Anyone who’s read my bio knows I wanted to be an astronaut. I own an actual copy of the Space Shuttle Operator’s Manual. I went to Space Camp and have an astronaut jumpsuit—my Halloween costume forever + ever, as long as it still fits. My dad promised to buy me a Mercedes if I ever walked in space. It was my dream and goal to see the earth from way, way above, only shot down by the realization that you needed perfect vision to get into flight school.
So the goal was gone but the love lives on. Naturally I was first in line to see ‘FIRST MAN,’ about the first man to step onto the moon, Neil Armstrong, played here by Ryan Gosling. And aside from the drama onscreen, I realized something that made my forever-teenaged-space-loving-heart soar: writing romance novels is like going to the moon.
First, it is not easy. Give yourself credit for taking on a big challenge. Then break it down into steps, like the space program did. Put your idea through a wind-tunnel of brainstorming scrutiny. Kick it around and tune it up and make sure it can fly. Do the same for your characters, your dialogue, your conflict and humor and sex scenes (they have to be physically possible, folks). Because just like all the parts of a spacecraft have to work, and the failure of one piece will bring down the whole thing, all the parts of a novel have to be stress-tested and revised and polished before the whole novel will work.
Second, you will crash more than once. Just as this movie opens with Armstrong crashing an experimental plane into a dry riverbed, most people’s early attempts at writing a novel end up…less than glorious. (To those people who nail it the first time they put their hands on the keyboard, I’m not talking to you but please post your secret in the comments). And, in fact, this is an important part of the process, because you learn what works and what does not. You realize that you need to fix your landing gear… er, dialogue. You also get used to the idea that not every word you write is gold, and that there’s no shame in trying again (and again, and again…).
Third, you need a team. Neil Armstrong did not build that Apollo rocket by himself, nor did he calculate engine burns for the right trajectories. And no writer really does it alone, either. Get your support where you can—a spouse who’s willing to cook or pick up take-out. A sister who will pick up your kid from school and bring him home. A friend who will listen to your crazy book ideas and help you marshal them into order. A writing group who will critique and encourage and sympathize. A cover artist who makes your book look fabulous. An agent who believes in you and helps you not merely sell your book, but build a career. An editor who makes your work the best it can be. An assistant who makes it possible for you to focus on writing and not on going to the post office or remembering to post on social media. Not everyone needs all of this, and not everyone will have all of it. But every author does need someone in her corner, believing in her and supporting her in ways both large and small.
Also, a good writer never forgets her team and what they mean to her. That’s not just a lowly engineer, beneath the notice of a world-famous astronaut, that’s the person who makes sure the screws are nice and tight and in just the right places on your spacecraft, so it doesn’t fall apart when they light the rocket you’re strapped on top of. The same is true of your support team. Never underestimate the importance of a friend meeting you for coffee and helping you talk through the Gordian knot you’ve tied in your plot.
Fourth, you may think you’re going to fail every step of the way…right up until you succeed. When they were flying over the moon’s surface, literally feet away from making it, Armstrong had one eye on the fuel reserved for a last-minute mission abort. He told reporters he thought they had a 50-50 chance of successfully landing on the moon. Along the other possible outcomes was being stuck eternally in orbit around the moon or drifting endlessly off into space; NASA wrote obituaries for the astronauts before they left for the moon. (Think of that any time you feel down about your own career.) That’s pretty much the way it feels when your book goes out on submission or up for pre-order or out for review, and you’re left biting your nails about how it’s going to come out. It’s not hard to envision the whole thing going up in a heartbreaking, humiliating ball of flame. But—importantly—this is also OK. Some books never get sold, but are still important training exercises. Bad reviews can actually be good for sales sometimes. And some books start slow but end up being quietly, steadily strong sellers.
And lastly, writing a book—despite crashing and starting over and falling short and being sure you’re going to fail at each and every step along the way—is a big deal and you deserve a reward for persevering and NOT letting the crashes burn you out. Celebrate with your team—whether it’s ice cream with your BFF or spouse, or a national book tour paid for by your publisher. Neil Armstrong got a ticker-tape parade, world-wide fame, and an indelible place in history; but I celebrated my first book by splurging on a bottle of good champagne, which my husband and I drank while eating takeout on the sofa. And it was awesome.
So even though my space-walking dream will never come true (and my dad is off the hook for the Mercedes, alas), I still feel kind of amazed when I look at my career. It may not have the jaw-dropping awesomeness of being an astronaut, but I did it, and mostly without having to put on pants (let alone a spacesuit, which I hear are hot and very heavy).