My second novel, A Little Life — about a group of men in New York and their friendship over the course of 30 years — will be published in March. Because my first book, The People in the Trees, came out in August of 2013, people have been asking me: What happened? Why did the first book take 16 years to write, and the second only 18 months?
The true (though unsatisfying) answer is: I don't know. (Well, I partially know: I spent a lot of those 16 years fooling around and being lazy.) But not knowing is not going to stop me from sharing the following nine rules for anyone working on their manuscript, wondering if, and when, and how, they too might be published.
1) You don't need an MFA to write a novel.
2) Publishing is not a foot race. It doesn't matter how old you are when you publish your book. Or rather: it may matter (to publishing reporters, to your house), but it will never mean your book is intrinsically better or worse than it already is. And there are advantages to publishing later in life, as well — as someone who published her first book when she was 39, I'd say that the real advantage is this: when you get published as a middle-aged adult, the fact that you're a published author won't and shouldn't define how you identify yourself, or how you feel about yourself as a person (for better and worse). You'll know already. If you want to, you will be someone who writes, rather than a writer, and this can be liberating.
3) You don't have to write every day to be a writer. It's better if you do, of course. But "writing" doesn't always mean sitting before your computer (or notebook): the most difficult work of writing — the creating of your characters, the peopling of your world — is often done in moments or while engaged in other activities (chores, eating, errand-running, walking, swimming) that don't resemble writing at all. Still, you should remember that…
4) The only difference between a good writer who publishes a book and a good writer who doesn't is that the writer who publishes actually finished her book. Years ago, when I was an assistant in book publishing, the house had an author under contract whom I'll call A. This was back in the days when publishing houses would buy a partial manuscript, and A.'s novel-in-progress, a fictionalized memoir about his childhood, had some of the most beautiful, chilling prose I'd ever read. Years later, when I was no longer working in publishing, I ran into one of the editors from the house. "What happened to A.'s book?" I asked. He shrugged. "He never turned it in," he said. "It's so unfair," I said. "He's one of the most naturally talented writers I'd read in a long time." The editor shrugged again. "But he never finished," he said. It may be self-evident, but it's equally undeniable: no one will read your published book if you don't finish it.
5) Having kids and/or a job is not an excuse for not finishing. It may take you years, decades, to finish. But the point is to finish, not to finish quickly (see point 2). However...
6) There are ways to help make this process achievable. A book publisher I know once told me that his advice to struggling writers was to write either 2,000 words a week or 5,000 words a month. If you can commit to a combination of the two — some months, the full 8,000; others, the 5,000 — it's likely that in a year you'll have 80,000 words, or a standard-length first draft. This is reductive, of course, but staring down a novel sometimes feels so impossible that thinking of it as a series of numbers — not as a series of characters, places, themes, and interior landscapes — can be comforting.
7) Don't quit your day job. First, there's the obvious reason: money. The money is never what you think it is. Let's say you're lucky enough to sell your book, and let's say you get a $50,000 advance. Of that, 10 to 15 percent will go to your agent; 20 to 40 percent will go to taxes. The remainder will be paid out in four installments over what will likely be 18 to 24 months. It may be enough to live on — but it'll take discipline, and you may've spent all the discipline you're cognitively capable of on writing the book itself (see point 6). And for those of us lucky enough to get published? The chances are very high — lose-the-lottery high — that we will never be able to make a reliable or consistent living from writing books. There are other rewards — of course. But money will likely not be one of them.
The less-obvious money consideration is this: you never want to be in a position where you are dependent on your writing for your income. It changes you — your work, the decisions you make about your work, the pace you feel you have to produce that work. As a fiction editor at a major house who's a novelist as well once told me, "If you don't depend on your writing for money, you'll still have to compromise — all of us have to — but you'll never have to concede." She knew what it was to write a novel from the perspective of both editor and author. And she was right, too.
But I'd also argue that one of the primary reasons to keep your job isn't even a financial one. Writing is, by its nature, interior work. So being forced to be around people is a great gift for a novelist. You get to be reminded, daily, of how people think, how they speak, how they live; the things they worry about, the things they hope for, the things they fear. Of course, you'd be able to imagine all of this even if you didn't have a job. But your office — be it a literal one or not — provides a daily reality check. It makes you confront humanity in the real, not just on the page. It takes you out of the world of your book, and that is sometimes a helpful, even essential, journey to make.
8) Be aware of who in your life is actually interested in hearing you discuss your writing, and who's just asking to be polite. Listening to writers talk about their work is often excruciatingly dull. But this isn't just a matter of good etiquette: incessant, articulated worrying over your manuscript will also make you more self-involved. The majority of your friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances don't want to hear the intricacies of your progress — and it's up to you to respect that.
9) There is no single way to write a book. Which is to say: you should probably ignore everything here. You might have a writing group, or a single reader, or no one at all. You may write in days-long binges, or in 15-minute slices of found time on weekends or after work. You may find it comforting to follow other writers on Twitter, or you may avoid social media altogether. We think of writing a book as a process, but the very word — process — suggests that there is one: a template to follow, a map to guide us. If that were true, someone would have surely figured out some marketable method we could all buy. But really, there are only guesses, reports from the front from those of us who've done it once, and maybe again, but are never certain if we'll be able to find that route again. Still, we can always hope — and you should, too.