How to Write a Book

Just for a change, I'm going to talk about how I write a book with no heavy-handed advice about doing it for a living. I already covered that in my post about writing a commercially viable book. All I'm going to address here is how to start writing a book with a reasonable chance that you'll actually finish it and have something that a jury of your peers would acknowledge as a book manuscript. So, if you normally read this blog for the self publishing business advice, just skip to the next entry.

I was one of those horrible book worm types as a kid, read two novels a day when I should have been chasing girls, and I always thought that writing books would be easy for me. When I was in my late teens, working as a security guard at night, I figured I'd knock out my first novel just for practice. I don't think I ever completed a chapter, despite having plenty of free time at work, for which I was getting paid minimum wage. I would sit down with a vague idea for a science fiction story and write:

"John said to Mary..."

After a paragraph or two, I'd run out of conversation and look back to see that what I'd written was garbage. After a few nights of this I gave up. Fast forward to my second job out of college, where to support the high-tech start-up I was working for, I got stuck writing technical manuals for the contract that was paying all of our bills. I turned out to be pretty good at that since, in a sense, technical manuals write themselves. You sit with the product and try option A, then you write what option A did. Monkey see, monkey write. Oddly enough, I took writing the best quality manual I could seriously, and then I ended up doing all the pre-press work in 1.0 version Ventura Publisher. It was buggy software. I believe that's the closest I've come to having a nervous breakdown at work.

It wasn't until I was 30 and decided that I really wanted to try writing as a career that took another shot at fiction. I saved up some money, went to Jerusalem for the winter, and started writing everybody I could think of letters about everything that came to mind. Eventually, I expanded into little sketches, and finally I started trying to write short stories. Oddly enough, in the first complete short story I wrote, I found myself using some imagery from the old mill buildings where I'd first tried writing back in my security guard days.

However, my attempts at a novel failed again and again, usually within the first couple chapters. I was talking about it to a friend of mine who happened to be stopping by for lunch today, and he asked me to tell him the plot.


And I thought I already knew how to write a book! That night I sat down at the local coffee shop and sketched out a 20 chapter outline on a napkin, just a sentence or two per chapter, and two months later I had a bad novel written. I really wish I'd saved that napkin. The plot changed a few times as I wrote, but I kept at it four hours a day, really four hours a night since I tended to write from around midnight to 4:00 a.m. being a real Bohemian wanna-be. I think it ended up around 70,000 words.

I soon got over my dream of writing fiction (hunger set in) and I took that great plot advice to nonfiction, where a plot is called an outline. I don't write those college style outlines with Roman numerals, upper and lower case letters, etc. I just write as many one phrase or one sentence subjects as I think I want to include on a piece of paper (scraps are traditional), and then rewrite the sheet with the subjects grouped into chapters. I usually find at this point that I've lost a few brilliant ideas due to my inabilility to make out my own handwriting. If I look at the outline at this point and realize there's not enough there to justify writing a book, I either give up or try to rethink the whole thing. This helps explain why I haven't written a new book since 2004.

Beyond the fact that it really helps to have a plot or an outline before you start writing, the only real trick is discipline. I can't give you advice about how to juggle your life so you can write a book while working a full time job because I never have. I started writing while living on savings, after which I'd work when I had to and write when I had a little in the bank. I need to write about four hours a day to maintain momentum and finish a book; it's just not something I can do with stolen minutes here and there. I don't have to spend the whole four hours actually typing away at the computer, but there's research, jotting down ideas, and thinking about the next step, all of which counts. And to repeat the warning at the start of this post, if you want to do this for a living, writing a book isn't the starting point. Determining what you can write that has the best chance of paying for your time is the first step.

No comments: