On May 5th, my novel, The
Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, was published by Unbridled Books. Not
a go-to-the-cabin-by-the-lake-and-churn-it-out kind of novel,
this is a nearly 500 page historical epic based on extensive
original research, every line of prose polished to shine like
the lighthouse in Alexandria, with more characters than you could
pack into a Starbuck's and a plot that could only be described
as labyrinthically Arabesque. Is it any good? You be the judge.
What I know for sure is that, over the more than seven years
it took me to write it, I hung in there. I never gave up. And
I finished. And then I sold it. How did I do it? Herewith one
1. Before you begin, state your intentions
It's important to write them down, stating them specifically,
and in present tense. For example, I write a novel that... you
fill in the blanks. I don't mean, write down what your novel
is about; you might have to fiddle around for a few hundred pages
before you figure that out. But ask yourself, do you want to
write a novel that places you among the immortal literary stars?
Or achieve a modest success that might help you get a teaching
job? Or, do you just watch to check "publish book"
off your "to-do" list? And how much time and effort
are you willing to put into the enterprise of finding a publisher?
It might be lickety-split easy to find one, or it might take
a few years, a bundle of postage, and a mountain of paperwork.
Not to mention heartbreak. Whatever your path may be, it will
be more difficult if you have not clearly identified and acknowledged
2. Be here now
If you are regretting the past (I should have started sooner)
or worrying about the future (will they laugh at me?), you are
not writing. And if you are waxing nostalgic about the past (how
wonderful that they liked my short story!) or daydreaming about
the future (my agent will sell it to the movies for a million
dollars!!), you are not writing. Now is the only time you have
3. Treat yourself kindly
If you do, your artist self will show up more frequently, and
play more freely. If you bully and criticize yourself, you can
sure, you'll end up blocked.
4. Keep a pen and something to write
on with you at all times
When you're out and about, driving, at the dentist's, walking
the dog, you just might capture the perfect fragment of dialogue,
or hear the opening line of the next chapter in your head...
I don't recommend those lovely bound "writer's" journals
because they are too big to carry around easily. I use Moleskines,
index cards and sometimes even a small pack of Post-Its.
5. When you are writing, always keep
your pen resting lightly on the page (if at the computer, keep
your fingers on the keyboard)
If you sit back in your chair and lift your hand to your chin,
as so many people do, your body is signalizing to your writing
self, no, I am not ready. This can contribute to a bad case of
block. It's such a simple thing to always keep your pen on the
page, yet very effective.
6. Music helps
I find that drifty, new agey music in a minor key works best
for bringing on the Muses. There is a large literature about
music and creativity. I offer a couple of blog posts (with links
for more information) on this subject here
This is a
French term chefs use that means, more or less, everything
in its place. Briefly: start clean, then assemble utensils and
equipment; then assemble all ingredients; then wash, cut, chop;
then cook. Doing things out of order makes the whole process
take longer, the product often come out mediocre (or ruined),
and can cause needless stress for the cook and the diners.
This explains why many of the
most productive writers write in coffee shops and the rest of
them do a lot of housecleaning, n'est-ce pas? It's not the easiest
thing to write a novel when your desk is cluttered with phone
bills and stacks of unanswered letters, the dog needs to be walked
in five minutes, and, by the way, you've left the phone on and
your facebook page tab open. There are people who can work amongst
piles and general chaos, but I am not one of them, and I cannot
P.S. Read my ForeWord Magazine on-line blog post, 10
Tools for Organizing the Novel in Progress.
8. Learn from other novels
The novels you have already read and love can be your best teachers.
But don't read them passively, for entertainment; neither should
you read as an English major might, ferreting out "interpretations."
Read them as a craftsperson. How does Chekhov handle dialogue?
How does Austen handle transitions? How does Hemingway describe
food and clothing? Any question you have about your writing conundrums
is probably answered, right there, in the books you already have
on your shelf. And continue to read, and read actively, with
a notebook and pen.
9. Learn from books on creativity
Why reinvent the wheel? Whatever your problem (block, confusion,
utter despair), you can be sure another writer (or artist) has
wrestled with it and has something helpful to say about it in
a book. The cost of a book is lentils compared to that of needlessly
painful experiences. You'll find my list of recommended books
10. Get feedback on your writing
From a writers group, a writing teacher, a freelance editor,
workshop participants. You'll find my 10 tips to get the most
out of your writing workshop here.
(For some years I was in a writing
group with novelist Leslie Pietrzyk; read what she has to say
about it here.)
And of course there is The
Writer's Center, which offers a cornucopia of workshops.
www.writer.org I'll be offering the one day "Techniques
of Fiction" on Sunday June 14. To find out more, and to
register on-line, click here:
11. Get to know other writers
This is how I found my writers group (thanks, Richard
Peabody!), my publisher (thanks, Nancy
Zafris!), and my
agent (thanks, Dawn Marano!).
Network with a spirit of generosity.
You never know who will help you, and you might be more helpful
to someone else than you realize. So go to readings (they are
almost all free!); take workshops, attend conferences, and stay
12. Consistent Resilient Action
Again, why reinvent the wheel? Writers are not the only ones
who grapple with their emotions in the face of rejection, failure,
criticism, and indifference. There is a large literature on sports
psychology. The book I recommend most highly is The
Mental Edge by Kenneth Baum. Consistent Resilient Action
(CRA) is what sports champions do: Dropped the ball? Well, pick
it up. So, your first draft is crap? Write a new one. An agent
rejected you? Send your manuscript to the next one. Take a workshop,
get feedback, re-read Proust, go write a poem and so on.
In response to anything negative, instead of wasting your energy
in anger, it is crucial to take a positive step, however small,
Get a pug.
It will help you get
outside for freshing walks, remind you to play, and not take
anything too seriously except food.
P.S. Many more resources for
And good wishes.