In some ways I guess you could say I owe being an author to a stubborn mallard duck. When I was in first grade, the teacher gave everyone in the class a very basic writing assignment. I don’t recall exactly what it was—it might have been simply to practice our letters—but I vividly remember that I chose to ignore her instructions.
Instead, I wrote a little story about my grandfather taking me to see the ducks. I described—obviously in the most rudimentary way, since I was no genius—how when we were about to drive away, we noticed a duck squatting in the middle of the road. It refused to budge. My grandfather went over to shoo it out of the way, and the duck startled both of us by taking off in flight.
Even though that was long ago, I still recall how compelled I was to tell my story—despite the fact that I’d been instructed to do something else. A day or two later, the teacher passed back all the stories except mine, and then she asked me to come to the front of the classroom. I realized that I was in trouble. I’d broken the rules, and now I was about to be humiliated in front of everyone. I felt utter shame as I walked to the front of the room
But instead of chastising me, my first grade teacher asked me to read my story to the rest of the class and also the class next door to us. Then she mounted it on construction paper and hung it on the wall (let's hear it for good teachers!). What an awesome rush I felt that day. At 6, I got to experience not only the exquisite pleasure that comes from writing a story, but also the thrill of being praised for it. That’s when I began dreaming about being a published writer.
But it wasn’t a clear path ahead. As I grew up, part of me wanted to write novels. I loved fiction then, especially Nancy Drew books, and I imagined myself one day churning out mysteries with a female sleuth as the protagonist. But I liked other kinds of writing too. I put out a little newspaper on my block called The Orville Street News (we were shortlisted for a Pulitzer) and later my own newspaper for my freshman class in high school. I also loved plays and wrote some that I tried to stage with the kids on my block as actors (aka herding cats). And by 14, I’d also developed a fascination with magazines. I used to sometimes picture myself sitting in a cute little office in Manhattan writing the kinds of pieces I saw in the pages of Seventeen and Glamour. I knew I wanted to write, but I just wasn’t sure yet what kind of writer I was destined to be.
In college, I was thrilled to win Glamour magazine’s “Top Ten College Women Contest,” and that enabled me to finagle a job as an editorial assistant at the magazine. A career path began to take shape—with me following where the opportunities were rather than definitely choosing one type of writing over another. Eventually, I became a feature writer for Glamour, as well as a monthly columnist. I wrote fun pieces like “I Was a Clown for a Day with Ringling Brothers Circus” and “My Night at a Sex Toy Party.” Over time, I moved up in a variety of jobs at different magazines, finally becoming the editor-in-chief of one, then another and another and another. The icing on the cake was being named as the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan 14 years ago. When I told the news to my husband, he grinned and said, “Wait, you mean I’m going to bed tonight with the editor of Cosmo?” I had a sweet career going, and I loved it.
There was just one tiny problem. I never let go of my dream to write books as well.
So I told myself that somehow I was going to try to make it happen. Whenever I had a spare moment, I’d jot down ideas, and I even wrote up several proposals for nonfiction books. Nothing seemed very compelling. Finally, I told myself that I was trying to force things, and I needed to wait for the right idea to appear and grab me by the lapels. After a former employee wrote an article saying I was the antithesis of a good girl, a friend said, “There’s your book idea.” Yes, I thought. I’ll call it, Why Good Girls Don’t Get Ahead but Gutsy Girls Do.
I got a contract in no time, because the idea really resonated with women at publishing houses (see, it pays to make sure you’ve got a strong concept). But then I had to figure out how I was going to pull it off with a full-time job. I decided I’d clear the decks at night and do it then. My husband was a TV anchor during those years, in charge of an early-morning newscast, and so after he and the kids were in bed, I pulled out my laptop and wrote, with Law and Order reruns keeping me company (and awake!).
I loved offering career advice, but over time I faced the fact that I was still yearning to try fiction. It seemed greedy, but I hated to let that old dream go. I spent months working on the first chapters of a mystery called If Looks Could Kill with a sleuth named Bailey Weggins. Because publishers were familiar with me from my nonfiction, I got bids based on only five chapters and an outline. I still had to write the damn book, but the early approval gave me momentum.
There was a problem though. When I tried to write the additional pages, the words didn’t want to come. With some experimentation, I discovered that fiction happened far more easily for me if I did it in the morning. So suddenly, after years of being a night owl, I had to become a morning person. God, that was awful at first. But the book was a hit, shooting to No. 1 on Amazon after it became “Ripa’s first book club pick” on Live with Regis & Kelly.
It’s been crazy at times to fit being an author into my life, but there are a few things that have made it easier.
First, I waited to try fiction until after my kids were no longer babies and were sleeping later on Saturday and Sundays. I could write early on weekend mornings without taking time away from them. It meant, though, that I was in my 40s when my first novel was published. Call me a late bloomer!
Another key strategy: If you are going to try to write when you have a full-time job, you must steal time from someplace. If you aren’t willing to throw things overboard, those extra hours won’t just miraculously appear. Make a list of what you can unload. For me the “dump-it list” included learning tennis, learning a foreign language, shopping trips, and even for a time, working out. I don’t have a personal Facebook page, so that’s one huge time suck I’ve been able to avoid. So far, the trade-offs have been worth it (and I’m learning Spanish now!).
And though it took me awhile to discover this, I also came to see the importance of creating my own writer’s cocktail: the mix of ingredients that make writing appealing and doable. I can write nonfiction anywhere—on a plane, on a subway, in front of a TV. But for fiction, I need a flat desk, very little visual noise, quiet except for opera playing, a candle burning and a small womblike room. It took me a long time to figure this out (and I had to give up a nice roll-top desk in the process), but after lots of trial and error, I got it. If you are having a tough time getting the words out, experiment with your cocktail.
Lastly I have to pay tribute to a time management trick I have mentioned on other occasions. It comes from a guy named Edwin Bliss, and it’s called “slice the salami.” In his book on time management, Bliss explained that one of the reasons we don’t tackle big projects—even though deep down we want to—is that we make them too daunting. Have you ever sworn to yourself you’d write for the whole day? That could scare anyone away. Bliss says that projects become more appetizing if we make them small, just as salami becomes tastier-looking if you slice it nicely instead of displaying it in a chunk the size of a groundhog. I started the writing process by telling myself I’d work for only 15 minutes a day. Even in that short a time, the pages began to come, and eventually, I began staying longer and longer at my desk.
Now you have to pry me away!
Kate White has run five major magazines and is the New York Times best-selling author of two thrillers, Hush and The Sixes, and the Bailey Weggins mystery series. White is also the author of popular career books for women, including the best-selling Why Good Girls Don’t Get Ahead but Gutsy Girls Do. Her latest, I Shouldn't Be Telling You This, is out now.