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How to write a full-length book when you have a full-time life

Organizing pages from my second book, a novel published in 2017. And yes, that’s my tabby cat.

Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further. ―Rilke

When people tell me that the mark of a writer is someone who commits to a word or page count every day, I want to do two things: wipe their smug platitude clear across their face and laugh. Mostly, I laugh the laugh of crazed serial killers — the kind of back-of-the-throat guttural cackle that causes most people to slowly step away from the vehicle.

I’ve been writing since I was a child and the idea of starting my day in front of a blank page is just as comforting as gouging out my eyes with an acetylene torch. Over the past decade, I’ve had two of my books published by traditional houses while balancing demanding jobs and a full-time life. And guess what? I didn’t have time for the romanticized writerly existence where one sips freshly brewed coffee while wearing their threadbare robe as depicted in bad movies and blog posts. Of course, all writers are the coffee-guzzling, unkempt superstitious sort.

In college, I remember the editor of the literary review approaching me with a copy of my short story in hand. He looked at the paper and then up at me in confusion, as if he couldn’t reconcile the woman wearing a flannel and baseball cap with the woman who wrote a story about her mother being her first hurt. After he complimented the story, in a smaller voice he said I didn’t look like a writer, to which I responded, well, what the fuck is a writer supposed to look like?

Back then I had moxie.

I was born to write, but I was also born to build brands and this realization often created tension between the two worlds I inhabited. Book friends were astounded to discover that I command a six-figure salary while marketing friends held up my book and said, you wrote this? Wow, I didn’t know you were a writer.

It’s possible to be more than one thing. Few realize this simple, true fact.

This is all to say that writers don’t “look” a certain way. There is no one way to be a writer or to write a novel other than your way. I don’t toil away every morning in front of a Word document. Instead, I negotiate contracts with clients on conference calls, mentor marketing executives, beg for student loan deferments, yes, I’ll hold, build businesses, yes, I’ll continue to hold, and write when I can because my dark, experimental fiction isn’t paying the bills.

Sometimes it’s okay, even downright necessary, to take the paycheck. While seeing your book prominently displayed on the New Fiction table at Barnes and Noble is sexy (and also a beautiful fiction for most writers in its own right), having a home to come home to and a hot meal is even sexier. The constant of basic creature comforts far outweighs the suffering, starving artist trope.

You don’t need to write every day if that’s not your way — you just need to be committed to what you write. Determination and persistence are the most valuable weapons in a writer’s arsenal. Writing comes more easily to me than most, but that doesn’t matter if I don’t commit myself to the work. Nothing happens until you move. Until words get on the page.

Let’s first get something crystal clear. Even when you’re not physically putting thought to paper, you’re writing. You’re thinking about your characters on the way to work. You’re jotting down dialogue in bed at night. You’re doing research while eating lunch at your desk. You’re dictating scenes into your phone on the 405 because traffic hasn’t moved in an hour and writing is better than having a rage blackout. Being a writer is about understanding that the work that goes into the writing is just as important and relevant as the writing itself.

Agatha Christie once said, “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” This is how I’ve managed to publish two books, countless stories, and essays over the past two decades. I created space and time for the work while understanding the pragmatic reality otherwise known as life. Neuroscience tells us that we’re wired to cleave to that which is safe and known. Experience and repetition define that knowing. Along comes an idea for a book — a dense forest rife with unknowns — and if given the choice we’ll file our taxes and nails over putting thought to type. That’s one of the many arcane ways we stand in our own way.

We retreat back into the comfort of complacency instead of risking the possible magic of a new reality. We fear and succumb to failure before we’ve typed our first word without understanding that success is comprised of a million little failures. We give up because the largeness of the novel is a weight too heavy to bear, instead of thinking about writing as Margaret Atwood would have it: “a word after a word after a word is power.”

You build a house brick by brick. You rely on drawings, schematics, measurements, and plans and make adjustments as you go. No one wakes one day and POOF there’s the house! The act of building is the becoming, so why would writing be any different? You build a book word by word, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, chapter by chapter. And there you have it, what Sylvia Plath once called “the long short story.” We often forget the smallest of parts creates the beautiful whole.

The first substantial revision of my second book in 2014.

In Zadie Smith’s beloved essay “That Crafty Feeling,” she architects two types of writers: the Macro Planner and Micro Manager. The Macro Planner lives for their notebook, post-its, sketches, plot outlines, character sketches — they’ve written the whole book in their head before they’ve even sat down to type. They live for the blueprints and plans. The house is pre-fab, already built in their heads. Apparently, Graham Greene was a Macro Planner. Whereas the Micro Manager plays the page as it lays. They start with the first line and somehow navigate their way to the last one and they’ve no idea where the story will go. Smith writes,

Micro Managers build a house floor by floor, discretely and in its entirety. Each floor needs to be sturdy and fully decorated with all the furniture in place before the next is built on top of it. There’s wallpaper in the hall even if the stairs lead nowhere at all.

While most of my waking life is engineered by my Type-A personality, my writing life is ostensibly nomadic. As much as I want to create an outline and various endings, I always find myself wrapped up in a particular character and taking joy in seeing where the character goes. For me, the writing is more heated and ephemeral and it’s that heat that keeps me curious and mobile. I am notorious for writing multiple drafts of a novel because certain plot lines didn’t work or the ending fell flat or some characters needed to be excised or I just realized I needed something in the middle of the book although I’m not quite sure what that something is. In my second book, Follow Me Into the Dark, I didn’t develop the principle plot twist until my third substantial rewrite.

Now that I’ve sent you into a panic, know that I’ve shifted my process to be more of fusion between the micro and macro. I no longer walk into the complete unknown. Here’s how I do it:

  1. Decide if you can live with your character/idea for 200+ pages: Over the years, I’ve read articles, books, and news reports and I’ve felt the spark. Maybe I should write about dissociative fugue states! Maybe I should retell Jonestown from Jim Jones’s wife’s point-of-view! The sparks are the equivalent of standing in the supermarket checkout line and padding your cart with issues of US Weekly and Snickers bars. The ideas offer instant gratification but nothing sustaining over the long haul. Now, I road test each idea for a couple of weeks. Am I up for the research? Who are my principle characters? Do they fascinate me enough for 200 pages plus rewrites? Even if I don’t know the plot just yet (I almost never do), could I sketch out a vague idea of where the story could go? What are my three acts? I tend to map out the general idea for the book and I spend a little more time on the characters. If I’m bored after 2–3 weeks, odds are I’ll be bored after a few months.
  2. Start sketching a loose character/plot outline: Okay, if I don’t hate the plot or the people, I compose real character sketches. As you can probably tell, I’m allergic to the word outline because outline used to mean shackles and commitment, but now I realize it’s a tool that reduces the number of rewrites. I keep the plot sketch loose — it’s merely directional. Since I’m physically unable to write a book linearly (trust me, I’ve tried), I spend a little more time on the structure. Will these be alternating chapters that are character-lead or is time the primary driver of the story? I often find that drivers tend to be plot, place, time, or character-based and that helps me navigate the structure. I spend more time on timelines than plotlines, if you could believe it. Mostly, I spend time with the characters. I visualize them as real people. I hear them talking (not literally, you know what I mean). I hear their way of talk. What’s their vernacular, lexicon, speech patterns, vocabulary (is there a vocabulary I have to learn?)? Where do they live and is their geography pertinent to them as a character? Who are they as people? What do they like? Who do they trust? I love writing broken people and exploring how they navigate their life so, for me, context is key. What’s their history? Do I need research for their history? For example, my lead character in my second book was a sociopath — Ted Bundy with a whisk, if you will — so I had to do a lot of research on sociopathic behavior. As you can see, I commit to my characters because the more real they are to me, the stakes are higher and their actions and nuance are easier to map out. Character always leads me to plot.
  3. Start where it feels natural: I’ve NEVER started a book by writing the first line — that’s entirely too loaded and too much pressure. I pick the easiest point of entry — a scene — and I often start books in the middle. Scenes are excellent because they afford you velocity. Things are happening, people are talking. For me, nothing happens until something moves. If I can’t see the periphery or the details of the scene, I’ll start with straight dialogue and fill in narrative later. All the matters to me are movement.
  4. Know your writing will be garbage in the first few drafts: Even the most prolific authors (okay, maybe Nabokov with his notecards is the exception) have garbage first-drafts. Jhumpa Lahiri has talked extensively about her process, which includes multiple messy drafts. No one’s reading your first draft. No one expects you to have a polished draft. The point here is getting to the first draft by any means necessary. If that means creating 50 pages of exposition that you sense you might have to toss later, awesome. That means you know your characters more, the plot has become clearer, and more importantly, you start to figure out where the characters and story can’t go. Polish isn’t the point — movement is. Get the story down, the characters talking and later on, you can fuss off the carpeting and the drapes. That’s what editing is for — writing is about getting a story on paper — word by word, brick by brick.
  5. Assess each chapter: I didn’t do this practice until recently, to be candid, but it’s extraordinarily useful. I used to just write and write, and although I still do that to a certain extent, I do get a little more reflective after the draft I’ve written. I have a whiteboard (which used to be an excel spreadsheet) where I jotted down the pertinent details of every chapter. Where did the plot go? What happened to the characters? What do I feel is missing (this is more about your gut)? Where there any revelations? Places I didn’t expect to go? Having this board up while I write helps because I glance at it every so often to remind myself of where I am and where I could potentially go. It also serves as a working roadmap, providing guidance so I don’t veer too off course.
  6. Fill the non-writing spaces: Sometimes the words just don’t come. I’ve read the countless articles and books that tell you to write something, anything, and I’m here to tell you that’s nonsense. I don’t have three hours in the morning to waste on writing for the sake of writing. Instead, I can do research. I can meditate on the characters. Brainstorm plot points. Get specific on elements of the character, place, and story that are not yet known to me. Remember, even if you’re not writing, you’re writing.
  7. Make a writing plan each month: Here’s the thing. I’ve gone MONTHS without writing. From 2009–2013 I didn’t write at all. I don’t make a formal plan until I feel I have enough to go on. If steps 1–2 aren’t in play, I can’t waste time dreaming about the book. For me to prioritize the book in my life, it has to be real to me, which means I need a foundation. After I explored the idea of the story, my commitment to it, character and plot sketches, then I map out a list dump. All the preliminary things I need to do to get started, and then I schedule the tasks into 3– 5-hour buckets each week. More, if I’m lucky. I break down those buckets into 2-hour sprints and focus on one task of the book.

For example, the list for my second novel started with:

a. Research on sociopathic behavior and serial killers. Subtask: find 2–3 good books and 10 articles relevant to my research. Read them.

b. Narrow down the serial killer that most resembles my character and learn as much as I can about that person. Subtask: Find audio, psychological assessments, documentaries, etc. I chose Ted Bundy as a model and I immersed myself, for better or worse, in all that was Bundy. My character mimicked much of his modus operandi down to his education and way of talk. I mapped out which traits I wanted to home in on that fascinated me and were relevant to my character. What started as general research became a bulleted list of aspects of Bundy that could inspire my character.

c. Map out general plot, structure, and character outlines. Subtasks included: complete composites of each character (this is very much like the customer segmentation work I do in marketing, with less data), determine geography, timeline, and structure and doing so opened up additional research (e.g. how people spoke in the 1950s/1960s, Nevada, California)

Notice, I haven’t written a word yet. And that’s OKAY.

d. Write out, in paragraphs, scene summaries from which I’d ideally like to develop.

e. Develop a scene.

I make a monthly plan and modulate during the week. If the time I set aside on Thursday to write the scene and it doesn’t happen, I’ll swap that task for another one on my list so at least SOMETHING gets done; I’m moving the book forward.

Rinse, lather, repeat.

You make time for the things that matter to you most — your family, career, health and wellness, societal good works, travel. If writing a book means something to you (and it can’t be the glory of having a six-figure advance from Knopf, because that’s fleeting and wholly unsatisfying), define what that is for yourself. Do it privately and be honest.

We’re all motivated by emotional desire. Every book I’ve written has a larger purpose — a message I wanted to convey or a way in which I see the world that could be useful or helpful for others.

In my second book, I wanted to talk about the ways in which women betray one another and society’s misconceptions of mental illness and the danger of gender stereotypes. I wanted to talk about the effects of intergenerational abuse and how the ones we love can wound us the most. I printed out my “why” and hung it up in my office. It reminded me of my larger purpose, which kept me motivated even through the third and fourth drafts. Even on the days when I thought, when is this book going to fucking end?

Edwidge Danticat recognized writing’s higher purpose: “Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously. … [Write] knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them.”

Ask yourself, what do I want to say?