Begin at the beginning. Be born to parents who read to you and buy you the whole My Bookhouse collection — blue, hardbound volumes packed with text and illustrations, stories and poems, fairy tales and myths. Have a grandmother who concocts a new made-to-order story for every bedtime, having plucked characters, animals, and props from the minds of her grandchildren at breakfast. Have a mother who “tells magic” — more made-up bedtime stories.
Have a library card from the time you can walk.
Attend school in the 1950s and ’60s when grammar, punctuation, style, and the structure of exposition are still taught rigorously for free. (This could require time travel.) Read H.G. Wells.
Leave this bookish childhood for college and pay equal attention to studies and hormones. Do well enough to graduate. Try to retain at least something from those other classes, the ones that aren’t English Lit, Comparative Lit, Greek Lit, American Lit, the Romantic Poets, Pound/Eliot/Yeats, or Shakespeare.
Heavily influenced by the Romantic Poets, follow your hormones straight from college into a disastrous first marriage. Make sure you marry another lit major. Make sure you write better than he does. It is also a good thing if he has a virago mother — Wellesley, Phi Beta Kappa, 1929 — who French inhales at the dinner table and jumps on every questionable use of every pronoun, especially as to singulars and plurals. She would die before ever, ever saying “everyone….they.” In fact, she does.
Leave that marriage after a few years but face down your not-yet-dead mother-in-law on the way out. Trust me, she’ll buckle. This is very good for self-confidence, which you’ll need.
Flip around the country for several years, coast to coast, job to job, honey to honey. Be sure to do plenty of table waiting, cocktail waitressing and pub work, because one day you’ll need interesting copy under your author photo. Work in bookstores, too. Find some with plenty of slow days, so you can read the inventory. Make a game of arranging titles on the display tables: Always. Forever. Always Is Not Forever.
Get serious after a while or need more money. Find editorial jobs at magazines, textbook houses, or university presses, so you can hone your skills, which, of course, are superior to everyone else’s. Hear your ex-mother-in-law saying “everyone’s else.” Ignore her. Take pleasure in your blue pencil but wield it judiciously. Memorize The Chicago Manual of Style.
Write some terrible short stories and worse poems. You won’t know they’re terrible until later, when you take them out of that moldering box and put them next to your newest, less-terrible work. This will help you develop the same lancet eye for your own writing that you have used on others’. It will give you the humbling news that your skills have a long way to go.
Keep telling yourself that you’re going to write a novel someday. Read many, many novels so you’ll know how to do it when you’re ready. Read women writing about women and men writing about men and then switch. Read thrillers and cozy mysteries; read spy stories, the classics, long Russian novels, and short post modern novels. (Remember time travel, if need be.) Read trendy. Read esoteric. Read on buses and subways, read while walking, read while standing in the check-out line at the grocery store.
Get married again. How else are you going to write novels with “a remarkable grasp of the human heart”? This time, marry a workaholic — not a lit major — so you’ll have time and space to write your first novel. Start with a mystery. Forget Browning and tell yourself you mustn’t overreach your grasp. You won’t do your best work, but you’ll feel safe. Sometimes safe is good. It just doesn’t do a lot for your writing.
Oops. Time out. Have a child, quick, before it’s too late. You’re almost forty. First things first. Teach your darling to love books. Make up stories for him, the way your grandmother and mother did for you. Don’t even think about writing anything, unless it’s for pay, unless it’s what bosses or clients want you to write. Your child comes first. The family budget comes before your own writing because, well, the child comes first. He really does, he always will.
Still, have some crises while you’re raising your son, and let him have crises, too. Have marital problems and money problems and fights with friends. Suffer the deaths of parents. Remember every endless second of the night your son put his arm through plate glass. Take notes on your friends’ lives, too. Everything is fair. Every story belongs to every writer, since no two will make of it the same thing — unless, of course, they plagiarize, but that’s another matter.
When your son is old enough to take it, or your family counselor says he is, or you tell yourself he is, leave your second marriage. Do this as humanely as you can, because your son comes first. He’ll have troubles you can’t foresee, so make sure he knows that you and his father are being careful; you are being as fair and grown up as you can. More fair and grown up than that. Go all out with the fairness because you don’t need to learn how to write heart-wrenching scenes from your son.
After a year or two, meet your true and proper mate. Go through the step-family challenges. Feel yourself at least once ripped down the middle — your child on one side, your beloved on the other. Worry a lot. Come down with the flu. And while you’re down, and things are quiet in your house, take from your near-delirium an early scene for the novel you will write. Not a mystery novel this time, but something drawn from everything you’ve learned. You’ve learned more than you think you have.
Take the next two years to write that novel. You’ll need deep immersion to escape the teenager in the house, not because you aren’t crazy about him but because he won’t let you mother him. You try to help. You beg. You meet with teachers and find a counselor and draw up family contracts and worry and cry. You find moments of joy and connection, too. But you need to enter another world sometimes, one that’s populated by grownups and — hey — how about some teenagers, why not? It all comes shape-shifting out of your own reality, and you can do with it whatever you want. Whatever you want. And you find yourself making it hard on your characters sometimes because, well, you want them to grow.
Finish this novel. Send it to trusted friends. Revise it. Revise it again. Send it to some agents. Come close with one, feel dreadful when she turns it down, then get over feeling dreadful and consider her editorial suggestions. Revise the novel again. Send it out again. Get rejected over and over. This is when you need that self-confidence. Remember the look on your first mother-in-law’s face when you confronted her, when you told her she was judgmental and controlling. When you could see that you’d shocked the living spit out of her.
Put the novel away for a while. Take it out and tweak and fiddle some more — I dare you to resist. Send it to another agent. Go out to dinner when he says he loves your novel, when he enthusiastically takes it on.
Do not go out to dinner again for two years. That’s how long it will take to sell the manuscript. It’s a tough market. Even when, by the best of luck, you win the active endorsement of an admired, successful novelist, one editor after another will still reject your book, though sometimes with raves.
In the meantime, work on your second novel.
That way, when an editor finally says yes — and she will, she does –you’ll be sitting on your next book before the first one goes into production. What luxury! And you’re only sixty-one! You still have time to write that third novel, the one that’s been on a slow burner and is just now sending up bubbles.