So, you want to write a book?
Come on, you know you do, or you wouldn’t be here on my website reading this blog. You’d be doing something else with your time—something far less frustrating, and probably more entertaining. But here you are, reading this little unmistakably titled article. Heck, several of you have messaged or emailed me telling your ideas. Indeed, future authors abound on my friends list!
Before I begin, let me warn you—I am no expert. I’ve written two novels of arguable and variable quality. That’s it. The only thing that gives me the authority to pontificate on this subject is the fact that I’ve done it, which is kind of like getting advice about professional baseball from a guy who’s played a game or two. It’s better than nothing, but not the same as hearing from a big-time pro.
Still, I have successfully completed two novels and one of them was published by someone other than myself, so my advice is worth something. Just don’t take my word as the end-all, ya dig? I’ll tell you what worked for me and you can take from it what you will. After that, I advise you to go forth and read On Writing by Stephen King.
Anyway, without further ado…
HOW TO WRITE A BOOK, Part 1
Your grand idea will never be fully realized if you rush it. Trust me, you’ll work on this first book for at least a year—more like two or more—so get over the idea of having a finished product anytime soon. Think of this as a long-term project. Don’t be hard on yourself, even while you’re pushing yourself to work. With persistence, you’ll get it done. Just remember that we’re playing the long game when we set out to write a full-length book. There are no shortcuts.
Make Time in Your Day
Seriously. Find time. Even ten minutes will do, but whatever amount of time you choose, stick to it religiously. If you don’t feel like writing, it doesn’t matter. Do it anyway. Facebook sucks nowadays with crappy political posts and loads of ads. Cut some time out of your FB scrolling and you’ll have enough to go on. Ten minutes might seem like it’s not worth it, but remember we’re being patient.
And you want to know a secret? That ten minutes will turn into thirty before you know it. Some days you’ll write an hour or more, then others you’ll be lucky to squeeze out ten again. But make time in your schedule for at least ten minutes every day. It’s like saving spare change. In time, that change turns into good money but if you never save it, your jar will remain empty forever.
Runners often talk about feeling addicted to running; if they miss one day, they get antsy. I am not at all familiar with that feeling about running, but I can say writing became that way to me once I got into a routine. By the time I was almost finished with the rough draft of Devils Glen, I was writing two hours a night and four to six hours a day on the weekends! And this from a person who can be a notorious procrastinator. Stick to your schedule and you’ll be amazed by what you can do.
Talk to your family or roommates. Let them know you are writing a book and you need some distraction-free time to do it. Put the phone away and log off your email. Find a relatively quiet space in your home to write. Usually, an office is a good idea, but anywhere is fine so long as it’s comfortable and allows some distance from interruptions. That’s not always possible, depending on your situation, but do your best. And refer to what I said about Facebook sucking—it’s time-sucking. Use some of those empty minutes you spend on social media to write your great American novel.
Chuck Inspiration Out a Window
Waiting around for inspiration is the enemy of creativity. That’s not to say inspiration is a bad thing, definitely not. But it won’t hit you like a bolt of lightning, at least not until you’ve already begun working on your creation. Obviously, you want an idea to work from, but that’s a lot simpler than some kind of magical awakening. Just get to work and the inspiration will come naturally through the story.
Keep the Software Simple
Right now, you don’t know your own style or what works for you, so spending a bunch of moolah on complex software doesn’t make sense. Microsoft Word is just fine and it’s the format requested by almost every agent and publisher. Word has some good editing options and most of us have used it for a couple decades now.
Google Docs is great too, especially because your document is safely saved in the cloud rather than on your hard drive, so if your computer fries you won’t lose your work. However, when I’ve tried to convert a large document from Google Docs to Word, I have run into some formatting issues. Nothing major, but something to be aware of.
Sit Down and Write
This may seem simplistic, but it’s the hardest part for many people, myself included. You sit on your couch and stare in the direction of your laptop, almost afraid to walk across the room and begin. It’s akin to that anxious first jump into a cold lake. You just have to make yourself do it, take that leap, and you’ll find it’s not so bad. Don’t let the idea of writing a book get in the way of actually doing it.
This may be the opposite of the advice you’ll get from many writers, and if you’re one of those odd people who wants to outline, be my guest. But I find sitting down and writing is far more beneficial. Of course, you should definitely have an idea of your basic story and maybe where you want it to go. You should also have an idea of your main characters and their adversaries, but beyond that, just follow what the story wants to be. If you get an idea as you’re plugging away at the keyboard—which you will—screw the outline and go with this new idea. The story is your master!
Go for it! You can always fix, cut, adjust, during the editing process. The writing process is the time to cut loose and let the sky be the limit. There is a famous quote often associated with Ernest Hemingway—which may or may not actually be his quote—but it’s great advice no matter who said it: “Write drunk, edit sober.”
“Kill Your Darlings”
This is a line from On Writing, the fantastic book I mentioned before. Though King uses it mostly referring to the editing process, I feel it applies to the entire process of writing. You may have a darling idea for a scene, character, plot device, twist, or ending, but suddenly the story wants to go in another direction. What should you do? Kill your darling.
Follow that rabbit down whichever hole it wants to go down. Your book will be far more interesting and will read more fluidly as well. When you try to force something that shouldn’t be there, that’s when you’ll find yourself struggling to finish a section, scene, or chapter. Listen to the little muse whispering in your ear. He/she is always cleverer.
Stick with Said and Asked
In many creative writing classes, students get it drummed in their heads that the words said and asked are somehow boring and should be replaced with words like grumbled, screamed, cried, exclaimed, etc. On the surface, this seems like good advice. Unfortunately, when you start working with an editor, you’ll quickly be directed to go back and gut 99% of those alternative words and replace them with good old, tried and true, said and asked.
This topic is probably more in line with the editing process, but I mention it in this section because you will save yourself a lot of time, now and later, if you don’t rack your brain unnecessarily searching for other dialogue tags. Those alternative words are often presented by teachers as more interesting, but the publishing world sees them as lazy writing. The emotion in the line should be seen in the action and the dialogue itself, not in the tags. Avoid hand-holding your audience—show don’t tell, and all that.
Of course, you don’t always have to indicate who’s speaking by writing, John said. The speaker can be indicated through action before, after, or during a line.
Example: “It’s time you go to bed.” John offered his hand to Billy and helped him from the couch. “You’ve got a big day tomorrow, and you need your sleep.”
Such action lines go a long way toward giving your writing some variation. But in general, said and asked are perfectly fine dialogue tags—and they’re preferred.
Do Not Edit as You Go
Some writers will tell you they like to sit down and begin each day by editing everything they wrote the day before, so by the time they’ve finished their draft they have a nice clean copy. That’s poppycock, especially when you’re starting out.
I hate to break it to you, but you won’t have a clean rough draft no matter how much editing you did as you went. It’s why they call it rough. Don’t worry about grammar or anything else while you’re writing your first draft; you’ll sort all that in the editing process. Your first draft will be awful, terrible, putrid, and lousy. Accept it and stay focused on the story.
Just write, write, write, and worry about the cleanup after you’re done. Believe me, when you finish the draft, there will be A LOT to clean up. You’ll probably be editing for at least another year, or more, during which time entire sections of your book will burn just as new ones spring from the ashes. And that’s A-OK. In fact, it’s unavoidable.
“Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.” – John Steinbeck
Give Self-Doubt a Big Hug
You will come upon a time—probably many times—when you will get down on yourself. Unless you are a complete narcissist, you will doubt your writing, your ideas, your skills, your grammar, and maybe even your haircut while you’re working on your book. Accept it, don’t fight it. Learn to love your self-doubt.
Give it a nickname. My self-doubt is named Ted, and whenever old Teddy shows up, I put my arms around him and give him a tight squeeze. You know why? Because it means I’m human, and a healthy one at that. It means I’m holding myself to a higher standard.
Every well-adjusted human ever to put pen to paper or finger to keyboard has doubted his/her abilities, even the most prolific authors of our time, which puts you in some pretty good company. So, accept the doubt and keep writing. At this point in the process, the only important thing is finishing the draft. You can worry about whether it’s any good later.
Celebrate and Walk Away
“The only kind of writing is re-writing.” – Ernest Hemingway
When you do “finish” your rough draft, that’s when the real writing begins. However, now is not the time to do it. You need to step away and gain some perspective. You’ve just toiled for many months, if not years, writing your first novel. That’s crazy exciting! You may feel impatience begin to seep into your thinking. Push it away.
Now is the time to celebrate! You’ve done it! You’ve written a book! It’s not a good book yet. In fact, it’s pretty terrible, but you have written a book and that’s nothing to sneeze at. Go have a fancy meal and a glass of your favorite wine. You’ve earned it.
Stephen King suggests setting the manuscript aside for six weeks, which is basically what I do. During that time, you can work on your next book, write a short story or two, or start a blog. At any rate, it’s probably a good idea to keep up a writing schedule of some kind, just nothing involving this current book. This one needs to simmer for a while.
That’s All…for Now
I hope you found this helpful, or at least interesting. Let me know in the comments. Next time, we’ll discuss the editing process. Hope you’re having a wonderful summer. August is upon us!