Writing a book? 5 ways not to go crazy

I gave a talk at the New Haven Public Library this evening…a talk that had been billed as “So You Want to Write a Book: Five Reassuring Things You Need to Know to Keep from Going Crazy.” (I have been told that I came up with that title myself. Clearly in a moment of insanity.) After all, what do I know about not going crazy while writing a book? I’m the least sane person I know when I’m writing a book, walking zombie-like through the house in my pajamas and talking to myself, eating Cheerios out of the box, bolting out of bed in the middle of the night because I suddenly realized something vital about chapter 2.

But there it was, in print, that I was going to explain how a person could write a book and not be crazy, and so, after taking some deep breaths, I thought of five things that actually do help me when I am writing a book, if I can find my way back to to remembering them.

If you are writing a book–and apparently lots of people are–maybe these things can help you, too. And if you want to add to the list, please feel free. We love comments here at Books New Haven!

1/ Write really badly at first. REALLY badly. Even really dreadfully badly. Don’t even invite your editing self into the room while you’re writing. Don’t think about how scared you are of words on paper, or how your 10th grade teacher must have been right when she said you couldn’t punctuate your way out of a simple declarative sentence. Forget the ex-friend who said you were the least creative person she knew. Write down everything without censoring.  Nobody will see this EVER, so let your mind spin. Play like you’ve never played before.

Are you going to read this later and be stunned that your prose has somehow magically turned wonderful on you? Well, no, probably not. But what will happen is that you will lose yourself in the art of creating something. And if you’re like most people, a little germ of an idea will creep in around page 4, and then you’ll think, “Hmmm, how did that get in here?” And you’ll be off, writing about the thing you didn’t even know was there. Believe me, you wouldn’t have gotten to that little germ if you’d sat there, stiffly, trying to summon up the final draft first. First drafts suck. They just do. Yours are no worse than anyone else’s.

2/ Do this every day. Every single day. Never mind that you already have a full, functioning life.  Lots of people have lives, and they do make it difficult sometimes for us to do the very things we love. But we have to. You need to carve some time out for the thing you love, or it won’t ever happen. It just won’t. Wake up earlier. Go to bed later. Write on your lunch hour. Stop watching television. (Mad Men will have to go on without you. You can watch it on Netflix once your book is done.)

When you write every day, some magic really does happen. Your subconscious mind figures out that this is something important, and it works on the book even when you’re washing dishes or waiting tables or painting ceilings. If you leave your book for when you have time, or when you’re feeling inspired, it won’t ever get done.

Besides, Malcolm Gladwell says that in order to get good at something, you have to do it for at least 10,000 hours. Do you have any idea how many hours that is? You have to get cracking. The first 9,999 are the hardest.

3/ Keep a pad of paper and a pen near you at all times. This is so you can write down the things you see–because once you are writing a book, things are going to start to happen all around you, things that may need to go into your book. I’m talking about the conversations you overhear in line at the bank, the smell of your car when you get into it on a hot day in the summer, the song that played on the radio on the way home from work and how it reminded you of that fraternity party when your friend got so drunk and left you on the lawn with the guitar player you then dated for three months.  (That friend and possibly the guitar player have something to do with your book, but you’ll never know what unless you write it down. Because you’ll forget.)

This goes for the middle of the night, too, by the way. Ideas are like tricksters; they love to pop up when they think you can’t do anything about them. Oh, but you can! Keep a pen on the nightstand, and scrawl (in the dark) any words that can help you remember, and you’ll thank yourself the next day. Your book will thank you, too.

4/ Once the inner creative genius in you has romped around and created a bad first draft, you need to revise it. Some people hate revision. Perhaps I’m in the minority when I say I love it. First drafts make me anxious–all those choices, all those blank pages, all those possibly wrong decisions. I love the point when there are words on the page, words that I can change and delete and add back again; characters that I can work with and reason with; a story line that I can fill up with emotions and actions and settings. Give me a second draft over a first draft any day. One thing to remember here–well, two things: You can most likely fix anything that’s bad. That’s the important thing. The second thing is to save the things you’re slashing and deleting. Put them in another folder, one which I call “Things That May Have to Come Back into This Book.” Mind you, I’ve never rescued anything out of that folder, but it makes me feel safe, just to have it. Because you never know.

5/ Find a critique partner. Start interviewing people for this position now, before you have a first draft. (It’s best if it is someone you’re not sleeping with.) The qualifications you want are: kind, honest, discerning, not scared of you, and reads books in your genre. Another helpful characteristic is that this person is willing to tell you when your book works as well as when it doesn’t work. It’s also good if, when you get terrifically, irrationally angry over these remarks and insist that you don’t want this friendship anymore, that this person doesn’t leave your life.

Believe me, you need someone who can steer you back to solid ground. Books go astray all the time, and if you have a brave, loving friend who can gently guide you back–you’re way ahead of the game.

Do you have any ways of keeping sane while writing? Any messages you’d like to direct to the outside world? We’d love to hear them!

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5 thoughts on “Writing a book? 5 ways not to go crazy

  1. Yep. You know you’re serious about being a writer if you’re willing to give up TV. For aspiring writers who work full-time, one trick is to set weekly goals. Yes, you should write daily, but if you work, one kid has an orthodontist appointment and the other has a Little League game, that day is probably toast but you can make up for it another day and still meet your goal for the week.

  2. Yep, you know you’re serious about writing when you give up TV and don’t even miss it!

    One trick for aspiring writers who work full-time: set weekly goals. Between work, kids, home and hubby, some days have no wiggle room. As long as I hit my goals for the week, I don’t stress over the occasional missed day.

  3. quick question who is the writer of this article? Because i wanted to use this article as a reference in my college paper if you could please help me out with that information it will be greatly appreciated

  4. So good. I’ve been writing my first novel and I go from loving it to hating it about 3,087 times a day. I’m glad I’m not the only one who has a hard time keeping sane. 🙂

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