How (not) to write your first book


Over the last ten days a lot of people have asked me how it feels to have finished my book and each time I pull a face and say: scary. The truth is it feels awful to have finished my book because i can no longer indulge my fantasies of what it will be like when it’s written. The deed is now done! And I’ve had ten days to convince myself that I have, in fact, let myself down and written a load of crap.

I think it would be safe to assume that I am on a come-down. After channeling all my energy into the writing I’ve been feeling a bit lost. There’s so much I want to be getting on with, but i just feel so horribly un-anchored. I’m all adrift and the negative thoughts have been gathering around me, poking me in my sides and whispering in my ears.

This is not the first time I’ve had thoughts like this. During the months I was writing there were weekly sessions of me wondering what the hell i was doing — who’s going to want to read this shit? I’d think, as I retold a story or shared an insight. Who do you think you are to write a book, you faker?

The voices in my head are not always very kind.

Getting past the doubts was the first obstacle I had to overcome. At some point I had to give myself permission to actually write the thing, to suspend my disbelief for long enough to get the words down. There were afternoons when i probably wrote entire paragraphs with my eyes shut, lest i immediately delete all the words on the screen. Some chapters flowed out whole, a breeze to write; others were so dry and unformed, every single word was like pulling teeth, an absolute agony. It didn’t help that so much of the book covers such emotional ground for me.


I discovered that it is physically impossible to write anything worth reading during the days leading up to your period (the actual day of your period it’s best to stay in bed). On those days my brain was not functioning at all, and I found that blankness terrifying — it was as if someone had removed my hard drive and my head was completely empty. This feeling returned again and again, as I wrote myself into corners and couldn’t find a way out.

On the days when I thought it was game over, that I was never going to have another original thought in my head, I retreated into the visual — Pinterest was a life saver, as was Instagram. Photography has always been my friend, and when the words were missing, images helped to get my brain moving in different directions.

I learned that it’s essential to let yourself write the shitty first draft, as Anne Lamott calls it — people, this was SO HARD. When I write I tend to edit as i go, circling back into my writing again and again, inching forward slowly. But there were times when I had to let that go and just get the words down, when I needed something in front of me to be able to edit — you can’t edit a blank page.

When I was working as a journalist I was often commissioned to write articles of about 2,000 – 3,000 words max; lately I write 500 word posts. Some days all i type are 140 character tweets. So to be faced with a 50,000 word book to write (which isn’t even that long in book terms — most novels are 80,000+ words) was daunting. In theory I knew I could do it; in practice I discovered you need a huge amount of stamina to complete such a prolonged stretch of writing — mentally and physically; in the last months I was taking anti-inflammatories to ease the RSI in my hands and wrists. I had days when I loathed the writing process, when i wanted to email my editor and give her the advance back. But there were other days when the words danced to the right tune, and i had moments of true inspiration that reassured me I was on the right track. I lived for those moments.

The biggest lesson of all was also the most obvious: You need to allow yourself enough time to write a book. I mean, how obvious is that? But it had to be learned in real time, not just in theory. My publisher gave me more than enough time to complete this project, but it took me months to find my way into the writing. You know how a dog will shuffle around looking for the best position before flopping down on the floor to sleep? I shuffled around for months, making notes, trying to work out the book’s structure, but putting off the actual sustained writing practice out of fear and intimidation — there was always other work I had to do. I was right to map out the chapters as carefully as I did, but I now know most of that was me stalling — what i should have done was just flop down on the floor and start where I was. You always dream of the day you’ll have the luxury of time to write your magnum opus, as you sharpen your quill and look out across the moors for inspiration…

It does not happen like that.

What actually happens is you shit your pants for five solid months as you scramble to find a bunch of words that don’t make you throw up while you obsessively check your Google Reader and Twitter, convinced everyone else in the world is more accomplished and better than you.

…or maybe that was just me.

Whatever it was, I’m sharing all of these thoughts so i have something to refer back to when i begin the next one. Because, just like mamas forget the agony of childbirth and do it all again, I absolutely will do, now I know what to do… and what not to do.

Posted on 11-04-2011
58 responses
  1. Julie Daley

    gawd, i love you woman.

  2. Sara Blackthorne

    This is beautiful. Thank you from someone who has been slowly writing a book for the last seven years. Perhaps, with these tips as encouragement and guidance, I will finally buckle down and write it out. xoxo

    you and me both, Sara. that’s why i loved this post so much. it is exactly where i am and it feels good to know how normal i am. ;-)

  3. EMC

    Hey Susannah, congrats! Can I ask what the book is about? I seem to have missed that even though I follow your blog.
    *I* just received the anthology I ‘managing edited’ today and am over the moon also. It’s a good feeling isn’t it? Makes all the hard work worth it. Now onto the launch party!

    totally a good feeling :) there’s a bit of info in this post: http://www.susannahconway.com/2010/05/a-very-special-announcement/

    :)

    EMC

    Oh, wow, I’ll definitely be getting that!

  4. Tara Bradford

    The important thing is that you did it! And that’s an accomplishment to celebrate. Well done, you!

  5. chris zydel

    Oh my goodness, Susannah… THANK YOU so much for the raw authentic honesty of this post.

    I cried while reading it.

    The picture you paint is not a pretty one but it’s just so real… and it’s the part of the creative process that no one wants to hear about. But soooo essential if you want to birth a creative baby into the world!!

    And I highly doubt that you are the only one out there shitting your pants and throwing up as you continued to diligently and devotedly plug away at this massively ambitious project (-:

    Can’t WAIT to see it. No matter what your inner critic says I’m SURE it’s going to be fabulous!!

  6. suzanne

    If your book is as engaging to read as the post above…your golden : )

    Congratulations.

  7. Faith

    I SO love this post! I can relate in a very small way – when I’m writing my classes I procrastinate and plan the same as you described. Thanks so much for your honesty as you go through this process. Can’t wait to see the finished product!

  8. Melissa Dinwiddie

    It is SO not just you! Ha!
    Thanks for sharing this. Although I haven’t written a book (yet), what you wrote could practically have been copied from my journals.
    I’m working on quieting those dang voices, but they’re not very obedient!
    Congrats on getting the book done and out there. You’re an inspiration.

  9. jesse

    You eloquently described everything I’ve been feeling in the last few months.

    If one person reads it, other than my aunt and best friend, I’ll be amazed.

    You aren’t alone.

    Congrats on finishing!

  10. Kara-Leah

    Oh I loved this. Thank you! It’s so liberating and illuminating to get to see the inside of another writer’s process. It makes my heart swell as I contemplate when I will finally sit down and write the only thing I haven’t yet – a book.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  11. Traci

    Congratulations on the big finish!!

    You are so not alone. When I can’t bear the ugly sight of my own words but still (oddly) feel the need to get them out, I tape a pretty picture over my computer monitor while I write. It helps sometimes. And it gets that pesky editor in me to shut the hell up while the writer in me is at work. Just a tidbit…for next time!

  12. Amy Oscar

    Yup and ditto. Finished my book about a month before you. Been adrift ever since – adrift and also, anxious. It’s just starting to ebb. Getting offline and walking helps. And, thanks to you, I’ve discovered that photography helps. Now, when I go on one of my angel walks, I take my camera to capture all the signs and miracles I encounter. PS Congratulations. Though it may feel like you’ve fallen off a cliff, this is a spectacular accomplishment. And I am absolutely certain your book is just as it was meant to be. :)

  13. Christianne

    Congratulations to you, Susannah. I love how honestly you have painted the journey for us along the way, and now with this post to top it off.

    Your images in this post are truly beautiful. They make my heart take a pause and breathe.

    Can’t wait to read the book you’ve written, which I know will be beautiful and full of so much of your heart.

  14. rose

    reading above (as an outsider, who has never written a book) i can emphasize with this being an odd time, sort of floating between the doing and the final creation of your book. i think you need to take yourself off for a beautiful meal and say “congratulations” self and look forward to the next part of the journey.x

  15. Glad Doggett

    gorgeous. You are not alone. Creating is hard work. So much self doubt looms over our shoulders.

    Thanks for sharing

  16. Jen

    It’s not just you!! It’s me too! and thanks for letting me know I’m not alone. My good friend got pregnant right about the time I started writing my first novel. I figured, if she could grow a baby in 9 months, I could certainly grow a novel! Well 10 months later, she has a beautiful daughter and I have….82,000 words of….my shitty first draft. But that’s okay…because if I hadn’t drawn those words out of the ether, I would have nothing to edit now!

    Congratulations on your huge accomplishment, and remember that it’s probably just “postpartum” depression and it will go away in time for you to admire the wonderful thing you produced.

    82,000 words! that’s awesome!! and you are SO right – i have a bit of post-partum depression… that is SO what it is :)

  17. Christine (spiral bound)

    I love this post. All of my favourite writers say this about writing, at least in the beginning and I never tire of hearing it because it gives me HOPE, damn it. If someone whose work I so admire has to trudge through all this stuff to get to the finished product then it is totally normal that I do too. Thank you for showing us your map through the stuff. I am really looking forward to reading your book, I know it’s going to be lovely.

  18. Shelley

    Wow. You just made me feel a whole lot less alone. It’s good to know I’m not the only one who goes through this. Thank you.

    I doubt you have the ability to fail at this, by the way :)

  19. Marjory

    Wow. Such deep work Susannah. Bless you

  20. Fabeku

    Thank you.

    For the honesty. And the rawness. And the realness.

    This stuff gets romanticized all the time. And when it doesn’t shake out that way – which it never does – people are left wondering where they failed.

    We need more truth around this stuff. And you’ve served up a gorgeous nugget.

    Big congrats + big respect.

  21. Catherine Denton

    Brilliant. I laughed. I sombered. I identified to a teensy degree what it must’ve been like. Thank you for this glimpse into your journey. I’m thrilled you pushed through and I can’t wait to see your new little darling.
    My Blog

  22. bella

    You are amazing ~ navigating your way through the book writing the only way you knew how ~ and you did it!! You are on the other side of the writing part with tools for life under your belt.
    I think you need a vacation now. Come to NYC!!
    xo

  23. jane/faerian

    Look Susannah, i know you don’t know me but i feel so proud of you! I sat here at my laptop and clapped after reading this…. i honour your grace and wisdom and vulnerability and true courage and think the world is a better place because you are in it… periods and all x

  24. Graciel

    Your full-frontal honesty is one of the many things I adore about you. However it arrived, your book is going to be brilliant.

    xo

  25. Licia Berry

    Thank goodness I am not alone in facing this up/down, push/pull, sane/insane tango (or is it a salsa?) that goes on in my head every day!

  26. Melissa Jaine

    All I can say right now is …
    you. are. awesome.
    :) x

  27. boo

    You completed it!! That’s an amazing sign of commitment and dedication!! We all know it will be great!!

  28. Rhianne

    you are amazing!! I seriously can not wait for your book :) and these photos are beautiful… and you are amazing!

  29. Clare

    Beautiful, honest, open, raw, lovely.

  30. Tina

    Don’t be too hard on yourself. When the negative voices in your head begin speaking tell them to put another record on. I am absolutely convinced the book will be read. And this blog post is good marketing in itself ;-) It lets you know there is a real woman behind the words in the book.

  31. Joolz Benner

    :)

  32. Sylvia

    I am soooo waaaaaiting to read this book :***

  33. Amisha

    :-)! But you made it through it all and brought that ship home!

  34. sandie

    I love your honesty and authenticity, I can understand your range of doubts & emotions. That’s natural after all what you have given to your writing. You are an inspiration. Can’t wait for the book to be published. A huge Well Done!!!!

  35. fiona

    Your bravery and courage takes my breath away. I want to be like you when I grow up.

    that just made me smile :) x

  36. echo

    Wow, just….wow. This really spoke to my heart. I have so much self-doubt that weighs me down. But it’s so nice to see that self-doubt doesn’t have to be real, that one can accomplish something despite those voices in our heads telling us to forget it, that we’re not good enough. You’re one of those people who appear on my Google Reader and make me feel like I’ll never measure up. This isn’t an accusation or anything, but it made me smile that you have your hang-ups, too, that we’re all just human. :)

    P.S. Congratulations on finishing!! :)

    oh honey, i’m so human, it’s not funny :-D i’m a walking hang-up! xxx

  37. Hannah Nunn

    I so loved reading this post. I’m writing a book too with only 6 months until my deadline and only just finding my flow. I love your analogy of the dog (or cats in our case) turning round and round in their basket before settling down. Yes thats so right. I love your honesty. You have inspired me! Can’t wait to see your book!

  38. Cindy

    I’ve been trying to communicate a certain idea about writing and been failing. No one seemed to understand what I was saying, and then you write this sentence:

    “The truth is it feels awful to have finished my book because i can no longer indulge my fantasies of what it will be like when it’s written.”

    So simply put. Thank you.

  39. Charlane Killough Griffith

    lovely magnolias and thoughts…and the letting go of the perfection at first seems very hard. i’m so very excited for you

  40. Nicole | Blue Bicicletta

    oh, thank you for this! You are wonderfully honest and real {as usual}. Congrats for making it through and telling us the true tale about it!

  41. Terri

    Susannah – thanks for this great post capturing what a long term writing process is really like. It’s so easy to romanticise it all but appreciate your expose of the reality on a day to day basis over the long term. Love the image of the dog shuffling and circling – it’s one that will stay with me as I try to settle enough to begin my work :)

  42. Melissa Allam

    I can’t wait to read your book. Just reading your post here was entertaining. I know what you mean about those negative voices. I’ve had my fair share, which sometimes lead to fear of moving in the direction one might desire to go. Good for you for keeping on.

  43. Roxanne Galpin

    Beautiful. And Honest. I have begun writing my book, and it feels like giving birth. I still feel strange when I tell people I am writing a book, like, maybe it sounds pretentious?

    Anyway, the magnolias are in bloom here, too. I love them so much …

    xo

  44. kat

    that was a fascinating post of what you went through in writing your book…thanks for sharing it! I think when we step out of our comfort zone that’s when our judge really comes in and messes with our heads..i’m sure your book will be a huge success!!! and i’m excited to read it!

  45. Ronna

    Don’t know how I missed this…until now. Maybe because “until now” was when I needed it most.

    Beautiful. And full of truth. Thank you.

  46. Alicia

    Oh wow, I am working on my dissertation right now for my PhD, and you just described exactly how I feel right now! Good to know that someone made it out of the writing process alive–and that I am not the only one out there with those “voices in my head”. Cannot wait to read your book my dear.

  47. Lucy @ dreamingaloudnet

    Just discovered you via Bohemian Twilight. I hang out over at Dreaming Aloud, do stop by for creativity, inspiration, mindfulness and the occasional laugh!

    Ha! You speak my mind. I am so there right now – have got 60,000 words down, have sent off proposals to publishers. And every day I beat myself with a stick of self doubt. So well articulated! This was my take on the topic of being a writer virgin! http://dreamingaloudnet.blogspot.com/2011/06/book-that-cannot-be-read.html

  48. Marian Jeanne Stone

    so obviously, I am coming in to this a bit late, but am dying to know ….. what is the name of your book so that i can get it and read it. Am so enjoying your posts and cant wait for the Unraveling course to begin in only???? 2 weeks. See that you are so authentic, and that is such a scary gift to give of yourself. Know I am going to so much enjoy the course. Sorry that you had problems getting in to the US recently for the class that you were going to teach. Must have just been the wrong timing, and maybe someone was just trying to give you a little rest from all that you are accomplishing. Today, I got my lovely packet of postcards and love all of them. They are lovely. Would like to know the story of these. Sure there must be a post on this somewhere, and will keep listening. What an awesome journey you have had in the past few years…. and what amazing growth. Love to you, and thank you so much for the lovely mail I got today. Jeanne from Texas

  49. Amanda Chea

    I’m just now reading this and I have to say that this post was fan-f*@king-tastic.

    Oh and I pre-ordered your book the other day. It’s gonna be good. I just know it.

  50. dawn

    as sara mentioned, i too have had a book ‘in progress’ for 7 years…and totally resinate with your comments of ‘notes & structure and putting off the real writing’…i have a goal to finish my book this year and having read your post gives me the nudge to see it through…thanks!

  51. Amanda

    How uncanny this is! As I read, it is almost a mirror of exactly how my mind is working at present!

    At least the laughing is shared!

  52. Pam Belding

    This was the most realistic, honest and whole-hearted post about writing a book I’ve ever read. I’ve just finished writing my first book as well, now I’m working on self-publishing. I’ve never been more scared/excited in my life. I wish you the very best with your book tour! You’re my s-hero!!! xoxo

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