Why Writing a Book Isn’t as Scary as It Seems

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Ever since you went through that angsty phase and spent hours locked in your room, typing away at “your zombie novel,” you’ve fancied yourself a writer. But it turns out there’s more to being a writer than spending several hours every day talking about “your craft.”

Yes, the difference between fantasizing about writing a book and actually writing one is a harsh but surprisingly simple reality: You just have to sit down and do it.

Elizabeth Castoria knows a thing or two about this. Her first book, How to Be Vegan, came out on April 22, 2014, so we sat down to chat with her about what the schedule, skills, and (slight) insanity this endeavor required. Spoiler alert: Writing a book isn’t as scary as it seems!

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Where did you go to school and what did you study?

For undergrad, I went to the University of San Francisco, where I double majored in English and Spanish. I also went to grad school at The New School for an MFA in Fiction.

Where did the idea for How to Be Vegan come from and how did you go about writing the book?

The idea actually came from my editor at Artisan Books, Judy Pray. She had noticed the upswing in popularity that the vegan lifestyle has had in the last few years, and wanted to add a lifestyle guide to their catalog. Thankfully, I’d met Lia Ronnen, Artisan’s publisher, a few years ago, and they called me with the idea. Obviously, I was thrilled to accept the gig!

From there, things moved pretty quickly. Judy and Lia called me in January, and the first draft was due in April, so I basically sequestered myself in coffee shops and at home on nights and weekends for those months. I had a full-time job at the time, too. On nights when I wanted to really let loose and get wild, I’d go to the gym for some time away from my computer screen. So glamorous!

What was your writing experience before this book? What do you think it takes to make the transition from writer in another capacity to author?

Before the book, I’d been the editorial director of a magazine, a columnist in a small town paper, and a very intermittent freelancer. I’d written feature articles, a few really fun interviews, sidebars galore, bazillions of blog posts, and had a few short fiction stories published.

Honestly, in terms of the actual writing, the only real difference between the book and everything that preceded it was the scope. Once there was a deadline in place, writing the book was very much like writing anything else—it just involved sitting down and doing it.

What was a typical day like for you while you were writing?

This is a rough approximation, but most were something like this:

8ish am: Get up, attempt consciousness, dress, maybe eat something if I was being like, really really good, and head to work.

9am to 12:15pm: Put together a magazine, with all the fun and nuttiness particular to that job.

12:20pm: Fiendishly stalk the new products closet for snacks.

12:30pm to 1:30pm: Lunch. Sometimes, I’d run home (my office was only three blocks from my house!) and wolf something down while sketching out inspiration pieces for the illustrations in the book. Side note: thank god for professional illustrators.

1:35pm to 5:30ish: Finish that day’s magazine work. About 60 percent of that job was creative, so my brain was usually pretty tuckered after a full day.

6pm: Is today an exceptionally productive day? If yes, head to the gym for a spin class. Thrills! If not, slog the three blocks home, change from work pants to cozy pants, open up the laptop, and start typing.

8:30pm: Stare bleary-eyed at computer. Wonder why words are no longer appearing on the screen. Realize I’ve had no foods. Stumble to kitchen and either explode with gratitude for the dinner my boyfriend has cooked, or cobble together some sort of (significantly less fancy) food for myself.

9pm: Watch TV online. Half-read stuff on the internet. You know, the procrastination of our time.

10:30pm: Attempt another section/page/sidebar/SOMETHING for the love of crackers on the book.

Midnight: Try to fall asleep. Sometimes, success. Others, time to start pacing the apartment, thinking of more to add to the book!

Which skills, education, or experience would you say were most helpful in writing the book?

It’s really a combination of education and experience. Through the MFA, I really honed in on how to develop a voice—maybe the most important key to delivering information in a way that’s enjoyable for readers—and then got to apply that training during my time at the magazine.

How did you decide on your undergrad major?

I double majored in English and Spanish, which I feel like is a kind of cheating, since I was basically doing the same work in both programs, just in two languages. I waffled around on what major to declare for a while, and eventually picked English because, honestly, it seemed like the easiest thing. Then the Spanish followed because I’d studied it in high school, and thought having a double major would be “cool.” (I have a decidedly Hobbesian understanding of what cool is.)

You’ve been employed as a writer in several capacities. Can you give a brief overview of what you did in each role?

Oversaw content. So, at VN, that meant the mag, website, social media, and newsletters. For KrisCarr.com, that meant helping out with blog posts and social media. This meant either writing or assigning the content, working with freelancers, columnists, and designers. The higher up the masthead I moved at VN, the less actual writing I did, as my job shifted more toward management and editing. I’d still occasionally write features, blurbs, sidebars, or copy, and then of course I had the pleasure of writing the editor’s letter. Like I mentioned, I had a big hand in developing the editorial voice of VN, which was a fun challenge.

  • Freelancer/Columnist

Being a freelancer is much more like writing fiction—you get rejected. A lot. And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean that you suck or that your ideas don’t have value, it means that whatever you’ve pitched is not the right fit for that particular publication/client at that particular time. As a freelancer, you get to mold your writing for the needs of your client, which is also really fun, whether it’s writing calendar listings, marketing copy, articles, or social media content. Basically, a career that involves writing in pretty much any capacity is a really fun challenge.

What advice would you give to college students interested in pursuing a career path similar to yours?

When I was in school, people would assume that I was going to be a teacher when I said I was an English major, and I knew I didn’t want to do that, but also didn’t have a clear idea of what I did actually want. In many ways, I’m glad I took the easy route—doing something that comes naturally to you isn’t a bad thing. I’d sometimes feel guilt or shame for not becoming a doctor or a financial analyst or some other lucrative, scientific career—and now I can definitely say that feeling was total BS. Sure, I’d like still like to study other fields, but I’m glad I didn’t torture myself with subjects that would have driven me completely insane and simultaneously made me feel super inadequate. It’s okay to use school to hone your natural abilities and not force yourself into something that you feel you “should” do. In fact, that might be the whole point.

In terms of how to follow this career path, yikes. I never set out on a path, I just made a series of decisions that compounded each other. Do the stuff that seems right to you. For instance, I took an unpaid internship and moved back in with my parents at 26. I felt really old and crazy for doing it at the time, but it ended up being a pivotal moment in my career. The internship was at the magazine where I continued to work and progress for the next six years, which led me to have the knowledge, experience, and connections to write the book. Make your choices, and then work really stinking hard. Being nice to people is never a bad idea, either.

What’s something you wish you’d known about writing a book before you’d started?

Actually, I wish I’d known how (relatively) easy it is. Is it as easy as sitting on your couch eating chocolate? No. But is it neurosurgery? Also no! I was always someone who’d dreamed ambiguously about writing a book, but once I had the job and the deadline and sat down to do it, it was really manageable. It’s so easy to mentally build your goals into these monstrous, insurmountable challenges. But when you actually just do the work, they can be very attainable.

What are your plans after your book comes out on April 22?

Dance party, naturally! After I’ve imbibed my own weight in Champagne, I’ll come back to reality, where I’m working on a new media project. That’s obviously really vague, but it’s too early to share more, unfortunately!

Homework time! Elizabeth talks about discovering that a lot of goals seem a lot harder than they actually are. What do you have in your life that you’d like to achieve? What habits or systems can you put in place to achieve it?

P.S. Want to learn more about Elizabeth, read her blog, or order her book? Of course you do! Stop by her website for all that and more.

Image of How to Be Vegan cover courtesy of Artisan.

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