It Took Me 5 Years Of Failure To Write My Novel. And That's OK.

by Kate Williams
A blonde novelist smiles while wearing a wide pink sweater
Photo credit: Ivy Reynolds

Five years ago, I decided to quit my job to write a book.

I knew I wanted to write a YA novel, had wanted to write one forever. I’d already ghostwritten a few books, and had tried to write novels in the past. But all my previous attempts at writing fiction hadn’t gotten much further than 50 pages before I started looping back to the beginning, tweaking and rewriting, putting off the much scarier task of continuing to write new material. I swore that I wouldn’t do that this time. Nor would I fall into a rabbit hole of endless preparation, making mood boards, outlining plots, or toggling between different word processing programs to see which 'felt' best. I would just write.

And I’d finally realized I couldn’t do it with a full-time job. If I was ever going to get my novel written, I needed to quit the company where I had been working for the past year, and go freelance.

I emailed the company's founder to schedule a time to talk, and five minutes later, she was standing at my desk. I could feel myself starting to sweat. I was not dressed for success — I was wearing a sweatshirt with a giant weed leaf on it, even though I didn’t smoke weed. I had thought it would take weeks, not minutes, for us to find a time to talk, so I hadn’t really rehearsed what I was going to say. It all came tumbling out.

I waited for a smirk of skepticism — there was no way she’d be pleased about this. But actually, she was stoked. “This is so cool,” she said as she leaned over to give me a hug. “You could be the next JK Rowling!”

Her reaction wasn’t an isolated incident. My direct boss and several members of my department even took me out to celebrate on my last day. People knew I was quitting to ‘follow a dream,’ and they went out of their way to congratulate me.

The next morning, I woke up with a hangover and, for the first time in 12 years, no place to go on a weekday. It was now on me to make the dream real. “Oh god,” I thought to myself. “You’d better write this fucking book.”

Photo credit: Ivy Reynolds

So that’s what I started to do. Sitting in an un-airconditioned garage during LA summer, I wrote in every spare minute I could find. I cut my social life in half, adjusted to life on a freelance budget, and soon, it seemed like it was all paying off. I surpassed 50 pages, then doubled and tripled it. I plunged forward, and at the end of every writing session, I’d stare at my bulging word count with pride.

My head-down, nose-to-the-grindstone approach meant I didn’t have time for a lot of things like, oh, reading other YA books. And I definitely didn’t have time to read any books about how to write a book. Granted, I’d read Stephen King’s On Writing — where he dismissed outlining and planning, and extolled the virtues of inspiration — but I figured all other writing books, the ones about plot structure and character development and theme, were for amateurs.

I, on the other hand, was a professional. I’d been publishing for more than a decade (two decades, if you count from the expose on pagers I wrote for my high school yearbook), so I didn’t need someone to tell me how to write a book, right? I knew what I needed to do, and that was to just write.

When I finished my first draft, I patted myself on the back, then got down to drafting again, and again. Fearing that premature feedback might dissuade me or distract me, I never let anyone read anything. When I knew something was bad, like the draft that ended with a boat chase down a river of sludge in a demon underworld, I threw it out without bothering to seek a second opinion.

I did this for two and a half years.

Because of my work as a ghostwriter, I’d been able to land an agent based off of a summary and 50 page sample of my book. When I finally felt like I had a draft good enough to share, I sent it to her, with multiple exclamation points in the subject line.

I had never been so proud of myself. Maybe this book would be so good and make me so famous that people would come crawling out of the woodwork to praise me and apologize for making fun of my scrunchie in sixth grade. I tried to stay humble while mentally designing the tie-in theme park.

In addition to my agent, I had hand-picked a few readers who I thought would really like my book. I briefly wondered if I should have everyone sign an NDA, since I didn’t want anyone to try to steal my masterpiece and pass it off as their own, but ultimately, I decided that wasn’t a very friendly vibe. So I just spent almost $300 having copies of my manuscript spiral bound, and sent them off.

I’d laid my innermost creative thoughts out there, and they sucked. It felt like sending a drunk text and getting no reply—a 110,000 word drunk text that I’d spent years composing.

I’d given my readers six weeks to finish my book and send me their thoughts, which I figured was more than enough time, since they were probably going to blow through it in one night anyway. Every day, I checked my inbox for the “OMG, THIS IS MY NEW FAVORITE BOOK!!” emails that I was expecting to receive, and every day I got nothing but dog forwards from my dad and a few Urban Outfitters promotions.

After a few weeks, I got an email from my agent asking how I would like to receive feedback. “I want to present it in the least stressful way!” she wrote. I read this line, and reread it, with a growing tightness in my chest. She probably was not going to say, “This book is perfect and amazing.”

When we got on the phone, she laid it out for me as nicely as she could: I had no plot, and no sense of setting. My main character took no action throughout the entire book, my second main character was just a watered-down trope, and having my protagonist shake her fist and yell “Damn you!” at the sky wasn’t exactly the cliffhanger I had envisioned.

My agent was careful to keep her tone positive and her words encouraging, but the message was clear: What I had wasn’t a novel, but a 300-page idea sketch comprised of non-sequential scenes cribbed from after-school specials and action movies. She still thought my book had the potential to be a good book, it was just going to take some work. A lot of work. I resisted the urge to ask if she was going to fire me, and thanked her for her time.

Shortly thereafter, I got notes from the one reader who managed to finish my spiral-bound atrocity. Her feedback was clearly cautious, and included several specific callouts that were so obvious they made me flush with humiliation, even just sitting alone at my computer.

Throughout my career, I’d always prided myself on my ability to receive feedback without taking it personally. But this was different. This wasn’t writing I’d been hired to do for a client. It was personal. I’d laid my innermost creative thoughts out there, and they sucked. It felt like sending a drunk text and getting no reply — a 110,000 word drunk text that I’d spent years composing.

“This is the point where most people would quit,” I told myself. “So just don’t do that.”

I stared at the massive Google doc that had been almost perpetually open on my desktop for the last couple years, and felt like a fraud and failure. I had no idea what to do next. “This is the point where most people would quit,” I told myself. “So just don’t do that.”

It was time to learn how to write a book. So I started reading how-to books written by all those writers I’d never heard of. Doing so made me feel like a cliché and an amateur, feelings I tried to brush off until I remembered that the whole reason I felt like this wasn’t because I was reading these books, but because I was a cliché and an amateur. No matter how much writing I had done, I hadn’t done this before, and the only way to do it was to start at the beginning. Just like everybody else.

Whereas I had once shunned advice, now I couldn’t get enough. I googled “how to write a book” daily. I read articles and went down hashtag holes on Twitter. I downloaded worksheets and filled them out by hand. I made a spreadsheet with more than a hundred columns and planned out every scene in the book. I turned a wall of my house into the analog version of this, with different colored Post-Its and lines connecting scenes and characters. It was very conspiracy theory. “If I come home and that thing has stretched into the living room,” my husband said, “I’m shutting it down.”

Photo credit: Kate Williams

And I read YA. A lot of YA. Previously, I’d avoided reading anything that might be similar to what I was writing, because I didn’t want to be too influenced; I wanted to create something pure and untainted by the outside, commercial world. This line of thinking was total BS. In retrospect, I was probably just scared to see how high the bar for publishing really was. Now, I resumed the reading habits I’d had as a teenager, checking out stacks of YA books from the library and plowing through them at a rate of about one a day. I read bestsellers and others that had barely made a dent.

As I did this, something started to dawn on me. Reading was a transcendent experience, but I had treated writing like a chore. Creating characters and building a world required a to-do list, sure, but also a certain amount of alchemy to bring it all to life. How could there be magic on the page if there was no magic in the process?

Photo credit: Kate Williams

I needed inspiration that came from the divine, not just Pinterest, so I headed to House of Intuition, LA’s metaphysical mecca, to have my chakras balanced and my energies unblocked. I also made a shrine — an overturned cardboard box draped in a shawl and stacked with tarot cards, teenage mementos, beads, candles, smudge sticks, and pictures of my holy trinity: Stevie Nicks, Clarissa Darling, and Buffy. Every day, I’d take some time to sit in front of it, clear my mind, and meditate. “Dear goddesses,” I would say, blowing sage smoke in Stevie’s face, “please help me write this fucking book.”

Eventually, when I felt ready, I started to write again. I kept a few character names, and a couple of scenes, but for the most part, I started over from scratch. I consulted my writing books every step of the way, and spent hours, sometimes even entire days, doing nothing but tweaking my plot outlines. When I finally finished my second first draft, I hired a freelance editor to help me tear it apart and write yet another one.

Eight months after I first sent the novel to my agent, I sent it again. When she told me that this latest draft still needed a lot of work but that it was headed in the right direction, I was overjoyed. I sat down to rewrite it again and this time, I was able to keep chunks of several pages at a time.

The only way to fail was to stop; everything else was success.

I no longer know how many drafts of the book I wrote. It’s probably around 10, and I started over at page one for at least four of those. When I started, I accepted only one definition of success — JK Rowling and Stephen King — and categorized everything else as failure. By the time my agent finally submitted the book to publishers, I would have sold the book for a Chili’s gift card and counted it as a major win. The only way to fail was to stop; everything else was success.

Credit: Penguin/Random House

I would not recommend my writing process to anyone else, but I also know that all the pain, time, and wasted spiral bindings were necessary. I needed to be humbled. I needed to learn what it was like to keep working really, really hard, even when you know there are no guarantees. It’s a lesson that’s hard to learn in our culture of likes and apps and swipes, but that’s life. When it comes to love and friendships and family and jobs and cities and dreams, and books, instant gratification < the gratitude of not giving up.

My young adult novel, The Babysitters Coven, will finally be published this fall, and I have no illusions that it is perfect. It might not even be all that good. But it is mine and I did it. I wrote a fucking book.