“No one article or review will make or break me. When I published my first book, I got a slam from one of the pre-pubs and I was convinced that this was the end of my writing career. I literally lost sleep imagining bookstore owners, potential readers, librarians, etc. crossing my name off a list labeled GOOD WRITERS. About bad reviews or weird articles, my good friend Nichelle Tramble said it best—Let it spoil your breakfast, but don’t let it spoil your supper. In other words, mourn it and then keep moving.”
There are so many things I wish I’d known when I was writing and publishing my first book. I wish I’d known about process and keeping my sanity. I wish I’d asked for a year to finish the book when my editor said six months. I wish I’d known how to keep my own hopes and fears in check, or to ask for Prozac when I couldn’t.
But even more than that, I wish I’d known that the only thing you have control over is the writing itself. Everything else is luck and timing.
Here’s what I tell my DePaul students who want to be novelists about the process of actually sitting down to write a novel:
5. Surprise yourself. I know plenty of writers who like to outline first, but unless you’re a nonfiction writer or John Irving, don’t decide too much, too soon. Maybe write out a few ideas, a list of major points or beats, but don’t commit to them completely. Allow yourself to stray from the outline if a great idea occurs to you partway through. If you can’t surprise yourself, you can’t surprise a reader either.
4. Give yourself small goals every day. I once went to a talk by Richard Bausch, who was auditioning to be the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. To the inevitable question about process, he said he asks himself: “Did I write today?” If the answer is yes, then he’s satisfied.
A 120,000-word novel doesn’t write itself in a day. If you try to write as much as possible in one sitting, you won’t have enough left over for the next day. A small goal (mine is 1500 words a day) will allow you to make progress and still leave you feeling ready for more the next time you sit down.
3. Write quickly. Just as a novel won’t write itself in a day, it won’t write itself in 10 years either. If your first novel takes you three years to write (as mine did), you’ll be a different person with different interests and even a different writing style than you were at the beginning. Getting the first draft done as quickly as possible will be better both for you and the book.
2. Don’t try to write a perfect draft. My thesis advisor once said that unfinished novels don’t need to be workshopped, they need to be championed. I wish I’d heeded this advice a little more when writing my first book, because a perfect draft doesn’t exist—that’s why it’s called a draft. Don’t revise too much, or at all, the first time around. Get words on the page. Recognize that the draft is imperfect—makes notes if you want—then move on. Until you have an ending, you don’t know if you’ve begun in the right place, so there’s no point in finely crafting every clause, every comma, when half of them are going to end up getting cut or moved around anyway.
1. Write the book you want to read. You’ve got a killer idea, but the genius is always in the execution. That’s where the little gremlins of doubt and fear creep in: should I make it big? Small? Choose a funky point of view, an exotic setting, a big plot twist? What will improve my chances at winning the National Book Award, of being on the bestseller list, of keeping this book from ending up as toilet paper in the Random House bathroom? Do I want to be the next William Faulkner, the next James Patterson, the next Jacqueline Howett? Will my colleagues laugh their asses off when they read it? Should I use a pseudonym? I should use a pseudonym, really, shouldn’t I?
In the end, none of it will get you to The End, and most of it will only make you crazy. There are dozens of different ways you could turn every idea into a book. Some of them might be legitimately successful. Some are probably awful. Most of them will please some of your readers. None of them will please all your readers. In the end, your only job is to write the book you’ve always wanted to read but couldn’t, because no one but you was able to write it.
So there you have it. Now what’s your best advice?