Today is a day I have been daydreaming about since I was six years old and realized that it would not be prudent for me to pursue a career as a background singer for Raffi, and would therefore have to become a writer. I figured my first book would be a novel about beautiful vixens who got into hijinx, but Francesca Lia Block already wrote that book, so I had to shift gears abruptly. The book I have ultimately published IS about beautiful vixens who get into hijinx — but the vixens are my real-life friends and my real-life self, and the hijinx are related to dating.
Since I announced that I wrote a book that would be published (read: SHAMELESSLY BRAGGED), there are people who have been curious about how one does such a thing. So here are the steps I recommend taking. I will present them here out of order because it makes narrative sense to me. Today, because I am celebrating, I am going to take all the literary liberties I wish.
Step 3: Meet Jill Riddell.
When I started graduate school, I chose Jill as an advisor because, according to the internet, she had invented a mushroom. At least, that’s how I interpreted what Jill had done. In fact, she was given naming rights over a mushroom after working hundreds of tedious hours to prove that a certain mushroom was, indeed, a previously undiscovered mushroom. This is the kind of woman Jill Riddell is. If you ever have the chance to work with someone who doesn’t outwardly tire over the minutiae of mushroom identification, take it.
The first time I sat down and met with Jill, we had the following conversation.
Jill: What kind of writing do you want to do while you are here?
Sophie: Well, I have this belief that I have to finish a piece of writing immediately. If I don’t finish it in one sitting, it is destined to never be written. So I guess I can’t write anything that’s particularly long.
Sophie: I know this sounds crazy, but this belief has served me.
Jill: So it sounds like you should write a book.
Sophie: I feel like you did not hear the thing I just said.
Jill: Yeah, but you’re in graduate school for two years! You can experiment! You can do what feels uncomfortable.
Jill: Imagine you are in a boat. You are the kind of person who has done a great job, so far, at parking your boat on the shore and gathering shells and things that wash up at your feet. I am inviting you to take that boat out into the middle of the water, in a direction where you can’t even see the horizon. Take it out there, where you feel unsafe, and trust that you might find something even better while wandering without an obvious path under the stars.
And so the next week I brought in three ideas for books. I was most adamant about writing a book on polyamory. Jill said, “It seems like you’re afraid someone will write this book before you get a chance to do it, and you want to beat that invisible person to the punch.” Exactly, Jill.
Over the next two years, Jill gave me all the advice I could ever need or want about writing a book, and now I will pass it on to you.
- Never stop when you feel like it is time to stop. Stop ONLY when you are excited to keep going. Then write yourself a note about how excited you are to write the next thing, and remind yourself what that thing is going to be.
- Don’t re-read your writing while it is in the draft stage. Editing is for later.
- No need to start at the beginning! Whatever part of the book you’re excited to write, write that part.
- A sad fact is that when you are 100% done with the book you thought you were going to write, 75% of that book will need to be cut and completely re-written. Don’t worry about that; think of it as a gift. Nothing here has to be good. It’s foundation.
- Employ a reader whose only job is to say, “I like this part and this part and this part.” A good way to do this is to find another writer who needs a reader. The reader cannot make edits until the book is done.
- Create small goals. A thousand words a day; whatever. If you, too, are a finish-it-in-one-sitting person, trick your brain into thinking your small goal is a single-sitting situation.
- Print everything out. It makes editing and rearranging easier.
Step 1: Move away.
I moved to Chicago to be a writer. I could have been a writer in New Orleans, but I was a TEACHER in New Orleans. No matter how much I wanted to write, I couldn’t shake the teacher-first thing. It was the only real “job” for which I was qualified. I decided to go to graduate school because I needed to be a writer first for a year or two. I had to re-calibrate.
I am a year out of my graduate program, and last year I was a teacher again. But when I went to do my taxes, one thing was clear: I was a writer first. I made the bulk of my income writing. I was a teacher too, but I taught about writing.
Every year that I was not a writer in New Orleans, I knew I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do. I also felt that if I ever really tried, I would fail. And so I moved to a place where no one could laugh at my failure, because no one would really know me.
Is it worth going tens of thousands of dollars into debt so that you can tell people that you are a writer? For me, DEFINITELY. For most people? No! A lot of great writers will tell you that graduate school for writing is a total waste of time. These people know what they are talking about.
Personally, I tried to be a writer for ten years, but I needed a change of scenery; a new identity. There are some things that are hard for some of us to do on our own. A lot of people take expensive yoga classes because they cannot do yoga on their own. Some people make child-having pacts. I needed a community to say, "Yes. This is what you are doing. I can back you up."
Step 2: Get an agent.
Mackenzie and I talked on the phone the same day I decided to move to Chicago. Someone at her agency had seen something I put in Jezebel, and they were interested in representing me. It seemed like it must be some sort of sham; snake oil for gullible saps like me who needed to move to Chicago before declaring themselves writers. But I did a little research and found that agents are for people who aren’t good at selling their own work. I had published some things, but I’d never been paid more than $200 — and that felt like a TON of money. (It is not a ton of money, btw.) Also, I just really liked Mackenzie. I decided to let her snake oil me.
Mackenzie would go on to be one of the most sought-after, successful nonfiction agents in all of New York. That was luck on my part. Mostly, all of this was pure luck.
Except: Mackenzie found me because I was publishing. Here is how I was publishing: I blogged every day or so. I sent out a newsletter to sixteen whole people. I submitted dumb essays to tiny tiny literary magazines and start-up women’s websites. I had a piece in Jezebel because I’d been submitting things to the Hairpin for a while, and the Hairpin’s editor moved on up; I had an in. You have to keep trying and trying and trying. And failing, ninety-five percent of the time. Maybe get a “‘failure’ is just another word for ‘first attempt’” sticker to put by your desk or something. There’s no way they don’t sell those on Etsy.
Step 4: Write the book.
I wrote the book. The first draft was almost all long-winded stories about my ex-boyfriends and how in love with them I had been. So, in other words, I wrote a book about being a cis, hetero-seeming, white woman in her twenties dating other cis, hetero-seeming, white people. I wrote 100 percent of a shitty book, and less than 25 percent of the shitty book was published. But I wrote it. Writing it made it easier to chop it up and throw it away. They call this “killing your darlings,” but I didn’t find the process so dramatic. It was more like “killing your bad stories about the stupid men who wronged you.”
Step 5: Write the book proposal.
I wrote the proposal for “Many Love” in a single sitting at an upscale coffee shop in the no-longer-cool part of Portland, Oregon. I drank exactly one cup of coffee and sat there for six and a half hours. The coffee shop guy was hot in a tattoos-and-is-in-a-band kind of way, and I kept trying to make it obvious that I was doing this very cool book-proposal-writing thing. He openly didn’t care.
You can submit book proposals for nonfiction books that aren’t all the way done. You just have to have a chapter. I submitted a chapter about being in high school, talking about pubic hair, and dating Ben Stevens. That chapter, incidentally, is the only one from the first draft that made it to press.
Other things you put in a book proposal: A hopeful list of all the famous people you tangentially know who might, in some fantasy universe, rep your book; a list of other books that you feel arrogant and imposter-syndrome-y about comparing your own hypothetical book to; a fleshed-out bio of yourself where you write “trained intensely under” rather than “took a three-hour class from once”; a list of the demographics of the people who will be beating down the door to buy your book someday. Under this category I wrote, “Women in their twenties who are just fucking sick of everything bad.” My agent changed that part.
Step 7: Rewrite the book.
This was very hard and it involved a LOT of crying. Also, I gained twenty pounds.
Step 6: Sell the book.
Actually, ask Mackenzie to sell the book. It’s not something that I was ever going to be capable of doing on my own. Which, by the way, means anyone who sells their own book — and these people are out there — are earth gods and should be given a seat of power in the government.
Most people did not want to buy the book, and the reason they gave was that polyamory is just a little too edgy for the world today. I have heard this a lot since then, and I hope that it isn’t true for much longer. My love life is so rich and fully and happy and healthy. There is evidence that I, as a happy polyamorist, am not alone. Why wouldn’t we — an increasingly secular society — just want each other to be happy in love?
Step 8: The publishing house where you initially sold the book isn’t doing so great. The book, which you have RECENTLY RE-WRITTEN, gets pulled. Cry. Assume nothing good will ever happen ever again. Assume that the book will never see the light of day. Assume you will have to self-publish the book as a Kindle-only edition and that you’ll have to personally fund a sad tour where exactly four people will show up at each reading, and even then they’re only showing up to feel sorry for you.
Step 9: Sell the book again, to a new publisher. Lose your mind.
Because the publisher is the same publisher that published “Hyperbole and a Half”! Maybe your favorite book ever! And definitely the main book you referenced in Step 5, when you were writing the book proposal.
Step 10: Rewrite the book.
Less hard the second time, although the 20 pounds from before stayed put.
Steps 11-15: Have lots of phone calls with respectable New York people who are VERY good at their book-related jobs. Design lots of shitty covers. Receive a photo of the final mock-up cover while visiting your mom in Oregon and having some vegan pasta at the Museum of Science and Industry. Have that feeling of, “Oh my god. This is a real book. Oh my GOD. It is going to come out someday! Someday I’ll get a whole box of these in the mail!” Imagine getting a whole box of them in the mail and be too excited to finish the pasta.
Step 16: Receive a whole box of the book in the mail.
There is that feeling of holding a book you’ve written in your hands that can’t be compared to anything else. And yet, I will try.
- It is like holding a very heavy paperweight that has been syringe-filled with your actual memories.
- It is like lifting a kitten from a box that you somehow helped in birthing.
- It is like asking a company in Iceland to build a dollhouse to resemble the drawings of dream houses you made as a child and then finally seeing and holding the dollhouse IRL.
Step 17: Read the book. Send in pages of edits.
Steps 18-19: Repeat Step 17 two more times.
Step 20: Receive three whole boxes of the book in the mail.
These were the final copies of the book — the copies in step 16 are actually what are called galleys, and they’re printed relatively cheaply to be sent to reviewers and moderately famous friends who might be bothered to write blurbs. I asked a lot of famous people to write blurbs who did not ever write me back, btw.
But the people who DID write blurbs are some of my literal life heroes, and I couldn’t feel luckier to know that they read my book in the first place. I have all the blurbs printed out and taped to my wall. It is amazing how hard it is to hear praise, isn’t it? There the praise is — it’s the only thing you’ve ever wanted in your whole life — and you think it has to be some kind of trick. Surely no one really thinks that highly of you; and if they do, they must have missed something. Because you are a loser; a liar; a cheat. That’s why I printed out the blurbs: even if I can’t believe them, I can intend to believe them. And maybe someday I’ll read them and suddenly think, “Huh! That nice thing about me is true.”
Step 21: Cry. Just… cry forever.
When I was six and decided I couldn’t be a back-up singer for Raffi (mostly because I had an acute understanding that it was something I’d age out of fairly quickly), I imagined what it would be like to see my name on the cover of a book. And I imagined what it would be like, later, for my book to be on a bookshelf in the same store that also sold books by Roxane Gay or Roald Dahl. So rarely does such a thing come to fruition.
And fuck it: I feel proud.