How to Write a Book
I was recently asked to speak to a writing class about my book, which gave me the chance to reflect on what’s worked for me, and since I sometimes get emails asking for general advice, I thought it might be useful to share a little of my experience. I’m entirely aware that by posting this, having finished only 97% of the book, I am seriously tempting fate and derision. But this will fuel me through the last 3%. Pride’s a useful motivator.
Fill the Well
I spend a lot of time on the Internet, for work and for not-work, clicking from one shiny object to the next, and I invariably walk away from the computer feeling dazed and stupid. I can think of maybe a handful of movies that fuel me creatively. Often, the theater. The last season of Breaking Bad. But nothing fuels me like reading, and by reading I mean books. Sometimes all it takes is a page or two to fill me with the courage to return to my own imperfect, unfinished story. Do more of whatever fills your well and less of everything else. Guard the well from celebrity gossip sites, shiny objects, and Facebook barbarians.
Another plug for books but from a crankier angle. Expecting people to read your writing when you can’t be bothered to read other people’s books is just plain rude. Read a lot, of everything. Otherwise you’ll go years operating under the delusion that everything you write is brilliant and original and destined to be turned into a four-film franchise starring Daniel Radcliffe and Meryl Streep.
Your Muse is a Flake
Waiting around for inspiration will never get you to the end of your book. Some of my best writing came only after I forced myself to sit at the computer and endure for an hour the thick, fuzzy-headed despair of having nothing in the world to say.
Don’t Wait for the Shack
I once read an interview with a well-known writer who leaves his house every morning, walks a hundred yards to a little redwood shack on the far corner of his wooded property, and spends the next eight hours undisturbed, writing and sipping tea from his lucky mug while the occasional acorn falls on the roof overhead. Oh, how I want that shack. I have no shack. I’ve been working on this book for seven years. For one year, when I had more money, I rented a private office. But I also wrote at home, in bed, at my desk, and on the couch. I wrote on my husband’s couch, on a chair passed down from his grandfather, and in the basement of his shop. I wrote in a tiny Manhattan apartment with a view of an airshaft. I wrote in three different rooms at the Columbia University library and a public library at the Jersey Shore. I wrote at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, Jumpin’ Java, Cafe Flore, and a dozen other coffee shops. I wrote on airplanes and in two different borrowed houses in Palm Springs. I wrote at every job I’ve ever had. You may have a fantasy shack, too, somewhere in your future, but what are you going to do in the meantime?
Your Portable Pal
Carry a little notebook, or your iPhone, a place to scrawl the words, ideas, and sentences that you’ll otherwise forget. No, you won’t remember.
Swallow Your Pride
I was a coward in college, afraid to commit myself to literature, and I chose instead the wildly practical major of sociology. I spent the next ten years feeling insecure about my education, and still it wasn’t until I got into Columbia’s MFA program that I began to see just how little I knew. Workshops and peer feedback can be valuable, but having someone take me through 100 books, page by page, sometimes sentence by sentence, and show me how each writer put together a story, was the single best thing I’ve done for myself as a writer. You don’t need to commit yourself to a Master’s degree. Take an extension class. Download a lecture from Yale. There’s no shame in being taught, and those who tell you otherwise are idiots.
Join a Cabal
The greatest unexpected benefit to grad school was the little group of writers from my program who landed here in the Bay Area after graduation, a group I still meet with every month, over five years later. We started out as a book club (first selection: Madame Bovary), but then one day my husband referred to the group as “your little cabal,” and it stuck. We exchange work, gossip, job leads, literary agent horror stories, and the occasional awesome news of a book deal. We also talk about Downton Abbey, Battlestar Galactica, and eat a lot of Salt and Pepper Kettle chips with french onion dip. They danced at my wedding, and I’d be lost without them. Again, you don’t need an MFA program for this. Find writers through workshops, local lit organizations, or Craigslist.
Writing is a pain in the ass. The beautiful story you imagine in your head, by the time you get it on the page, is a pale monstrosity. You will want to do anything in the world but the thing you most need to do. You will wash the dishes. You will vacuum every room in your house. You will cut your toenails and then vacuum some more. Unless you are in school or are an incredibly important author with a publishing house editor waiting for your next chapter with bated breath, you’ll need to create your own deadlines. Form a cabal. Find one friend. Exchange work.
Be an Ass
Despite what the world thinks, talent only takes you so far. Only the mule-headed endure.
I did research in the Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books division of the New York Public Library, where I went through old correspondence files from The New Yorker, and learned that the magazine rejected every single famous writer you could think of many, many times. It doesn’t matter who you are. You will be rejected. Be a mule.
Let It Brew
I have a friend, a well-respected author with three novels under his belt, who hates revision. He works by slowly moving forward, perfecting each sentence as he goes along. I can’t work that way. My first drafts are hideous. I don’t know what I think or how I feel about something until I start writing about it, and even then it takes time, sometimes a few weeks, or months, or years, till I get at the truest insight possible. I have to let each chapter sit, like a tea bag in a cup of hot water, letting it steep, stirring it around seventeen or eighteen times, doctoring it with milk and low-calorie sweetener, or, fine, yes, actual real sugar if it’s the only thing in the house, till it’s right.
I routinely forget to follow my own suggestions, but eventually I remember. If you’re plugged into contemporary culture (and what 21st Century writer isn’t?), you will frequently fall into black despair over the future of books. Our fragmenting attention spans. The publishing industry death spiral. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
But listen. Writing still matters. To a lot of people. There will always be readers who want to get lost in a story, learn about other places, or step inside the skin of a total stranger. Readers willing to have their minds changed and their hearts broken. Readers quietly thrilled by beautiful language. Readers who find, within the pages of a book, a voice that articulates the things they’ve always felt but could never express. Readers who feel, at the end of a book, less alone in their fears and mistakes. I can’t list all the reasons why people read books, or why literature is important, because there’s too many of them, and most of the fun is figuring out, book by book, your own reasons. Why you need to read, and why you need to write.