How to be a Writer, if you must

We were the only non-writers in the room. We sat in the back, the waaay back, behind 25 other wanna-be authors.  My friend JoAnn and I signed up for the How to Get Your Book Published class believing we actually had a prayer.  Yet as we heard about the other students’ magazine pieces, short stories, and newspaper articles, our confidence was diminishing by the minute.

We almost snuck out the back.  The nonrefundable 55 bucks we’d paid for the two-night course was the only thing keeping us in the room.  When the instructor got to us, JoAnn went first.  She said, “I’m here because my crazy friend Lisa thinks she can write a book and asked me to help.”

With that ringing endorsement, it was my turn.  I faced the room of professional writers and said, “I’ve never really written anything except some funny Christmas letters.  But I’d like to write a book to help women be less insane.”  And just like that, I was back in the childhood role of class clown, sitting behind the smart kids.

I hated to write in school.  I went to the University of Georgia because, at the time, it was one of the few colleges that didn’t require an essay.  Years of teachers critiquing my poor spelling, incorrect grammar, horrible handwriting and endless typos had convinced me I couldn’t write.

So how did I wind up being an author?  It started with me receiving one of those horrible, over the top, holiday letters.  You know the kind: Bill got promoted, he now runs the Universe, Sandy is at Harvard getting straight A’s, little Mikey is an opera protégé, and here are our photos from Hawaii.  It was nauseating.

I thought, someone should write a letter about real life.  So I did.  I wrote about our kids getting head lice, and giving it to the entire swim team. I wrote about the Orkin man telling us he wouldn’t treat our ants again if the kids kept leaving half-eaten lollipops around.  And I wrote about my daughter refusing to leave the bench during soccer because “you have to run too much.”

Within days, people were calling me laughing out loud.  This was the early 2000s, before the mommy bloggers exposing the dirty secrets of motherhood, and holiday greetings on Facebook.  The next year I did another one.  People began asking me to send multiple copies so they could share.

Armed with the wild success of three holiday letters, I decided to write a book.  The two-night class paid off.  By the end of the second class our book proposal was done.  We had an agent within six months.  Two years later our book, Forget Perfect, was published by Penguin, and sitting on the front table of Barnes & Noble.

People often ask me, how do you write a book?  In the time since that class, I’ve published five books and thousands of articles, here’s what I’ve learned.  Writing is divided into three parts:

The writing itself, which can and should be emotional, if you want it to be interesting.  Good writers care passionately about their subjects.

Editing, which needs to be ruthless and practical.  I love the editing mantra; sometimes you have to kill your darlings.

Lastly, selling, which takes work.  Some writers believe selling your book cheapens your craft.  I don’t.  I believe selling demonstrates your belief in it.

So, if you want to be an author, write like a lover, edit like teacher, and sell like a businessperson.