Navigating the Sandwich
Publish Your First Book at 56
Allowing yourself to write “badly” for a half-hour each day may do the trick
In the summer of 2018, at age 55, I decided to publish a book. It was my first unless you count the unfinished 60-page manuscript about card-playing mice I started when I was nine. I’d been a freelance writer for years — essays, articles, bad screenplays — but I’d never managed to achieve the goal I’d set when my mother put a little black journal into my seven-year-old hands.
My book-writing aspiration got sidelined when I divorced, became a single mother, and went back to school to become a therapist. I told myself I was too busy, and too old, to write anything longer than 1000 words.
But the truth was, I was scared. Whenever I thought about the book I wanted to write — a self-help guide to empower people going through a high-conflict divorce — my creative urges wafted into the ether. What if I didn’t have anything important to say? How would I convert my jumble of ideas into something that made sense? What if readers thought the book sucked?
After grumbling to a colleague that I was “too busy” to write a book, he challenged me to do just that. He told me to spend a half-hour a day working on an outline and then meet him in a month to show him what I’d done.
Having an accountability partner forced me to bypass the perfectionistic harpies in my head. I started outlining the book in July 2018 and published it in May 2019 when I was 56.
If I could write and publish a book while working full-time, raising a teenager on my own, and hacking through a thicket of self-doubt, you can too. You just need a plan.
- Do market research. Know who your audience is and what genres are popular. Amazon’s “Best Sellers and More” link is a great resource; it will tell you which books are the most read and most sold, by category.
- Figure out your “elevator pitch.” If you can’t boil down your concept into a pithy one or two lines, you’re not ready to write. Rehearse your pitch, then run it by people to get their reaction. Friends may not be your most discerning audience, so find a professional in the writing and publishing world.
- Choose traditional vs. self-published. The writing process for a traditionally published book is different from a self-published one. With the former, you generally write a first chapter and an outline of the rest of the book and then you pitch to agents. With the latter, you write the entire book, find an editor (I hired a great one through Reedsy, an online author services firm), and self-publish on Amazon, as well as other self-publishing formats. I took the self-publishing route because I wanted to retain the rights and a higher percentage of the royalties. There are pros and cons to each, so study the publishing industry and find out which is right for you.
- Get an accountability partner. This was one of the key factors in starting and finishing my book. Having to report my progress to someone meant I could no longer procrastinate. Because I was writing a self-help book, I chose another therapist who had writing experience as my accountability partner. His feedback let me know what worked and what didn’t.
- Set deadlines. If you’re self-publishing, you’ll need to be your own task-master. Choose dates when you’ll complete different milestones: outline, first draft, final draft. And do something special for yourself when you meet each goal.
- Write for a half-hour a day. If you have time to write more than that, great! But if you work full-time as I do, a half hour to 45 minutes is a more realistic goal. So close your Facebook and Twitter windows, sit down with a cup of coffee and set your timer. You’ll be surprised how quickly a book can come together by writing just half an hour each day.
- Allow yourself to write badly. Rarely, if ever, does a writer dash off a fabulous first draft that requires no editing. If you marinate in a vat of despair over the unwieldy paragraphs in Chapter One, you’ll never make it to Chapter Two. My aim while writing was to get as much down as I could during my daily half-hour, and worry about making it good later.
- Create a marketing plan. Unless you’re J.K. Rowling, you need to be in charge of your own marketing plan. This is true for self-published and traditionally published authors. My sales would probably be double or triple what they are if I’d really understood how to get my book noticed amid the glut of information facing the public. There are lots of resources available, in the form of coaches, online programs, and books, so make sure you have a solid market launch plan in place before you publish.
My book may never be an Oprah’s Book Club selection, but that’s not why I wrote it. I wrote it because I didn’t want to look back at the end of my life wishing I had.
Virginia Gilbert, LMFT is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Los Angeles. She specializes in sexual issues and divorce (although not necessarily at the same time. Her new book is “Transcending High-Conflict Divorce: How to Disengage from Your Ex and Find Your Power”.