George Orwell once said something to the effect (which is why I won't put quotes around it, but I need to attribute it to him) that, ahem, deciding to write a novel is to deliberately undergo a prolonged illness, un-ahem. This strikes me as very true and puts me in the odd position of having been in touch with an editor who tells me, "I like it so far. I need to see more, completed if possible," which is like hearing the doctor say, "Great outbreak of psoriasis. See me when it gets worse, kills you, or damn near anyway." You've got to do it because this guy is one of the best at your type of disease. You'd normally never get an appointment with him if yours weren't a particularly interesting set of symptoms. So, to get my effects in order...forget financially; that way will always lay chaos and never stopped me before. The fact that I already have a (mostly) full-time job is not a drawback either; again, it didn't stop me the first four times. Actually, make that three times. The third novel was my only paying job at the time. "Oh, really?" I can hear certain readers; "Where are these so-called novels by...(peering at the byline on this column) 'Brizolxkszzio? I didn't see them by the Dean Grishams and the James Mitchums and the Henry Mailers, and, oh yeah, the Stephen King section." That's because they were all into and out of print during the big Halley's Comet hubbub and got lost in all the excitement. But they did get written and one way or another got out there.
Raymond Chandler had a method for self-discipline that involved sitting in front of the typewriter for an hour (I believe it was) every day; and while he did not have to work on his fiction, he forbade himself from doing anything else. He could not write a check or a letter, could not pare his nails, etc. I assume he allowed himself to smoke and -- during certain periods of his life -- to drink. Well, I have to sit here anyway by virtue of job #2 (or it could be considered job #2b) and during downtime from that task (about 45 minutes out of the hour), if I do not write a column or something else for the paper, I must work on the novel. When this sounds like asking a lot from myself, I think of my friend Chano, a Tijuana resident and La Jolla restaurant worker who does more every day by noon than most people do in a week. In fact, if I were to use Chano as a protagonist in a novel (which is not a bad idea), I can just hear the editor say, "I don't know. Is the reader going to believe somebody actually does all this stuff even before he gets to work?"
Budgeting time has given way to the next order of difficulty, which Colin Wilson calls the Paradoxical Nature of Freedom, and I will butcher if I try to paraphrase here (Wilson has filled volumes with similes, metaphors, analogies) but it has to do with that buoyant, first-day-of-a-holiday feeling turning to boredom and a sense of futility. Also, there is Wilson's radical suggestion (somewhat differently put than other existentialists) that the ordinary state of human consciousness is a kind of depression. You see, I have amassed an ingenious arsenal of obstacles, antipersonnel weapons to prevent me from doing anything as pretentiously fancy-pants as writing a novel. I have my mother's long generations of Calvinist moral objections to it and my Chicago upbringing telling me that writing novels is a gateway activity to drinking beer out of a glass and then styling the hair of my male friends while wearing hot pants.
There is one powerful antidote for all of this, however, and that is a story. I must tell a story to myself that I hunger for and is simply not available anywhere else. Finding that hunger is where the intellectual minefields are, and here it is best to just close your eyes and use the force. If when you open your eyes, you find you have written Clone Jedi of Tatooine, well then, there you go.
Someone -- Norman Mailer? No, Mario Puzo -- once compared novel-writing to safecracking. The idea was that you could spend years with your ear to the tumbler, then one day crack that combination, the door swings open, and you are allowed to type -- only it's nothing anyone wants to read, maybe not even you.
A story consists of a series of what-happens-next reactions in the person to whom you're telling the story, and at first that's you. So as I hold out an imagined event to myself like a carrot on a fishing line just a few paces before me, instead of asking me, "How's the novel going?" Please, God, not that. Ask, instead: "Catch anything today?"