05/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How to Avoid Writing Your First Novel

I am sitting in the comfy chair in my home library, a wonderful room with book-lined walls. Next to me on the side table is a cup of tea and before me, on the ottoman, is the book.
It arrived in the mail several days ago, and I promptly took it upstairs and hid it in my sock drawer. Once I take it out of the bag, I thought, I must begin. So I stalled, and hid it from my husband, who would have innocently asked "what's in the package?" and "why don't you open it?"

The book I've been avoiding is a new book called Is Life Like This? A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months by John Dufresne. I read a listing for the book recently and was struck by its promise to help me craft a complete first draft of a novel in a mere six months. "Really?" I thought. "In six months? Even me? Can't be possible!" And yet, I was intrigued, for I had to admit, at least to myself (and now to you), that I have always wanted to write a novel.

For more than twenty years, I have worked in the book publishing industry both as an editor and a literary agent. I have helped many authors hone in on their topic and structure and develop their books, and I have held many hands through the stages of publication. As I helped these writers do the creative literary magic trick of making a book out of an idea, often they would ask me: "Why don't you write a book?" Over and over, I demurred, saying that I would, someday, when the perfect topic came to me. Perhaps I did harbor a dream of seeing my name in print on a glossy cover in stacks on a bookstore table, and perhaps this is what led me into the book publishing industry in the first place. But for the time being, I was content to edit.

In 2007, I did finally write and publish a book. It is called Elements of the Table: A Simple Guide for Hosts and Guests. It is a book about table setting. Yes, a whole book about table setting. It seemed like a marketable idea and my publisher, Clarkson Potter, agreed. I worked hard on this book and am very proud of it, and it has done well. And yet, it is not, I think, the book I have dreamed about.

Because to my mind, THE book, the one that will send me down my own personal path to posterity, is fiction. It is a novel. The books that have moved me and stayed with me in my life have been novels, and it is in this genre that I would wish to make my meaningful contribution to literature.

But I am very afraid. I am not sure I am up to the task. No, let me rephrase that -- I am quite sure I am NOT up to the task, that I do not have the requisite talent to compose a work of fiction that deserves to be published and that others will wish to read. I'm totally intimidated by this idea. And that is why I have determined to do it.

As I get older, I'm starting to believe: figure out what frightens you most, and go there. So there I am going. And I am inviting you along on the journey. You, and John Dufresne's book, for somehow this is the writing guide that has captured me with its promise to take me from nothing to a complete first draft in six months.

So since I have finally been brave enough to conquer the daunting task of taking the book out of the jiffy bag, shall we proceed?

I start by examining the outside of the book (hey, don't rush me!). It's a nice hardcover, small trim size, about 5" x 8", I'd say. Glossy finish. Simple black and white design with the author's name outlined in red (what's black and white and read all over?). I examine it the way I always look at books given my industry background--before even considering the content, I look at it as a physical object. I pick it up, feel its heft. I run my fingers over the cover--I especially like the feel of spot laminations! None here. I look at the spine, turn it over and look at the endorsements on the back cover, recognizing the names of only one of them (I'm probably not hip enough to know the others!).

I laugh when I finally open to the inside front flap and see a large quote in a bright red box from Brad Watson (short stories, heard of him!): "[Dufresne's] generous, wise, cajoling, stern, and compassionate voice will get you working right away." That is extremely funny. Right away--once you actually open the book. Right away if you're not me, the queen of procrastinators. Well, we shall see, Mr. Watson, if what you say is true.

I'm going to go read a little and get back to you. I don't suppose you want the blow by blow (I turned the page. I turned the page again. I got to the title page...) I'll be back. I know I'm not leaving you with much of a cliffhanger (yet), but stick around. So much to be determined. Will she read the book? Will she write the novel? What will it be about? Will it be any good? Will it be published to great acclaim, shoot to the top of the bestseller lists, and make its author (who will claim she never knew just how talented she really was until now) pots of money? Will she wind up on Oprah? (Editors always complain that all inexperienced authors obnoxiously demand to be gotten on Oprah. Well I want it, too! And I haven't even written the damn book yet!)

She turned the page... (Cue suspenseful music and fade out)