If you were one of those people who spent the whole of junior high
with their head in a book, you might still harbor a dream of writing
your own novel. Perhaps you sit in book club every month picking
apart the selection and secretly thinking, Why didn’t I try becoming
The better question is, why not try now? Many famous novelists
have gotten off to a late start. Laura Ingalls Wilder published her first
book, Little House in the Big Woods, in 1932, at age sixty-five. Harriet
Doerr was seventy-four when her first book, Stones for Ibarra, won a
National Book Award in 1984.
Rachel Cline of New York City started writing her first novel, What
to Keep, when she was forty-one and had it published in 2004 at age
forty-seven. It was her lifelong dream come true. “I had wanted to be
a published writer since I was ten,” says Cline. “When I turned forty I
thought, If I want to write a book, I’d better start, because nobody’s going
to ask me to do it. Now I can say I am a fiction writer.”
Selling a book requires a great deal of luck, but writing one simply
takes guts. It’s not easy to let go of your insecurities, especially since
you’ve been living with them for two or three decades. But how powerful
would you feel if you beat back your fears and actually did the thing?
Think about it: Right now, the biggest difference between you and the
accomplished novelists mentioned above is that they sat down and
committed themselves to writing.
Are you ready to get started? Here’s what you need to do:
First, think about how you like to work. Novel writing moves at two
basic speeds: fast and furious, or slow and steady. If you enjoy working on
an extreme deadline—or if you’re afraid you’d wimp out if you don’t—
look into National Novel Writing Month (www.NaNoWriMo.org). This
virtual speed-writing program has you starting to write on November
1 and finishing a 175-page, fifty-thousand-word novel by midnight on
If playing Beat the Clock when you work makes you frantic, rather
than focused, try a more methodical approach. Writing coach Alice
Elliott Dark, author of the novel Think of England and two collections of
short stories, lays out this step-by-step plan:
• Pick a genre and choose five novels that belong to it.
• Examine how they are put together. Outline each scene.
What happens in each one? How does it advance the
story? What’s the conflict?
• Read books about writing. Focus on learning about how
the plot comes out of the characters. Create your characters
and know what type of people they are, and your plot
• Look at your schedule. When are you going to work on your
book? Be realistic, too, about how long it takes to become a
good writer. No one expects to learn to play the violin in six
months, so don’t be surprised if it takes you longer to write
your book than you thought it would.
• Get going and don’t look back—not until you’ve gotten
through a first draft. If you revise your work every step of
the way, you may never actually arrive at the end. Be playful.
Love your characters. Use your imagination. Have fun!