1. Before you even start, make sure everyone in your life is perfectly satisfied.
In order to write, you’re going to need a lot of time to yourself.
Seriously, a LOT of time. And, God help you if anyone interrupts you, because you’ll never get back on track. You need great, big gobs of uninterrupted time.
If you’re going to write, you’ve got to do this right.
Once you decide you’re going to plant yourself at your desk — and it HAS to be a monstrous slab of wood, like the desk Stephen King describes in On Writing — you need to partake in the great NASA tradition of a Go/No-Go check, to make sure that everyone in your life is willing to let you retreat into your writing.
You start calling people:
Kids — Go or No Go?
Spouse — Go or No Go?
Work — Go or No Go?
In laws — Go or No Go?
And so on. If you’re really going to be a writer, the universe will respect your decision, and all of the people in your life will find ways to help themselves. That’s how you know it’s meant to be.
2. You must go into isolation.
YOU WILL GO TO THE PAPER TOWNS AND YOU WILL NEVER GO BACK. — Ancient Writerly Proverb.
Once everybody in your life has decided that it’s okay for you to write, you must isolate yourself. As the proverb says, you must go to the paper towns.
And, since there are no towns actually made out of paper, that means going to the town of the things that make paper: trees. You have to go out and get yourself a cabin in the middle of the forest. Ideally, there should be no access road, no heat, no cable, no internet, no bed. Just a slab of a desk and something to sit on. And electricity, I guess, if you’re working on a computer.
Also, you can once again take the Stephen King route and hire yourself a guardian. This should be somebody who loves you, who sees your creative potential, and doesn’t mind getting their hands dirty to keep you on task. An affinity for needles and axes is a bonus. It will be their job to make sure that you stay in perfect isolation, free of any and all physical distractions, and to encourage you with daily writing goals.
Yet another bonus: by the time you are finished, you’ll be excited to see your friends and family again. Their impositions on your time won’t seem so infuriating.
3. Wait for the muse to arrive.
You don’t want to piss off Zeus.
Whatever you do, you definitely don’t want that. In fact, I recommend not crossing anyone in the Greek pantheon.
One of the first rules you learn in your creative writing MFA is that you have to wait for your muse to arrive. She has to be there before you do anything. If you start writing without filing the appropriate paperwork and waiting for your muse’s golden stamp of approval, you’ll never write anything again. Just ask Harper Lee.
Unfortunately, your muse is a finicky creature with her own timetable and agenda. She usually likes to show up when you’re on the job — or squatting behind a bush in the forest, as the case may be — and she expects you to be ready and waiting.
Be ready, writer.
4. Compare yourself to J.K. Rowling
J.K. Rowling is not just a beloved author, but the yardstick by which all authors should compare their career. This means that you should do some serious planning.
Your first book can go out into your country quietly, but it should explode in the overseas market. By the time you finish your third book, you should be a household name. By the time you finish your fifth book, Hollywood should be knocking down your door. Your sixth book should be enough to purchase a majestic castle outside of Edinburgh, and your seventh should make you richer than the Queen.
But don’t stop where J.K. Rowling did: if there had been ten Harry Potter books (and I’m not talking about that fanfiction stageplay), she’d be worth more than The Vatican.
Keep in mind that none of this was due to luck or serendipity. J.K. Rowling had a plan. J.K. Rowling had a dream. J.K. Rowling kept her eyes on the prize. J.K. Rowling got shit done.
It’s totally a formula.
5. Guard Your Ideas Ferociously
Your story idea is special. It is precious. Nothing like it has ever existed in the world before.
And everybody is out to steal it. Everybody. Every innocent-looking writer in every innocuous-looking writer’s group is going to steal your idea.
Keep it secret, keep it safe.
Your first step is to register it with your country’s copyright office. This usually has a hefty fee attached to it, but it is worth every penny. Every single penny. You need to build Fort Knox around your idea, and a copyright is on your side.
It didn’t hurt Mr. Disney none, now did it?
You should also make sure that you breathe nothing about your novel to anyone. Not your spouse, not your siblings, not your kids. They might be spies for other writers. They might be reporting on you. They might take your precious, precious gemstone of an idea for themselves.
You only get so many ideas, you know. Once you’re out, you’re out.
If, on the other hand, you do want to finish a novel, just write.
Zach J. Payne is, to borrow the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, “a polymath, a pain in the ass, a massive Payne”. He is a thespian, poet, and writers for young adults. He is the #2 Ninja Writer, and the former query intern for Pam Andersen at D4EO literary. Follow along on his adventure, and receive his Query Letter, Deconstructed.