In 2005 I was confident. I had just appeared on the Today show to promote my first nonfiction book, an account of how my life was transformed by sacrificing some little luxuries. Just six months before, I had made a major career change, leaving my position as a marketing director at a publishing company to start my own business and begin a writing career.
Why I put off writing a book
Writing a novel has always been my dream. Although I was having financial success as a writer, I wasn’t sure that my skills could translate from nonfiction to fiction. Like most working writers, a deadline with pay sets off an internal starting gun that allows the words to flow freely and willingly to the page. The risky promise of some hypothetical future payday from a novel wasn’t enough to motivate me. Even thinking the word novel conjures intimidating figures—Richard Ford, Margaret Atwood, Jhumpa Lahiri and John Irving. I’m petrified by the pretentiousness of the notion that my book would ever be allowed on a bookshelf anywhere near the work of my heroes.
Wallowing in self-doubt had always derailed my writing process. I was spending more time managing how I felt about the writing than actually writing anything. It reminded me of the people who obsess about how bad their mess is instead of straightening out the piles.
My insecurities were grounded in my deep knowledge of book publishing, where I worked for 16 years promoting authors. Industry people are truly selfless in their love of the written word, and with that love comes a high expectation of quality. Because we read books, talk about books, dream about books and sometimes love books like they’re family members, most of us foster a secret desire to write them. Honestly, many book publishing people should write. Most have the critical eye and training to recognize good writing. At least that’s what I would tell just about any book publishing person I know.
But I couldn’t take that advice myself.
NaNoWriMo challenge: write a book in 30 days
One of the first considerations in writing this book is figuring out who is telling the story. Is it an all-knowing observer inside the story, like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby? Or is it a witty, self-deprecating diarist, as in Bridget Jones’s Diary?
I email a writer friend who tells me, without a doubt, “Do not write in first-person narrative. You can’t tell the story as effectively that way, so write in third person!” Inhabiting the omniscient power of the third person is impossible as I churn out only two dismal sentences over the next two days. I can’t seem to stop correcting myself, believing that each word needs to be perfect before I commit it to the page.
After several more single-sentenced attempts, I admit defeat. I can’t do this alone. Desperate for a solution, I find the website for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which recommends the book No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty.
I’m a big advocate for 30-day challenges. At the time, I had just come off the experiment of giving things up month by month, serially, over the course of a year—what became my first book: Give It Up! My Year of Learning to Live Better with Less. I had long ago discovered that if you can do something for a month, you can do it for the rest of your life.
To write a book in 30 days, I determine I’ll need to write an average of 1,667 words every day, including weekends.
Setting myself up for success
Baty’s first recommendations give me instant courage. First, sign a contract with yourself for doing this monthlong commitment. This small action makes the project real. Second, turn off your inner editor, that nasty, brilliant part of your psyche that tells you how bad your writing is and essentially has its finger poised over the delete button before you can even hit the period at the end of the sentence. Baty goes so far as to recommend drawing a representation of the “‘Take My Inner Editor’ button” and physically hitting it every time you feel the urge to backspace and delete all the work you just hammered out. In my case, my inner editor has company: the iconic works on the shelf that appear to mock me. They remind me that I will not be like them, no matter how hard I try.
My inner publishing company also reminds me that not only can I not write a “real book,” I also have no plot, no hook, no marketable story that will allow me to eventually sell the book even if by some miracle I’m able to tough out the month. One of the voices is actually quite rude, asking, Who do you think you are trying to write the great American novel?
I put my finger down on the Inner Editor Button I’ve drawn.
Writing a book in 30 days: Week 1
Writing a book in 30 days without a plan is like baking a cake without a recipe. One need only mistake salt for sugar once to know that good carrot cake doesn’t just happen. I know there is no way to make this word count by winging it. Thankfully, Baty’s book also gives me a recipe to follow—which, for a first-timer in the novel game, is essential. Because I am goal-oriented, I equate my daily writing to the length of a magazine feature, more or less the size of this article. That would be 30 articles in one month. To give you a sense of what that means, I usually take anywhere from one to two weeks to write one full-length feature with editing, rewriting and fact-checking. This is five times the amount I am used to.
In Week 1, I let my insecurities go and try to take control. I quickly realize third person is not working. Imagining myself talking to a good friend gives me the voice of the protagonist, Jessie DeSalvo. Once I resign myself to a first-person narrative, the writing gets easier.
I’m feeling better about the project overall, but I still feel anxious. My antidote to life’s angst has always been yoga. Each day after writing, I silence the literary demons in my head by taking a class. “In the words of Ram Dass, ‘Here Now,’” the instructor says. I wonder, Is this a sign from the universe telling me to write, here, now?
Making it a daily ritual
Applying this philosophy and plenty of deep breathing helps me release tension and meet my daily goals throughout the first week. At times, I type without knowing what I’m saying or where it’s going. It feels like a mad shopping spree where you take 27 items into the T.J. Maxx dressing room, hoping that in the end you’ll find one decent pair of jeans to purchase. According to my credit card, I always find a decent pair of jeans to purchase, so I trust that my editing can make pure genius out of whatever chaos I create. Once I let go of the pursuit of perfection and accept that it does not have to be pretty, especially the first time I type it, the word counts get easier.
By the end of Week 1, I notice a ritual beginning to form. For me, writing has to be ritualistic, like teeth brushing, exercise or walking the dog. Consistency works, and soon I’m more afraid to skip than I am to write. Suddenly there’s nothing worse than skipping a day of 1,667 words and facing double that on the day after.
Because I’m not on Facebook while I’m working on this, I’m also not tempted to talk to people about what I’m doing instead of actually doing it. In fact, I’m reluctant to tell anyone that I’ve taken on this project at all. I feel like if I mention it, I’ll have to account for my progress—and for my failure—if this project doesn’t materialize.
Writing a book in one month: Week 2
My life is consumed by the book as Week 2 begins. On the train to work, I pick up snippets of conversation, immediately jotting them down on a notepad. I become hyper-aware of my surroundings, trying to glean whatever sweet remarks or dialogue I overhear. These provide great jumping-off points for more words to flow. Some give me ideas for entire passages. The more I eavesdrop, the more it occurs to me that secret novel writing is a lonely business.
I muddle through the week with some level of confidence. After all, I had just completed nearly one quarter of the entire project in a week. I’m writing on average two or three hours per day, which leaves a lot of time to carry on with the rest of my work and life duties. My routine is solid: Write every morning, then head off to yoga class where I can find some ancient wisdom to apply to my daily struggle. When I hear their thoughts on suffering, I’m convinced that Buddhists must be novelists.
Soon enough, I encounter a new problem. My inner marketing director starts wondering how I’m going to publish this novel that I’ve only begun and not edited at all—and told almost nobody about.
Writing a book in 30 days: Week 3
The nonfiction process is very straightforward: You essentially say, “Hey publisher, I have this great idea for a book! Here’s what it will look like. Here’s how I’ll market it. And here’s what it’s about.” The publisher then says, “That sounds great! Here’s some money. Now go write it.”
In the netherworld of fiction, you don’t have that luxury. You submit the end product, done, take it or leave it. And you get a lot of “leave it.” This concept weighs on me so heavily that by Week 3 I hit a major standstill. As the days go on, the writing gets harder because I can’t stop worrying about what will happen when I’m done. Will anybody like it? Is this just a waste of time I could better spend making money in other ways?
Baty answers these questions in his chapter about making it to the halfway point. He instructs me to start thinking about how to wrap this story up and give the characters some closure. Thinking about that end point, and how close I already am, gives me the will to move on. I want to resolve the messy issues I’d already created for my characters in the first half of the book and that pushes me through Week 3. I manage to make up for some of the slower days, so by the start of Week 4 I’m just above the weekly target, with 38,000 words.
Crossing the finish line
I’m excited about the prospect of completing the final week. I make a little chart to track the remaining seven days, like a prisoner checking off the final moments before freedom. By month’s end, my word count is 50,010. And although I should rejoice, all of those inner publishing people whom I had silenced over the past four weeks are back. And they’re angry. They want to know what comes next. Having a thick skin is part of being a writer, but at this stage I’m paralyzed, afraid to have anyone read the book. I print the unread manuscript and quickly put it into a filing cabinet, and I try not to think about it.
All of the demands I’d put off for a month come flooding back. I conveniently take assignments that don’t cause panic attacks, and over the next few years I write two more nonfiction books, helping more people tidy up their lives, and become a brand spokesperson. At one point, I pack the manuscript and all of my other possessions and move to a new home in the suburbs, placing my monthlong adventure into the same drawer of the same filing cabinet in a different house. Deep in my soul, I know the novel has to come out of the drawer and into the world. But I need encouragement again.
What I learned about writing a book
- Let it go to let it flow. Stop “shoulding” on yourself entirely during this process. Some people have an inner editor. I had an inner committee of naysayers. There is no way to let creativity happen if you are judging yourself with every keystroke.
- Act as if you are a novelist. Stop comparing yourself to Leo Tolstoy or Charles Dickens. Other authors are not going to hunt you down and tell you that you are a charlatan for even dreaming to write a novel. News flash: They don’t care, and neither should you.
- Release the outcome. We all love having written a book, but not the actual writing. We love being fit but not working out. Disengage from the process of being done and get to the business of doing. You can’t have one without the other.
- Novel writing is not easy. If Buddhists believe that life is suffering, then novelists must be Buddhists. Good stuff always takes work. If it were easy, everyone would do it.
Revisiting the book I wrote in 30 days
A few months after the move, I’m working with a client who hired me to catalog all of her short stories, article pitches and rejection letters. (Apparently her real editors were almost as mean as my inner editors.) When I tell my husband about this client, his mind goes to the same place as mine. He says simply, “You don’t want to look back at your life and regret leaving that book in a drawer.”
I make a new plan: I hire an editor named Ken Salikof, whose many career hats include author, screenwriter and manuscript editor. Over the length of a summer, he helps me edit my messy pages and talks me through the insecurities I still have. His best answer to my inner editor’s criticism: “Well, if Richard Ford wrote a chick lit book, maybe this would be it.”
I take it as high praise.
Several years after I wrote the book in 30 days, I sign a contract with Post Hill Press to publish my first novel: Best Friend for Hire. It’s shelved in the women’s fiction and humor sections of stores, just a few feet away from my literary heroes.
And sometimes—if I let myself be truly happy—I push a metaphorical button to quiet the critics in my head, and I believe I earned a place on that shelf.
This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine and has been updated. Photo by Kostiantyn Voitenko/Shutterstock