(Author’s Note: This piece originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of FACE Magazine. Since it’s publication, I have released my second and third novels, Legacy and Butterfly Ginger, and I am finishing my fourth manuscript.)
I recently achieved a lifelong dream.
Since I was seven years old, I’ve wanted to be a novelist. I used to fill notebooks, long-hand, with chapter after chapter. At 12, I graduated to a used IBM Selectric and blissfully clickety-clacked away my afternoons–when I probably should have been studying.
In college, I majored in journalism because my father figured that was the only way writers earned paychecks. Even at graduation, I knew that I didn’t want the life of a reporter. (Do they even have lives?!?) So this meant that I was destined for grad school–this time in English.
Did this lead to a book deal? The Bestseller’s List? A window in Barnes & Noble? Nope. It led me to the classroom. A wonderful place, to be sure, but not the promised land. But when I wasn’t grading, drafting lesson plans, or trying to navigate the minefield that is middle and high school education, I wrote.
It was my secret. A shameful secret. Because I never finished what I started; I never shared what I was writing, and I never would be published. The longer this went on, the worse it became. My self doubts only bred to the point where I wouldn’t even discuss what I was writing with my husband. And this might have gone on for the rest of my life, had it not been for the creation of one magnificent modern marvel.
If writing is my passion, reading is my addiction. What could be better than to carry a library in my purse? One that was full of $3 books that I could download in under a minute!
My Kindle delighted me as a reader, but it liberated me as a writer. I mean, didn’t we all discover with Fifty Shades of Grey that you don’t need a Ph. D. in literature to write a book? The more ebooks I read, the more my confidence grew. I’d finish ebook after ebook thinking, Well, even I can do better than that.
So, finally, at 42, I wrote and published my first novel.
But it wasn’t just the promise of an eventual ebook that gave me what I needed to succeed at last. I followed a few simple rules that I had not honored in my earlier attempts: rules that I think would serve any writer who–for whatever reason–has not managed to finish that first book.
Rule #1: Write Every Single Day. (I said the rules were “simple,” not “easy.”) Let’s face it: most of us have day jobs. Jobs that we love, perhaps, but they don’t leave us with unlimited time to crank out that novel. We have to make time, and that happens only when you commit to writing each day–even if you only manage a few sentences before collapsing onto the pillow. I started my novel on December 26, 2012, and I wrote every single day for seven months. I wrote after work. I wrote before bed. I wrote on days when I was sick, the day I ran my first marathon, and even on vacation. For me, this was the most sacred rule because if I couldn’t quit, I couldn’t quit. I’m still obeying it.
Rule #2: Talk About the Book. Sometimes, this is harder than it sounds. Writing is deeply personal, and people can be so careless and dismissive. That said, you need to talk about things that are important to you, and your book surely is. The good news is that it’ll be important to people who care about you, too. You don’t have to discuss plot, character, or theme if you’re not ready, but you should own that you’re doing something that is precious to you. The encouragement that my friends and family gave me was well worth the emotional risk.
Rule #3: Let Others Read It. A few people is all you need. If you have three or four beta readers whose opinions you trust and who will get back to you in a timely manner, their feedback will make you aware of problem areas early on and let you know when you’ve nailed it. My husband was always a few chapters behind me, and in addition to catching most of my typos, he let me know when the idea I wanted to convey wasn’t resonating. Plus, it felt great when he’d finish a chapter and say, “That was really good. Send me the next one.”
Rule #4: Write What Is Ready: When Stephenie Meyer wrote Twilight, she started with the iconic meadow scene, which is halfway into the novel, and wrote from there to the end, adding the beginning last. With Fall Semester, I wrote Chapters 1, 2, 3 and 12 first, and I wrote the epilogue before the last two chapters because I knew what was going to happen in those scenes. Which brings me to my next rule…
Rule #5: Not Knowing Is Okay: There is nothing wrong with starting a chapter or a scene without knowing how it will end. Allow the wellspring of creativity inside you a little room to do its thing. The story will come together if you keep writing. This sense of detached curiosity allowed me to surprise myself as I wrote, and it made the whole endeavor so much more fun.
Rule #6: Go Back: As you write, cycle back to the beginning or to other parts you have written. What took you days to write will only take you minutes or hours to read, and you’ll be able to see if your characters stay true to themselves and if the pacing is right. Moreover, what thrilled you to write should still be thrilling, even after the fifth or sixth read. If it’s not, you’ll know that revision is necessary.
Rule #7: Live in the Now: The most important part about writing your book is the actual writing. It is not necessary–or helpful–while writing to worry about what comes after you’ve finished. Sometimes I would catch myself wondering what certain people would think about my story or my style once I published. Creativity spooks easily, and you have to respect it. There’s no sense in creating problems before they exist. For now, just write.
I may not have the book deal or the window at Barnes & Noble–yet, but I do have the novel, a novel that I am proud to claim. And I know that if I stick to the rules I’ve made for myself, before too long, I’ll have more.