Monday, June 8, 2009


How do you write a book?

As I mentioned on Youtube, a lot of people have been emailing me questions about the writing process lately. I figure now is as good a time as any to answer writing questions, because for the next month I will be an Author- a real live, true blue, pen-to-paper author, and after that my family will almost certainly re-dub me "get-a-job-and-move-the-hell-out Friedman."

The first thing that I learned is that writing is a job. It's not just that fun thing you do on the subway when you have nothing better to think about, or that indulgent hobby you store in a diary under your bed for all those times you're feeling très très heartbroken and poetic, or that rusty skill you dust off every time you have some bullshit homework assignment due. Writing is a job, and if you want to make it your job, you have to treat it with respect.

This means a few things:
1. You cannot wait until whimsy beckons you to your keyboard, because whimsy is a fickle muse.
2. You have to get used to the 1/10 idea. Nine tenths of what you write is going to be, according to you, total crap.
3. You have to wallow in a lot of supposed crap before you figure out what it is your subconscious is really trying to express. Don't give up.
4. In terms of raw creativity, your subconscious is valedictorian and your logical, literal mind, rides the short bus. And drools. And eats its own earwax. Leave her out of this.

To expand upon these ideas:

1 : Make yourself a schedule. (I will be the first one to call shenanigans here.) I will tell you that I work best under pressure of a deadline, but really that's a lie. I work only under pressure of a deadline, and if there hadn't been the possibility that I would get sued if I didn't finish this book, I probably wouldn't have gotten past chapter two.

But I knew I had to finish, and I knew this was a big project, so I set lots of little goals. They add up. All you can ask of yourself is to dedicate a little time every day to your project. Every single one of my favorite passages in the book came after at least five minutes of doodling around writing nothing very interesting. I'd write my name. My address. I'd write "I have nothing to write I have nothing to write I have nothing to write." And by and by, my mind would quiet and my fingers would take over and these awesome pages came totally out of nowhere. If I had waited until I "knew" exactly what I was going to write, nothing exciting or surprising would have been written.

Set aside time each day. No page limit, no word count. Just set a timer, and keep your fingers typing (/strumming/stirring/dribbling etc.) for exactly that amount of time. And no matter what you've accomplished by the end of it, you've succeeded. I promise that by the end of a week, you'll be seeing results. It is the hardest thing in the world to start working, especially when your goal is to finish a whole book. But if your only expectation is that you sit down and write for half an hour a day, you'll accomplish it easily. You'll feel accomplished. You'll start to accomplish amazing things. Day by day. You have my word.

2: If I had waited for everything to be perfect in my head, I would have gotten frustrated and stopped months ago. It's happened a million times, with songs, with poems, with short stories- I have a hundred half-finished projects festering in the nooks and crannies of my motherboard. But guess what? Things don't finish themselves, and there's no such thing as a brilliant stroke of insight that fixes every plothole and character arc. Even if you do stumble across a really great idea, you're going to have to work and whittle and move things around before everything fits.

And here's the best part: everything will fit. The reason that you're having such a hard time finishing is the very same reason that you'll be able to finish. If you had absolutely no standards, if you could pull strings of incoherent words out of a barrel and be fine signing your name to them, you'd be finished with all of your projects by now. But you know what you're capable of. You know how great it feels when, on that rare occasion, you write something that's just perfect. That you're proud of. That you want to share with others. Your high standards are often what gets in the way of your finishing a project, because you don't allow yourself the freedom to muck through the ten crappy sentences it takes before you find the good one. But the good news is that these same high standards will allow you to know, to really know, when you finally hit upon something great. So you don't need to worry about whether or not your work will be good. You only need to worry about doing enough work to get down to the good stuff.

3. There is no wrong way to start writing, except to not start. As a die-hard procrastinator, I was not used to the idea of drafts when I began this project. At Yale I would usually not look at my assignments for months, then spend the entire night before a paper was due agonizing over every single word until it was perfect, then print it out never to be seen again. I did not leave room for growth- I just wanted to finish the damn thing. But if you have a project that you care about, you're going to have to nurture it. It won't be perfect the first time around, or the second, or the third. Not only is that okay, that's the only way to really achieve your creative goals.

For a perfectionist like me, this idea was hard to get used to. I wanted Chapter One to be perfect so that I could move on to Chapter Two. I wanted to check it off on my little anal-retentive checklist. But that's not how creative projects work. They evolve from all angles at different speeds. Sometimes your very first chord or lyric or sentence will be influenced by your very last, and you won't know how it all ties together until you get to the end of the process. Things reveal themselves bit by bit, and if you give yourself over to this process, its like solving a fantastic artistic mystery every single day.

This is liberating, people. I used to be Ms. Thesaurus, and I'd sit and stare at my computer for half an hour making sure I had the perfect word. This is NOT the way to write. It will kill your creative spirit and wear you down. It's a waste of your time. Through this process I've learned to trust myself enough to leave things loose. Sometimes I'll know that I need a very certain word, but I can't put my finger on what it is, so I'll leave myself an asterisk in the text and come back to it later. Or I'll make up a fake word as a placeholder. Sometimes I'll reach a spot where I want to touch upon a very broad idea, an entire philosophy which needs to be artfully distilled, but I know that it will take me a long time to find the perfect format, and I'm in a good story flow and I know that wrestling with it will just trip me up. I leave myself a little note, one or two words which will remind me of the big idea I was intending to grapple with, and then later I'll come back.

This approach seems very messy, but it's actually quite relaxing. On the first pass you can just let yourself go crazy- you can write down every single thing that comes into your head without having to insist that the inner critic/editor have approval over every line. The inner critic/editor will be very helpful around the fifth or sixth draft, but in the beginning she only serves to make you feel like crap. When you feel like crap you don't give your ideas a chance, and very soon after you give up completely. Then you don't write anything and you feel worthless. Then you feel worthless so you don't write. Sound familiar?

My best advice is to trust yourself enough to have fun during the writing process. When you stop fixating on what your project should be, you get to discover what it is. And it is NEVER the same thing. Never. Your creative ideal is just a flagpost for the direction in which you'll begin to search, and once you begin to think about it as the search for Tut's tomb instead of the construction of a pyramid, you'll start to feel more sane, have more fun, and get more done. I promise.

4. You know way more than you think you know. I have never come up with a great idea banging my head against a wall willing myself to produce one. It just doesn't work that way. Most of the messages and information we absorb are not processed by our conscious mind, and the reason dreams are so nifty is that they weave together all sorts of snippets which affect us, but which we aren't completely aware of. When I was really "in the zone" while writing the book, it felt very akin to a dream. Things were unfolding in real time, and I recorded my narrative experience as I went through it in my head. And every single time my conscious mind got pissy and started to tell me "that's not funny," "that's not relevant," or "that just sucks," I would totally jar myself out of the zone and into self-doubt and panic. It wasn't fun.

I've mentioned it on the blog before, but I think I should reiterate this because it's such a fantastic writing tool. Get a Suck Jar. Mine is a sugar bowl with a little slot for a spoon. But instead of a spoon, I slide pieces of paper into the slot with every writing insecurity I come across. If I think a passage, paragraph, or project sucks, I write down why, and I put it in my Suck Jar. If I think I'm not funny, I put it in the Suck Jar. And then it's out of my head and I don't have to think about it anymore. I can just move on.

The jar is full of dozens of notes, and when I look back at them now, they all seem ridiculous and hyper critical. If an editor or a friend were to tell me a fraction of those things, I would never let them read my stuff again. But we're all our own worst critics, and we can't get away from ourselves. Which is why it's so important to delineate between pure creative time, and hardcore editing time. Don't start poking holes in your quiche before it's even in the oven.

The best thing I've learned over the course of writing this book is that if you give yourself the space to play out all of your craziest ideas, a judgement-free-zone, you will surprise yourself.

Please let me know about all of your other questions, and do keep me posted on whatever you're working on. Was any of this helpful? Hope all is well!



  1. This is brilliant, and I really needed to read this. Thank you so much, Hannah!

  2. Hannah I love this post, reminds me a bit about my favorite book "If you want to write" by Brenda Ueland. A must read if you haven't already. Just added ya on facebook, hope u dont mind.

  3. Hello, Hannah - of the 85,762 people you met at BEA, I'm one of the 7,309 people you signed a book for - don't you remember? Anyway, I TOLD you we were going to put your book on, and here's a link:
    Who do you see in the movie? (If you can get a SAG card, we'll put you in the Actor database, too, so you can cast yourself...) Happy casting! Have a great launch party!

    Jeff Reid
    "for the movie in your mind"

  4. Excellent advice. Quieting the inner critic is the hardest part! I read your Ethel post and am looking into getting a sugar bowl. =)

  5. Thanks for the advice - I recently read that "fear is the worst enemy of creativety" and I thought it was so true. Reading your blog was great because you went deeper into the subject.
    I'm thinking about getting a suck jar ; but I think i'll call it something else.
    I was trying to send you questions but are not sure where in this page to send them through.


  6. Wow, thanks for posting this. It is helpful. I am trying to write a book for the first time and I am completely overwhelmed. It's not the writing or book part, it's just the length and the fact the material is close to my heart.

    Great blog BTW, glad I found it! :)

  7. Hi Hannah, it's Veronica (from Masters).
    De-lurking to say that I love your blog.

    Congratulations on the book! Can't wait to pick up a copy!

    Feel free to visit my blog at

  8. I struggle so often with so many of these very issues, reading this and feeling the commisery may have just pulled me out of today's writing funk.

  9. I think there are two big problems about writing if you are a young writer (at least those were my problems):
    1- Your parents will always yell at you: " Why don't you get a job! Writing? How do you know that you will be successful. Write as a hobby." etc. etc. You must learn to deal with them. They are not writers and they don't know that you are reading ten hours a day to write five hours straight. And when you make them understand that basic fact, they would say: "Why should anyone wants to do this? Why don't you get a real job. You are escaping from life."
    Don't worry, writing is a real job and one of the most important jobs you can do in this world. There are two major branches essential to humanity's success: Science and Culture. Guess who creates the culture? Guess who doesn't care his parents :)

    2- Being persistent about writing. Like you can't be a brain surgent without practice and education you can't be a real writer without PRACTICE and education. There is no such thing as little green genies who are finishing manuscripts. They just work on shoes. And we are not in the shoe business.
    Lets finish with a quote:
    "Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads." ~Erica Jong

  10. I want to wash my pussy with French triple-milled soap from Crabtree & Evelyn but I don't want to get BV. Supposedly you get BV with any type of soap that is perfumey. Would a French scented triple-milled soap be more likely to cause BV, then say, something like Dial?

    It doesn't seem right that we should have to use a special soap or wash that won't alter the delicate Ph balance. I mean, I want to enjoy my wonderful soaps.

    What's the deal? Has anyone contracted BV using scented soap?

  11. Check you Facebook!!!!

  12. Check your Facebook account Hannah!!!