I recently got news that my book (my second novel!) is going to be published by Red Hen Press. I’m totally excited to work with such a great press—I’ve been following them for a long time, and most recently I loved reading Sugar Land by Tammy Lynne Stoner. But this isn’t about me awkwardly showing off about my book and this press, at least not yet. Today I want to look at the process of actually writing a book in the middle of a busy life with family, a day job, side projects, whining, and chronic pain. When a book goes out in the world and you’re holding it (or its digital equivalent) in your hands, it’s easy to think that writing the book was just this one coherent thing the author had to do, but writing a book is chaotic and confusing and has to somehow fit inside a busy, messy life. And I enjoy (for some reason) analyzing how to jam a writing process into this life. I don’t have a magic formula, but I have a process (sorta), and thought it would be fun(ish) to talk about it.
This is a longer-than-usual blog post, so strap in! (As a bonus, I added section titles and stick figure drawings to ease the burden…)
About the Story Origin
Around five years ago, I was chugging along on a novel that was a pain in the ass for me to finish—it was a big, mEsSy, spRawLing piece of historical fiction and I couldn’t quite bring it together. On top of that, I was struggling at my day job at a social collaboration software company and struggling with my connection to family and friends. Basically, I was miserable. During this time, I went out with my fabulous friend Anne and was telling her about my difficult-to-write novel. She isn’t one to pretty something up if that something isn’t pretty, so she said to me, “This book is toxic to you. I see it on your face.” I used this exact line in the short story I started writing later that night (a line spoken from a character uncreatively named Anne). The story was about dating, divorce, family, parenting, and all the ways that we’re connected (but often not connected) with humans… in this era when we’re hyper-connected to our devices. This story shot right out of me in a few days.
So, OK, fine, whatever, I had a fun short story on my hands. I thought that was that. Maybe I’d try and get the little thing published in a lit magazine, and get back to that difficult novel.
I sent the story to my agent without expecting her to do anything with it, but she said, “This thing sounds like the beginning of a novel.” She also told me that it sounded like I was having a great time writing it. And it was a blast to write. Instead of doing the things I was supposed to do, like working at my day job and doing chores around the house and writing that other book, I was cheating on all those things with this fabulous one-night stand of a short story. (FYI, I’m happily married… the metaphor only applies to book writing!)
If I were to fake some sort of takeaway here, I think it’s just that I like to be working on at least two different creative things at a time, so that I have a way to take a break from one project by working on the other project. This is a tricky balance (especially with a full-time day job and other responsibilities) because you don’t want to overload yourself with too many side projects and end up getting fired alongside having fifteen crappy, unfinished stories on your hands.
On Writing a Novel Draft Quickly
I was annoyed (but maybe also flattered) at the prospect of having another novel on my hands. This was supposed to be a fun little place to vent, not a new tedious project. But as I walked around with this new (slightly annoying) notion, I actually started getting excited about where the novel might go. I even made a ten-step list (which I can no longer find!) of what I thought would happen in this novel. A very simplified, very high-level roadmap of a novel, with a rough hero’s journey arc in there.
So, OK, fine, whatever, maybe this damn thing could be a novel after all. Now I needed to figure out how to turn it into a novel when I didn’t have time for this new challenge.
I took a week off of work and I left my house for the week and I wrote. The mornings were my main writing sessions… I wrote for about 3-4 hours at a cafe each morning until I reached my quota. Which was in the vicinity of 5000 words a day. These weren’t pretty words. I wasn’t scrutinizing the details. I intentionally glossed over things. And that horrible cafe chair was brutal on my back and neck and shoulders… But regardless of the obstacles, I wrote a lot.
In the evenings, I scanned over what I wrote, taking notes about what I wanted to fix later and making sure I knew where I was heading the next day so I could get a running (or at least a fast limping) start the next morning.
At the end of the week, I had a 30,000-word messy novel (novella?) on my hands.
It took about a year to turn it into a proper first draft, but still, in one week, I had the bones of a novel!
If I were to fake another takeaway here, I think it’s that even with a full-time day job, it’s still totally possible to write a book, but sometimes, at certain phases of the process (especially at the beginning or the end of drafts), it’s critical to disappear from the world for at least several days so you can immerse yourself in the story.
On Revising the Novel
Maybe I had the bones of a novel after a week, but it was still missing the flesh and the blood vessels and the organs and the connective tissue (have I destroyed this metaphor yet!?).
So, OK, fine, whatever, it wasn’t ready for the world yet. I’d need to figure out how to beat this story into shape. But I liked this story and I was (mostly) emotionally prepared to see it through.
First step was that I organized my notes (about what needed to be fixed in the novel) from my writing getaway. I cleaned up the notes and came up with a plan.
Then, I just wrote every week. I know some writers say that “real writers” need to write every day. I think that’s bullshit. But at the same time, I know that my little brain can’t easily fit a whole novel inside there, so I do need to keep a novel-in-progress in my consciousness as much as possible—in the shower, on bike rides, when I’m going to bed, while waiting in line at the grocery store. I had roughly two big (2-4 hour) writing sessions a week, along with about three or four smaller (around 1 hour) writing sessions a week.
(Dealing with chronic pain adds another level of messiness to the process. I already talked about that in my video about writing with chronic pain. Quick summary: lower your expectations, but don’t stop.)
All this writing crap takes discipline and motivation. I know some writers who talk about how they love writing, but not me. I think writing sucks (at least a lot of the time). And writing a whole novel REALLY sucks. Some days, I believe that it takes something like a mental illness to keep at it day after day. It also takes some reminders (either from within, or from others) that you are doing this for a good(ish) reason. (For me, I think the reason is a desire to connect with other humans through storytelling. Your mileage may vary.) One of the most valuable things for me to keep at it is to be part of a writing group that I love. We meet every week for about two hours. This group keeps me committed to the practice every week. I feel guilty if I don’t bring something to the table. They provide emotional support, they remind me why I need to tell the story I’m trying to tell, and they also challenge me when I’m not reaching as high as I can reach. This balance is critical. I wouldn’t want a group that was nothing but a love fest, but I also wouldn’t want a group that was critical just for the sake of being critical. The group should care about you, but also want your story to be the best version of this story that it can be.
It took me a year to have a “real” first draft and another year to get it to a point where I was ready to shop it around.
At the end of each draft, I’d get a few trusted readers to read my book and give me feedback. My wife is a bad ass at this process. My agent is also amazing at helping make it better. I can rely on a few friends to read a novel draft and give me feedback as well. Similar to the writing group, the ideal reader wants to make the story as good as it can be.
The semi-takeaway here is that I am not capable of writing a book in isolation. (More power to you if you’re different…) I need a kind-hearted community that can help me serve my story. (And, in turn, I try and help others in the same way.)
On Finding a Publisher
Finding a publisher is definitely not my favorite part. For my first book, I found a publisher on my own. For my second book, my agent (bless her! ❤️️) found a publisher. In both cases, rejections did not feel good. Even worse, spending time thinking about what the “market” wants can very nearly kill my creative soul. On the other hand, the publishing world is still full of people who love stories. And I love talking with people who love stories… the agents, the editors, the publishers… it’s just fabulous to talk about stories. (One senior editor even spent six months working with me—on his own time—to improve my book just because he liked it so much, even when his publishing house wasn’t willing to take the chance on it. That’s a pretty cool world to be in. Good luck finding someone who will work with you on your taxes just because they think your taxes are interesting…)
So, OK, fine, whatever, the publishing biz is a big scary mess, but it’s a damn fine feeling to find a publisher that is excited about this story you’ve been working on for so many hours across the months and years.
I hope some of this was interesting or useful. This story is to be continued. Also, I’m aiming to create a video about the process of writing a novel based on what I learned from this particular novel… Hopefully it’ll take me less than five years to make this video.
By the way, I’m back to writing that “difficult-to-write” book and it doesn’t feel so difficult these days. (Shhhhh!… Don’t mess up this short-lived groove!)