After years spent dishing out loads of money for advice from various sources—writing schools, freelance editors, magazines, exorcists, how-to books—I’ve come to the conclusion that the most efficient and economical way to learn how to write a proper novel is to read book reviews. To save you the effort and the New York Times’ blistering online subscription fees (how dare they?!), I’ve assembled my favourite book-review ripped-off writing tips (click on the links for references if you question their veracity) and presented them as they were never intended to be in…
The NYT’s Unofficial, Vaguely Elitist, Often Baffling, Yet Maddeningly Invaluable Guide to Writing a Best Seller*
1. To be a successful novelist, you must have an investigatory gene; you must know that every man has his reasons.
2. Write in the first-person plural and compose a collective narrator—an exotic trick play of a device done so successfully as to make the narrative of Jeffrey Eugenides’s “Virgin Suicides” feel anesthetized and distanced.
3. Everyone in your book should feel real, sometimes more real than they might feel to themselves.
4. Your book must be about the facades of the chattering class — with its loves, ambitions and petty betrayals — but it also, more profoundly, must be about a wholesale collision of values
5. Through dialogue and smartly crafted hints of eavesdropping, be sure to fill the reader in on your character’s world without heavy hands or clunky exposition.
6. Your book must be very long but very fast, a great whirly ride that starts out sad and gets sadder and sadder, loops unpredictably out and around, and then lurches down so suddenly at the very end that it will make your stomach flop.
7. Your book must not heave with poetic angst.
8. When writing from multiple POVs, hand off the narrative from one protagonist to another in a wild relay race that will end with the same characters with which it begins while dispensing with them for years at a time.
9. More than the main characters must come to life. If you excel at miniatures, you must also be fantastic at micro-miniatures.
10. Your book must be long, crude, manic and have cheap vodka on its breath. It also needs to be smart, funny and, in the end, extraordinarily rich and moving.
11. Write about a cokehead music producer who demands oral sex from his teenage girlfriend during her friends’ band’s performance. Then narrate another chapter from the perspective of the above girlfriend’s best friend, standing at the same performance on the other side of said producer.
12. Strive to deploy the quotidian fripperies of our laptop culture to devastating fictional effect.
13. Fill your novel with moments like this: closely observed, emotionally racking, un-self-consciously in touch with how we live now.
14. Your prose must float and run as if by instinct, unpremeditated and unerring.
15. To plumb deep, your book must be anchored deep, in a system of natural imagery as tightly organized as that in a cycle of poems like Ted Hughes’s “Crow.”
16. Your main character may talk to cats, yes, but their conversations should always begin with polite chitchat about the weather.
17. Your writing must further lighten the load by exulting in the multicultural stew of your milieu without turning it into course work in Multiculturalism.
18. Write in the urgency of poverty and failing health.
19. When you tell us that a character drinks Diet Pepsi or wears a New Balance cap it must not to be in order to sketch a withering little portrait of this person's social class and taste, but to describe exactly what he or she drinks and wears, creating a small tether to a shared reality.
20. You must never lose your own serious moral compass or forsake your pursuit of the transcendent.
*Hey! Freeloaders! Click on the referencing links with caution. The New York Times gives you 20 free pageviews per month and that's it.