I wanted to share a ‘beginner’s guide’ that I wrote for an Athens Clarke County Library class a few years ago.
Alright newbies — allons y!
Literary Elements —
How To Write a Book
Somewhere in your heart you know it. Maybe this is a recent dream, but quite likely it’s been kicking around in your subconscious for some time and every once in a while, when reading a new book, or hearing an author interview, or thinking about your lifetime goals it comes to the surface — you want to write a book. Maybe you dream of being a fulltime, famous, professional writer or maybe there’s just one idea or story that begging you to expound on it and send it out into the world.
Whatever your dream project is — a memoir, non-fiction, children’s book, or novel — there are some common elements needed to move from Chapter 1 to ‘The End’.
Elements of Success in Writing:
- Figure out what you want to tell and why. Before you write a word, get a good idea of why this book? Toni Morrison says ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ That’s always been my driving force. Figure out what makes it special and different than similar books. Don’t worry about originality yet (we’ll get to that part), just envision who your book is for. Sometimes it helps to think of a person you know who is also your intended audience.
- Plan (a little). Finding a similar book can help you get an idea of number of chapters, number of pages, type of words (for children’s books) etc that your book might have. The internet has acted to level the playing field and let you acquire ‘insider knowledge’ of the book business. Did you know there are four categories for children’s fiction? Simply do a Google search for ‘books how many children fiction categories are there’ and you can find the answer. Just remember that ten ‘Wikihow’ articles don’t necessarily equal the depth of one good how-to book. This is the ‘know the rules so you can break them’ phase.
- Make a roadmap, not a blueprint. I wish I remembered what writing book this was from, but never the less it’s still important advice: make a roadmap not a blueprint of your book. A blueprint is exacting and unchanging, but a roadmap lets you decide to take a detour when you see something interesting and you still know where you’ll be at the end of your book. A lot of beginning writers start without a roadmap, and begin with a flush of excitement but can lose their way after a few chapters. To me, a good road map is only a couple of pages long but will let you know the next ‘beat’ of your book if you get lost. The outline for my novel ‘A Caged Heart Still Beats’ was two pages long and explained the main plot from beginning to end — just like you were telling a best friend the plot of a movie you saw. For my self help non-fiction book, I decided to focus on five areas of improvement (Inspiration, Freedom, Peace, Energy, Strength) and then decided to have five little chapters in each area and named them (i.e. Do Yoga). These outlines kept me moving forward while giving me the freedom to discover better ideas along the way.
- Make your goal to finish. Believe me — there’s nothing quite like the feeling of finishing your first book, of knowing you’ve done what a lot of people will talk about but never actually accomplish. You can always edit and polish on later drafts but just getting finished should be your first goal. I started with screenplays and just told myself that whether or not the plot made any sense, I would reach page 100 (the length of a screenplay). I knew one writer who kept rewriting chapter one over and over again. I met him again years later and he was still writing chapter ones. Now, each person must follow their own path and it’s great he’s still writing, but if your goal is a finished book — look toward that finish line.
- Remember — you have potential. My belief is that LOVE + TIME = TALENT. If you keep writing, and reading, and learning you will get better and better. The book ‘Talent is Overrated’ has some wonderful stories about how being born ‘talented’ might mean you get out of the starting gate before everyone else, but if you’re trotting and everyone else is working hard and galloping along you’ll soon be left in the dust. If you love the book you’re writing, if you’re excited by it, the feeling will pass right along to the reader. And you are the only you who has ever been, so your work (if it’s true to you) will be original and one-of-a-kind.
- Just keep writing. Even a page a day will get you to your goal.
How to Write — a Practical Timeline
Here’s the nitty-gritty of how I get to ’The End’:
- Get an idea. You might be reading a news article, or a another novel, watching a film, or daydreaming a ‘what if’ and it gets you — this is a good book idea.
- What kind of book? If you want to explore organic farming, is this a non-fiction investigation? A ‘how to’? A novel set on an organic farm? Figure out what first drew you in — that’s your passion.
- Who lives there? In a novel, for me, the people arise from the idea. In ‘A Caged Heart Still Beats’ I ‘saw’ a cage in the middle of a Regency England estate and started asking ‘Who would be put in such a cage and for what purpose? In a memoir you might be writing about your grandmother but who influenced her? Who were her heroes? Her nemeses? Even a non-fiction book may need examples of people who succeeded — be it in building a birdhouse or starting a business.
- Make an outline / roadmap. A couple of page document, meant just for you, that hits the main points of what you want to tell.
- Research (if the spirit moves you). Some people LOVE research, others can’t stand it. Depending on the story you’re writing, you may eventually need to do some, but whether or not you like it, don’t let research slow you down too much from actually starting writing.
- Boldly begin. Start a chapter one, and make time to write. I also don’t believe in writer’s block. If something isn’t interesting to you, set it aside and write something else.
- Edit (a little) as you go. I know this runs counter to what a lot of people do but my way is to start each day rereading the pages I worked on last session and making spelling/grammar corrections along the way. I don’t worry about making big changes though; I mainly read just to get back to the flow and excitement of what I’m doing.
- Finish the first draft. Hit the last page and celebrate. Buy yourself dinner or a nice bottle of bubbly. Then put your book aside for two weeks or a month. This time is crucial to getting some distance and seeing your work with new eyes.
- Do a second draft. Reread the book, see how you feel about it — is there anything BIG you want to change? New chapters, love interests, and ideas can be worked in now. Once the ‘big picture’ looks good . . .
- Do a third draft. Start looking at the little things — each line, each word. You may feel like an extra scene is needed to explain a growing friendship, or you may discover new data to share in your ‘how to’. Reading aloud to yourself is also a great tool for ferreting out awkward sentences. The third draft is about making it as good as you can make it. Then . .
- Find trustworthy readers. This is super-important: only use people you trust, love, share your idea of a good book, and WANT to read it. If you can’t find that, it might be better to go it alone. But getting these outside opinions is valuable, provided you remember it’s your book at the end of the day and the most important person to please is yourself.
- Do a forth draft. Take feedback from your readers (try to find at least three) and decide if you need to make a few changes. If all your readers mention something, you might want to look closer at it. Most of the great feedback I’ve gotten has been about beginnings (orient the reader about the world better), little side endings (couldn’t they get away and get the money?), and lackluster areas (the ‘food’ section of my self help book eventually became ‘Energy’ after reader feedback).
- Do a final draft (and copyedit). Go over your book again, seeing how it strikes you now. Are you happy with everything or is there anything that still sticks out and bothers you? Take the time to fix it. And you do need to copyedit a lot, catching all the grammar and spelling errors you can. It can be hard to do this on your own, but there are a lot of inexpensive copyeditors out there, or you might be able to do an exchange with another writer (you’ll catch their errors easier than your own).
- Cerebrate! You just became an author!
Some common questions —
How do I get published? It’s pretty confusing these days and only you can decide what ‘published’ means to you. The traditional way is to get an agent, who in turn will try to sell your book to a traditional publishing house. You can also query a small publishing house, self-publish, or hire someone to ’self publish’ your book for you.
Say I want an agent — how do I get one? First you’ll need a very good query letter and/or proposal. There are whole books about how to write them — in a nutshell, they should recapture in a few pages what made you excited about this book and let the agent know what to expect. Queryshark is a great site about queries for fiction writers. You can find an agent on agentquery.com or by googling your favorite writer and the word ‘agent’. But, it’s super-hard to get an agent right now, as their whole industry is changing and they’re not taking on a lot of new clients right now. So don’t be discouraged if you’re not chosen. And always remember, you don’t pay for an agent — instead, they get a percentage of the book sale.
How do you ‘self publish’? You can pay a printer to print up copies of your book. But the best option for a lot of people (if you book doesn’t have many pictures) is to create a paperback and an ebook using services like Createspace and Lulu. You’ll need a program like Microsoft Word, and then Kindle Direct Publishing will give you a template that helps you design the book. The upside is that Kindle Direct Publishing is free (you only pay for the books you buy), and puts high quality paperbacks (of yours!) into the hands of Amazon customers (and you get a percentage of the profit [higher than traditional publishing] from each sale). The down side is that it doesn’t work for books with a lot of pictures, and EVERYTHING is on you. You control how good the cover, editing, format, and marketing is — that’s a lot of power and responsibility.
What about companies that ‘help’ you self publish? The best examples of these companies really are invested in making your dream come true. The trade off is usually that you give them several thousand dollars and they take back a lot of that EVERYTHING responsibility that self publishing pushed into you — editing, formatting etc. Different packages are different prices — just be sure to do a lot of research if you go this way. And remember, it’s not anything you can’t learn to do yourself — but then, neither is making your own clothes. You just have to decide if it’s worth the cost.
I have a great idea for a book. Can I get someone else to do the ‘writing the book’ bit? Yes — if you pay them. Yes — if you want be part of a writing team and do half the work. Yes — if you’re famous in your field and have a big built-in audience. But if you have an idea (especially for fiction) and you just want someone else to do the work of writing — you’ll find writers already have too many good ideas and won’t take on someone else’s. So pick up that pen!
Can I get rich and famous doing this? Of course; we’ve all read the success stories. But the most important question is What do really want to get out of this? Don’t just lump your book in with your job, the painting you found in the attic, and the lotto ticket you bought this morning at the Quik Trip. To paraphrase Fight Club — you are not your get-rich-quick-scheme. If you spend time with your grandmother, learn her life story, and self publish it as a treasured family heirloom — does it really matter if every book club in the country isn’t reading it? If your great new plan for paying off student debt faster helps 100 kids have better lives, is that not a success? If the characters that seem as real as day to you suddenly find a home in a second heart — have you not succeeded spectacularly?
Some Tips —
- Use a computer if at all possible (it will save you a lot of time later)
- Use 11 or 12 point Times New Roman font
- Use format>linespacing>Between Lines 2 SP (or something similar in your program). This is double spacing your lines — it’s easier for editing)
- If you only have one backup of your book file, you don’t have a backup. Keep several copies on different flash drives, hard drives etc. And emailing yourself the file is a good way to keep it ‘in the cloud’.
- Name different saves along the way — yourbook010414.doc — might be a good name for an extra copy you made on Jan. 4th. If you don’t like changes you made, you can go back to the older file.
- Remember to find inspiration — songs, paintings, picture, articles, jewelry etc that can inspire your book and your characters. Put the pictures around your work area (or on a Pinterest.com board to inspire you).
- Printing out a chapter, editing it with pen in hand, and reading it aloud to yourself can really make a difference in your finished product.
- Don’t worry about copyrighting your work. It’s yours from the moment you write it. If you’re concerned, you can always print out the pages and mail them to yourself. Don’t open the package; the postmark now serves as a date of when you began the work. If anyone later tried to claim it, they couldn’t. But honestly, I’ve never worried about it. And if you’re afraid of someone stealing your once-in-a-life-time Matrix-like idea — then keep it to yourself until the book is written.
- Read different things. Don’t read only romance and write romance, or only self help books and then write one. Instead, try all sorts of things and let them inspire you. Graphic novels, rap songs, 500 year old poems, British TV shows, documentaries! Your work will be better and more original if you have more interests and express them in your work.
- Get excited. There has never been a better time to write, to publish your own book, and/or to share your work online.