Ever since I published my debut novel in September of 2014 (and perhaps even before, if memory serves), people have asked me, “How do you write a book?” Now, the operative word in that question is “you,” as in me. After all, that was my first real go at serious writing, and all I know is what worked for me. I know what I know, but also know what I don’t know, which is just as important.
I had been working on the debut novel since March of 2000 (yes, the year 2000, and yes, the same book!). For the first nine years or so, the novel went from a series of notes on various pieces of paper, then compiled by hand onto a legal pad, and finally entered into a word processor. I must say, typing into the word processor was a lot less tedious than writing by hand (though some of you traditionalists may argue that the true experience of writing is accomplished by handwritten prose, I argue that typing into a computer is quicker, more efficient, and less tiresome). Either way, writing is at times tedious, difficult, and time consuming. However, it is also ultimately rewarding and fun!
For those first years, the time I put into working on the book was hodge-podge at best – just little bits here and there. Honestly, I didn’t believe I would actually turn it into a comprehensive novel that could be released. I worked the next five years gradually more diligently – with various editors and attempts at publication through multiple publishers. I was finally rewarded in 2014 when I was able to hold a fully published copy in my very own hands. (I suppose this is my subtle way of saying: keep with it no matter how long it takes!)
So here it is then: The Not-Quite Official Formula For Writing A Book. I refer to this as “not-quite official” in that this is based upon what works for me. But what worked for me can potentially work for you, too!
How This Is Arranged
The first few sections will provide advice, knowledge, and insight that I have garnered during my writing journey. I suggest you read through these. Not only will you (hopefully) learn something, but after all, I went to the trouble of writing it so someone besides me needs to read it!
After those sections, I provide what is basically a list of the steps I use while writing. Skip straight to that if you like, but then my efforts on the other sections will have been for naught!
Unless you have a lot to say, have completed a lot of research or schooling, or have a huge following of some sort (social media can be a strong influencer these days), I advise to start simple. From what I have read, not many publishers are likely to bite on a work that is several hundred, or thousands, of pages long from someone who is not established in the writing world. Start smaller, and when that sells, you can slowly build – not to mention, your writing will surely improve with each subsequent submission, making a longer tome easier to read. Stephen King’s first novel, “Carrie,” was 199 pages. His work “Under the Dome,” (released 35 years after “Carrie”) was 1088 pages!
Just a few basic tips here (for more, Google “how to format an unpublished novel”). Margins should be set 1” all around. Lines should be double-spaced. Hint: Always look at the publisher’s submission guidelines prior to submitting your work (and strictly adhere to them). Sometimes they provide formatting specs. If not, those mentioned here are a good rule of thumb.
Dictionary.com Is My Best Friend
I always recommend having a dictionary and thesaurus handy. Good writing finds different, new, and creative ways to sometimes say the same old things. Occasionally, I come across a word I want to be sure I am using correctly. Many people’s everyday speech patterns contain errors in word use – this is fine and can be dismissed during normal conversation, but is not so forgiving on the written page (unless used as dialogue). For this, the dictionary is quite useful.
Or, you may need to refer to the same object or item multiple times in a paragraph. I always try to avoid using the same word repeatedly in the same paragraph if I can help it. For example, if I use the word “attacker” once, the next time I may use “assailant,” “adversary,” or “aggressor.” The idea is to add “color” to the writing. Using different words for the same thing helps to accomplish this. As a result, a thesaurus comes in quite handy.
Since I do my writing in Microsoft Word, I am a click away from the Internet. I always keep a window open to dictionary.com. This is a very useful resource as the main page provides easy to use tabs for a dictionary, thesaurus, and even an encyclopedia. Quick, easy, and user-friendly!
Should I Worry About (Accidentally) Plagiarizing?
My short answer is, “No!” The reality is that many, many, many books and stories exist. Truly original ideas are extremely few and far between, and even they are most likely derivative of something else in some way or form. After all, it is widely accepted that there are only seven main plots that can be told in literature.
Remember, even if your work is yours, others can always challenge that claim. One of the most popular plagiarism cases in the literary world involved author Dan Brown (“The Da Vinci Code”). In 2006, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh claimed Brown stole elements of their 1982 book, “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” for use in “The Da Vinci Code.” During the trial, Brown even stated that he had, in fact, read “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” during his research for “Code” (Brown and his wife had also read 38 other books and hundreds of documents during the research phase for “Code”). Despite that, the London high court judge in the case threw out the claims, and the plaintiffs were ordered to pay Random House’s (Brown’s publisher) legal fees, which amounted to US $1.75 million!
My basic advice is to go with your gut feeling on whether or not your writing is wholly original and yours. If you are unsure about the use of names or places, you can always Google them (a great tool for cross-referencing). I would venture to say that concepts are almost impossible to research. Beyond that, you can only do your best to not copy others.
A note about copyrights. Under international law, you automatically own the copyright for any original work you produce (hey, this blog is copyrighted!). However, registering the copyright with the US Copyright Office (Library of Congress) makes it easier to prove your claim if your work is ever plagiarized.
Find A Writing Coach/Editor
Professional editors can potentially charge of thousands of dollars to review your work. A lot (though not all) of what they suggest may be subjective. I am not discounting professional editors by any means. Many exist that you may find affordable and invaluable. I do want to point out, though, that you may be able to find plenty of people who are willing to edit your work. People you work with or those you may be networked into in some way may work well. You can join literary groups, local or online, for free to find someone willing to edit.
Each type of editor has its own pitfalls. As mentioned before, the pros can be expensive. Working with people you don’t know well can open yourself up to having ideas stolen (not trying to scare anyone, but since the possibility exists, I thought it was worth mentioning). If you want to hire a professional, be sure to do your homework – look at works they have been involved with and check references for not only their credibility but for their level of detail. In contrast, having a friend or acquaintance edit may not provide as much or the stringent feedback you need out of fear of “hurting your feelings.”
A good rule of thumb regardless of the editing method you choose is to be sure and EDIT YOURSELF prior to submitting. You don’t need to be especially hard on yourself, but write your piece, review and revise it, sit on it for a couple days, and review and revise again (more on that later). You may be amazed at the things you notice through the subsequent rereads. When it gets to your editor, your work should be relatively free of spelling and glaring grammatical errors. You will find that the more you do this, and the more feedback you receive over time, the better you become as a writer and the easier it will be.
Get yourself a writing coach/editor (more on that later as well). I was lucky to work on my debut novel with New York Times Best Selling author Steve Alten. Steve is the creative genius behind the MEG (due to be a major motion picture in 2018) and DOMAIN series. He also wrote THE LOCH (about, you guessed it, the Loch Ness monster), and THE SHELL GAME (a political thriller). I learned a lot from working with Steve and I would not trade my experiences working with him for anything.
Read and Write Every Day!
Write at least a little bit every day. Many people talk about writing books, but they only get written if they are, in fact, written! Even if it’s just a few sentences, every word written today is one less that needs to be written later. I sometimes spend hours on my novel during a sitting and produce one paragraph. Don’t force yourself as you don’t want the writing to “sound” forced. However, do push yourself to get the task done.
Also, try and read every day. Even if you only spend a few minutes reading, you will absorb how others present their ideas, which will make you a better writer. Be sure to try and read in the genre in which you are writing and by accomplished authors, as different themes are presented distinctly based upon the subject matter. Reading a book about how to lose weight will be written very differently from a sci-fi piece. And neither will help if you’re writing about how to succeed in business!
Is Selling-Out Bad?
Every author and would-be author wants to write with his or her own “voice.” The problem is that – truthfully – not everyone wants to hear it. Many authors strive to create a unique way to tell a story, but writers need to remain cognizant of what sells (assuming sales are important to you). So to that end, I suggest finding a happy medium between your own literary voice and what will be accepted by the masses. Most accomplished authors write very differently as they grow into their successes versus their initial manuscripts. I’ve read Stephen King’s “Carrie,” and it’s pretty straightforward. I’ve also read some of King’s more recent work and the “sound” of the storytelling is quite different these days. Would he have been as successful if “Carrie” was written in the same manner? I can’t say for sure, but if I was to guess, I would guess not.
As Steve Alten told me, “There’s no book two if book one doesn’t sell!”
The List You’ve Been Waiting For…
Brainstorm – Create an outline for the book (this is necessary whether writing fiction or non-fiction). Throw as many ideas out as you can. I typically use a word processor. That way I can easily move ideas around and change them as I see fit as the flow of the book comes together. I sometimes use Post-Its. Similar to a word processor, I can move the “sticky notes” around into the order I want. Of course, I do eventually transfer the info on any Post-Its into a Word doc. This leads to…
Organize – Put your ideas in the order in which you would like to present them in the book. I had my ideas bullet-pointed. After I moved them into the order I wanted, I went back and separated sets of points into chapters. Also, you will most likely think of new things to include as you are writing. As you do, you can easily insert the ideas into the most appropriate chapter. You can even add ideas to “completed” chapters. I add the bullet-pointed new idea at the start of the chapter so it stands out for when I find the time to go back and elaborate on it.
Research – No book can be well written without a degree of research involved.
This applies to all genres! My debut novel was a sci-fi piece. Even though it takes place in a fictional galaxy, I wanted readers to be able to still relate to it. The story is a bit of an allegory on events surrounding 9/11, so I studied that event intensely, as well as politics and weaponry. I took the real-world knowledge and then put the sci-fi twist on it. I believe it worked, as one of the editors I had through a publisher told me she had to stop reading a few times due to anxiety she was feeling! Research. It works!
Character bios – When working with fiction (and to some degree, non-fiction), it is important to put together a one-sheet on each of the main characters prior to writing. This will help you better understand your characters. No matter how well you feel you know them, trust me, you will know them more thoroughly if you put together their bios. Be sure the bios include basics such as age, eye and hair color, height, physical build, and backgrounds to their lives. Having this at your fingertips will also prevent discrepancies later in continuity. I always have the character bios open as a separate document on my computer for quick and easy reference. It doesn’t hurt to have your editor look at the bios as well prior to starting the writing process.
Create an encyclopedia – In addition to the character bios, I create an encyclopedia of places, items, and events as I work through a novel. Like with the bios, this provides me a quick reference to such things as I utilize them during different parts of the book. You may think you remember all the details, but I can almost guarantee that you will not. The sharp reader, however, will easily identify discrepancies and continuity errors as they read. The reader will consume your book a lot quicker than you wrote it, so such descriptions are fresher in their minds.
Write, review, wait, review – As I mentioned earlier in the section on editing, it’s a good idea to review what you have written (as you go and as each chapter is completed). I write a chapter, review and revise it, sit on it for a day or two, then review and revise it again (during the waiting periods, I do press on and work on subsequent chapters). It’s good to have a method for self-editing prior to submitting your work to someone to read. You don’t want your editor pointing out any simple mistakes or careless errors if you can help it.
Submit chapters – When I worked with Steve Alten he had me submit my work one chapter at a time as I completed them. While not everyone will be able to have a seasoned pro evaluate their work, I think it is a good idea for the novice writer to follow this same method. As I received feedback on each chapter, I was able to apply what I learned to subsequent chapters. This helped me grow immensely as a writer. Also, I was guaranteed to not make the same mistakes over and over again as they were quickly addressed. You don’t want to have a finished book, only to need to go back and revise a lot of the same types of mistakes.
Now what? – Well, there you have it! This much I know: publishers aren’t always too keen on marketing new authors. Expect to be your own marketing machine in order to sell as many books as possible. It’s never too early to brainstorm ideas for book launch events, signings, or online events. Do it now! That’s fun stuff!
If you have any questions, thoughts, ideas, or concerns, I would love to hear them!