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Adam Sternbergh’s 10 tips for first-time novelists

(photo: Marvin Orellana)

Adam Sternbergh, the Canadian-born culture editor for The New York Times Magazine, is accustomed to soothing delicate writerly egos and polishing raw prose. The tables turned when he set about writing his first novel, the dystopian noir Shovel Ready (published by Random House in January). Here, he offers tips to other would-be novelists on how to survive the process with dignity, and book deal, intact.

The first novel you write isn’t necessarily the first novel you should publish “I worked for 10 years on a very different kind of novel that now lives happily in a drawer. I also tried writing a satire of the New York media world ““ I got about 60 pages in before I realized it was terrible.”

You learn to write a novel by writing a novel “It’s like deciding one day you’re going to build a house: you’ve been in houses, you know what’s generally in houses, and you know houses that you really like. But you don’t know the mistakes you’re going to make until you’ve, say, built a room that has no doors or where the lights don’t turn on.”

If you don’t think your book is working, it’s probably not working “I showed people that failed first novel with what I would call a great, heraldic blast of unenthusiasm. The difference between showing people that book and showing them Shovel Ready was like night and day for me.”

Write a book you’d want to read “I finally asked myself, “˜If I was alone on a 16-hour flight with no one looking over my shoulder, what’s the book I would want to have with me?’ I went back and reread a bunch of books I’d loved when I was younger, and watched a lot of movies like Aliens and Inception ““ movies that brought together elements of sci-fi and noir, elements I hadn’t yet put into my fiction.”

Give readers a reason to turn the page “In magazine writing, you’re in competition not only with all the other things a reader could be doing, but also with the other stories in the same magazine. You have to grab them with the very first sentence, the very first paragraph. It’s the same thing with good fiction.”

Don’t throw anything out “In one of my old notebooks, I found a note about a guy who is a hit man in a dystopian city where people are no longer in touch with their physical bodies. From that one sentence, I got the idea for Shovel Ready.”

A day job can be your friend …“I worked on the novel early in the morning, then would close my laptop, go to the office, and not think about it for the rest of the day. If I’d had a year’s sabbatical, it would’ve been a much worse book. I once treated myself to a month alone in a rented house in upstate New York. It was fun, but all the writing I did there was terrible.”

… But a day job can also be your enemy “Being a culture journalist, and knowing something about how the sausage is made, I could’ve easily written a review of my book while I was writing it ““ I could imagine how this website or that magazine would react to it. I had to consciously switch all that off in my mind.”

Editors are there to help ““ let them “As soon as writers stop thinking of their relationship with their editors as collaborative, they run into problems. They are working together to create the best possible product. For example, I decided early on that I wanted Shovel Ready to be lean and have a high velocity to it, so I initially resisted any editorial suggestion to let a scene play out longer. But I agreed to at least try, and in the end it worked.”

Get to work on the next book right away “I never used to believe writers who said that by the time a book comes out, they feel like they’re at a bit of a remove, but there’s some truth to that. Shovel Ready is the first in a two-book deal, and I’m already working on the second, so it feels like the first chapter in a story I’m further down the road on.”

This article appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of Q&Q.