Writing a first book is one thing. Writing a first book on a four-month deadline is another. So much is written about the joy of publishing a book, but less often discussed is the emotional minefield on the way to that published book. Writing my first book about a beloved subject (Harry Potter!) on such a tight deadline threw into sharp relief every insecurity I held about what it meant to be a writer and to write well. While this how-to may not contain much practical advice, I hope it reassures writers that, whatever path they take to their own books, that path is the right one.


  1. Lie. When you’re pitching your idea about one of the greatest loves of your life, Harry Potter, to the editor, your mother will say it feels as if all your life has been leading to this moment. She remembers you reading Harry Potter in the bathtub, under the covers, outside in the grass, at the dinner table even after being told to stop, for the last twelve years. She will say this before the editor has said yes and it will feel like a terrible jinx. But she is your mother, and so you lie. Say yes, it kind of does. “Kind of” will make you feel a little better about lying to your mother.
  2. Try to have the same confidence in your idea as your mother does. Know that this is a great life lesson, to love yourself the same way your mother does. You are pitching a book about life lessons. Wish that the life lessons you’re writing about are as strong as your mother’s.
  3. When the editor tells you that the author they choose must be willing to write the whole book, 40,000 words, in four months, be willing. Be the most willing you’ve ever been.
  4. Resist the urge to tell the editor you can write the book in three months, if they want. Two months even. You’ll be the fastest author of all time, if they’ll just say yes.
  5. Ignore the fact that you’ve been working on your other book idea for five years.
  6. Ignore the fact that it normally takes you six months to write and polish an essay and then to feel marginally good about that essay.
  7. Tell the editor yes, you can do it.
  8. Lie again. This time to yourself. Tell yourself that you can do this. You can.
  9. Cry as much as you want when the editor says yes. This is your first book. Your mother was right, in a way—you have been waiting for this for your whole life, whether you admitted it to yourself or not.
  10. Tell yourself that you are crying only for joy. This is so joyful!
  11. Hear the words four months four months like a telltale heart.
  12. Do the math. 40,000 words in four months means you have to write about 333 words every day.
  13. Tell yourself that 333 words is nothing. 333 words is two paragraphs. Aren’t good writers supposed to write every single day? Don’t you want to be a good writer?
  14. Ignore the inner voice that tells you that not once have you ever written every single day.
  15. You sign the contract on December 22. You tell yourself you’ll wait out the holidays to get started. You’ll start on January 1. The first day of the new year feels right—a good day to start a new life.
  16. If possible, be sure to get engaged on December 22. It’s helpful to test how many things your heart can handle at once.
  17. On January 1, make a spreadsheet with three columns: word count goal, actual word count, and What I Got Done Today.
  18. On January 1, at 11:30 pm, enter 333 in the first column. Enter 0 in the second column. Leave the last column blank.
  19. On January 2, at 9:30 pm, enter 666 in the first column. Enter 0 in the second column. Leave the last column blank.
  20. On January 3, at 2:25 pm, enter 999 in the first column. Enter 0 in the second column. Leave the last column blank.
  21. On January 4, crank out 751 words, one painful keystroke at a time.
  22. The months will go on the same way. Some days the words will come the way you feel like they should, but most days they will barely come at all. Some days you might only be able to write 250 words. You know you should hit the 333, but some days each of those 250 words is like trying to fill a cup from a dry well, a single drop at a time.
  23. Sometimes you will hate what you write.
  24. Sometimes, too, you will love what you write.
  25. Your friend will ask you how you stay inspired. Tell him the truth: you don’t.
  26. Repeat steps 17-24 every two weeks.
  27. Sometimes you will be certain you cannot do it.
  28. At the end of four months, you will do it.
  29. Each of those painful days coalesce and the cup is full, no matter how dry the well.
  30. You’ll want to tell yourself that a real writer would’ve had an easier time of it. A real writer would have been basking in the joy of this dream fulfilled the whole time.
  31. Shut that voice up. Let that voice go. You know better. The thing about writing a book in four months is that the work itself was the joy. Those nights writing two words and then deleting one. Those nights literally tearing out your hair and gnawing your knuckles like a cartoon character. The work will be worth it. The work itself was the whole point. Look at your chart. The zeroes don’t matter. What you’ll notice is the number of times you wrote a note to yourself: keep going. What you’ll notice is how you listened.
  32. When your advanced copy of the book arrives in your mailbox, wait five hours before you open it. Let the package stare at you from the coffee table while it waits. It’s normal to wonder if your heart can handle it.
  33. You can handle it. Open the box.

JILL KOLONGOWSKI is the author of Life Lossons Harry Potter Taught Me: Discover the Magic of Friendship, Family, Courage, and Love in Your Life. She teaches writing and literature at the College of San Mateo and is also the managing editor at YesYes Books. Her essays have won Sundog Lit’s First Annual Contest series and the Diana Woods Memorial Prize in Creative Nonfiction at Lunch Ticket magazine. A proud Hufflepuff, her Patronus is a tortoiseshell cat.