Inside the Book-Writing Process: How I Wrote a Book in the ‘Edges of Time’
Here's the truth about how I wrote a book while taking care of a newborn.
“Should I write a book? (lol)”
That’s what I wrote in a random pocket journal on Sept. 9, 2018. The “lol” was added probably because my life looked quite different than it does today, and there wasn’t an ounce of my being that thought writing a book was in the cards.
In 2018, I was working as a reporter and The Profile was still only a tiny newsletter I wrote on the side. (I was also young, wild, free, and very inefficient with my time lol)
Never did I actually think I would write a book. Yet here we are!
Since announcing it, I’ve felt every emotion in the book — excitement, terror, and joy. But most of all, I’ve been in awe that so many of you decided to buy it months in advance. I cannot thank you enough, and I feel incredibly lucky to be part of the community we’ve built together over the last 5 years.
I recently invited you — the readers of The Profile — to submit your questions about the book-writing process. The questions were excellent, so I took my time to thoroughly answer them (and even enlisted my editor Chris Parker from publisher Harriman House to weigh in!) below:
To what extent is an author like a songwriter who performs? Did your audience research tell you they wanted the tunes they had already heard and could even sing along to? Or did your audience tell you they wanted the new words and the future you?
I don’t know why, but when I read this question, I thought of what playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda once said: “I like the quiet it takes to pursue an idea the way I pursued 'Hamilton,' but I couldn't write a book, because there's no applause at the end of writing a book.”
I have a different take on this subject. Unlike Miranda, I thrive in the quiet that it takes to pursue an idea. I told my husband that even if I don’t sell a single copy of this book, it would’ve been worth it because I learned so much in the process of organizing my ideas and clarifying my thinking. The quiet is what thrills me, but if people enjoy the book, then that’s the cherry on top.
To answer your question more directly, there’s a mix of old and new. I included some timeless lessons I’ve learned over the years, but I also conducted new interviews from people whose fresh ideas updated my own.
I’ve always seen myself as the ‘songwriter’ because the applause from the performance isn’t as gratifying to me as the grittiness of the writing process itself.
Can you share the process of how you signed with a publisher, and what it entailed?
Chris Parker, who’s a senior editor at the London-based publisher Harriman House, reached out to me on Twitter after he saw a thread I wrote on Canva CEO Melanie Perkins. He told me, “If your thoughts ever turn to writing a book, we'd love to chat with you.”
We did a call, and once I decided to work with them, I sent a one-page book proposal that included things like the book title, my bio, my distribution stats, a book summary, my target audience, and several sample chapters.
The team at Harriman House offered me a contract and said, “We're confident in you and the proposal, and though we'd recommend a few adjustments and developments (completely up for discussion!), we don't think they will be problematic.”
The “adjustments” were around the framing of the chapters. I had initially pitched a book around mental models, but it didn’t feel right because “mental models” are oftentimes stuck in the theoretical. As I told Chris, “These are some great points (especially the "mental models" terminology ... I agree completely and am actually very relieved that I won't have to write a "mental models" book haha).”
After all parties signed off on the contract, I got to work on a sample chapter, and the rest is history.
You said that you wrote the book in the “edges of time.” It really struck me, and I was wondering what the shortest amount of time you had available that you actually used to write in. How do you recognize these pockets of time to use so efficiently?
Well here’s the thing: I wrote so much of the book in my head, and that (of course) wasn’t done at a desk.
So for example, while feeding the baby at 3 a.m, I would get a breakthrough idea about how to structure a chapter or I would be on a walk and think of a detail I wanted to include. So as I went about my day, I would jot down these tiny ideas in the notes section of my phone. Once the baby was taking a nap, I would sit down at my computer and transfer the notes from my phone and work through it in Google Docs.
The shortest amount of time? 19 minutes of typing before she woke up.
But I have a secret: I don’t create an outline before I start writing. That’s because I think as I write, and I don’t know what I want to say until I’m putting it on paper. It’s like going on an adventure, but you’re not exactly sure where you’ll end up. And that is my favorite part of writing. And sometimes, as I write, there’s a war brewing within: I *think* I believe something, but then as I write, I realize I don’t believe that at all.
When I start a chapter, it feels like I’m starting with a jumbled jigsaw puzzle, and it’s my job to arrange it into something coherent. With every chapter, I didn’t set out teach. Rather, I wanted to learn something new, which means that the reader will likely learn as well.
So to answer your question, I’ll tell you this: Figure out how your brain works first. I literally visualize the pieces of information as being these puzzle pieces that somehow have to fit together in a nice way.
Once you realize what that is for you, then my advice is to start right away. You don’t need perfect conditions to begin. It could be while you’re driving, taking a shower, or exercising. If you allow your brain to think without structure, you’ll naturally begin making connections and coming up with ideas.
I’ll leave you with this from Stephen King:
“There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy dust all over your typewriter or computer screen. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in.
“You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think this is fair? I think it’s fair.
“He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist (what I get out of mine is mostly surly grunts, unless he’s on duty), but he’s got the inspiration.
“It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.”
At what point did you consider the first draft complete?
I finished it on June 28, 2022 and sent Chris the final manuscript on June 29. But what followed were endless emails with, “Can we change this?” and “Can we edit the wording here?” I continued fact-checking and tweaking words and sentences over the next few months.
I remembered something author Stephen King said about first drafts. He believes that it should take someone three months to finish a first draft because if it takes longer, you’ll lose motivation and attachment to your work. He then prescribes six weeks of "recuperation time" after you're done writing, so you can let the work simmer in your brain and be able to more easily identify holes in your narrative.
I did something very similar. The more it simmered, the more new ideas came to me. But of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows.
This is how I felt, according to a message I sent to a fellow author:
(The answer was “yes.” So if you’re at this stage, know you’re not alone.)
What was your favorite chapter to write and why?
I’m really proud of the chapter on relationships, mainly because it’s unlike any chapter on relationships that I’ve previously read. I wanted it to be practical, so that the readers could put the techniques into practice as soon as they were done reading it.
The chapter offers a formula for earning trust, a framework for defusing conflict, and a ‘magic ratio’ that enhances the positivity in your relationship. It pulls together lessons from people across business, entertainment, and psychology, including psychotherapist Esther Perel, investor Charlie Munger, actor Hugh Jackman, and more.
It was enjoyable to write because I got to revisit one of my most popular articles, “100 Couples Share Their Secrets to a Successful Relationship,” and elaborate more on the idea that love is not just an emotion; it is a skill.
Because it was a really fun chapter to write, I think it will also be a fun one to read.
What do the publishers look for when one is an unknown first-time author without a large social media following? Is it worth it to seek out a publisher, or should I just go the self-publishing route?
“We can’t really speak for fiction publishers, though people in the industry with their finger on that particular pulse (e.g. Harry Bingham at jerichowriters.com, an excellent resource for prospective fiction writers) say that neither fame nor social media are critical for debut novelists. Of course, no publisher in any genre would be upset about an author having a large following—but novelists are signed all the time without one.
“Nonfiction is a bit different. It’s all about ideas, and an author really needs to have started building an audience interested in those ideas before going to the effort of writing and releasing a book. This is true whether they work with a publisher or self-publish.
“The most obvious reason is marketing. Selling your book to readers is tough. You’re going up against millions of other books—not to mention competing for people’s time with TV, movies, late-night Twitter scrolling, etc. A book is not really the right way to build an audience from scratch. Most people aren’t waiting to discover new books by authors they haven’t heard of—and even if they were, that discovery process itself would still require some level of visibility. It’s a real fight to be noticed. Every book has to surmount a wall of indifference.
“However, you don’t need to have finished building an audience by the time you publish—it’s also a really good way to grow an existing audience. A well-written book, aimed at an audience who like your work, is a terrific way to build word of mouth and a virtuous circle of ever-increasing readership.
“A less obvious—but no less crucial—reason for working to build an audience before writing a book is that the process of doing so will help you refine your ideas and develop your voice. And it will give you a better idea of the burning questions to answer, and a deeper pool of fascinating stories to draw from.
“Ultimately it leads to a stronger book with a greater chance of finding its audience—the upsides are considerable.
“There are always outliers and exceptions to the rule, of course, but self-publishing isn’t the best way round a lack of existing audience—you're likely to suffer even more from the visibility issues mentioned above.”
Why does it take 6 months from the time you completed the book for it to be published?
More details from Chris and the Harriman House team:
“Some fiction publishers do experiment with eBook-first releases, but we find it’s better for a book if it’s released in all formats simultaneously—it maximizes a book’s chances of rising above the noise and finding its readers.”
How many outside editors did you work with?
My editors were Chris & the Harriman House team, my husband, and my parents. I wanted an array of viewpoints that would reveal my blind spots and clarify my thinking (and my writing).
I wanted the book to be accessible but not overly simplistic. I hate it when authors use pages and pages to explain a concept that the reader can understand just as well in two sentences. I hope mine is a book anyone can enjoy.
The best compliment I received came from my dad. He said, “It’s a book I would like even if it wasn’t my daughter forcing me to read it.” That’s the equivalent of a 5-star review in my book! 🤣
What stage of the process was the hardest?
There was one point where it felt like the deadline was breathing down my neck. I started to feel overwhelmed with how much more I still had to write. I panicked and then spent every free second focusing on the book and thinking through what was missing and what I wanted to add.
It was a blessing in disguise because I do my best writing when I’m on a tight deadline. (That’s probably why I was drawn to the daily grind of journalism.)
I was so focused near the end that it almost felt like tunnel vision, but it also came with a dark side. During the final week, I got a debilitating headache that felt like a constant piercing stabbing. It went away on the day that I turned in the book draft.
Anyway, I learned that if I didn’t truly love writing, I would never be able to finish a book. I’m now convinced that we do hard things well only out of love, not obligation.
How long did it take to formulate the first sentence of your book?
The first sentence of the book is hilariously simple. The sentence is found in the introduction, which is a personal account of how I learn, why The Profile exists, and what this book has to offer.
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t always write in order. In fact, I rarely do. Sometimes, I start at the end and work my way to the beginning or I start in the middle and piece together the sections around it. That’s what happened with the introduction. I knew how I wanted to end it, but I didn’t know how I wanted to begin.
So that first sentence was the last one I wrote.
What does your day/schedule look like? I know it isn't easy juggling work as well as being a mother and also having a social life! Feel free to be as specific as you can.
Even this post that you’re reading right now took me three days to write when normally, it would’ve taken me a few hours. I’ve learned that with a baby, everything takes two (or three or four) times as long, but you’ll always make time for your priorities. To me, my daughter, The Profile, and the book are priorities, so I’ve figured out a way to give my energy to all three.
For instance, when she’s awake, I try to be present. I’m not perfect, but I sit on the playmat and read a book and point out the dog on the page 70 times in a row. Other times, I get distracted and have to pull her away from getting into the freezer.
When she’s sleeping, I write. While I was writing the book, I would use her short naps throughout the day to work on The Profile newsletter and then when she went to sleep at night for writing the book (because that was usually a longer stretch). But as I approached my deadline, I was using every single nap to finish the book.
Here’s an example of what a day looked like during the book-writing process:
7 a.m: Wake up
9:30 a.m: First nap = writing time
10:00 a.m: Baby awake
12:30 p.m: Second nap = writing time
1:10 p.m: Baby awake / go on a walk & listen to a podcast
3:00 p.m: Third nap = writing time
3:30 p.m: Baby awake
7:00 p.m: Baby asleep for the night / I maybe do 30 mins of exercise, have dinner, and write for the next three to four hours before I go to sleep.
11 p.m: Sleep
(BONUS: 3:30 a.m: Baby wakes up, and I’m 💀💀💀)
Of course, there were some days when my husband took care of her so I could write for longer stretches of time, but this was the normal daily schedule. So in total, I would get around 1 hour and 30 minutes to 2 hours of uninterrupted writing during the day, and then four hours at night before I went to sleep.
As you can see, there wasn’t a ton of time for socializing, but when I wasn’t on a book deadline, we could get a babysitter at night and go to dinner with friends, and sometimes my friend Ana would come over during the day so we could work together.
I think the key to time management is to understand which things are temporary and which are not. I saw finishing the book as a sprint. Yes, it’s grueling and difficult and you have to give up some things, but it’s also temporary. Once I was done, a ton of time freed up and I was able to go back to my regular schedule with writing The Profile, watching the baby, and seeing my friends.
As I wrote in January, I have time to write because I make time to write. Katherine Boyle, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, recently said that motherhood has made her more productive — not less. “It made me more creative, better with time management,” she writes. “It gave me the superpower of saying ‘no’ to the priorities of others. It made me speak up for the things I believed in when I would have been more polite before.”
One technique I learned from Bridgewater co-CEO Mark Bertolini is around auditing your calendar. Ten years ago, Bertolini wanted to implement a regular yoga and meditation practice, but claimed he had no free pockets of time in his schedule. So he conducted a calendar audit.
"If you track your time — for just two weeks — and you keep track of what you're doing, you'll notice all sorts of points in your day where you're wasting time," Bertolini says.
When's the last time you took stock of your time? Take an honest look at your calendar, and ask yourself: When do I actually work? How much time do I spend mindlessly scrolling through Twitter? Do I schedule too many meetings? Awareness is always the first step.
Remember, in life, there’s no “balance,” but rather, a shifting of priorities.