What I wish I knew before I started writing a book

Writing this book is a learning process, even more than I expected. There are quite a few major things I wish I had understood before I began, and I’m sure more will arise as I continue through the editing and publishing process.

As I prepare to begin my writing residency at Hambidge next week, as I enter my eighth month of this project, it seems like a good time to reflect on the big picture, what I’ve learned so far. So here goes:

1. I need to write my entire memoir before looking for an agent. When I started this process, I planned to query with a proposal and sample chapters, as is required for most non-fiction books. But memoir, it turns out, is not like most non-fiction. Selling memoir is like selling fiction. Gotta write it all first, particularly because I’m a first-time author. (Although it’s worth noting here that some memoirists are able to sell based on proposal and sample chapters.)

But you know what? I’m okay with that. The more I write, the better my book becomes. I’m confident that when I go to sell this baby, it’s going to be better than what I would have offered initially.

2. Writing a book is grueling. You think that’s obvious, huh? Of course I didn’t think it would be easy. I’m familiar with the dedication required to write and work hard every day; I’m a journalist, after all. But this is even harder than I expected, partly because it’s such a huge project. On some days (okay, on a lot of days), it feels daunting and overwhelming. Even when I make progress, I still have so far to go. It’s like the marathon course that keeps on going and going. Actually, it’s like the D.C. Marathon around mile 20, when you hit that damn uphill two-mile bridge where there are no spectators and your running partner is four miles behind you.

3. Writing a memoir is a lot like writing fiction. Yeah, it’s nonfiction, which is what I’m good at. All my stories are true. But they have to be told with dialogue, description, scene-setting, pace, characters — a variety of literary devices I didn’t use as a journalist. Writing this way takes practice.

4. Writing is lonely. Never in a million years did I expect to miss going to work every day. But I do. I miss wearing heels! There’s no one to talk to in my home office. I’ve done my best to seek out other writers, friends who offer feedback and help me think out the next step in my book or in my life. But when it comes down to it, at least at this stage of the book-writing game, it’s really just me and the screen.

These realizations will fade from my memory as this type of writing becomes normal for me, which is why I want to document them. If I write another book down the road, I’ll know more what to expect, and I doubt it will feel as overwhelming, or as lonely, or as grueling.

Writers: what do you wish you knew before embarking on your first project?

23 Responses

  1. That writing is like using a muscle…if you don’t do a little every day, it’s harder when you return to your WIP.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Great post. I think it’s hard for others to understand that writing is hard work (grueling even). You just can’t get that unless you spend some time seriously writing. It’s very difficult to explain to someone.

    Working on a memoir right now–lots of fun but much different than straight non-fiction.

    I hate dressing up, especially heels, so the stay-home part of writing is very appealing to me!

  3. I wish I’d known how lonely it would be, too, Alexis. Part of me needs the alone time. But too much can get hard and I have to remember to schedule lunch dates. I also added a few other activities during the work day to break up the loneliness. It works. Oh, and writing is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But oh, so much more rewarding than anything else I’ve ever done.

  4. I’ve finally learned to ask for specific feedback when I give my sample chapters or book proposals to people to read (eg, my writer’s group, my hubby).

    So instead of a general “what do you think?”, I now ask readers to look for specific problems with transitions, cliches, boring nouns and verbs, etc. This helps my readers give me specific feedback on my writing, which helps immensely!

    Good luck with your wriitng, fellow scribes 🙂

  5. Sounds as if you’ve learned a lot in 8 short months! I joined a couple of local writing groups and find that the ability to talk to people with the same interests helps with the loneliness factor.

  6. Six months after college, I had my first novel written. That was four years ago, and I realize that my first novel doesn’t mean first published. I keep writing and moving forward.

    Also, I have vowed to keep learning. I may have my degree, but I try to pick up books on writing or keep track of quotes or advice that I have run across while reading books or scanning websites. If I have a tough day, those really help boost my attitude.

  7. I’m right at the end of the (editing) process and have managed to bag an agent for my novel. But everything you say here still rings true. It really is just a case of gritting your teeth and working through the tough times, of which there are plenty, as you know.

    As for the home office, I’d happily swap positions! I’ve had to write my entire novel while hloding down a full-time job… as a writer!

    I am square-eyed to say the least.

  8. Yes! I had to learn all those things, too. Then once you complete your book, you learn a whole new batch of lessons. What I’m learning now is that marketing a book is a lot of work. (Not that my book is published yet…but I do have an agent and I’m hoping that it will be published!) Now I’m discovering that
    1. I have to get comfortable about speaking in public
    2. social networking is beneficial but also time consuming
    3. building platform are words I have to learn to love
    4. platform starts before you’re even done writing.

  9. So many great ideas here already!

  10. I can remember when I was working on my MFA thesis (in poetry which is being considered – in a very revised version – for publication) that I wish I’d had a class very early on in grad school that talked about the whole idea of shaping a book instead of having that course in my last semester!


    keep up the good work!

  11. You are SO RIGHT. Its an amazing learning processes. Great post. And, I left something for you on my blog…

  12. This is a great post – being at home all day is definitely something that drives me mad being in the sticks! I am now working 4 days a week, which doesn’t leave me much time to write – grass is always greener and all that!

    I also wrote one of these posts “What I wish I had known before writing my first book” http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2009/04/19/what-i-wish-i-had-known-before-writing-my-first-book/

    It is totally different to yours!
    Thanks, Joanna

  13. Since I’m much earlier in the process than you are, it’s good to see your lessons laid out this way. I’ve learned many of them already (mostly because while my book isn’t anywhere near being finished, I’ve been working on it in fits and starts for a really long time). I think that the biggest lesson I’ve learned in this process is that while I really, really love it, writing is HARD work. It takes commitment and focus and time. But in the end, it’s so worth it!

  14. I wish I had understood the huge amount of work that goes into promoting a book after it’s published. I would definitely have started my website and blog sooner and read a lot more books and blog posts about marketing. Kudos to you for getting a head start on some of these things.

  15. That mind mapping & meditation are the writer’s best allies … and our conscious minds and gestalt fears are our worst enemies …

  16. […] Grant originally wrote about 4 things she wish she knew before writing her first book, ending her post with the question: Writers: what do you wish you knew before embarking on your […]

  17. I totally relate to the overwhelming feeling of working on a larger project. Being organized is crucial and having a realistic vision of what you want your project to accomplish can be motivating and help to remind you of why you started your project in the first place.

  18. Best of luck with your journey and your residency!!

  19. Hi, Alexis. I caught this post on Twitter, via Joanna Penn (even though I follow both of you—Hmm. Not quite sure how that happened. Must’ve missed your tweet.) This is a great conversation, and I’m enjoying reading everyone’s comments. I’ve added my own post, too, on 7 things I wish I knew before writing my first book.

  20. I wish I knew how long it could take to write a novel. I guess I knew it would take awhile, especially the way I work, but I first got the inkling of what the novel was about over 2 years ago. I’m almost there though and I think I’ve learned how I can work a little faster now.

  21. let me know if you pass through NC on your way to the writers’ retreat — we could get coffee! cheap, cheap coffee. 🙂

  22. Thank you for an awe inspiring read. I really enjoyed this post. I look forward to reading more of your works. If this had a rating I would have to say 10 marks

  23. Good insights. It’s impressive you got an agent and a publisher already! It’s so easy to get rejected!

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