“I’m a writer.” “I wrote a book.” “I write mystery novels.” No matter how you choose to phrase it, that revelation has some interesting results. In fact, over the past year of being a published author, I’ve learned fascinating things about people. One of the main ones is that about 1 in 3 of them “want to write a book someday.” It’s an unscientific statistic, but the number of times someone has said that to me over the past few months is pretty staggering. Usually, they share their dream, then their idea, and finally the reason it hasn’t happened yet. If there’s time, they’re likely to also ask how I did it.
Today is D-Day as far as my second novel is concerned. I’ve now approved the final proof and cover of The Detective, The Woman, and The Winking Tree, and I have only to wait for the book to reach me prior to its February 13th, 2013 release date. Today seems like a good time to answer the question all these aspiring writers keep asking me.
How DO you write a book?
First of all, there’s certainly no foolproof way that works for everyone, and I’m simply going to share the things that I think go into a successful writing experience. Second, there are no hard and fast rules for writing. For every maxim that seems etched in stone, there’s a successful author waving from a position of cheerful, creative nihilism.
(This is about writing fiction. I haven’t written a full-length nonfiction book, and I’m certainly not qualified to speak on the process.)
That said, here we go:
1) Have an idea.
Most people who want to write a book already have an idea, of course. That’s usually what is catalyzing them to want to put thoughts on paper. The important thing at this stage is to pick one specific idea and stick with it.
When you start writing, you will have other ideas (plot bunnies) jump around in your head. As lovely and fluffy as they may be, you can’t afford to let them distract you from the one you’ve chosen to pursue. Write them down for later, but don’t let them dominate your thinking.
2) Refine your plan.
This step can be interpreted as broadly as you like. For some, it means detailed outlining of the plot and writing character studies. I, however, am on the other end of the spectrum. I start with a beginning and a general idea for the ending, and that’s it. Either way (or somewhere in between), you need to take some time to physically or mentally tally where you want your idea to take you.
3) Set yourself a deadline.
This may be controversial, but I think it’s very important, especially if you’re trying to write a book for the first time. I wrote my first book in less than a month, and the bulk of my second was written in a similar timeframe. It doesn’t matter if your deadline is a month in advance or a year in advance; just set a goal, some point at which you’re absolutely determined to have a rough draft (even if it’s the roughest draft ever seen by human eyes).
4) Stick to it.
If I could pinpoint one reason why I think most of the people I talk to haven’t finished the book they want to write, it’s this one. It’s no sacrifice to start a book, but it’s definitely a sacrifice to finish one. I think some people have the idea that writing can be a charming hobby that never occupies more than about 7% of their attention, and then, voila, one day, a book will magically appear.
Writing is hard, and writing takes time. If you write, enough to actually finish a book, you will have to temporarily sacrifice other things you want to do. Writing a book requires wanting to finish more than you want to do other things.
5) Don’t revise while writing.
This is strongly related to #4, because one of the biggest reasons for bailing on a book prematurely is the highly unpleasant (and sometimes very persistent) feeling that it’s not good, terrible, stupid, unoriginal, or all of the above. Again, you have to want to finish more than you want to temporarily feel good. You have to assimilate the idea that there’s value in just finishing a full-length book, no matter how terrible it seems. As bleak as that sounds, it’s just reality. At some point, you will hate what you’re writing.
At that point, if you start second-guessing yourself and editing as you go, you’re in danger of getting lost in the slough that entraps a huge number of the people who actually get a book going. They’re the ones who are always writing a book and never finishing.
The point is, everyone feels like their book is going to be terrible at some point, and that’s not a signal to stop or go backward. It’s a signal to go forward, because the only solution is to keep writing until inspiration returns. It will. I know because I’ve been there.
6) Be open.
I know I said to choose an idea and stick with it, but be flexible within your plan. Sometimes the creative part of you brain will have ideas that are outside the box of what you expected. Both of my books have elements I never planned to include, and they’re both better because of it. Stick to what you’re doing, but don’t be so rigid in adhering to an outline that you sap the joy from the experience and burn out mid-course. You can edit later if you decide you don’t like an idea after all.
7) Stay humble.
Once you finish your first draft, you will have a lot of work left to end up with a polished manuscript. Don’t hold too tightly to what you’ve produced, and know that a lot of things will probably change through the editing process.
I believe there’s inherent value in writing a full-length book, even if you never publish. It’s an exercise in creativity, persistence, and self-discipline.
When you’re done, you’re done, and no one can take that away from you. When all those other people say, “I want to write a book some day,” you can say, “I did.” And that’s pretty awesome.
The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo. Grab it before the sequel launches February 13, 2013!