Lessons I've Learned as a First-Time Author


For the last ten months I've been on an unexpected journey writing a book based on this blog. I remember being enamored with the idea of being a writer when I was in high school. At one point in graduate school I had what I thought was a good idea for a book, so I proceeded to boldly tell all my friends that I was going to write a book. Looking back, I'm pretty sure I sounded just like the aspiring author in the hilarious video above.

My youthful aspirations toward being an author had mostly been dormant until our family literally stumbled into the trendy world of locavores, going green, simple living, and backyard farming. From there a series of serendipities led to a conversation with a publisher and eventually a book contract. The whole process has been an education. The book is due out in March and the learning curve is still steep, but I thought I would share some of what I've learned to this point.

1. Writing a book is hard work. Any romantic notions I had of being an author have pretty much gone down in flames as I was forced to deal with the harsh reality of a blank page and blinking cursor on my computer screen. When I first signed the book contract I spent about a month living in the glow of the idea of being an author, but as I sat down and actually started writing I was confronted by an abyss of deficiencies in my skill as a writer and my confidence as a human being. I found that the act of writing constantly placed me in an uncomfortable place where I was forced to beat down my insecurities and trust that, eventually, random words on the page would gain some coherence. The process of writing the book was a long season of intentional living in this liminal space.

2. There is no way around sh*%#y first drafts. This wisdom comes from Ann Lamott's book, Bird by Bird. I've heard people try to translate her words into something more palatable like, "There is no way around bad first drafts," but that just doesn't do justice to the depth of disgust that one feels toward first efforts to get something down on the page. Long before I set about the task of writing a book I was an acolyte of Lamott's wisdom on writing, but it wasn't until I entered the authorial labyrinth that I fully appreciated this unavoidable reality. There was part of me that thought maybe I could avoid some of this, but alas my first drafts were prolific factories of you know what.

3. The process of writing requires time. The larger lesson of my first two observations is that there is a long process of writing that requires time, effort, sacrificial offerings of chunks of existential flesh, and more time. At almost every step of writing the manuscript I fooled myself into thinking that I could get one part of the process done in a short time, when a long time was always required. Maybe that was part of my self-care, shielding my psyche from the reality that I was about to spend three hours working on one paragraph of text. There were parts of the writing process that were easier than others, but for the most part, the whole thing required an unreasonable amount of time. I'm not suggesting that it wasn't time well spent, or that it didn't come with its own rewards, but in the ways we normally measure productivity the requirements of time were unreasonable. Most seasoned authors who have learned this lesson recommend writing small chunks of text everyday. Lamott recommends a discipline of taking two hours a day getting text on page.

4. A blog can be a great way to learn the craft of writing. While the process of authoring my book was more occasional spasms of typing marathons than the steady accumulation of daily discipline, this blog has helped me learn the rhythm and skill of writing. Maybe more that that, it has helped me find my voice. One compliment I received from the editor is that she thinks my book has a strong "voice." If what she says is true, the blog has been the 24 Hour Fitness that has helped shape it.

5. A blog can be a great resource in writing a book. When I signed the book contract I initially had a sense of disappointment that I hadn't thought of writing a book at the very beginning of our year-long experiment. I figured I would have kept journals and taken pictures and recorded the journey in detail. But then I realized that I had actually already done that with this blog. Not only did I do that during the year, but I continued to write on those topics and refine my perspectives through the daily discipline of posting. All the while there was interaction with the readers of the blog. There was real-time feedback on the content in the form of pageviews, tweets, and Facebook links. There is something about the immediacy of clicking "Publish" on the blog interface that has sharpened my skills as a writer and prepared me in many ways for the act of clicking "Send" on the emails to the publisher with manuscript attached.

6. The creative process of writing is incredibly rewarding, irrespective of reader response, critical reviews, and book sales. I would be remiss in chronicling the challenges of writings in the above list without also pointing out the grace-filled gifts of the process. My greatest reward has been, at times, reading through a passage or a chapter that had taken so much work and, at the end, feeling like I'd touched upon something beautiful and true. Our lives are so often confused and tangled webs of meaning, so there is something deeply satisfying about telling a story and capturing a moment that clears up the confusion and serves as a hopeful signpost for the journey. I don't claim any grand illusions that my book will do that for others. My point here is that in many ways it did that for me, and that is reward enough to make the whole process worthwhile. (That being said, I won't mind at all if people like the book and buy ten copies to give to their friends. Did I mention yet that you can pre-order Year of Plenty here.)

I'll probably do a follow-up post with more lessons learned as the process moves forward. Right now I'm working with the editor on doing a final edit of the formatted manuscript. There is an artist working on cover design.