| Don’t Write Alone
Writing Life Publishing Your Debut Book Is Like Baking Croissants—Messy, But Worth It
Outside the publishing industry, I don’t think we spend enough time discussing the labor behind writing a book.
The idea came to me in those hours between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m., when every idea seems like a Good Idea: I should make croissants .
After all, I had the ingredients, text and video instructions from my most trusted recipe site , and a generally solid grip on all the basic techniques.
It turns out there’s a reason nobody brings croissants to a next-day bake sale. Even as a pastry fiend, I think they require multiple times the amount of work and patience that any baked good ever should. I wasn’t even a quarter of the way through the process when I yelled out to my dogs, who were asleep on the couch while I banged away in the kitchen, “I am literally never doing this again!”
It didn’t occur to me in the moment that I had been here before, but I absolutely had. After all, “I am literally never doing this again” was also a recurring theme (if not the recurring theme) throughout the process of writing my debut essay collection.
I don’t like messes. I don’t like waiting. I like to do things neatly and perfectly on the first go. But you simply cannot write a book (let alone publish one) or make croissants if you are scared of mess or unwilling to wait on other parts of the process—dough chilling, dough rising, your editor reading the manuscript and returning feedback, your production team typesetting it—to do exactly what they’re supposed to do too. Time. Patience.
Outside the publishing industry, I don’t think we spend enough time discussing the labor behind writing a book. People may not know what it takes—just as not everybody may be aware of all the work that goes into baking croissants. Day One of baking is easy—you make the dough, knead it into a disk, and leave it in the fridge overnight. Day Two is more tedious and involves combining your dough and a separate butter layer by rolling, folding, and chilling them a total of three times, after which it’s left in the fridge overnight. You don’t even get to bake anything until Day Three.
When I signed with my agent in late 2019, I had roughly a quarter of my manuscript already written. I thought the next step would be to finish the rest of the essays, and then my agent and I would edit the whole thing once, maybe twice, before submitting it to editors. I figured the whole process would take six months at most.
There are more stages involved than even the most well-prepared individuals with a game plan might imagine.
It ended up being close to four complete rounds of edits over a year. Like with making croissants, there are more stages involved than even the most well-prepared individuals with a game plan might imagine. I remember calling up a friend and crying, “You don’t understand! I think I will literally die if I have to read these words one more time .” When my proposal finally went out on submission, certain essays no longer looked anything like their first drafts. Entire essays got cut. One specific essay that I didn’t want to give up on but that I just couldn’t quite nail went through approximately three iterations before we settled on a version that could stand on its own and worked within the context of the collection. In several ways, it became a different book from the one I’d envisioned, with a different title and a different overarching theme. In others it remained the same, with the same particular topics and tone that still ultimately made it my book. I figured out which aspects I wanted to fight for and what I was willing to compromise on—things that become even more important the further you get into the publishing process and the more people start offering their opinions. I was sometimes surprised at which stories made it in and which stories I ruthlessly deleted with eyes closed, but through it all, I kept making sure this was still a book that I loved in spite of all the surgeries that it was undergoing. Every time I checked in with myself, the answer was a resolute yes. It had to be.
After I sold my book, I sharpened the bits that I still wasn’t entirely happy with. Buoyed by some perhaps-unfounded courage, I added a new chapter a week before my first full draft was due. I turned in my draft to my editor. Then I waited, and waited some more, while she read it. Then she sent it back and we had a call to go through our editorial notes. Up until this point, my agent was the only other person who’d read the book in its entirety, and it was both terrifying and comforting to have a new pair of eyes providing feedback and suggestions.
My editor and I sent the whole manuscript (and once, a single chapter) back and forth a few times over the next several months. By the time we moved on to line edits, the hesitant voice of a baby debut author (me) asked if we were actually ready to move on to editing singular lines. I had to remind myself that I trusted my gut and the gut of my editor, and that one of us would speak up if there were any larger weaknesses we felt still needed to be tackled. Then it was sent off to copy edits, which, surprisingly, was the most nerve-racking stage for me, as copy edits are your last chance to make any significant changes. When we moved on to a round of pass pages, where I finally saw my book’s interior pages typeset and laid out for printing, I made myself read the whole thing out loud for the first time. Followed by another round of pass pages. And then, seven months after I sent the first draft, it was done.
I feel like I’m “exposing” the technical (and by definition, I suppose, less glamorous) side of publishing a book, but I also feel like writers should really internalize that old adage that you need to love the book you’re writing because you will be working on it for a very, very long time. My work as a freelancer means that I plan out my calendar far in advance, so one of the first questions I’d asked my editor was what the rough timeline would be. I vaguely knew about each of the aforementioned stages, and yet I still didn’t really comprehend how many stages there were, and how critical each one is, until I experienced it firsthand.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read, edited, wrote, and rewrote my book. There have been times where I’ll read a paragraph and have no recollection of having written it. I guess this is why they also tell you that you should write the book you want to read because you’ll have to read it even when part of you doesn’t want to read it anymore.
At some point in the middle, I felt a sense of overwhelmedness not dissimilar to the one I felt two whole days after I first got my brilliant idea to make croissants.
On that third morning, I rolled my dough into a neat eight-by-forty-four-inch rectangle and, using an actual ruler, marked a spot every six inches where I would cut the dough into squares. Then I cut the squares diagonally into triangles, and—here is where I started to see the light at the end of the tunnel—I rolled each triangle into the familiar crescent shape. Here, and not a single step earlier, is where the thing in my hand at last looked like a croissant. It was akin to the moment that my first-pass pages arrived in my inbox as a PDF and not a Word doc—I hadn’t expected such a small detail to feel so significant. Staring at said PDF, with the publisher’s logo and ISBN and copyright information and official page numbers, I realized—or, more appropriately, remembered—that this was a real book.
When I finally finished my tray of freshly baked crescent moons, I brought them over to my mom’s house, my fingers still smelling like melted butter. I must’ve still looked somewhat disheveled in spite of my pride. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just buy croissants instead of making them?” Mom said with a sympathetic smile. “Seems like a lot of work.” Similarly, every time somebody asked me if my book was “done” yet, I’d say that no, it wasn’t, because I was doing structural edits, or line edits, or copy edits, or pass pages. They’d say with a similar smile, “I know this is your dream , but that seems like a lot of writing and editing.” And it was. There is no other way around it.
Before I learned about the different stages of the production process, when I was told that it would be a year and a half until my book was a physical thing out in the real world, a small part of me wondered if there were so many things wrong with it that my publisher felt we would need over a year to “address” them. It wasn’t until I talked to other writers and industry professionals that I realized this timeline is standard.
I have now seen my book cover, there are advance copies in the world, and, no, I am still not quite done with all of my edits. But what I do have now is a book. It is no longer snippets of paragraphs in my Notes app. It is not stray texts that I send to friends only to take a second look and think, This looks like something that belongs in X essay . I think of that girl who swore up and down that she would positively die if she had to read this book one more time, about how to her, for over a year, this was not a book but a very long Word document that was saved under a name like “Version Revised February 10.” I want to shove one of her favorite books into her hands and say, “Look, kid, do you have any idea how many editing stages and people were involved in producing this one book?”
In both cases, there comes a point where you realize that the only way out is through.
Then again, part of me is glad I didn’t have a realistic idea of how far I had yet to go, that I didn’t know about how many of my darlings were going to be killed over the next year and a half, because it might’ve overwhelmed me too early. One of the main things that kept me going through each stage of the process was focusing on what I had to do next —not in a month or three or six months’ time, but simply next .
All you need to make croissants is milk, butter, flour, sugar, yeast, and salt. All you need to write a book is words.
In both cases, though, there comes a point where you realize that the only way out is through. There is another, earlier, point where you wonder what would happen if you just didn’t see it through—if you just froze the dough for another day, if you shelved your manuscript for “later.” The answer is simple, but for me it was also sad: I wouldn’t get homemade croissants, and I wouldn’t have a book.
A mere week after finishing the croissants, I was surprised to find myself throwing those six staple ingredients into my stand mixer again. The product of my first attempt had been fairly good, but, while eating the pastries, I’d voiced to my mom all the things that could’ve been improved. Apparently, it didn’t surprise her one bit. After all, I like a challenge. I am scrappy. And I also like to feel smug from time to time.
For all of my cursing at my rolling pin, I loved being able to say I had made these croissants with my own butter-and-flour-covered hands. There are recipes out there that are quicker than the one I used, but ultimately, I must confess that I enjoyed how much work, patience, and meticulousness mine required. Unlike chocolate chip cookies or red velvet cupcakes, if you offer to bring croissants to a gathering, no one really expects you to make them yourself. But I did so for the same big reason that I wrote my book: because I wanted to. Nobody made me do it. I was the one who looked at my bookshelves and thought, That. I want to do that . There’s some arrogance involved in both acts, but a healthy sprinkling of arrogance is sometimes necessary. I had essay ideas that kept knocking and knocking at the door until I let them in and wrote them down, stories that insisted they were worth sharing with a wider audience. I was brushing my teeth before bed one night when the first three paragraphs of one particular essay wrote themselves in my head; I recall muttering “Fuck” through a mouthful of toothpaste and then turning the lights back on and grabbing my laptop because I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep until I started writing this essay, right now . (Did I also get this idea between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m.? Perhaps!)
I am now much better at handling messes; I even embrace them, somewhat, because now I know firsthand that all golden, shiny, polished things were once big messes. I’ve also accepted that perfection isn’t always attainable; for all of the stages involved in publishing, I don’t know a single published author who doesn’t pick up their book and almost immediately find something they wish they could change. We might edit forever if we could, but we can’t. All we can hold on to is the knowledge that we gave it everything we had every step of the way. I know I did.
Because here’s the thing: It isn’t often the case that the end result is an accurate reflection of the amount of tears and hours you put into something. Sometimes the end result is underwhelming. But when it does work out, and you have something tangible that makes you proud and that you still kind of can’t believe you made—whether that’s a light, flaky, multilayered golden crescent that you rolled, folded, and shaped with your own ten fingers or the book into which you poured your heart and 3 a.m. coffee-fueled revisions—it’s a rush that you want to chase again and again.
My first batch of croissants was a tad burned on top; they weren’t all the perfect size; I should’ve put the dough in the fridge midroll more often so that it didn’t go too soft and the butter too liquid. I will work on all of these flaws the next time I make them, and the next, and the next.
And in spite of all of my frantic texts to the group chat that “I don’t know what possessed me to start writing a book in the first place,” I’m already starting another one. And for those long stretches in publishing where I have nothing to do but wait, and my restlessness chips away at me until I feel like I might implode—well, what better hobby to distract me than one that requires more than a dozen steps over the course of three days?