Seven Lessons I Learned in Seven Years of Writing One Book

I spent seven years writing my debut novel. Yes, seven years.  Writing one novel. Not writing and then finding an agent and then getting a contract; just writing. I think that may be some kind of record.

I know there are people out there who have written entire first drafts in a month (thank you NaNoWriMo), and then revised and had something to send out to their agent a couple of months later. I am not one of those people. I don’t think I ever will be, although I’m on track to have a decent draft of novel number two in only four years, which feels like a kind of victory.

I don’t regret the seven years it took me to write and revise and polish THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO because I learned so much — about myself and about writing.  Here are seven lessons I learned during my writing journey, one for each of the years I spent writing my debut.

  1. You are the writer you are. Don’t sell yourself short (or out) because you don’t write the way you’re “supposed” to. I have been writing since I was seven years old, but for much of my life I didn’t see myself as a writer because I didn’t write the way I thought “real” writers did: I didn’t write every day, I was (and still am) a lousy journal-keeper, and I hated most “literary” fiction. It took me a long time to come to terms with the way I wrote, which is for a few hours a day, and completely alone. I can’t write in coffee shops, or on vacation, or when my kids are in the house. I can sometimes write when my husband is around, if he confines himself to another room and doesn’t talk to me at all. I know there are writers who write while they’re cooking dinner, or helping their kids with their homework, or, although I cannot imagine it, with music playing. I am not those writers. But I am a writer. And you are too.
  2. Write what you love, not what’s hot, or selling. Write what you love even if everyone is saying there’s no market for it, because the market will change. When I first began showing my manuscript around to agents, MANY of them said a version of the following: “you’ve got an interesting story, but I’m not sure anyone will publish it. It’s not Middle Grade material.” I kept going because I wanted a completed draft of something, even if it was “unpublishable.” Then a presidential candidate bragged on camera about touching women inappropriately, and that got played on the news. And the Harvey Weinstein story broke. And #MeToo became a rallying cry for women around the world. Suddenly, publishers were interested in a Middle Grade novel with a #MeToo moment at the center.
  3. Writing groups are better than chocolate. Writing is actually revising. And revising means re-seeing: seeing the words you’ve brought forth in a new light, or from a new perspective. But re-seeing is hard. That’s where your writer’s group comes in. Find a writing group, or a critique partner, or both. I’ve been lucky enough to have three writing groups over the course of my seven-year writing journey. One met every Thursday, and read parts of my novel in 10-page chunks. One meets once a month, and reads anything from partial manuscripts to complete drafts (they have a draft of novel number two as I type this). The third group meets once or twice a month, and we all write short pieces based on a writing prompt.
  4. All chocolate is delicious, but some chocolate is better than other chocolate. And some critique group members will have advice or suggestions that will resonate with you, while others may make suggestions that feel wrong. Keep an open mind and an open heart, but also remember: it’s your vision. Trust your instincts.
  5. The Society of Children’s Book Writers is the jam. I met the folks in my monthly writing group at the SCBWI winter conference cocktail party. I’ve gotten amazing feedback from several agents at other SCBWI conferences I attended, where my socks were also knocked off by some phenomenal workshops. I mean Laurie Halse Anderson talking about how she does research for her historical fiction books?! Priceless. Also, I connected with my agent through an SCBWI First Pages sessions.
  6. Everyone’s journey is different. Once I finally was ready to send start querying agents, I expected to be at it for years. But about six weeks after I sent my first queries, I signed with my agent. Less than six months after that, I had a contract with HarperCollins. My friend C. signed with an agent more than a year before I signed with mine, and has four fabulous manuscripts, but is still waiting for that first contract. There’s no pattern, and there are no guarantees.
  7. Writing is not a sure path to financial freedom. Most of the published writers I know do other things: they teach, they do party planning, they clean houses or write computer code. These days, I tutor, and for many of the seven years I was writing THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO I did freelance editing work as well. I also have a patron of sorts in my husband, whose income means I don’t have to have a full-time paying gig. I know a lot of rich people. None of them are writers. There are a handful of rich writers, and some other writers who are making a decent living off of their books (they tend to be the prolific ones), but there are many, many more published writers who aren’t able to pay the rent just with their writing. Write because you love it, because you have to, because it feeds your soul. And figure out what else you can do to pay the rent.
Cathleen Barnhart has been writing her whole life. She wrote her first story she she was seven. It was called “Aunt Ant.” Later, she majored in Creative Writing at Carnegie-Mellon University and then got an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She has held more jobs than she can count, including process camera operator, waitress, perfume salesperson, college writing instructor, and middle school teacher. She is married and has three mostly grown children, an excitable rescue dog named Zeke and a Machiavellian cat named Scout. When she’s not reading, writing, or walking Zeke in the woods, Cathleen fosters kittens and does CrossFit because it’s important to be sensitive and strong. That’s What Friends Do is her first published novel.

3 thoughts on “Seven Lessons I Learned in Seven Years of Writing One Book

  1. Thank you for posting this, Cathleen. I’m shaking my head while I read it because I have too much to say! (Ack.)

    First, you were in my brain when you said: “I am not one of those people. I don’t think I ever will be…” I’m a slow cook, a slow cleaner, a slow healer; it should be no surprise to me that I’m also a slow writer, yet it still frustrates me. It’s comforting to know there are other writers who understand that our process is still progress even if it’s slow.

    Second, quiet is key. Music? Nope. Public places? Absolutely not! Soooo distracting to me.

    Third, as a writer trying to enter into the publishing world, it is incredibly tempting to write what’s popular rather than what’s on my heart. But writing from the heart is what makes my book worth reading, so thank you for that encouragement.

    Fourth, thank you for the tip on the SCBWI. I’m going to check it out right away!

    Fifth, I appreciate your honesty about writers and money. I want to be real about what I can hope for financially. I love to hear different writers’ stories about how they make a living.

    God bless you on your future writing journey, and thanks for sharing. 🙂

    Like

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