In July of 2020, after a particularly stressful work call, I decided to write a book. This had long been a dream of mine—one I believed I’d never fulfill. For 16 years, I’d been an editor at media outlets such as Refinery29 and Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper, but in the midst of our first pandemic summer, it felt urgent to reclaim my creativity.
I needed to write something for myself. Four months later I sent my manuscript to beta readers. By January of 2021, I signed with my dream agent, and in March of that year, my debut novel Every Summer After was sold at auction in a two-book deal.
If your reaction to this is, “Carley, please go $*&% yourself,” I completely understand. (Also, you’ll be pleased to know that writing my second book has been a much slower process.) Each writer is different and what worked for me may not work for you, but here are a few things that, in hindsight, helped set me up for success.
I developed an excessive reading habit.
It sounds simple—that if you want to write a book, you need to read—but I don’t think it goes without saying. When I was on maternity leave with my first child five years ago, I took a stab at a novel. I gave up before I finished the first chapter. I realize now that my biggest problem was that I hadn’t been reading
I gave up on books for much of my adult life (something I’ve written about previously), but in 2019, I found my way back to fiction. When I wasn’t working or parenting, all I did was read, read, read. I stopped watching TV—books became my happy place. I wasn’t doing so with the intention of one day writing my own novel, but I was reading with an editor’s eye—picking apart the pacing, structure, voice, what I liked and didn’t like.
So, when I sat down to write Every Summer After, it was like I’d already given myself an intensive 18-month crash course in fiction.
I set a goal for myself, but I kept my expectations low.
Once I decided to write a book, I gave myself a goal with a clear deadline: To finish a draft by the end of the year to send to an agent. Not something perfect, but something good. The aim, really, was to finish the thing, and the prospect of sending it to an agent made it concrete.
I didn’t set out to write the best book, or the smartest book, or a book that would sell a bajillion copies. I set out to complete a book that I could be proud of, to do something I’ve always wanted to do. I wanted the experience of writing to be as low-stakes as possible while also having a reason to keep going.
There was no pressure, and that made the process so enjoyable. Writing was a selfish act, a gift I gave myself.
I established an easy-to-hit word count target.
I’m a goal-oriented person and setting an achievable daily word count target was key to my success. I researched the average length of a manuscript for a book in my genre and divided that by the number of days left in the year.
For my romance/women’s fiction debut, I aimed for an 80,000-word draft, which meant I needed to write 388 words a day to finish it by the end of the year. I’ve worked with journalists who file daily stories with original reporting at much longer lengths, so 388 words seemed manageable, especially when those 388 words didn’t have to be perfect.
I had a full-time job and a small child, so I wrote mostly between the hours of five and seven a.m., as well as evenings and on weekends. Some days I soared above the word count goal and some days I reached it and slammed my laptop shut. I didn’t belabor each sentence and I didn’t go back over the previous day’s writing.
Each day I wrote, I pushed forward. As an editor, I knew I could improve it later.
I wrote every single day.
When I’m drafting, I don’t like to take days off. Other writers prefer writing when they’re inspired or have enough energy to tackle the manuscript. I had a daily migraine while writing Every Summer After and a brutal case of pregnancy insomnia—if I only wrote when I felt up to it, I’d rarely write.
I’ve worked in media for well over a decade—to me, writing is work. It’s creative work, but it’s not any more special than any other job. In order to do it, you just have to do it. That’s why setting a regular schedule is key.
For me, making writing a part of my daily routine kept my head in the manuscript, but it also made writing something I do, rather than something I decided to do each day. Sometimes making a choice (Should I write? When should I write?) takes almost as much mental energy as actually doing the thing.
I sent the manuscript to a small group of beta readers.
Once I was happy with my draft, I sent it to a small group of trusted readers—people who I felt somewhat confident would tell me if it was a huge disaster (in a way that wouldn’t make me cry). One was an avid reader, another was an editor, and the third was a writer.
I gave them a series of questions I wanted them to think about while reading, asked for big-picture notes, and gave them a deadline for their feedback. I incorporated some of the stuff that I agreed with, but the notes I wasn’t sure about, I put to the side to be discussed (hopefully!) with an agent and editor.
I reached out to other authors.
I knew very little about the book publishing industry—so little that I sent the book to a friend’s agent who had kindly offered to take a read and figured that was that: I had met my goal! I finished a draft and sent it to an agent. I hadn’t spent much time thinking about the publishing side of writing a book because I didn’t think the book would ever be published.
But then a friend of mine told me to smarten up and suggested I reach out to authors to find out how the querying process actually works. In other words, I needed to take myself seriously. The authors I spoke with gave me invaluable advice and I ended up submitting the manuscript to a handful of agents whose names I’d read in the acknowledgment section of books I love.
I’ve found authors to be a generous, supportive bunch, full of wisdom about navigating the publishing journey. Make author friends. Send a note and ask for a chat. I also whole-heartedly recommend listening to the podcast The Shit No One Tells You About Writing for the best advice about querying agents and writing compelling first pages. But in the end, I’m glad I didn’t worry about getting the book published while I was writing. The writing came first, and everything else followed.