How Does Anyone Write a Book?

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.

Seriously, how does anyone do it? When I sit back and think about it, it’s the most insane thing to me. I’m also convinced that nobody actually is a “pantser” when it comes to writing a novel. There’s just no way. I can imagine pantsing a a flash fiction story (because I do it) or a short story (say, less than 10,000 words), but at a certain point, you have to begin outlining, planning, note-taking, etc. There’s no way to keep it all straight and keep it going beyond 10,000 words without the help of those “plotter” techniques.

If you’re not familiar with what’s going on this month (no, not the presidential election in the United States), November is the annual month for the National Novel Writing event started in 1999, where writers the world over try to write 50,000 words in the 30-day span of the month, aka, a novel. That’s about 1,666 words a day, which seems doable at first glance. That would come out to about 100 pages, give or take. So, it’s not even a long novel, at that.

And I know people scoff at writing gimmicks, and perhaps for good reason, but there have been a few successful published works out of the gimmick: Water for Elephants being the most notable example in 2006. There’s been a number of others, but I’m not as familiar with them. So, for example, Water for Elephants came out to 331 pages when it was written, which means, give or take (not an exact science here), author Sara Gruen had to have written about 65,500 more words beyond the 50,000 goal.

Anyway, I tried NaNoWriMo (as its shorthand goes) in 2013, and technically accomplished the feat of writing 50,000 words in 30 days, but the legitimate count was probably more like 20,000, and the rest was pure garbage. I created the account again in 2014, but didn’t write. I tried again in 2016, and only got about 2,000 or so words.

I decided to give NaNoWriMo a real try again in 2020. The first two days I wrote more than 1,666 words for nearly 4,000 words within two days. But, as I suspected, three things interfered and doomed the project rather quickly:

  • First, as I mentioned, I find it inconceivable to write that many words (much less beyond that) without an outline of sorts, which I didn’t do. And to be fair, I went into it pantsing it to the fullest extent because I didn’t have a strong idea to work from.
  • Second, as I’ve also written about, in late June, I restarted the blog, and have dedicated a lot of time and words to it since then. I didn’t want to stop that momentum.
  • Third, I write professionally. I write a lot professionally. That was bound to interfere. I don’t know how anyone “writes a book on the side.” Utter madness.

So, again, when I step back and think about it, I’m left bewildered that anyone writes a book, and more importantly, that anyone writes a good, successful book. More than that, that anyone writes a good, successful book, and then does it again, and again, and again, and again, etc. Even more than that, that anyone writes a great, successful book that stands the test of time.

“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”

–Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

I can be a snob when it comes to those who take the self-publishing route, as I sometimes feel as if it’s not as legitimate as going through a traditional publishing house. That it signals perhaps what was written is not actually that good, if it couldn’t make it through those channels. But that’s unfair for a number of reasons, and further, they still did it! They still did the thing! That thing that blows my mind: they had an idea, they had the discipline to begin writing out that idea, and they had the discipline and ability to expand that idea to 100, 150, 200, 250, etc. pages into a full-fledged novel. Maybe it’s a novel not for me, but the act of being able to do that blows my brain.


Writing a book has always been my dream. It’s the one dream I for certain remember having since I was a kid and first developed after getting into reading books. “I want to do that!” But my goodness, how does anyone do it? It’s insanity. And from someone who hasn’t done it, it sure comes across like magic.

Maybe I’m not disciplined enough. Maybe I’m underestimating how capable I am of doing it “on the side.” Maybe I need to devote more time to actually sketching it out instead of trying to pants it. Maybe I need a stronger overall idea. Maybe I need to demystify it’s magical and dreamlike qualities and do what Kerouac said. Maybe.

To the point of having a stronger overall idea, I think that often dooms me, primarily because I’m not sure what sort of author I want to be. Do I want to write creative non-fiction? Do I want to write genre fiction? Do I want to write literature? A blend of those elements? Hell, I’ve even considered a political book or writing for children (or young adults). So, before settling on an idea, I haven’t even settled on an identity.

I have enormous respect to anyone who writes a book, self-published or not, because they did the thing — that process and that discipline. Whether I would “like” the book or not is irrelevant to that point. Whether I would like Water for Elephants or not is irrelevant to the point that Sara Gruen did the thing.

One day, I hope to do the thing once I figure out how. And I suppose, more importantly, my “why.”

What do you think? Do you ever just marvel at how anyone writes a dang book?

Creative Commons photo.

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