How To Finally Write That Novel
5 concrete strategies for finding inspiration and writing with joy
When someone I’m meeting for the first time finds out that I’m a writer, their first reaction is inevitably this: “How do you do that?” and “You know, I should really write a book about my experience as a (fill in the blank) but I just don’t know how.”
Here’s the deal: writing is a challenge. It takes a certain amount of guts to put yourself out there, to put pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard) and tell your stories. And that’s even before letting anyone read them.
Here’s the good news: writing is also a joy, and that, I think, is the key to getting started. Write the joy. The details will follow.
I’ve spent my entire career as copywriter (hello, Peggy Olson). I’ve written headlines that turned heads; crafted ads designed to sell, sell, sell; and even named nail polish shades for maximum mani appeal. I’ve liked my work and am very good at it. But for all those years, there was one thing that was missing, one thing that had eluded me all along — writing a novel.
Ever since my 20s, the idea of writing a novel was something that wouldn’t go away — I knew I wanted to write it, I thought I had it in me, but I had no idea of how to reach it. It all seemed too big, too hard, too “where do I start?” It was a whole new level of creativity — a reinvention of my mindset — that I didn’t even know where to look for, let alone find.
But then. It turned out that it found me — once I realized that I needed to write about what I loved. What made me happy. What I actually wanted to spend time thinking about and writing about.
In my case, Tinkerbell. There’s just something about her indomitable “do you believe?” spirit that makes me smile. And from Tinkerbell, it was a short trip to pixies and fairies and, yes, mermaids. And like that, the spark was lit. The idea for a novel started to take root. And, for the first time in my entire career, writing became an actual joy.
I always thought it was silly when writers would say that their characters would take them where they needed to go. Until mine did that very thing. But, to be fair, it wasn’t the characters. It was me, letting my mind relax and guide me to things I loved, to things I wanted to explore, to things that, suddenly, became pieces of the story. Tapping into that joy allowed me to tap into my creative potential, and that is what has made the difference.
I can’t say that writing your joy will suddenly put the plot for a novel in your head; nor can I say that it will ensure your writing pages upon pages in one sitting, or that writing dialogue will be a snap. But one thing I am certain of is that if you want to write, and if you hone in on the thing or things that give you joy or peace or happiness, the passage is so much clearer.
Start with baby steps:
1. Dig deeper into what brings you joy.
When you write about what makes you happy, your passion comes through your words. It can be anything, from gardening to playing the violin, from marathoning to restoring a farmhouse, from baking to teaching. Take a few minutes and jot down your thoughts about your joy: What is it? What does it look like, feel like, sound like? What about it makes you so happy — is it the process? Is it the result? Do you love the smell of the soil when you plant flowers, or the colorful blooms? Or both? Describe, describe, describe. And look — you’ve got a piece of writing.
2. Try to write every day.
Something. Even if it’s a few words. If you can set aside an entire half-hour where things are quiet and you are uninterrupted, great. If you can only manage to squeeze in a few minutes here and there, that’s fine too. All you need are words — maybe just thought starters — and the means to write them down, type them in, or record them. The connections will come.
3. Look for the unexpected things that give you joy.
Then write about those. For example, while my whole career has been spent focusing on words, it occurred to me, when I thought about it, that I had a real passion for color and for patterns. That opened up a new world for me in terms of what I wanted to describe. I wanted to find the words that would bring those things to life. Weaving those things into my writing helped me create my story.
Maybe you’ve always loved antiquing — that’s your joy. Now think about why. Is it the chance to find hidden treasures? Maybe a treasure hunt is also a joy of yours. Is it the idea of spending time in small towns out in the country? Maybe getting out of the city makes you happy. Is it the question behind who owned the antique originally? Maybe exploring family trees or conjuring up make-believe is a source of happiness.
4. Look for inspiration in other things you love.
I love crossword puzzles. I love the “Before and After” category on Jeopardy. I adore word play. That’s what has helped me write headlines all these years. But it’s also what has helped me write a book title and write character dialogue. Maybe you love cooking but have also always had a passion for glazed pottery. Bring your pottery thoughts into your writing about cooking and see where that takes you.
5. Consider writing the chance to feel free.
Writing about brands and working for clients obviously comes with a set of parameters — it has to. But writing for myself — and yourself — suddenly means there are no limits. You can say what you want. Describe what you want. Choose your language. Create characters who look the way you want them to look. Who say the words you want them to say. The words you wish you could say in your real life. See? Freedom.
Finding the creativity to write is less daunting if you look at it as already inside you. Your passion, your experience, and your thoughts are there, just waiting for you to put words to them. It doesn’t have to be the Great American Novel. It just has to be you. And that’s pretty great.
Claudia Grossman spent her career as an advertising and marketing copywriter in New York and Los Angeles and has been published in the Los Angeles Times and Victoria magazine. She is the author of the novel The Mermaid Mahjong Circle – A Fairy Tale for Women.