There are so many good reasons not to write a novel. I'm busy with my day job, I'm stressed, I'm tired, it's too hard, some day I'll get round to it, but not today. But if it's your dream, the thing you've promised yourself faithfully you'll do before you turn up your toes, how do you get started? I've completed six novels - the latest When In Rome (Orion, $36.99) is published this week - and often meet aspiring writers who ask exactly that. My short response is: just sit down and do it. Set yourself a target, even if it's only 1000 words a week, stick to it faithfully no matter what else is going on in your life, and eventually you'll have the first draft of a book. Will it be any good? Will it get published? Ah, well that's where things start to get more complicated.
How to begin
It's perfectly possible to write a successful novel without taking a single creative-writing class - I know because I've done it. However, I still had to put some serious effort into learning the craft.
It may sound obvious but the most important thing is to read voraciously. Analyse each book. Think about what works and what doesn't. Take note of how the story has been structured and the techniques that have been used.
When I began on my first book Delicious I found the most difficult thing was getting my characters from one place to another so I went back and reread some of my favourite novels to see how those authors had managed it. I did the same for The Italian Wedding to work out how to handle things like changes in narrator and flashbacks to the past.
When you read a novel for the first time often it's purely for the pleasure of the story, and that's fine. A second read offers the opportunity to think about the nuts and bolts holding it together, such as, point of view - who is telling this story? Look also at character development, location, story arc, the balance of descriptive passages with dialogue, even the tense used. You can learn something from every book you read, even if it's a terrible one.
The writing muscle
Like any other part of the body, the writing muscle needs to be exercised to stay supple and work properly. After 25 years as a journalist, I don't believe in writer's block. When there's a deadline looming you just crack on and do it. And when you write every day, an empty page (or blank computer screen) is a lot less daunting.
So whether you pen a public blog or a private journal, compose poems, haiku or short stories, or even make your grocery shopping lists rhyme, try to write creatively every day. Don't worry too much at first whether it's good or bad. Just keep going and write, write, write. You can go back afterwards to edit or rewrite ... but you can't edit a blank page.
Creative-writing classes and workshops have their place. Writing is a solitary pursuit and they can be an opportunity to develop and share ideas as well as learn the basics. However, since they tend to be an investment of time and money, it's crucial to choose a course tailored to your genre and style. If you want to write paranormal romances like best-selling Auckland author Nalini Singh, for instance, then you'll be looking for quite a different environment from someone trying to develop a literary voice.
Details of courses can be found on the New Zealand Society of Authors website and the society also offers workshops and seminars. Your biggest clue to the style of a course is which author will be teaching it. If you don't like their work, don't bother signing up.
Once you have the skills, then writing is a mainly a matter of getting your bum on your seat and keeping it there. It's not easy and it can take over your life - I think about what's happening to my characters while I'm driving, cooking, shopping, hoovering, dropping off to sleep. Ideas often float into my brain at odd times and if I don't record them straight away they'll float out just as quickly. In the old days, I had scraps of paper stuffed in every pocket, now I'm utterly reliant on the Voice Memos app on my iPhone.
Finally, there is no right or wrong way to write a book. How you go about it depends on your personality. The thriller writer Jeffrey Deaver, for example, comes up with a long and detailed outline of every plot then turns it into a novel. I can't think of anything more boring - but then I'm not one of life's great planners. I like my characters to surprise me and if I knew exactly how the story was going to turn out I wouldn't bother writing it. I'm more of the mind of E.L. Doctorow, who describes writing a novel as like driving across country at night. All you see is what is lit up by your headlights. But if you just keep following those lights then you get there in the end.
Where do ideas come from?
The other question I am asked most often is where I find my plot ideas. For my latest book, the big idea came when I was doing what I most criticise my husband for - wasting time on the internet.
I was supposed to be working on my last novel, The Villa Girls, but started thinking about what I might like to write instead (this is quite common for authors and is not generally recommended).
Around that time, I'd read a couple of books that fictionalised the lives of real people - filling in the gaps of what was known about their lives with the colour of a story. I started to think about which real person I'd write a novel about and hit on the great Neapolitan opera singer Enrico Caruso. But when I googled him the pictures weren't of the sparkly-eyed, handsome chap I remembered. Then I realised I was thinking, not of Caruso, but the Hollywood star Mario Lanza, who played him in a 1950s biopic. After frittering away an entire day watching clips on YouTube of Lanza singing arias and 1950s ballads, I sent off for a few biographies and the seed of an idea was planted.
When In Rome is set in the glamorous La Dolce Vita era and is about a naive young woman called Serafina who is hired to work in Mario Lanza's household when he arrives in Italy to make a movie. A new world opens up to her: fame, parties, wealth. She draws close to it all. Then she falls in love with two difficult men, experiencing joy and heartbreak, and facing difficult choices that threaten her future.
Of course, a writer never really stops creating stories. As When In Rome hits the bookstores, I'm already well into novel number seven. But it's not all hard work ... the idea for this one came when I was eating cannoli in Sicily.
Firstly, I believe it's legitimate to write without the aim of getting published. You might want to do it for pleasure or to set down your family history/life story to pass on to future generations. However, if your ambition is to produce a book that people will buy and read, then the first thing you have to think about is genre. Publishing is a commercial business, so it makes sense to research what sort of books there is a market for - you can do this pretty easily by looking at the best-seller lists and what is high on the Amazon charts. But if you don't love reading a particular genre then don't try to write it. And don't expect to make much money from your endeavours. My novels have been published in 18 countries yet still my hourly rate for writing them would barely meet the minimum wage. I write because I can't help myself and I'm lucky enough to be able to support the habit with what I earn from other work. So if you're hoping to produce the next Fifty Shades Of Grey and make your millions you may want to think again.
A decade ago I wrote the sort of book I most love to read for entertainment. Once I had a decent first draft, I approached publishers in New Zealand and then, after it came out here and sold about three copies to my closest friends, I sent it off to some agents in the UK that I found on the internet. One of them took me on and eventually got me the book deal with the publisher I still have today.
I cannot tell you how many times I rewrote that first book. It went to about six drafts and, while I shed a lot of tears at the time, I credit my editor with helping me produce a much-improved novel and with turning me into a better writer.
The publishing landscape has changed enormously since then. Mainstream publishers are taking fewer risks on new authors and self-publishing opportunities are increasing. The NZ Society of Authors has some sound information on its website. There's also useful advice to be found on writersandartists.co.nz and, if you're interested in the romance genre, the Romance Writers Of New Zealand is a helpful organisation.
One of the biggest downsides to self-publishing is the lack of professional support. There is no editor or cover designer, no one in charge of marketing and distribution. When New Zealand writer Greg Roughan finished his first novel Effra: A Love Story he tried agents and publishers with no success so decided to sell it as an e-book on Amazon. In the absence of an editor, he sent the manuscript to a few trusted friends for feedback and corrections. "But you really have to choose the right person," he warns. "Or it can be counter-productive."
Amazon is a low-cost option that offers various promotional tools and pricing options. Roughan says it took him about a day to muddle through and follow the instructions. On the whole he is positive about the experience. "It got my manuscript out of the drawer and while I've sold quite a small number, people are continuing to download it and you never know what might happen if the right person reads it."