Six Life Lessons Learned from Writing a Novel

When we create something, we borrow against life. Moves, careers, relationships, and what to have for dinner are all bigger or more immediate concerns than working on some nebulous dream, and it can be hard to set them aside and find time to follow our passion.

Which is why, on the occassion of the release of my sci-fi novel Chawgirl Rising, I wanted to share what I learned in the seven years it took me to write the darn thing.

The Short Story

I started the book on my 30th birthday as a gift to myself, wrote most of the first draft over the break between Christmas and New Years in 2010, and then spent the next six years revising the manuscript.

The Longer Version

Here’s what took so much time to put 135,000 words together:

  • The setting shifted from Texas to India on the advice of a blunt, cantankerous writers’ workshop leader whom I need to thank for the advice
  • I left my old job and started a business, which became busier than I ever thought it would
  • The characters morphed from desperate cowboys to desperate Indians (with all of the accompanying shifts in belief systems)
  • I took on ghostwriting projects to cover my expenses and wrote eight other novels in the course of two years
  • The second half of the book was completely abandoned and replaced because it was telling a different story than the first
  • I started getting up at 5 am every day to write, which left me exhausted and grumpy
  • Shakti, the titular Chawlgirl, entered the book as a character
  • I went to several different novel workshops and pitched to/shared the manuscript with dozens of people. The results of these sessions led to emotional states ranging from “I’m pretty good at this” to “I’ve wasted x years of my life”
  • I changed the title at least 100 times
  • 81 drafts came and went
  • I waited close to 18 months for feedback from a number of agents I respected, did heavy rewrites based on their feedback, only to have them all eventually decline to represent me
  • And, as always, life continued to intervene

It’s that last point that I want to talk about today, because there are plenty of other people out there working through a massive, seemingly impossible project. And for those of you who are I hope you find some help in what I learned from writing my first novel.

What I Learned from Writing Chawlgirl Rising

1. Your vision, and how/whether you achieve it, depends on you alone

The only one who will truly understand every nook and cranny of what you’re trying to create is you. The neurons that fire when you think about your project live only in your mind, and ultimately you are the only one who will be able to bring your passion to life. If you don’t do it, no one else will.

This fact can be isolating. Choosing to spend time working toward your goal instead of, for example, hitting a happy hour with your coworkers is difficult. And a lot of people, including those closest to you, may not understand your decisions. They’ll try to help by offering advice, but those suggestions may pull you in a direction that doesn’t feel like the vision you have in mind.

Ultimately, remember that you are doing this project to satisfy something within yourself. You alone will be the best judge of how you should achieve your vision and what you’ll need to do in order to get there. You can choose to respectfully agree or disagree with the advice you receive along the way, just remember to trust yourself when trying to satisfy those (possibly mis-) firing neurons.

2. If you’re only working for yourself, you’re working for no one. Involve Others

Now, this may sound like a contradiction of my first point, but it’s an important distinction. While your vision is your own, you don’t want that vision to make you a hermit. People want to be involved in projects. They want to help. Not everyone will be able to help all the time, and their interest may wax and wane, but you’ll find that if you share your project, others will join your journey.

This help might come in little gestures like cooking dinner, or in direct support like (in my case) the countless friends who read some half-baked version of the manuscript and offered their feedback.

But the point is to have the courage to share your deepest passion. Yes you may fail, and yes someone may think your idea is stupid. People won’t understand what you’re trying to do or won’t like the direction you took. But their feedback, and your decision about how much to listen to it, is part of the journey of giving your project life beyond yourself. Creating something big is frequently uncomfortable and difficult. The support of others along the way is invaluable.

3. The creative process is really just work

Here’s a typical scenario from some of my darker writing days:

  1. Wake up at 5 in the morning, exhausted.
  2. Squint at the computer screen and think about going back to sleep for 15 minutes.
  3. Wonder why the hell I can’t think of what to write next
  4. Write a little. Maybe a paragraph
  5. Get frustrated that I have a headache and the writing is terrible. Consider quitting
  6. Write a little more because I have to
  7. Save the file and go to my day job frustrated because I’d written crap and just set myself back by another day

But then a funny thing started to happen. I’d go back and read those 5 am sections and realize that they were actually pretty good. And even if I’d throw them out, if I’d never written them in the first place I wouldn’t have had any place to start improving. Gradually, the book got better before dawn.

My point in sharing this story is that the feeling of inspired creativity is a very fleeting part of the creative process. Inspiration will push you to start, but what gets a project finished is hard work. Nothing more, and nothing less. If you wait for inspiration to start on your vision, you’ll never get where you want to be.

On a related note, our perception of the quality of our work is often influenced by our physical or emotional state at the time. And that perception will change daily. Your work is never as good or as bad as you think it is at the time. As long as you’re actually sitting down and doing the work, you’re making progress.

4. Time spent on your project, of any quality, is positive. Find as Much as you can

We started this discussion talking about how life affects bringing a vision to life. There will be days when you have ten minutes or less to work on your project. And when this happens, take that time. Do whatever you can to keep your mental juices flowing toward your vision.

Of course, the more time you spend on your project, the better. And finding that time requires you to be much more intentional about your day. A few tips:

  • Eliminating your commute by working from home can save hours
  • Stop watching television/aimlessly browsing the internet. You’ve got bigger plans
  • Don’t give yourself time to procrastinate. Start working as soon as the screen flicks on and you’ll settle into your most productive mental state as quickly as possible
  • Try working on your project first thing in the morning so that you’ll have always made progress before your day gets away from you. Don’t be afraid to wake up early.

Understand that how you spend your time is a choice. At the end of every day, ask yourself did what you do that day get you closer to your larger goal? If it didn’t, you’re spending your time in the wrong ways.

5. You have to know that this is all you want to do

The first time I knew I wanted to be a writer was in kindergarden at recess when I had the choice of playing soccer or reading a book I’d brought. I chose the book, and I remember two things: the book had a picture of a salamander that only had two legs, and I wanted to make books because they were fascinating.

And that feeling festered in me and wouldn’t leave. I majored in English in college. I wrote short stories off and on after graduating, but my itch still wasn’t scratched. And when I hit my 30th birthday I knew I was ready to stop wasting time and get serious. In hindsight, I wish I’d started earlier because it was a beast of a project.

What I learned was that big projects require sacrifices, and you have to be ready to make them. So before you begin consider whether working on your dream is something you have to do to be happy. If not, it might be better for your mental health to never start.

6. Big projects get done with discipline

One of my favorite writing quotes of all time is from John Updike:

The pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again.

Here’s what Updike is saying: you will spend beautiful summer days hunched over a laptop. You will turn down brunch invitations because you don’t want to lose a whole day of writing in a haze of mimosas. There will be times when you choose to spend time on your project instead of with your spouse or family. You will not like having to make these decisions, but unless you do you won’t get anything done.

And without discipline, you’ll never finish what’s important.

So push yourself. The only one in charge of achieving your dream is you, and you can do more than you ever imagined.


I hope you’ve found these tips helpful. And I hope you enjoy Chawlgirl Rising. I’d love any comments you have and look forward to the next adventure.

Thanks for reading.



PS, about that second half of the book that I scrapped, you’ll see it resurrected in a novel that will be out much sooner than 2024 🙂

One Comment Add yours

  1. Brian Pagano says:

    Great work and great retrospective. There are definitely life lessons for people to learn from achieving a unique and laborious goal.

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