How to Use Your Copywriting Skills to Write That Novel You've Been Putting Off

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In the Mad Men era, every copywriter had a novel in the drawer. Don DeLillo, Joseph Heller, Dorothy Sayers all famously started out writing for ad agencies. While it seems more often that copywriters now aspire to write for screens, some still try novels, undeterred by how many more words are needed for one—at least 65,000 more than for a commercial or print ad.

If you’re an aspiring novelist fretting about how long it will take you to accumulate so many words when most of your writing time is taken up by a day job, don’t despair. Copywriters trying their hands at other kinds of fiction are already years ahead in the publishing game.

You already know the importance of voice

You’ve spent years learning how to impersonate every brand category there is. A bank brand doesn’t talk like a company that makes beer. A car manufacturer doesn’t sound like a maker of dog food. This turns out to be great training for writing a novel with more than one person in it. You’ll instinctively know to strive for dialogue—both inner dialogue and spoken—that will differentiate fictional characters.

The product you’re selling isn’t only your manuscript—it’s you.

You’re already thinking about your audience

To amortize ad dollars, audiences are sliced and diced down to granular size. So, you’re savvier than many aspiring authors who declare confidently that they’re writing a novel “for everyone.” You’ve learned that if you’re writing for everyone, you’re writing for no one. When I first got into the business, my CD wouldn’t let me start copy before I’d submitted the life story of the person I was talking to. (Great early groundwork for creating characters.) When you write your novel, you’ll already have a reader in mind, which will keep voice consistent and make the novel feel like all of a piece. It can take new writers years to learn to do this.

You’re not afraid of feedback

Long ago, you learned that running your work by others can make the work better. This doesn’t mean you always take their advice, but you’ve got a small posse of colleagues whose judgement you trust to weigh in on your work before it goes to the client. Many first-time authors are terrified by the prospect of showing anyone their novel-in-progress. They’ll spend years in solitary, polishing and tweaking then reformatting the manuscript (often in fancy fonts that you’d never actually use) and finally sending to agents or editors, who either don’t respond (usually) or (unusually) take the time to point out how much reworking is required before it’s a novel. Ann Patchett observed that “an essential element of being a writer is learning whom to listen to and whom to ignore where your work is concerned.”

Think advertising is a hard business to crack? Wait until you try publishing.

You get the concept of deadlines

I know a guy who has a contract from a big publisher to write a novel that was due 12 years ago. He’s still working on it. This used to be fine. Writers were expected to miss deadlines and publishers rarely had the heart to retaliate. An agreement Viking made with Dorothy Parker in 1930 was the longest unfulfilled contract in the company’s history when she died in 1967. But now if an author misses a deadline, a publisher is apt to cancel the contract, which obligates the author to return the advance. True, your agent (who is like your account executive) can usually step in and get you an extension. But doing this reflects badly on you as an author and puts your future publishing contracts at risk. You know how when you’re looking for freelancers, you check with others to see if they’ve delivered on time? Same with editors. It’s a buyer’s market. The product you’re selling isn’t only your manuscript—it’s you.

You don’t wait around for the muse

You don’t wait for inspiration to strike before sitting down to the keyboard. You’ve learned that ideas are more apt to happen after you sit down. You know how your friends outside the business think you get most ideas in the shower or over drinks at lunch? (Blame Mad Men for that one.) This common delusion is why your accountant cousin says he’s waiting for genius to gel before he sits down to write the novel he knows he’s got in him. But you know better than to wait for that. You’ve learned that making something out of nothing is as much a matter of perspiration as inspiration. Writing a novel involves discovery for the writer as well as the reader. “I write because I don’t know what I think until I see what I say,” said Flannery O’Connor.

A career in advertising can be better than an MFA in preparing you to write your first novel. But don’t get all cocky. Think advertising is a hard business to crack? Wait until you try publishing. Don’t imagine any editor will be interested until you’ve got an agent. And no agent will be interested until you’ve got a full manuscript. So, don’t quit your day job until you sell your first book. Remember, Salman Rushdie wrote Midnight’s Children while working at Ogilvy, London. Did I mention that advances don’t come with health benefits?