What I wish I knew before I started writing a book

August 24, 2009

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?

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    27 Replies to “What I wish I knew before I started writing a book”

    • 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

    • 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!

    • Karen Walker says:

      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.

    • Laurie PK says:

      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 🙂

    • 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.

    • Natasha says:

      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.

    • 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.

    • Peggy says:

      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.

    • Alexis Grant says:

      So many great ideas here already!

    • jessiecarty says:

      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!

    • Christine Fonseca says:

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

    • Joanna Penn says:

      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

    • Ami says:

      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!

    • 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.

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

    • Dawn Herring says:

      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.

    • angie says:

      Best of luck with your journey and your residency!!

    • Tim King says:

      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.

    • Joanne Elliott aka soulsprite says:

      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.

    • littlehousesouthernprairie says:

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

    • 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

    • cecil says:

      I should convince myself first that what I went through is interesting enough. Despite the wonderful ideas on my head, the one that bogs me down is the simple question – Will this run?

      Thanks, I love the ideas. Glad I found your site.

    • Ian Robinson says:

      Thanks a lot for posting this. I’m struggling with writing my own travel memoirs… it really is a huge daunting task.

    • Linda Gartz says:

      Hi Alexis,
      I’m also in the process of writing a memoir, based on thousands of pages of diaries and letters from my family. I, too, have worked as a journalist–a television documentary producer. Learning to write memoir is SO different from the writing I’m used to. I entered this project years ago with great confidence. I can write! I’ve written all those documentary scripts. I was in for a BIG surprise. A totally different craft. I’ve taken several writing classes, read oodles of books on writing memoir, and written essays looking for that ephemeral “deeper meaning” and I’m finally getting there. But never dreamed the effort and frustration en route. Still en route — but determined to get something out in the next year! Thanks for your helpful and insightful posts.

    • Rachel says:

      Working as a member of a team is empowering. The team benefits from each member’s individual talent, positive characteristics, empathy, support, problem-solving skills, brainstorming and perseverance. A writer doesn’t work as a team. He works as an individual. There are some days when he can’t rely on his sense of humor, because it’s non-existent. There are days when he can’t rely on his strength, because it has ebbed. There are days that he can’t rely on his natural optimism and cheerfulness, because it has run out. As a writer, I envy people who work in a collaborative setting; they become a part of a greater whole and their collective success is shared. A writer’s success, if he ever has any, is one-sided and can never be shared; therefore, it is somewhat hollow.

      On days when my positive thinking and physical strength have evaporated, when I have lost my self-confidence and confidence in my abilities, when I look at the printed word and the spark of inspiration has dried up, I watch a video of the most inspiring moment I have ever seen. I go to YouTube and watch the video of when the underdog, “Slumdog Millionaire” won the Best Picture Oscar. I cry every time I see that video. The camaraderie, the teamwork, the collaborative effort between everyone who worked on the movie is right there on the stage. Their mutual effort has paid off: they won the industry’s highest prize. My happiness for them is overwhelming because when the underdog wins, all of us win. In that particular year, “Slumdog Millionaire” was the odd man out, the underdog. But they broke new ground in filmmaking when nobody else believed in them. A writer must do the same: every time you sit at the computer and type, you must believe that you are breaking new ground. Believe in yourself! Trust your judgments! In the words of “Slumdog Millionaire’s Producer, Christian Colson, “If you have passion and belief, truly anything is possible.” Dear fellow Writer: Heed the words of Christian Colson. He’s been there; he has tasted success. Keep your passion alive and keep writing!

    • I wish I’d known that the best laid plans would not work out as planned. My book has 12 chapters. 12 road trips and 12 chapters. I had intended to write each chapter after each road trip, to stay on top of my schedule. Ha! I didn’t wind up doing that. I did my research, took my trips, did more research, and got distracted. With each trip. And time went by. Then it was time to write, my time was running out, the deadline neared, and I freaked. I wish I knew that I’d freak about writing a book. I wish I could have worked that freak-out time into my schedule. I wish I would have written my book as I had originally intended. I could go on about that.

      Nevertheless, I learned that I could write 50,000 well-crafted words in less than two months, so that was an eye opener. But I don’t want to do that again. Next time, I’ll know better. I hope.

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