how to start writing a book

By Caroline Crampton,

Published on Jan 24, 2022   —   4 min read


In the last few months of 2021, I sold a book. This was the culmination of, no exaggeration, years of work. Mostly on myself, rather than the book.

To give you the timeline: I sent a page long summary of the idea to my agent in November 2018. She was enthusiastic. I slowly started researching the subject matter to put together a proper proposal that could be pitched to publishers. Over the next two and a half years I worked on this document sporadically, adding material in great bursts of energy and then ignoring it for long stretches. One day I wrote 6,000 words in a huge rush fuelled by the Muse album Black Holes and Revelations and then didn’t look at what I had written for three months. Every time I saw a new book or essay with related subject matter the knot in my stomach would twist tighter.

The pandemic didn’t help, but why would it? Lucky people like me who were physically and financially comfortable were writing entire novels and giving birth to babies despite being in quarantine, but I found it near impossible to finish my chapter outlines. I am an expert at what might be termed “productive procrastination” — that is, filling up my time with other work so that I sadly don’t have any time for riskier, more challenging writing. And that is what I did. The last two years have been my best as a freelance writer, in large part because I was not-writing my book proposal.

I’m not sure when the switch flipped, but early last summer I had the blindingly obvious realisation that if I wanted to be someone who had published books, plural, then I would have to be the one to write them. It was a true epiphany, in the sense that I felt that my future had been revealed to me and I didn’t like it much. I remember having to get into bed mid afternoon with a cup of tea and let the idea slowly drip through my mind and body. The main difference between the writers I admired and me was that they were doing The Work — that tedious grind of showing up for a project that doesn’t exist yet — while I was merely gesturing towards it.

I had been signed up to the writer Jami Attenberg’s newsletter for years and it was there that I found my next step. I have been a fan of her work since she published The Middlesteins: A Novel in 2012 and I was aware that she periodically runs an accountability challenge called 1000 Words Of Summer. Writing 1000 words a day for two weeks would finish the book proposal off. I mentally committed myself to doing it. Crucially, I made this decision public and posted my word counts on my Instagram story each day. It worked: after fourteen days, I had a rough but complete account of my book idea that I could begin licking into shape.

A few weeks later, I was on holiday in Scotland when Granta, the publisher of my first book, made their offer and I knew that this new book would one day exist. I walked around Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye in a daze, the pace of it all giving me a feeling like whiplash. After two years of barely anything, it had taken two weeks to turn out something that a company was willing to pledge money for. I tried to salvage an iota of satisfaction from the sea of self recrimination. If I had tried harder, sooner, would the book have happened more quickly?

The answer is no. It has taken me over a decade of being a professional writer to learn this, but there is a difference between writing and typing. Writing has many stages and almost none of them happen while I am sitting in front of a computer. The flashes of insight when reading someone else’s work, the sentences that float unbidden through my mind when trying to sleep, the realisations that come while walking — this is writing. What I did during those two weeks of intense work on the book proposal was typing up the thoughts that had been coalescing for the previous two years.

Selling a book is a rush, I can’t pretend otherwise. After a long time alone with the idea, suddenly the writer is in meetings where everyone wants to tell them how wonderful their proposal is. It is undeniably validating to find out that experts believe the concept you love is one that other people will love too. There is a pleasing flurry of conversations, negotiations and signings.

Then you are left alone to write it.

And that is where you find me now, once again sitting at my computer, alone, not-writing my book. Now that we are in the last stretch of this year’s January days, my intentions from the first week of 2022 seem laughable. I declared this “The Year of the Book” and vowed not to repeat the mistakes of the past. I would reduce not increase the amount of other work I had to do. I would make progress every day, no matter how small. I would not get into that familiar paralysing funk. Above all, I would be honest about what had to be done for the book to exist even if that was terrifying. Except I haven’t started yet.

It helps to think about it in the past tense, I have found. In a year’s time, I will have written a book about hypochondria. It will happen slowly and gradually. I won’t enjoy every minute of it, but there will be times when nothing has ever felt as good as transcribing my thoughts about imaginary illnesses. I will cry about the events I have to document and I will swear about how hard it is to get hold of seventeenth century medical textbooks.

I won’t do it alone. You are subscribed to this list because at some point you were interested enough in my work to put your email in a box and click ‘OK’. What I send you has taken a variety of forms over the years, and I have always felt guilty about my lack of consistency in format or publishing schedule. No longer, though: No Complaints is whatever I need it to be, and for the next year it is a diary for The Year of the Book. It is my accountability partner and my space to think aloud. I’ll ask myself questions and you can ask me some too. This time, it’s where I’m starting.

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