Writing a book is a daunting task. Writing a first book seems especially so. Those attempting it may find themselves asking: Am I a good enough writer? How do I fill so many pages? If I do sell it, what if people don’t like it? And yet despite so many obstacles, books do get published, lots of books — over 2,000,000 worldwide in 2011 alone, by one estimate. Here, 21 successful writers share the stories of their first published books, complete with many false starts, debacles with agents and publishers, and advice they’d travel through time to give their younger selves.
When did you decide to write what became your first book? What were you doing for a living at the time?
Chuck Klosterman (first book Fargo Rock City): I got a job at the Akron Beacon Journal in Akron, Ohio, in 1998. That was the first time I was ever able to afford a home computer, so that was a big reason why I decided to start writing a book then. I also moved to a city where I didn’t know one person so I had no friends. That improves your likelihood of completing a book.
Heidi Julavits (first book The Mineral Palace): At the time I was waiting tables at a restaurant in Soho. It was a horrible place, but the money was, well, better than I probably make now per hour. “No suits after 10” was the rule. One night a Wall Street guy lunged across the velvet rope and bit off the nose of a bouncer who’d refused to let him in. I’m not kidding — he bit off the tip of the bouncer’s nose and spat it into the gutter! Luckily, the bouncer was able to get it reattached.
Meg Wolitzer (first book Sleepwalking): I sold my first book my senior year at college, at Brown. It was a pretty intense experience; I wrote between classes. I understood in some way how hard it would be once I got out into the non-college world to find time to write and I wanted to give myself a head start, I suppose, to partly treat college like an artists’ colony.
Lev Grossman (first book Warp): It was fall of 1992 and I was a year out of college. I was a temp so I was doing a lot of word processing for hiring, answering phones, occasional light industrial work at warehouses — not very glamorous stuff. I was living in a crap apartment in Allston, which is a crap neighborhood in Boston, and writing short stories that all got rejected. The reason I tried to write my first novel was I figured out that short stories were not actually for me. When I started writing a novel I thought, I’m not ready, because I’ve only written short stories and nobody wants them, but I also thought, For Christ’s sake, what am I going to do? I can’t keep on like this. I started writing the novel and I instantly felt like, Finally I can breathe.
Dean Koontz (first book Star Quest): I was teaching under Title III of the Appalachian Poverty Program and tutoring kids from families deep in poverty. And I was likewise deep in poverty. I thought, I don’t want to keep this forever because I was selling short stories. I wanted to write a novel, so I took a job at a regular school teaching English. I had been reading sci-fi from about when I was 11 or 12. It was the preponderance of what I had read and that’s what my short stories became, and I proceeded to write a novel called Star Quest the summer between those jobs. It was a pretty lame novel. It met the length requirements of a novel but it was like an expanded short story.
Charlaine Harris (first book Sweet and Deadly): I always intended to be a writer from the moment I could read, really. When I married my second husband he gave me the opportunity to stay home and write. I was 28. Prior to then I was a typesetter at Federal Express in the print department.
Sam Lipsyte (first book Venus Drive): I started publishing a few stories in a journal called Open City. They decided they were going to start publishing books, so at one point they called me up and said, “We want to publish your collection.” I didn’t have a collection; I just had a couple stories. But I didn’t tell them that. I said, “Sure, just give me a few months.”
Sloane Crosley (first book I Was Told There’d Be Cake): I knew I eventually wanted to write short stories or a novel. I had no intention of writing nonfiction. I was working for Vintage Books in their publicity department. Then I started writing for The Village Voice back when they had the essay section. Eventually an editor approached me and asked me if I wanted to turn the essays into a book about etiquette. Humorous etiquette. This was a laughable idea since I don’t really know how to behave, even humorously. I remember meeting this guy at Dive 75 on the Upper West Side and actually slipping off my stool at the suggestion.
Junot Díaz (first book Drown): I was in my MFA program and I had two part-time jobs. You’re in a program, so the telos of the program is you’re supposed to generate a body of work. I’d also been on a pretty strict reading schedule. For the last three or four years or so, I was trying to read a book every other day and I would write the book down and what I as a reader took away from it — I still have the notebook. What happened was, after a couple hundred books I began to have an organic inspiration about how I might create a book.
Leigh Bardugo (first book Shadow and Bone): I was working as a makeup and special-effects artist at the time and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Before that I’d worked as a journalist, I’d worked as a copywriter. When my dad passed away I decided to switch careers. I needed to be away from a computer screen and around people. I think not writing for my day job helped to let that muscle relax during the day so that I felt like writing when I came home at night.
George Saunders (first book CivilWarLand in Bad Decline): Let me start with the one that actually did get published. I’d been out of grad school maybe three or four years and was working at an engineering company and I’d kind of gotten stuck in a realist way of writing that wasn’t working for me. I had a breakthrough or breakdown at work where I’d inadvertently written these Doctor Seuss-kind of poems during a conference call. A friend had also come to town and said, “Your favorite piece of mine was something you wrote seven years ago.” That really stung. Between those two things I realized I’d been withholding certain things from my work: humor. Something crumbled in me. The next day I went in and wrote the first story from CivilWarLand.
Was the proposition of writing a book intimidating or crazy-seeming, or were you confident you could do it?
Alexander Chee (first book Edinburgh): No matter the anxiety, I never thought that I wouldn’t publish a book.
Meg Wolitzer: My mother is a novelist and I really saw her writing throughout my childhood so it seemed always like a natural thing to do.
Jennifer DuBois (first book A Partial History of Lost Causes): It did feel crazy, though being in an MFA program it seems a little less crazy because you see other people trying to do it. Skydiving probably seems less crazy if you have a lot of friends who are trying to do it. It’s like running a marathon or hiking the Appalachian trail — you aren’t in shape to do it until you’ve already done it.
Wells Tower (first book Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned): I didn’t necessarily know that I was writing a book. I was just writing one story after another. Ultimately, the stories I didn’t throw out accumulated to a book-length quantity of pages, and I sent those out. I think if I’d been concentrating on the volume, rather than each story in its own right, I never would have finished it.
T.C. Boyle (first book Descent of Man): I learned how to write a novel in the way we all do: by writing one. But my apprenticeship as a short story writer really stood me in good stead here. I’d probably published 30 stories or so by the time I started the novel, and that gave me confidence.
David Shields (first book Heroes): I was enormously unsure. I had written stories in college and at Iowa. I could write a story — that was like walking around the block. To write a novel felt to me like getting lost in a big city and somehow walking all the way back home with a blindfold on.
Rachel Kushner (first book Telex from Cuba): No, I didn’t know that I could write a novel, and I think going to an MFA program is not by any measure proof that one is up to the task. I knew when I really got going on the book that there were places in the writing that reflected my potential. That’s as much as you can ask for as a writer, at least initially. It was a long, long journey. But by the time I had completed a draft of the book, I knew I had something. And yet on the day my agent submitted it to editors I had a mild breakdown and thought, What if nobody wants this? And I spent all these years?
Lev Grossman: I was intimidated by everything, everywhere, including talking to girls in bars and things like that.
Leigh Bardugo: I believed all my life that I could write a book. I thought if not easy, it would be a pleasurable journey. I don’t think I could have been more wrong about that. I think that one of the myths we have about creativity is that sometimes we have a calling, that you know that every day of your life, when in truth, half of writing a first draft is very much about failure.
Charlaine Harris: I knew nothing. I had never read any books about how to write. I just assumed I would be able to do it. I was astonished at how difficult it was to find enough plot twists to fill up enough pages (I was writing a conventional mystery). There was a lot I had to figure out that I didn’t anticipate. It was big adventure to me; I was excited every day. I was scared, terrified naturally. But at the same time I had this sublime, ridiculous confidence. I knew it would be published.
Junot Díaz: I was in an MFA program at a time when nobody was in an MFA program. I was in an MFA program at a time when no one talked about agents. I was in an MFA program when no one was doing what you’re doing right now. Writing was not professionalized. There weren’t these 25 million things saying, “Let’s give you advice about how to be a writer.” (For the amount of writing advice there is, you would think Americans are reading billions of books.) Given that there wasn’t all of that information, it was far more of an artist’s game. The idea wasn’t that we would write a great book, which I think is underlying a lot of this obsessive neuroticism that I think has charged the culture these days; [it was] the idea that we would write any kind of book. I think for us it was a lot easier. There was a lot less fear and a lot less competition and a lot less comparisons. There wasn’t a culture of, “Look at this 19-year-old writer, they got a million-dollar advance.”
Chuck Klosterman: I didn’t know much about how to write a book. I had only an undergrad degree in journalism. I didn’t have an MFA or a creative writing degree or anything, so I’d never even talked to anyone about writing a book. I didn’t know anyone who had. I didn’t know anything about how to structure a book or how the process worked, and I certainly had no idea how to publish a book. I’m not even exactly sure that I believed upon completion if the book it would be published. I guess I was just seeing if I could do it.
Had you attempted to write other books prior to the one you ultimately published first?
Roxane Gay (first book Ayiti): Oh, there are a few ghosts of sad, sad books on my hard drive — youthful follies that most writers must endure before they get to the books that really should be sent out into the world.
Leigh Bardugo: I tried to write a bunch of books. I would get an idea and I would race into writing. I was so excited. Momentum would usually carry me through 50 pages or so and then I would hit a serious bump or I would lose steam or I would have one of those slow days. That slow day would turn into a slow week and then a slow month and I would step away from it and never come back.
Sam Lipsyte: I had, like most writers, a bad model in the drawer. Something that I’d been working on since college that was really stupid. I finally let it go. As a teacher once said to me, “There’s no honor in finishing a bad novel.”
Sloane Crosley: I wrote a novel. It’s a dark comedy set in rural New Hampshire, where I spent all my summers as a kid. How do I put this? It’s got a possessed fichus plant in it. I used to call it my “horticulturally gothic novel.” I got an agent with it, which I always feel is a nice tribute to the eye agents have, how they can see a tiny plant growing in a whole lot of dirt and candy wrappers and cans. It will never be published.
Heidi Julavits: I have a habit of writing what I now understand to be a “prequel” to the novel I end up publishing. The prequel takes me about two years to write; then I throw it away and begin the novel again from scratch. I have done this four times. I have published four novels. Some have more in common with their prequel than do others. The prequel to The Mineral Palace was called The Mineral Palace. The characters and the plot and the setting were the same, but the execution was completely different. I was in graduate school at the time, and pretty enamored with postmodernism, and thus wrote the novel in the form of fake interviews and fake newspaper reports or something (it’s hard to totally remember). McSweeney’s published an excerpt from the prequel (which I’d already tossed in the rubbish) and called it “Shrapnel.” It really was a bunch of shrapnel.
Chang Rae-Lee (first book Native Speaker): The first book I wrote, I had huge ambitions for it and it was a disaster. It was a big, baggy monster of a book. I gave my life to it for two or three years. I sent it to an editor friend of mine. She was very kind but she said, “No, this is not working.” I think the problem with the book was it was really more like a performance piece in my mind about how clever and smart I was. It was a very intellectual. It was engineered to be “brilliant,” rather than to be something that I really cared about. In many ways it was a book to escape; my mother was dying at the same time. But I ended up putting that away really immediately after hearing her and a couple other peoples’ opinions about it. I knew it wasn’t working.
It was hugely disappointing. It was crushing. It was crushing, but in a way it wasn’t a surprise, if that makes sense. I decided maybe to try graduate school, not because I really wanted to try graduate school, but I got a little fellowship and I considered it a tiny little book contract. That’s where I started my first published book, Native Speaker. I wasn’t thinking so much about publishing it and “being a writer.” Impressing people. With Native Speaker I was really focused on writing a book that I’d wanted to write for a while and hadn’t. It was honest.
Adelle Waldman (first book The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.): I wrote another whole novel before Nathaniel P. I had previously been doing this column for the Wall Street Journal website about twentysomethings and personal finances. I wrote the last one about how I was going to quit the column, to go live with my parents, sublet my apartment in New York, and write a novel. And I did that and it was the first time that I’d written anything that was at all passable. I did that at 29 in about six months. I came back to New York thinking I’d freelance for a little while and tutor a little bit. I thought that book would sell right away and everything would be great and I’d never need to have a regular job again. Then that novel didn’t get published and I wound up tutoring for six years.
Now I’m really glad that novel didn’t get published; I learned a lot from it. I’m fond of it, but I’m glad it was in my drawer, not in the world. I couldn’t have written the second novel without that. I knew from that I could write something novel-length that had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and I also knew that I liked doing it.
Did you show people sections or drafts of your manuscript as you wrote it?
Sam Lipsyte: No — it was a very lonely time in that way. I was afraid somebody would tell me it sucked. I don’t think it was any bold artistic decision. It was just sort of like, Let me think through this myself.
Dean Koontz: Writing has always been a solitary activity for me. I don’t want to know what anyone else wants to know of it until it’s done. Until it’s done it’s a nebulous thing. The first person who always reads for me is my wife because I totally trust her opinion. I don’t want her reading it in bits and pieces.
T.C. Boyle: No, no one has ever read my work in the composition phase, though I do like to read aloud to friends and family as a way of hearing the beat of the language and by way of performance.
Rachel Kushner: Only my husband. He’s incredibly brilliant. He is very skillful at locating the places in the prose that have the most energy and helping me to think about the larger implications of those places and what other kinds of literature I might look at or think about.
Leigh Bardugo: I sent the draft to two people, a friend who’s a TV writer and another who’s an academic. Neither of them is huge into young adult or science fiction, but I knew they would at least appreciate what I was trying to do. They understood how to tell a story. This is something I tell writers, aspiring writers all the time: Choose your readers wisely. Choose people who aren’t going to bring their own ego or their own agenda to the page. You have to trust them wholly so that when they come to you with things you don’t want to hear, you can’t just dismiss them.
Chuck Klosterman: I had friends in Akron who I’d go to the bar with — they would read it. I sent it to some people I knew in college. What I told them was, “Just tell me what parts are really boring. The parts that you found yourself wanting to skip over.”
David Shields: The mistake I made with that book — it’s an OK book — was I showed it to way too many people, so I was constantly getting reassurance. The book became kind of lowest common denominator. I wrote a book that everyone sort of half-liked.
How do you tell good feedback from bad?
Adelle Waldman: There’s some feedback that’s really, really difficult to hear and I want to push away because if I consider it then it might mean that there’s a serious problem that I need to reconsider. But there’s other feedback you need to ignore. There was one person I gave the first couple chapters of my novel to, this was actually a friend who was an agent who’d heard about my novel and asked to see it. He read it and the first thing he said to me over coffee was, “Have you considered writing nonfiction?” Things like that you have to put aside and get over.
Jennifer DuBois: I never workshopped it in my regular workshops at Iowa. I tried workshopping it when I got to Stanford [for the Stegner Fellowship], but I think at that point it was too far along in the process. You have to be in this weird moment of having certain things strongly felt and strongly realized to have workshops be effective. The paint has to be very wet.
Meg Wolitzer: I think sometimes we choose the people we show our work to based on what we think they’re going to say. You go to somebody because they love your work and maybe you think they’re going to love this because you really don’t want to change it all that much. Or you go to somebody else who’s tough on you because you need somebody to be tough on you because you’re not sure what you’re doing. The choice of a person is meaningful, I think, and says something about what you think about the work.
What obstacles did you encounter while writing?
Lev Grossman: I encountered every possible obstacle.
T.C. Boyle: Brain freeze, toe fungus, brittle hair, and brittler ego. Aside from that, it was the critical writing for the Ph.D. in 19th-century British literature that provided the main obstacle.
Junot Díaz: All books have their birthing drama. My first book, though, was relatively straightforward. My later books were far more troubled. Far more tormented.
Rachel Kushner: I know there are writers who like to say that every novel is hard and it doesn’t get easier. That may be the case, and I’ve only written two. But the first to me was characterized by an enduring oscillation between perseverance and a profound doubt.
Alexander Chee: My agent tried to sell the book for two years and was unable to. She asked me to consider setting it aside. And I remember I took it with me on a subway ride. (I was living in Brooklyn and teaching on the Upper West Side.) I said to myself, Read it on the train, and if it really is not ready or worthy of finding a publisher then let it go and work on another book. And that was when I decided I would have to leave her. I realized I was my own favorite new writer and this book should be published. She was a prestigious agent. It had helped my ego to be able to say, “Oh, my agent is X.” But I also knew that she didn’t know how to go forward with my work. I could try to be the writer that she hoped I could be or I could try to be the writer that I was.
Kiese Laymon (first book Long Division): Right after I got out of graduate school, I went to teach, and I got a really supposedly powerful agent. The agent told me a few months after that we were about to place it with this really nice publisher in New York, but that fell through. Then I finally sold it somewhere else but my editor left the press for another. I had had a two-book deal, and the editor who was leaving told me she could pay me as much for the one book as I would for the two-book deal if I came over there. She told me I wouldn’t have to change much. But then when I came over there she told me she wanted me to write book for sixth-graders and take out the racial politics. I was lost. I was like, This is the worst, this is the worst, this is the worst. I took it to heart. I took all the bruising to heart. And then I just placed it with an independent press and it’s been doing better than it would have done anywhere else.
What helped you get through, despite the obstacles you encountered?
T.C. Boyle: What kept me going was food. And booze. And music. (The things that still keep me going.)
Alexander Chee: Part of what helped was that I was in a writers’ group with friends. Everyone in that group published a book. It was like we were going to see each other through.
Leigh Bardugo: I basically tricked myself into writing the first draft of Shadow and Bone. Every time that voice kicked in that said, It’s not good enough, instead of trying to fight it, I said, You’re absolutely right. Nobody’s ever going to see it. I just have to write it and then I can put it in a desk drawer or send it out to sea or set it on fire.
Heidi Julavits: I calmed myself by walking into my nearby bookstore and marveling at all the books other people had written. So many people had finished and published novels; it couldn’t be so hard, right? This is what I told myself. The odds were on my side.
David Shields: Competitiveness. I was surrounded by a lot of people who were trying to write good, traditional novels — both faculty and students, everyone in Iowa City. People speak of competitiveness as being a bad thing, and there’s a lot of bad things about competitiveness. I really felt like I wasn’t as good of a writer as a lot of my colleagues and I was a lot younger than a lot of them, so I felt a competitive desire to write a decent book.
Kiese Laymon: The honest answer is corny and shit. I teach at Vassar. My students got me through. As much as I wallowed in my book not getting published, I couldn’t wallow in it for every second of the day because I had other young people’s writerly lives to tend to. Those relationships with my students and my students’ works pulled me out. And you know music. It was real emo. I’d be like, Somebody’s going to read this book when I’m dead. I’m going to have to die for people to read these books, but at least they’ll read them then.
George Saunders: The thing that really distinguished that phase relative to all the stuff that came before it was I felt so sure about what I was doing. Kind of when you wear something’s that’s really crazy but you know it’s crazy. If someone says, “Hey, that looks crazy,” you’re like, “Hey, I know that.” I was writing them and I knew the right things to do with them. I wasn’t looking for outside guidance.
I remember having a quiet faith in thinking, These stories are really weird, and I don’t see anybody else doing this. The big breakthrough was the story sold to the New Yorker in 1992, and because of that I got an agent, and because of that the book sold. I remember being at work and reading a story about holographic technology and I just thought, That’s kind of fun. I remember making a pot of coffee, the kids were in bed, writing it almost in one sitting, and revising it for a few months afterwards. After, I was like, I dare somebody to not like this, and sent it off. That night I had this dream I was on a roller coaster, one of those roller coasters where you’re in the dark going slowly up and you know when you come out you’re going to be on a hill, and when I came out I was really high and I could imagine that the city that was below me, it was night all lit up, I understood it to be Paris — I’d never been to Paris — and there was something so beautiful about it, being in the dark and boom: There’s Paris at your feet. I remember thinking, Wow, that’s a pretty cool dream. It was somehow tied in with me the feeling that the New Yorker was going to like my story.
Adelle Waldman: I definitely had months of despairing because I was doing something that was so uncertain. I felt like I’d gambled my life on it. At that point after a while I’d been a tutor for so long, journalism jobs had gone away anyway, and I didn’t think anyone would give me a job again. I thought, Wow, I have nothing going on but this Word document. But I gave my novel to certain friends chapter by chapter and that was really huge. Just feeling like I had friends — and also my husband, but he was my boyfriend at that time — who were into it. They were excited to get the next chapter, they wanted to find out what would happen next. That was huge, psychologically.
Heidi Julavits: At first, what kept me going was the fact that I was a waitress. Any day I did not write, I was only a waitress. For this reason I waited tables until I was 30. The performance pressure suited me. I worried that if I got a more “distinguished” career (though I actually think waitressing is very distinguished), I’d think to myself, Well, I didn’t write anything today, but at least I helped get that woman I counseled on the domestic abuse hotline to a safe house. Any day I did not write I’d be left with, Well, at least I convinced that semi-famous actor not to order the squab too well done. After I got my book contract, what kept me going was the fear that my editor would realize what a huge mistake she’d made when I failed to ever produce a manuscript. I didn’t want her to lose face.
Sam Lipsyte: I was in a very monastic mode. I really wanted this. I didn’t have any social life at all. I would come home from work and put on a pot of coffee and write. I had one friend who’d come over on a Friday night and we’d eat a pizza and watch a bad movie and that was it. I really felt like because of the certain place I was in my life, things weren’t that great, I really felt that everything was at stake. I felt like if I didn’t do this, I was going to die or something.
All told, how long did it take you to write the book, from idea to selling it?
Junot Díaz: I published one story and based on that one story my agent got me a book deal in almost no time at all. I didn’t go through any of the travails and terrors and tears that often this process induces. I hit the goddamn lottery. I’m sort of the worst example.
Heidi Julavits: I sold it on the basis of about 50 pages. That’s all I’d written at the time. Hilariously when I finally finished the book, and when I said to my editor, “I think those first 50 pages I wrote are really terrible,” her response was, “I’ve always hated those pages.”
Dean Koontz: It was probably about 50,000 words, and I wrote it from sometime in May through sometime in August.
Charlaine Harris: About nine months or so.
Meg Wolitzer: Probably a year or so. I sold it right away after I finished it, to Random House. I sold it for $5,000, which I was very excited about. I thought it would last me throughout my adulthood.
Leigh Bardugo: From idea to sending out the manuscript was a little under a year. It was a really great year.
Chang-Rae Lee: About two and a half, maybe three years. I had befriended an agent in New York when I was there and he was one of the people who read the first, failed book. He had been in touch the whole time and he told me to send him the novel when I was done. And I sent it to him. I was shocked he got three or four offers for it.
Adelle Waldman: I was 31 when I started the novel and 36 when it came out. I didn’t know it’d take so long. It wasn’t exactly how I imagined spending my thirties. It was fine once I had a book deal, but for the first years I was just a tutor working on a Microsoft Word document.
Lev Grossman: I didn’t sell it until 1997, so five or six years.
Alexander Chee: Six years.
George Saunders: It was slow. That first story was written in 1989 and then the book didn’t get sold until 1995 or 1996. It’s not a very long book. We had two little kids, and I had three jobs at once at one point. One of them was teaching guitar on Saturday and if a student didn’t show up I’d go to the diner next door and work on stories there. It was a patchwork kind of thing. As someone who had bought in a little to the notion that writing was a sacred ritual, I found writing at work really cool. It was just a matter of being very pragmatic. Here’s a paragraph, can you make it better in five minutes? You have a thought, can you get it down quickly? Can you edit on the bus or not? Yes you can. It made the writing less precious. It opened up another ideal. When you’re deciding if your prose is good enough in a single section or not, blank out your mind, pretend as if you haven’t seen it before, and read it. I think before, when I had a little more time and I was little precious, I had a lot of complicated theories about what justified prose and so on. Now all the bullshit kind of fell away. OK forget about that conceptual nonsense. If someone put this paragraph in front of your nose, would you keep going or not? Is there something you could do to this first sentence to increase the chances that someone keeps reading?
Kiese Laymon: Twenty-two years? I decided to write that book when I was in like junior high. The book is kind of about this memory I could never run away from. I remember seeing these little kids, the hands of these little kids, in a hole across the street from my grandmother’s. When I was in junior high I started really putting down paragraphs. And the novel Long Division is the story of how I think these black kids get into the hole in them middle of Mississippi.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known then? What advice would you give your younger self?
Wells Tower: To the contrary: I wish I knew as little now as I did then. When you’re just starting out, you’re wonderfully unaware of the mistakes you’re making.
Charlaine Harris: I’m glad I didn’t know much or I would never have been brave enough to try. I couldn’t imagine starting now; it’s so much harder to get published. I don’t want to discourage anyone; if you feel like if this is what you love, do it. I think most people who want to write a book are utterly stymied that you have to put your butt in a chair and work by yourself. That’s a hump they can’t get over. You have to like your own company.
Leigh Bardugo: I used to believe in the myth of the big idea: The big idea hits and you never look back. It’s sort of like when you meet a couple that’s been together for a long time and the question you ask is “How did you guys meet?” And there’s always a great story. But the real question — and the one that hopefully you’re too polite to ask — isn’t “How did you guys meet?” but “How did you stick together?” That’s the story of writing a book. How did you stick with it? How did you get through the day-to-day? I think one of the reasons you get so many questions about process — “Do you plot?” “How do you do it?” “How do you do it every day?” — is because people want to believe there’s a way to take the pain out of the process of writing. And there really isn’t. You’re going to have days that are terrible.
Dean Koontz: Do I have half a million words for this? I think the biggest thing I would say to my younger self were to have a time machine and go backward is: You have to have absolute humility about what you’re doing. You have to somehow know that you are capable of enormous idiocies and mistakes and yet not lose your self-confidence in what you’re doing. It’s a difficult line to walk because I know that writer’s block comes almost always from self-doubt. At the same time you have to know that this is a life-long learning process and you’re going to find yourself every 10 years looking back on what you wrote 10 years ago and feeling appalled by it. And that’s good; it means you’re learning and growing.
Chang-Rae Lee: After I’d gone through that awful war with the first book, I wish that I had had a little bit more faith in myself at times. It was a struggle. You have no basis to have any faith. You shouldn’t have any faith in yourself but in the end you kind of have to, to get the work done. And it’s a little bit of stubbornness and a little bit of ego and a little bit of hubris-ness and recklessness that you need to have, a combination of all those things.
Alexander Chee: You can hope for all the various prestigious publications and so on to come for you but in the end, the best thing you can do is work with people who are excited about you. Rather than deciding you’re a failure unless you’re published by X House, realize that the house that will make your career happen is the one that believes you are a fucking genius.
Sam Lipsyte: That first book was put out by a small press; I was the only book they were publishing that year, so I got a special kind of attention from the editors. And then the next book was with a big publisher and I love my editor there too, but you’re in the machine. I remember for that book I had to go to a marketing meeting. I’d never heard of that kind of thing. And they said, “What are your goals for this book?” and I said “I want to be on Oprah,” and they looked at me like I was crazy, like I was being serious. What I learned is just savor good publishing experiences because sometimes they’re not so great.
Rachel Kushner: I don’t know if my publisher will be upset about this, but maybe I would have had more confidence in trying to control how my book was titled and packaged and publicized.
Kiese Laymon: What I know now is that your worth as a person, as a writer, should not be defined by whether a corporation thinks they can make money off you or not.
Roxane Gay: I wish I’d known that there is no need to rush to have a book and that a good book is more important than the idea of a book as some kind of currency. I felt a lot of pressure to have a book as I put my first book together, some of it self-induced and some of it external. Fortunately I am happy with how that book turned out, but I also recognize that it is very much a first book.
George Saunders: One thing I might have said to myself — a lot of my student writers think this — I thought that if you write one book you’re all set. That’s not true. I didn’t realize that books can vanish. I think that’s why I worked hard to make the book strange or unusual. Better to wait on the first book, make sure it’s special, because you never has much collateral as you do in that moment before that first books come out.
Heidi Julavits: I wish I’d known how much you will be known for your first book. I say this with tremendous guilt, but I do half-wish I’d never published my first book, though in the end it’s all worked out, and maybe for the best. Maybe I have that book to thank for everything that’s come after it, and if so, I really do thank it! But I don’t think my first book was very “me,” whatever that means. I never quite understood what compelled me to write it. I’ve never written anything else like it since. I was so excited to get published that I didn’t think about my relationship to what I was publishing; I thought, Someone bought it, ergo I should publish it! Now I think differently.
Adelle Waldman: I never would have thought that I’d look back at that first novel that was unpublished, like it was devastating at the time, and now I truly feel grateful that it didn’t get published. If you’d told me five years ago that I’d feel this way, I just would have been shocked.
Chuck Klosterman: I’m glad I didn’t know anything then. It would have been completely paralyzing. Now because I’ve worked as a citric, it’s hard not to write a book without reading it as if you were reviewing it. One of the hardest things about writing any book is not having it unconsciously become like other books you have read. There’s a creeping fear that in order for your book to succeed it needs to somehow be familiar with something you’re already familiar with. Things that have influenced you end up having a direct impact on what you type. When I wrote Fargo Rock City, I was inventing my book so it could really be anything. It could be the book I’d always wanted to read but never found.
Even this thing you’re doing, this story, is kind of interesting, but I think in a lot of ways it will be detrimental to people trying to write books. I’m serious. What happens is: They will read this story and they will see these people giving their experience as if that experience is normative. As if the experience they’re describing is how it works. And of course every experience like this is totally unique. Trying to fit your life into someone else’s model is how bad books get created. Everyone wants advice about how to do something but it really only works if you’re only going to plow forward regardless if you know nothing. But then again, that’s how it was for me. So maybe I’m doing the exact same thing I’m complaining about.
T.C. Boyle: That all human life and endeavor is futile but that art redeems us, if only briefly.
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