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?

(Writerly) Lessons I Learned from Journalism

I whine a lot about how writing news on deadline stifled my creativity.

But as I transition from newspaper reporter to author, I’m realizing that journalism taught me a handful of lessons that apply to writing a book, reminders that can benefit even non-journos.

Do readers care? If my manuscript came across my reporter’s desk as a press release, would I throw it into the trash? Hopefully I’d pitch the idea to my editor and he’d get excited about putting it on page one. But first he’d ask: Is there an audience for this? How can you craft this story so people care?

Deadlines work. There’s no such thing as writer’s block when your story is scheduled to go to press in an hour. Create deadlines for yourself, both short- and long-term, and meet them. It’s as simple as that. If that means settling for imperfection, so be it. Lucky for us, self-imposed manuscript deadlines come with a perk: revisions are not only allowed, they’re encouraged.

Don’t bury the lead. A reporter’s intro has got to be interesting, offering at least a glimpse of the meat of the story, or readers will move onto the next headline. All we get is one sentence — saving the hook for the third paragraph is useless. So work on turning all your beginnings — the beginning of the book, beginning of each chapter, beginning of each scene — into fabulous leads. In a novel, yeah, you can save some of the juicy stuff for later. But if your beginning isn’t engaging enough to suck me in, you’ve lost me to the obituary page.

Quotes have to really say something. All those sentence fragments the mayor spewed about the Deed Restriction Task Force — it’s boring. Reporters only have room for one quote anyhow, so they pick the one that’s the most compelling. Of course, in an 80,000-word manuscript, there’s space for more dialogue. But that doesn’t mean anything and everything your character could say should be included. Cut the part about the task force. Quotes that don’t move the story along get kicked to the curb. And that brings me to…

Cutting ain’t all bad. Newspaper reporters rarely have as much space for a story as they’d like. Even when my editor offered a respectable length, I’d wake up in the morning and find half the story had been cut overnight to make room for some tale about a dog that could juggle. In truth, sometimes the part that was cut just wasn’t necessary. So ask yourself, while revising your manuscript: If you had to cut something, what would it be? Now look again — Is the story actually better without it?

Oops, I’d better go. My imaginary editor is reading this over my shoulder, asking when it’s gonna be done.

And finally… The book

If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you know what I’ve been working on for the last four months: outlining my book, writing a book proposal and query letter, choosing agents to approach, applying to writers’ colonies, learning about blog book tours, and then some.

I’ve also, believe it or not, written some of the book itself. So far, I’ve got rough drafts of nearly three full chapters, plus many pieces of chapters. But it seems like every time I sit down to put words on paper, some other distraction gets in the way, either one of the tasks mentioned above or another life responsibility.

It takes time to write, I keep telling myself. I’m new at this, so it’s going to move slowly. And those other tasks are just as important as the book itself.

But then I stumbled upon an online interview for Poets & Writers, where Peter Steinberg of The Steinberg Agency threw this on the table:

“I think sometimes writers get lost in getting the cover letter and the synopsis and those kinds of professional things right because they’re afraid of focusing on the work,” he said.

That’s when it hit me. I’m procrastinating because I’m scared to write the book! I know I’m good at organizing, at learning new skills and creating support materials. But I don’t know whether I’ll produce quality chapters.

The first book is scary for every writer, right? (This is where you chime in with sympathetic nods.) I’ve just gotta put my nose to the grind and write.

Just write.