20 ways to NOT write your first book

December 6th, 2011 | Blog Uncategorized


Ever since I announced my book deal, I've had a LOT of people ask me if KEEPER OF THE LOST CITIES is my first book. And… technically it is.

I'd written a few not-so-good screenplays and the first 1/3 to a very bad grown-up novel (me? writing for grown-ups? seriously–what was I thinking?????) before this, but KEEPER is the first book I've ever finished.

However, you should NOT take that answer to mean that I cranked out this story and–bam! A few months later: awesome book deal with dream editor!!! That was most definitely NOT the case. And since I'm all about keeping it real, I thought it was time to share the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth with you guys as far as just how NOT insta-success my writing journey truly was.

So strap yourselves in because in order to properly do that we have to rewind allllllllllllllllllllll the way back to February of 2007. (Yes, really) That's when the idea for KEEPER first came to me.

Two of the main characters were actually part of a short story I was working on. But the more I thought about them, the more I realized they had BIG EXCITING STORIES TO TELL. And even though I knew this series would be incredibly challenging to write, I also knew that it was “The One.”

So I started with research. Lots and lots and lots of research.

Every single one of these journals is FILLED with notes, brainstorms, and other odds and ends written in super tiny print. I also put google and wikipedia to very thorough use, printing up all kinds of (often boring) articles and writing lots of notes for myself in the margins.

It took me until December of 2008 to reach a point where I felt like I'd figured out all I needed to figure out in order to tell the story. Then it was time to start writing. Too bad I had NO idea how to do that.

At first I was just sort of… playing around. I'd pick a scene that interested me and I'd write it. I didn't work in any sort of order. I didn't try to connect the scenes together. I'd created a file called Master Draft 1–but I psyched myself out of pasting anything into it because it felt like if I put something in there it had to be PERFECT. So I just kept creating separate scenes in separate files. Which is how I ended up with 103 deleted scenes before I ever wrote one word of a real draft.


Mind you, many are the same scene written 7, 8, 9 different times. But yeah. NOT a smart way to write a book.

I stuck with this ineffective writing method until April of 2009, when I went to Project Book Babe. Then I got to hear real authors talk about their approach to drafting and realized, I'm doing this ALL wrong. More importantly, I realized that I really, really, REALLY wanted to be a published author. So it was time to get my butt in gear and actually write this dang thing for realz.

I came home from the event and started Master Draft 2. And this time I started at the beginning and just wrote. But about halfway into the book I realized yeah… something's wrong. So I copied and pasted the few salvageable parts and started Master Draft 3. Got about halfway into it and realized I was on the wrong track again. Rinse and repeat with Master Drafts 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10, with each draft falling apart by the time I reached the middle. And by draft 10 I was getting afraid that I'd never figure it out.

So I went back to brainstorming. Reread all my idea journals. Read a truckload of other middle grade novels trying to learn what they were doing right. And after a few weeks I finally had an epiphany. It wasn't that something was WRONG with my idea. It was that something was MISSING.

I'd held back too many of my ideas, thinking I should save them for books 2 and 3. But I hadn't done enough with book 1 to make anyone want to continue with the story. So I needed to go back and add MORE.

Which… basically meant throwing out everything I had and starting all over AGAIN. But at least I had a plan this time!

Well… sorta.

It took me Master Drafts 11 and 12 to figure out the best way to properly weave the new plotlines in. I'd also started working with crit partners, and they caught several fundamental plot and craft mistakes, all of which made me go back and re-write a lot of things to fix those errors. So I didn't actually type “The End” and have a complete draft of the entire story until Master Draft 13.


That was in January of 2010. And sadly, that was STILL only the beginning.

I queried Master Draft 13 at the end of February. Two weeks later I had an offer of representation from Laura Rennert, my #1 wish list agent. It was very, very exciting. BUT, Laura's offer also said this:

“I want to be completely upfront with you about the fact that there is still work to be done on the ms, so you can make the decision about whether I'm the right agent for you or not. I hope I am!”

She went on to elaborate her revision ideas, most of which involved building on things she felt were currently underdeveloped in the draft–and she was spot on with all her suggestions. So I accepted her offer of representation and she sent me my VERY detailed revision notes (5 single spaced pages!!!).

I worked through each and every note, and sent her back Master Draft 14–which earned me an email that basically said, “you're close.” She also included another two pages of notes, but at that point I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, so I cranked through the revision super quick. Which brought me to Master Draft 15.

I'll confess, I really really thought it was “The One.” So did Laura. And in some ways, it was close. But it still wasn't RIGHT, as we found out the hard way when it started piling up rejections. And in the end Laura told me:

“I think you're extremely talented … and I believe we're going to get there, but maybe not with this iteration.”

Yeah … that was hard.

What made it harder was that I really didn't know where to go from there. All I knew was that I needed to change things–but I had no idea what to change. So I just sort of dove in blind and started tweaking stuff–NOT the best approach to a revision.

Especially since I wrote that revision from a place of fear and insecurity–which was NOT a healthy mindset to be creative. I knew it was probably affecting my writing, but I couldn't squelch the self-doubt. So I just did the best I could, sent off Master Draft 16 and hoped Laura would be happier with it than I was.

She wasn't.

Instead I got what I now lovingly refer to as The Email of Doom. The first sentence was:

“You've done good work on this… I'm wondering, though, if you need to step back and consider going deeper still…”

Followed by 13 (yes–13!!!) single spaced pages of comments/suggestions. And this time she was suggesting BIG changes.

I … cried for an entire day.

I felt like I would NEVER get the draft right–and I wasn't even sure if I wanted to work on it anymore. I was SO tired of tearing my book apart and trying to piece it back together. I didn't know if I could do it again.

So I typed up an email saying, “I give up”–and then emailed my crit partners begging them to stop me from sending it to Laura. They told me to ask for a phone call, and then they helped me brainstorm a plan of attack to discuss with her. Laura and I talked a few days later and I felt a little better and decided to try one. more. time. But when I finally got to work it was still the hardest revision I've ever done.

Every time I opened the draft I got nauseous. I lost a lot of weight. I barely slept. Eventually I caved and asked Laura to check the first few chapters to see what she thought, and definitely cried when I heard back:

“I think you're totally on track!”

And I should pause here and also emphasize that while yes, Laura was pushing me HARD throughout this process, she also did do her best to encourage me. She always slipped little notes like this in her emails:

“I completely believe in you. We are going to get there one way or another.”

And that helped, because I really needed to hear that–and I *tried* to believe her. But it was still a super painful process, and when I finally turned in Master Draft 17 I was a nervous wreck waiting for feedback. Every time I saw an email pop up in my inbox I got a stomach ache, worrying it was going to be another Email of Doom–and wondering if I'd survive it if it was.

But when I did finally hear back, I got this:

“I'm wowed by what you've accomplished with this revision! You've done an amazing job and have been willing to go deep in a way that I know is daunting, and I believe the results are superb”

She still had some small tweaks and adjustments for me (would you expect anything less at this point?), so I created Master Draft 18, made the changes and sent it to her. And that's when she finally, FINALLY said the words I'd been waiting to hear:

“Absolutely fantastic work! We're ready to go, and you've done a phenomenal job with the revision.”

I had to read it three times to believe it. And yes–I TOTALLY cried. But they were happy tears this time. 🙂

It'd taken me 2 years of research and another 2 years of writing/revising–and 18 drafts!!!!–but I was finally, FINALLY done.

Not long after that we went on submission, and I'll admit, after all I'd been through with the project I had a hard time believing it could really land me book deal. Which was why I was totally confused when my phone rang with Laura's name in the caller ID. I NEVER expected her to tell me I had a three book pre-empt offer from an editor whose books I'd admired for years.

But Laura forwarded me the offer so I could see it myself. And it was REAL. And probably the most amazing thing I'd ever read.

Well… until Liesa sent me this, after the deal was finalized and she was officially working as MY editor:

“I did my closer read/edit of the manuscript, and had SO MUCH FUN doing it. Seriously, I loved the book even more this time, which I didn't think possible, but it helps getting to read it knowing it's something that's officially mine now. :)”

And amazingly enough, when I got my edits she didn't have too terribly many notes for me (at least not compared to the Email of Doom). But she did of course have SOME (that is kind of her job, after all). So that brought me to Master Draft 19.

I've never officially created any further drafts for the project, but I did make some changes during copyedits–and will probably make a few more tweaks in the next read-through. So I think it's more than fair to say that when it finally goes to print you guys will be reading Master Draft 20.

Yes, that's right. 
It took me 20 drafts to write my first book. 
And I'm telling all of you that (well… those of you who've stuck with me through this rather lengthy post) because I don't want any of you to ever get discouraged if you have to scrap a draft and start over–or shelve a project and move onto something new. Writing is a process. 
Yes, sometimes that process goes smoother for some authors than others. (Or for some books. So far Book 2 is coming MUCH easier than Book 1). But the majority of the time authors will tell you their journey was a long, hard, revision-filled road to get that first book deal–and that even then it was only the beginning. That's definitely been the case for me.
I'm not embarrassed that it took me that many drafts to write my first book. Sure, it would've been nice if it hadn't been *quite* such a painful process. But that was the path I had to take in order to learn how to tell this particular story. And in the end, all that mattered was that I stuck with it and kept going, despite how brutal it was at times. Which is–in my humble opinion–the secret to publishing success. Keep going. Keep writing. Keep pushing yourself to grow and improve. 
Your journey *may* take longer than you think and it *may* be more work than you expected. But if you stick with it you WILL get there. I promise!

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