How do you write a book?


People ask me a lot. Actually, they usually ask, “Where did you find the time?” But, it’s pretty much the same question. I’m obviously not the most prolific author that you know. I’m just starting out. But, I do have the answer to how I wrote the first one.

(By the way, the most prolific author that I know gave me a stern command: “Quit the blog. It’s draining all of your energy.” But. She knew my blog.)

I was wondering how to do it a couple of years ago when I moved to D.C. I went from a Solo pastorate to an Associate, so I no longer had to write a sermon every week, but I didn’t want to give up that discipline of regular writing. I used to sneak down to Politics and Prose, which has nightly readings, and listen to the authors. Usually someone in the audience would ask, “How did you write your first book?” I began to see a thread. Here it is:

The author had some sort of need. The stories were pretty amazing. It was rarely sheer determination (unless there were children who needed support). Usually there was a mundane need involved. It was stuff like, “My coworker wanted a pool. His kids were really bugging him for a pool, so he asked me if I wanted to write a book with him. So we sat down and I co-wrote my first book.” (Carl Hiassen)

For me, my needs are much smaller than pools. Because…well…I would love to sell like Anne Lamott and Sue Monk Kidd, but I’m just starting out. So I needed a dishwasher. I got one. Now that my book is selling well (or at least it does well when Amazon’s not sold out of it…which has been every freaking day in the last week…), I need roof.

The author got up in the morning. There was some physical weirdness that forced the person to get up before anyone else. Insomnia. A cancer that didn’t require a lot of treatment, but did require a regular dose of steroids. Something like that. Ted Kooser got up at four in the a.m. and went to his barn to write and watch the geese fly by before he left for his insurance job.

Hearing these stories broke the writer’s myth in my mind: I didn’t need to have Hemingway’s schedule. You know, get up in the morning, work until noon, drink the rest of the day….

My physical weirdness? I have Epstein Barr and my body reacts poorly to caffeine. So, I fall asleep early most nights. Which means that I wake up early most mornings.

What? What’s that you say? You have no ailments that would give you such a bizarre schedule? Okay, then. Here’s my plan for budding artists and authors who have no time:

(1) Figure out a need. That shouldn’t be hard….
(2) Turn off the television. I know. It sucks. The Daily Show and Colbert Report are never as good the morning after. But just thank God that we live in the day of YouTube and iTune downloads. If you feel completely left out of all cultural references, you can still watch the shows without staying up all hours of the night.
(3) Get a cat. Not a cat person? Even better. Do not declaw the cat.
(4) Set your alarm clock for 4:30 a.m. every morning, and feed the cat at that time. Do this for a month.
(5) Do not nap. Resist the temptation.

Congratulations! You now have an extra three hours in your day.


13 thoughts on “How do you write a book?

  1. Well, you found a good publisher! A friend of mine received 10 free copies and a hundred dollars for her first book of poetry. Her second netted her a grand–and she had to buy her own book!

    My challenge, besides having nothing I want to write about that anyone else would want to read, is that I’ve carefully trained my cats into thinking they don’t get fed until 8:30. Am I required to get a new cat? What about the rule about more than 2 cats per human making one a crazy cat lady? Dilemnas!

  2. You are so right Susan. It’s not such a lucrative endeavor…. I got a little advance (thus the dishwasher) and a box of books.

    But Alban is a good publisher. I appreciate that they stuck their neck out for a young, unknown writer. And now we’re going on to our second printing. Woo Hoo.

    About the cats…hmmm…that is a dilemma. You know, the Simpson’s crazy cat lady is a Yale graduate.

    But maybe the new cat could actually be like a horse for CB. You know… another accessory!

  3. Oh yes, clergy barbie does need a horse…..

    I have only recently discovered the beautiful world of watching TV shows online instead of live. I love it. I check my email during commercials (which are shorter than the real commercials are). It doesn’t get me to bed any earlier, but it allows me to read at night, when my concentration is at its highest, and watch TV on Sunday afternoons when I’m pretty much brain-dead anyway.

  4. the first commenter is right, too. sigh. I would like to write a book. I’m not going to get up at 4:30, I’m just not. But, I like a LOT of what you are saying. And, thanks to the blog, I do have some raw material. But, I think your friend may be right too.

    Actually, I’m thinking I need some kind of a coach.

  5. Carol…
    A dog is also a good alarm clock. I haven’t used one for three years since we got our black lab – and he also is good for occasional sermon subject matter. He gets very high ratings – as sermon material not as an alarm clock.

    Perfect timing on the blog today – I am trying to decide what to do with my paper from my three weeks at the Cathedral….rewrite it in book format…or go back to school for a more education on the psychology of the listener and learner??? hmmm. I think I have more to learn….but I am up at those hours as well so I might as well do something creative. The morning just invites creativity!

    I have also recently recommended your book as a possible resource for a pastor’s week this summer – so I hope we are helping the orders a little bit up here in MA. A couple of folks are ordering it I believe – to read it, before we decide. I would love to use it as a discussion guide for the program – the chapters and discussion guides are great. Your chapter on the different financial challenges that the different generations face is great – and I love it that you encouraged economic understanding – in place of the judgment that the older generations seem to bestow on the younger ones. You write so well, with great insight and good tools to actually use the book in our churches. Keep writing!

  6. I personally disagree that your blog is a drain on you. I think your blog is great fountain of resource for another book. You have so many chapters already written. Think of the millions of people who haven’t read your blog and whammo an instant audience for your next book.

    A good friend of mine used his monthly magazine columns as material for some of his books.

    I have passed on your blog about the cycles of life, used it in sermons and a devotion. I’ve also used your blog about persuing God during the past week. Hey, if I can steal from you, you can certainly steal from yourself. Of course, I did give you credit as the author, but everyone knew I was only bragging since you’re my daughter.

    Also, one of the worst things a writer can do is to stop writing. Daily disciple of writing is a great thing.

    When I was writing, I used the method of three finished pages a day. That worked for me even when I was working full-time and had a teenaged daughter still at home.

  7. Diane,

    You have great material. I love reading your blog. How about a reading group? Ruth Everhart made a general announcement at a women’s clergy gathering, and within a month, we had a wonderful group: Jan Edmiston, MaryAnn McKibben Dana, and Karen Blomberg. It’s been a source of great wisdom, encouragement, and deadlines for me.

    Not everybody’s a morning person. It was just a revelation to me that I am. I used to drink, like, a gallon of coffee to stay awake all night at seminary so I could finish a paper. Now I know I would have gotten twice as much done if I had gotten up at 5.


    I remember your dog well from your vivid sermon. Your homilectical process of modeling is really fascinating, and I can’t think of anything else that’s been written on it. It seems like there’s more and more interest in narrative sermons right now (i.e., narrative sermons appeal more to people in a postmodern milieu), and modeling would be an important part of that conversation.

    And thank you so much for recommending the book. I’m glad it’s been helpful. It’s on sale at Cokesbury right now. It’s still out of stock at Amazon, but Cokesbury’s got it for 12.75.

    Speaking of modeling. I watched mom write three books on a typewriter. Now that takes sheer determination…

  8. She wrote, Sons for King Yah, Mothers are People Too, The Secret Life of a Housewife, and she was the ghost writer for Jill and Pat Williams for Love Her, Like Him.

    Unfortunately, the last one didn’t work out too well, since it was a book on marriage, and Jill ended up leaving Pat with 19 children…. But mom still has one claim to fame with that one: it was a series of books that Jerry Jenkins wrote for. You know Jerry… THE Jerry Jenkins of apocolyptic Left Behind fame?

    That’s just two degrees of separation for me…

  9. Funny you should be sharing this link today (I hopped to your twitter profile b/c I needed to read something before I delved into the pile-o-work on my desk). I was just working this morning on my “play blog” about play writing. I too have been told to stop blogging, just write the book. I’m getting readier to do that wake up at 4:30 thing, or 3 pages a day. I might bookmark this as a good reminder.


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