I’m not sure how I found The Secret Library podcast. I know that when I did, I was overjoyed. Here was a treasure trove of 135 interviews with some of today’s most exciting authors. Mary Laura Philpot, Rebecca Makkai, and Chibundu Onuzo just to name three. I dove into the archive and came away with new insight into writing craft and the writing life. And that’s only from what made it onto the podcast. I had a feeling there was more…
I reached out to The Secret Library creator, host, and producer Caroline Donahue to get the secret sauce. After so many interviews, I bet that she had learned a lot about what it takes to write and publish a book.She’s asked each of these authors one essential question: how did you write your book? She graciously agreed to compile her top ten answers to that question and share them with you here.
In 2016, I started another podcast. This was not the first time this had happened. It was technically the fourth, having co-hosted a show on books with a fellow writing friend, and launching several shows at the book haven that is Book Soup in West Hollywood, CA.
But this time felt different. I had begun dreaming of finishing one of the many novels that had been languishing in my proverbial drawer and I knew I’d need help to make it happen. The funny thing about podcasting is that it makes it possible to ask incredible people for advice who don’t have time to go to coffee and let you pick their brain. By this time, I had coaching clients as well and we all wanted to know the truth about writing books: how do they actually get written?
Over the past several years, I have been fortunate enough to reach writer after writer—even some editors, publishers, and agents as well—and ask them this very question: how did you write your book? What follows are my favorite pieces of advice that have changed the way I write forever. Let’s go for this David Letterman style, and start with number ten and count down:
10. It always takes longer than you expect—Madeline Miller (Ep. 104)
By no means was this the only episode that touched on the topic of how long it takes to write a book. In fact, it comes up so often that I often joke with authors that no one has ever come on the show and said, “I really wish this book had taken just a little bit longer to write.” Never happened. But Madeline Miller’s discussion of the five years of writing it took her to hit the “trench of despair” and then break through on both of her novels, Song of Achilles and Circe, summed up everything the others alluded to—it takes a long time, and sometimes you’ll be scared that it won’t work out, but if you keep trying and keep engaging with the story, you’ll find your way through.
9. It’s okay to write a happy ending—Simon Van Booy (Ep. 119)
There’s a trend in literary fiction for everything to feel very dark: dark topics, dark endings, and sad subjects. While this is important and all of these topics deserve attention and consideration, it’s okay to have things end well for your characters, too. How to keep it realistic and still end on a high note? Simon Van Booy likes to start his stories and novels in the darkest place and then progress toward something happier. Happy endings don’t have to be taboo; you just have to earn them by including the difficult parts of the story as well. Break rules! Every single person who’s been on the show has broken at least one, with excellent results.
8. You don’t have to start writing when you’re 20 or be part of the literary elite to succeed—Kit DeWaal (Ep. 96)
Every year there seems to be a new list of bright young writers with debut novels out, making any writer over 30 cringe and feel like she’s missed the boat. Kit DeWaal had a rewarding career before she started writing in her 40s, studied and honed her craft for ten years, and then published her debut novel, My Name Is Leon, to international acclaim in her 50s. In addition, an article she wrote questioning the lack of working class writers present in published fiction went viral and spawned the Working Class Writers movement in the UK, inspiring countless others to begin writing themselves. It’s never too late to start if you dream of writing and you don’t have to be like everyone else on the shelf. Today is your day, no matter your age or your background.
7. If your first novel doesn’t sell and you still believe in it, keep going— Donal Ryan (Ep. 113)
Donal Ryan admitted in our conversation that if it hadn’t been for his wife’s belief in his writing, he would have given up long before he was published. His first several books were rejected nearly 50 times before he was able to publish. But once he did, he was long listed for the Booker and won the Guardian First Book Award, both in 2013. Often, the hardest work happens before you break through. By continuing to write and trusting in his wife’s belief that he was on to something, and has gone on to write a series of novels that had the Guardian calling him “the best of the new wave of Irish writers to have emerged over the last decade.” But we could have missed out on all of this if he hadn’t continued.
6. Your second book can be your big hit— Chloe Benjamin (Ep. 86)
There is a common belief that the second novel, much like a band’s second album, is doomed to obscurity. This is enough of a trope that Chloe Benjamin wrote about it as she was working on her second novel, The Immortalists. Perhaps calling this trope out is what helped her overcome it so brilliantly: The Immortalists was one of the most anticipated books of 2018 and was seen everywhere there were books for much of this year. Chloe had already published her first novel to modest success, but had big dreams for her second book, despite the superstition about sophomore efforts. She shopped her book out to several publishers instead of taking the path of least resistance and was rewarded with a bidding war and and an explosive response. Every book has a chance, and writing each one with as much care and dedication as you can will maximize that possibility.
Increasingly, there is a large presence in books from independent authors who have opted out of the traditional publishing model. Joanna Penn was working in an unfulfilling corporate job and dreamed of leaving it to write. She wasn’t satisfied with making a small advance and seeing her book on the shelf in a shop. She wanted to write full-time and walk away from her job forever. It wasn’t an instant process, but over five years, she built up a catalogue of novels and non-fiction as well as the podcast The Creative Penn and has scaled up to a business that supports both her and her husband with writing at the center. Yes, there are big book deals in the traditional world, but if you are able to market and promote your own books, building a full-time income from writing is possible for those who aren’t willing to accept the starving artist stereotype and explore new frontiers of publishing.
4. If your writing routine is completely different than everyone else’s, that’s okay—Diana Gabaldon (Ep. 114)
Diana Gabaldon does NOT outline. She is emphatic about this. In our conversation, she shared that when she begins one of the Outlander novels, she has no idea what is going to happen in the book. She begins with a scene, connects with the sensations in that scene, and writes what she sees happening around her. She works that scene over and over for days until it’s as good as she can make it and then moves on to the next sense impression she has for another scene. They may not be connected, but as she writes, connections begin to appear, and eventually, everything links together. She knows it’s an unorthodox way to write, but she can’t imagine approaching writing any other way. If your routine and your method look different than the writing books say it should, but you’re still moving forward, don’t question it. The best way for you to write is the way that keeps the words appearing on the page.
3. It takes three things to make a good story—Paul McVeigh (Ep. 69)
Paul McVeigh once wrote a story in an afternoon that he had been pondering for decades. He had several images in his mind, but it wasn’t until three images came together that he had a story. Sometimes a story needs to hover in our unconscious for a long time before it’s ready to come out. Showing up to write on a schedule that suits you can build stamina and strength, but sometimes hammering at the same story over and over and demanding that it be finished on your timetable isn’t what will make it the best it can be. Let things that feel unresolved sit alongside you. Don’t throw them away, but don’t force them either. Sometimes finding the right way through just takes time, and being open to what images come your way.
2. Breaking genre conventions can be the making of your writing— Piper Huguley (Ep. 77)
Piper Huguley writes romance, a genre that is known for its conventions. There are types of romance that are expected to proceed in a certain way, have a specific type of love and sex scene with different types and levels of detail depending on the category you’re writing. So when Piper Huguley told fellow romance authors that she writes historical romance featuring African-American characters set in the Reformation Era just after slavery was abolished, she got a lot of mean girl responses. “Well isn’t that interesting,” they said, before retreating. She wasn’t deterred. She herself read the only other author who was writing related stories voraciously, and she started writing her own because she was sick of waiting for the next book to come out. And, it turns out, her readers were similarly enthusiastic. Piper stuck to her subject and has since been named a top ten historical romance author by Publishers Weekly. If you love reading a topic that’s under served and under represented, you have the power to change that. Write the books that you want to read, especially if you don’t see them in stores now. Your readers will thank you.
Several years ago, Alexandra Franzen had a dream. It was a wild vivid dream that she couldn’t shake when she woke up. So she decided to write it down. It became the novel, So This is the End. She wasn’t sure what to do with it, once it was finished. She wasn’t even sure if it was any good. It didn’t have tons of flowery description, or other elements of novels that she enjoyed reading. So she shared it with her newsletter subscribers. And then the responses started coming in. People talked about crying reading the book and that it made them change their lives. So she decided to take another baby step and sell the book as a download just on her own site. Even having published several non-fiction books, she wasn’t sure if she was qualified to write fiction. Not until someone who received a shared copy of the original newsletter version wrote her asking if anyone had approached her about turning it into a TV show did she realize it might actually be a great book. Given the impact this story has had on her reader’s lives, Alexandra now believes that it’s always worth writing the book you dream about.
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This is, of course, my interpretation of the brilliant advice I received from these writers and many more while interviewing them over the course of the past few years. I recommend listening to these conversations yourself, because there is loads more advice where this came from, including advice on nonfiction, short stories, and even a bit of poetry. I could have kept writing tips into the twenties, but I’ll leave you with these to get your started. May 2019 be your best writing year yet, and may you always keep trying.
Caroline Donahue is a writer, editor, and podcast host. She created the show The Secret Library Podcast in 2016, and has since interviewed nearly 150 writers, editors, publishers, and book professionals about what it takes to write a book. She is the co-editor of the essay anthology, I Wrote it Anyway, and is currently hard at work on a novel. She lives in Berlin.
Before you go…
My new editing challenge begins on January 1. Whether you’re finishing NaNo or need some help polishing your story, I’m hosting a free 31-Day Editing Challenge in January. Each day, I’ll send you a short message with that day’s editing topic. You’ll dig into your manuscript with exercises and questions to help you approach your manuscript as a professional editor or agent would.