It’s a sad fact of life that some of the most imaginative people you’ll meet are also the most paralyzed. It’s even sadder when that person is you—or, since this is a post about me, I might as well just as say me.
I spent my life as a chronic procrastinator: clinically disorganized, in my own head to a debilitating degree, always sure that I wasn’t good enough just yet. Those qualities make writing a book hard. But I wanted to write a book. I wanted to write a lot of books. And eventually I did: The Accidental Bad Girl, my debut, came out from Abrams / Amulet on May 15.
So how did I do it? Was it because I suddenly had a surge of muse-given lightning-like inspiration? Um, no. Was it because I had an unexpected amount of free time and was bored? Hell no.
It happened because I managed to put myself in a position where my nerd-based anxiety and Jewish guilt worked for me for once. Follow along my step-by-step process to success:
Step One: Keep your expectations for yourself low, but do keep them.
As mentioned above, when drafting The Accidental Bad Girl, time wasn’t something I had an overabundance of. I had a full-time job, close family in town, and a burgeoning relationship that eventually turned into a marriage. I also don’t sleep and am always exhausted. Some nights writing was the last thing I wanted to do.
Here’s what I did: I set my daily expectations of myself so low that if I didn’t fulfill them I would feel like an ass. I wrote 500 words a day, one day off per week. The words didn’t have to be good. I could add unnecessary adverbs if I needed them to fill out the quota. But I HAD to put 500 new words on the page every, single day.
And I did. Because if I didn’t, I would feel incredibly guilty and unbearably like Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites—living in a den of slack. I was a middling, ambivalent student in high school, but straight As in college broke me of that option. It meant too much to me to not be a slacker, so I wasn’t.
500 words a day sounds like nothing. That’s because it is. But eventually it makes a book.
Step Two: Make friends with smart people who like to read
Unless you’re Krysten Ritter, chances are you do not have an agent or editor to lean on for notes once you churn out an inevitably crummy first draft. And maybe you’re thinking, “I’m a good reader; I can edit this all by myself.”
You are wrong. You will have a million thoughts about your work. Some will be correct, some will be ridiculous, and some will be neither. You need other voices to contribute to a critical mass of opinions, to verbalize your blind spots—I needed someone to tell me I had forgotten to put in stakes for god’s sake. So make some friends.
Why is it important that they’re friends? Because you have to want them to be critical; you have to want all the actionable notes you can possibly assemble. You have to want to be told what’s not working. Being told what’s good about your work feels good, but it’s not really all that useful. And it’s easier to want criticism from people you’re already pretty sure like you.
You could do what I did and luck into a crew of people who turned into writers when you were eleven (see my acknowledgments page). But the internet is a wonderful thing. The Electric Eighteens debut group was my lifeline this year—you can find your people if you look.
Step Three: Calm down and be patient
This is the hardest one, but I discovered a basic truth when writing my first book—and The Accidental Bad Girl is the first book I wrote, not just the first I sold. If you internalize this lesson, it will change your writing life:
You cannot fix what you do not write. You cannot polish what you do not revise. Go step by step and celebrate whenever you finish an iteration of making your story more its ultimate self. Keep going. It will take forever. But it’s there.
Look, I’m no guru. I’m just a thirty-something who doesn’t know how to put on eye makeup and writes in bed even though it’s bad for my back. I don’t meditate even though I should. I don’t do yoga, even though I really should. But I can do nerd. I can do guilt. I can do stubborn.
And sometimes that’s all it takes.