Letters from a Young Whatever #7: How to Write Your First Book in 33 Easy Steps
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
1. After you move back home to work on your novel, slump into a depression. Feel like nothing really matters. Open up MS Word a lot but don’t type much. Make a video for one of the two stories you wrote the year after grad school, which feels silly because stories aren’t about videos.
2. Go to your new psychiatrist. Tell him you feel depressed. That isn’t normal, he says. If your medication was working properly, you would only feel depressed when something depressing was going on in your life. He wants to up your medication.
3. Decide fuck that, you’d rather be mildly unstable than incredibly doped-up on psych meds.
4. Your self-loathing from moving home to write a novel but not actually writing a novel kicks in.
You start writing. You don’t really feel like you know what you’re doing, but that’s okay because nobody knows what they’re doing when they begin a novel.
5. At some point, late at night, when you are supposed to be working on the novel but are instead just obsessively ruminating about your life, look back at the past year or so and realize you have been cycling between periods of low-grade depression and low-grade mania. You had previously blamed your mental instability on the fact that you’d recently gotten sober and sometimes it takes a while to adjust to living life not-fucked-up.
6. Go back to the psychiatrist. Tell him you’d like to try new medication.
7. Continue working on the novel. It isn’t an enjoyable experience. The only joy you get from it, really, is watching the word count go up in the little sidebar of MS Word. The sentences aren’t coming out right; they aren’t in your “voice.” The dialogue feels canned, like some bad YA novel.
Tell yourself this is okay: it’ll all get fixed in the revision process. A part of you knows this can’t get fixed in any revision process.
Wonder if it is possible to finish the book by next June, which is the deadline you’d given yourself.
8. It’s January now. You’ve been off and on a lot of psychiatric medications in the past few months. Some of them were pretty terrible. You get put on an anti-psychotic that is brand new to the market. After only one day, you feel great. You feel happy. You are full of energy. You feel — normal.
9. After two days, start wondering if maybe you are feeling too good (which is strange because anti-psychotics are supposed to bring you “down”). It’s hard to say. It’s not like you have much of a reference for what “normal” feels like, anyway, which is something that happens when you have a bad case of the mental illness, and do a lot of drugs and drink a lot for many years and then get sober.
10. On the fifth day, go to work. While there, decide your novel is shit and you should give it up. This makes you feel a little bit sad, but mostly it feels like a relief.
11. Later in the day, you realize you are indeed feeling way too good. You recognize this feeling. The last time you felt it was in 2007, when you were off your medication. This is mania.
12. Go to a friend’s house after work that day. Start crying and telling her inappropriately deep thoughts about your life: how you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, how you want to do so much but there’s never any time, how the world is both so terrible and wonderful that you feel paralyzed and incapable of doing anything that means anything at all. At some point sob, “I don’t want to write a novel! I just want to write short stories.” (You actually don’t remember saying any of this; your friend tells you about it months later. It sounds exactly like the things the bipolar girl in SLC Punk says. How embarrassing.)
13. After an hour at your friend’s, realize you’re quickly slipping into a very bad mental state. Your mother picks you up to take you to the emergency room. On the way, start feeling like you are having a very bad acid trip. When you walk into the emergency room, the women at the front look very alarmed. Even though you’re crazy, it still alarms you that you made the women who sit at the front desk of the ER look alarmed.
14. Your mother brings your laptop in from the car. Type up a ten-page, single-spaced Word document while you are in the ER. The document is barely decipherable, but the main theme is THIS IS WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE BIPOLAR IN 2013.
15. Get sedated and leave the ER. Go to an evaluation at the mental hospital the next day. Get admitted to the outpatient program. Ban yourself from typing on a laptop until you are better, because you recognize that if you think everything you write is genius, it is actually the mania and not the truth. Fill up an old journal with notes for your bipolar book instead.
16. Get better. Get a new psychiatrist. Get a strange feeling that the mental and emotional struggles you’ve been dealing with your whole life are going to be mostly okay now. You can put the energy you used to put into just staying afloat into writing. Wonder if this is still just the mania talking.
17. Start on the bipolar book.
Realize the book is not going to come pouring out of you in a burst
, the way you thought it would when you were crazy. This bums you out, because you still wanted to have a book done by June.
18. Visit New York. Go to some readings. Get mad because several months ago you wrote a story that for once wasn’t about drugs and no one wanted to publish it and it seems like the only things people want to read about is drugs and sex. Decide to write a story about drugs and sex out of spite. The writing comes easy. Tell your friend, who may or may not be an editor at a literary magazine that you may or may not have worked for since you were in grad school, that you’re writing a story out of spite. She laughs and says, “You should do that. You should write a book of stories that correspond with some sort of emotion.”
19. Go home. Doubt yourself and your writing. In an attempt to encourage you, a friend says, “I know you have a lot of great books in you. At least two little books and one giant book.”
20. Think about that. A little book. A little book with corresponding emotions. Look at websites for the small presses you like. A lot of their releases are less than a hundred pages. Copy five stories you’ve previously published plus the one you wrote that isn’t about drugs into a Word document. Be surprised by the page count. You are going to write six more stories: there will be twelve in total.
21. Decide you are going to write this book however the fuck you want. Whatever comes naturally to you. Stop worrying that writing stories about drugs is derivative, and that you should be pushing yourself to write about something different. Decide you want to tell these stories your way, and this means the stories will have pictures. Decide you do want to make videos for the stories, that perhaps there was something in the idea you had last summer.
22. Find yourself working on the little book when you should be doing work for your paying job. Find yourself working on the little book when you should be sleeping, doing laundry, showering, eating, etc. Find yourself declining most social invitations in favor of sitting alone in front of your laptop. When you do go out, find yourself feeling partially removed, like one gear in your brain refuses to leave the dark world of your stories. Find yourself writing more than you’ve ever written in your life. Sometimes the stories you write turn out bad, so you discard them, but mostly the stories feel right. They all stem from terrible memories from terrible times in your past. They are often painful to write, but they also feel honest and true.
Discover the things that help you write are not the same as the things you’ve heard help people write.
You don’t write in silence, you don’t get up early in the morning, you don’t write at the same time each day. Instead, you do this:
a) Stay up most nights until it gets light out. Sleep all day.
b) Ingest massive amounts of caffeine. Smoke massive amounts of cigarettes.
c) Listen to angry music that is probably intended for angry men in their early twenties who are possibly vegan. (And also Kanye & Eminem.)
d) Think about: all the times you’ve felt like a failure, all the people you’re jealous of, all the people who gave you some indication that you couldn’t write (including those who innocently asked you if you’d be self-publishing your book), and especially the mean voice in your head that says you suck and can’t write and taking writing seriously is stupid and pointless and no one will ever read your writing anyway. Cram this all up into a tight little ball until it becomes fuel.
Writing this book doesn’t feel meditative, the way you heard that writing should feel. Writing this book feels like a fight. It feels like you are punching and beating things, and you are winning.
24. Work on the layout for the book. Work on the photos for the book. Work on the videos for the book. All this visual stuff is not distracting, like you were afraid it might be. All this visual stuff is satisfying, and makes the stories come together that much more clearly in your head.
25. Soon you have twelve stories. Go back and read the story that wasn’t about drugs, that no one would publish, that you thought was so good. Realize the reason no one would publish it is because it actually isn’t very good at all. Discard it. Write another story. This one hurts the most to write, and so it becomes your favorite.
26. Edit the shit out of the stories.
27. Late one night in June — or actually early one morning — finish editing the final story and realize the book is done. Feel confused about how you feel. Part of you is happy and proud. The other part of you is afraid. You wish there was some sort of socially-designated action that one was supposed to take when finishing a book, like stomping on a wine glass.
28. Send the book out to the few places and people you know that would be receptive to receiving such a thing. Your stomach feels twisty afterward.
29. Hear some things back. They’re positive things. Some of them are so positive that one day, while stuck in traffic, you start crying. You’ve turned all these ugly feelings and memories into something good, something that people relate and react to. Still, the twisty feeling in your stomach intensifies, and you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, afraid that maybe you’ve written a book that people seem to like, but one that will never be published.
30. The twisty thing doesn’t last long. Wake up one day to the e-mail you’ve been waiting for. Sometimes you dream about e-mails that don’t exist, and think this is maybe another dream e-mail. It’s not. The editor of a small press — one that puts out books you like, and is the press you thought might possibly be the best fit for your work — loves and wants to publish your book.
31. Receiving this email doesn’t feel the way you thought it would. Ask yourself if this is what you want. You’re not sure. Talk to some friends. They tell you it’s okay to take some time to think.
32. That night, get real quiet with yourself. Listen to the voice in your head, the non-mean one. E-mail the publisher. Tell him you’d like to see the contract. Feel really strange. In some ways, this has happened so fast. In some ways, it hasn’t happened quickly at all. It feels strange to have worked for something, and to have gotten what you wanted, when there’s a mean voice in your head that says you suck, that writing is a stupid thing to do, that you’re only destined to fail.
33. On the Fourth of July, sign the contract. Let everything sink in. The thoughts and feelings settle. You feel so nervous, but it’s a good nervous. You identify the word that references the good kind of nervous: you feel excited.
PREVIOUSLY: Letters 1–6 are here.