A working mother’s guide to writing a novel
A dozen years ago, my editor at the Los Angeles Times asked if I wanted to interview novelist Mary Gordon, who was in Los Angeles on a book tour. Enormously pregnant, I said yes, partly because I love Mary Gordon and partly because her hotel was two blocks away from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center — if I went into labor during the interview, I figured I could just walk.
Given my state and Gordon’s sympathetic nature, our conversation turned toward the difficulties of working and, in particular, writing mothers. I confessed that having tried and failed several times to “Write That Novel,” I feared that now I’d never do it. Nonsense, she said. (I believe she actually used the word “nonsense.”) She had written her first novel, “Final Payments,” with two young children. Motherhood was exhausting, distracting and consuming, but it also made you very, very organized. “You will be amazed what you can get done in a free hour or two when that is all you have,” Gordon said.
And she was right. That first child is a shock, but eventually six hours of interrupted sleep feels normal, you find day care you trust and accept that you now have two full-time jobs. You learn how to carry on three conversations at once while making breakfast, packing the lunches and getting ready for work. Your floor may be a mulch of cheese-stick wrappers, tangerine peels and stray socks, but you know how to dissect a day and work a calendar.
And so, eventually, I began to write fiction again. It took three tries — the first book was so bad I couldn’t get an agent, the second got an agent but no publisher, and the third, “Oscar Season,” was published by Simon & Schuster. Now there’s a sequel, called “The Starlet.” Both are Hollywoodish books, but while some readers want to know if the characters are based on real stars or actual events, more of them just want to know how I did it. How the mother of three children with a full-time job, an employed husband and no nanny managed to write a novel.
So here’s the answer: It’s very difficult. But so is losing 30 pounds or learning French or growing your own vegetables or training for a marathon or any of the many other things working parents often manage to pull off. While it’s tempting to keep the idea of writing wrapped up in a glittery gauze of muse-directed creativity, it’s just another sort of work, one that requires dedication, commitment, time and the necessary tools.
So like any good working mother, I’m offering you a list of what I think you actually need. (You will notice this list doesn’t include “an idea”; I’m going to assume you have one of those.)
1. A supportive partner. I know single working mothers who write, and they are superhuman savants and out of my league. I couldn’t have done it without my husband, who is also a writer. Rejection makes it easy to quit, particularly when you already have a job, but after that second book did not sell, he forced me to give it one more shot. I told him I would need three hours every day to do it, and because I cannot think before 8 a.m., it would have to come in the evening. So for more than a year, I went off the Mommy clock at 8:30. Richard was in charge of bedtime, and I sat down at the dining room table and wrote until 11 or 11:30.
2. Kids who read. It helped that the children could understand what was making Mommy so cranky — she’s writing a book! (Frankly it made more sense to them than my job as TV critic, which they still refuse to consider work.)
3. Kids who are involved in activities that require practice of more than one hour. Somewhere in the editing process of “Oscar Season,” our third child came along and the nighttime schedule stopped working — Mommy can’t ignore a nursing baby no matter what time it is. So, much of “The Starlet” was written on soccer fields, gymnasium bleachers and during choir rehearsals.
4. A laptop. I used to believe in the organic power of the pen on paper, but unless you have your own personal transcriber, who has that kind of time? Laptops are the modern woman’s equivalent of Virginia Woolf’s famous room — they can turn any room you’re in into your own. I blush to disclose that I did a lot of writing at our local Starbucks (memo to Starbucks: Turn down the music).
5. A daily goal. The important part of this phrase is “daily.” You have to write Every Single Day, and I mean it. Obviously there are exemptions for death and illness, but it’s like dieting or working out — if you start skipping one day or two, it’s all over. Some writers go by pages — three pages a day seems common. I go by time. Two hours is ideal. One is better than nothing, three is the maximum.
6. The ability to mentally multitask. Instead of vegging out during your commute or while grocery shopping, you need to use this time to work on character and plot. Mostwriting happens only in your head, so any time you are doing something relatively mindless, you should be secretly writing. It helps to take notes — I rediscovered the grade-school joys of writing on my hand.
7. The willingness to give up a lot of other stuff. Whatever you have as your “me time” is now history. Hour-long workouts? You could be writing. Lunch and or dinner with friends? Ditto. Hobbies of any sort? Forget them. Vacations? Take them, but take your laptop too. (Cruises are good because they have child-care centers that the kids actually like and then your partner has some time too.) My husband and I try to keep a date night, but while I was writing “The Starlet,” that often meant getting a baby sitter so we could go sit in a café and work for three hours. So romantic.
8. Patience and a stiff upper lip. It takes a long time to write a book. A year, two years, three years. Then you will have to rewrite it. And cut out at least two of your favorite parts. I guarantee it.
9. Discretion. Of course you want to tell everyone that you’re writing a book, and whoever you tell will then be forced to ask what it’s about (only a few will honestly care, by the way). But talking about writing a book is not, as it turns out, the same as writing a book. In fact, it often proves to be the opposite of writing a book. Likewise, don’t ask anyone to read anything until you’ve got an actual story. As in a beginning, middle and end. People can’t help you until they know what you’re trying to do, and fussing over the details is not a luxury you can afford until you’ve told your story.
10. Realistic expectations. I suppose there is someone out there who could write the Great American Novel while working full time and raising three kids, but I’m not her. My two books are Hollywood mysteries, which I didn’t have to research because I have written about the industry for years. I think they are very good books, well-written and fun to read, but they aren’t going to win a Pulitzer. That will have to wait until the kids head to college.
Oh, and writing a book does not, by the way, guarantee that you will be the next Elizabeth Gilbert or Dan Brown. And although this seems like simple common sense, it comes as quite a shock to some. But if you’re a writer, you don’t write for money or fame or a chance to dish with Oprah Winfrey. Basically, you write because when you’re not writing, you’re even more cranky than when you are writing. And as my kids can tell you, that’s saying something.
McNamara’will be at the West Hollywood Book Fair Sunday in a panel on “Risky Biz-ness: Fiction That Celebrates and Satirizes the Entertainment Industry” (10:30-11:30 a.m.).