small indie publisher reading this looking for a collection of literary short fiction about women making bad choices, then let me tell you about my second collection, The Necessaries. If you’re an agent who loves selling historical fiction with plucky female heroines, I’ve got the novel for you. Everyone else should know that the Kindle version of A Lesson in Manners is currently free on Amazon through September 10. If you find any funny bits in it, please let me know at once, so I can correct the oversight. Get your copy here.