How I did it: I'm a writer. Lots of people are writers. You're probably a writer, given that you're looking at this. But being a writer and actually writing don't always go together. It's the gap between intention and action. And tackling something as big as a novel, especially when you have a full-time job and a host of other responsibilities and distractions, is just plain hard.
When I was growing up, my dad talked a lot about stick-to-itiveness. This, he told me, is the key virtue behind most of life's greatest successes. Talent's not enough. You need to have dogged perseverance to make your way past the vast legion of hurdles, small and large, that are bound to stand in your way. I eventually reached the conclusion that this virtue of tenacity is not among my natural gifts. I much prefer quick wins. I'm a dabbler. Busting ass to overcome major obstacles just isn't in my blood. I like to think it is, but then I come face-to-face with a mountain, and I find myself looking for another way, or deciding that what I thought I wanted doesn't seem so important after all.
If you're lucky enough to have a great idea for a story, a strong impression of what shape it should take, and plenty of time to work on it, then writing a novel may not turn out to be the marathon it is for most people. But the rest of us typically go into it with an exciting but vague notion, lofty ambitions, and not nearly as much time as we pictured we would have. The writing has to be squeezed into nooks and crannies of life, and keeping any momentum can be really, really hard. There are bursts of truly thrilling progress, followed by the sense that you're really getting somewhere, followed by the realization that you don't know where to go next, followed by weeks of disjoint reflection, followed by periods of outright neglect, and guilt, and a profound sense of failure... and then you either give up completely or you buckle down and try to get back into it.
As it turns out, I had two great assets that made all the difference for me. First, I had a cat who insisted on waking me up an hour-and-a-half or two hours before I really wanted to be awake. My initial reaction was to be grumpy, angry, and generally negative. He had plenty of food and water. His litter box was clean. He just wanted me to be up. If I tossed him off the bed and closed the door, he would feel cut off from his safe place, and would claw at the door or yowl like a trapped wild animal. Fighting him just didn't seem to work. So, I would move from the bed to the couch, and try to get a bit more sleep. But I would rarely fall back asleep. I would read email, browse the web, or maybe even go into work early, until I realized he was really giving me a gift. Here I was, with the house to myself (he has no problem with letting my wife sleep), and nothing I was supposed to be doing. Tired as I was, I opened up my laptop and started writing.
And it worked. I found that I could edit recently written scenes, crank out at least a little bit of new material, and stay engaged in the writing process enough to keep my head in it. Ideas would come to me during my commute to work, and I would jot them down, knowing I would have time the next morning to weave them into the book. It gave me the extrinsic motivation I needed to keep up some momentum.
But there were still the bigger hurdles. The times of profound, soul-rending self-doubt. The sense that my story was pointless, and nobody would be any better off for having read it. Had I been a painter, I would have slashed the canvas. When faced with this kind of artistic despair, being meowed at, walked on, and clawed at 5:30am doesn't really get you anywhere. These are the times when you need someone who believes in what you're doing, who can remind you of the potential of your story when all you see are its shortcomings. Lucky for me, my wife really liked what I was writing, and she convinced me -- many times -- that I shouldn't trash the manuscript and move onto something else. Instead, I should push forward, even if it meant a few false starts, and some tough revisions, because she could see that I had a good book on my hands.
From the day of my first notes to the day I published the book, it was almost exactly eleven years. I can't tell you how many times I stopped and started, nor how many times life got in the way, but I eventually made it happen. The book, Upload, went on to win a Foreword Reviews 2012 Book of the Year Award for Science Fiction, and I'm now working on a follow-up.
It was a dream come true for me, and I hope it will be for you, too. Read how I did it… 5 days ago