Wednesday, October 20, 2010

So you wanna write a book

By Joe Moore

It seems like every time I meet someone and they learn that I’m a writer, they always comment that they had often thought of writing a book, too. Sometimes I think the prospect of being a published author may be the number one goal or dream of everyone who has ever been excited by a good novel. It’s natural to think, “I could do that.” And in reality, they can. But most don’t or won’t. Why? Because the dream far exceeds the labor. Like most specialized occupations, the average would-be author will remain in the dreaming stage. Few proceed to the next step: actually sitting down and writing a publishable, contemporary work of fiction.

But for those that really want to take the next step, here are a few tips on getting that novel “inside us all” onto the page.

First, become an avid reader with the eyes of a writer. Read as many novels as you can get your hands on. But try to read from a writer’s viewpoint. Read for technique and style and voice. Keep asking questions like: Why did the author use that particular verb? Why is the writer using short, choppy sentences or long, thick description. Cross genre lines. The genre you wind up writing might not be the one you first imagined. Reading other’s work also can be inspiring. It is a source of ideas and helps to get the creative juices flowing.

Next, know the marketplace and write for it. The end product must be sellable. This goes back to being familiar with your chosen genre. You may love westerns, for instance, but they can be way down the sells chart and not a good choice for a debut author. Having said that, any story in any genre can be a hit if it’s built on strong characters. Always remember that your characters make your story, not the plot.

A third tip is to be true to yourself. Don’t try to push against what you feel in your heart and soul when it comes to your story. This may sound like the opposite of the previous tip, but that one deals with the business side of writing, this one the emotion. Beyond understanding the market, realize that if your heart is not in the words, the reader will know it. You can’t hide your lack of love for your writing.

Another tip is to have proper training. Being a devoted reader is only a portion of the task. I’ve had the opportunity (or drudgery) of reading many first-time writer’s work. It’s astounding how many people simply don’t know how to write. I’m not talking about style or content. Forget coming up with a cool plot or unique cast of characters. I’m talking about constructing a sentence with proper use of grammar and punctuation.

If you’re still in school, make sure you give your writing classes as much attention as possible. After all, they teach you the tools of your trade. If you’re out of school or later in life, consider taking some adult courses in basic English and perhaps in creative writing. They won’t teach you how to write a bestseller but can help you get your thoughts down on paper properly. Consider it a refresher course. Some colleges and universities offer degrees in writing. This is by no means a requirement to writing a novel, but it’s always a direction to go if you feel the need. And don’t forget attending writer’s workshops, conferences and joining a local critique group. Workshops are usually taught by pros; conferences have lectures and topic panels dedicated to strengthening your skills; and critique groups offer a new, fresh set of eyes to help improve your work.

Finally, once you’ve finished the first pass through your manuscript, the real work begins: rewriting, editing, polishing, and finishing. There’s nothing that will turn off an agent or editor quicker than an unpolished manuscript. There are tons of books available out there on how to self-edit your work. And getting others to take a look at it will help to reveal possible problems you missed. Edit, revise, edit, revise, repeat.

There’s a saying that everyone has at least one book inside them. But writing a book is hard. It takes firm commitment and dedication. Let your story out, but do it by following these logical steps. Skipping one of them usually results in frustration, disappointment and a half-finished manuscript collecting dust in the bottom of a drawer.

So what about you guys? Is this how you managed to finish your first book? Were you able to skip a step and jump right to a publishing contract and advance check? Any other tips to pass along to first-time authors?

THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, coming June 2011
"Bold, taut, and masterfully told." -- James Rollins


  1. And crack some good books on the writing craft. Just make sure you apply what you learn and write daily.

  2. It's really interesting to see who has "thought about" writing a novel and who really has the drive to do it. When I started a local crit group in 2004, about 10 people showed up for the first couple meetings.

    Within a few meetings, that number was cut in half. It takes a lot of drive and commitment. 2010 was a huge year for me. I may not be published, but after 6 yrs finished my first manuscript and finally got brave and submitted it.

    Of course the doubts now start all over again as I tackle book two. But, having done it once, now I know I will finish another, no matter how long it takes. That's just too cool.

  3. Absolutely spot on, Joe. My experience has been write-revise-edit-repeat for sure.

    Just to add to what BK said about wannabes, I no longer visit a certain blog for that reason. All the people there seemed happy and content - like the Lotus Eaters. There was no desire to grow as a writer that I could sense. So I left. Then I found TKZ and I've been here ever since. It's probably my favorite blog now.

  4. Jim, I knew you'd have one more tip up your sleeve. And a good one at that.

    BK, that's a very common story. A great book makes writing look easy. It ain't.

    Daniel, we're really happy you chose us, and we hope you'll continue to be a frequent visitor to TKZ. Soon, you'll have accumulated enough visitor points to received a dozen of Miller's eggs. Multiple visits a day count.

  5. That's why they call writing a "job" or a "calling", not a scenic vacation. I'm still learning every day. Everything I write, related to my story or not is a chance for me to practice the craft and craft in some practice. Who knows, I may never be published, but then again, maybe if I keep working at it hard enough I just might!

    If you never climb the mountain, you'll never get the view(s).

  6. Great attitude, Chaco Kid. Sounds like you're headed in the right direction.

  7. You know, funny thing about this drive thingamachigi. After finishing three novels I thought I had the pattern down. But my current WIP is whipping my buttocks and I am dragging like a drunk sailor walking back to his ship. The drive must apparently not be something that just stays. I need to figure out a good motivator to keep writing again and again.

    Of course maybe a paycheck for a sale would do the trick...but I suspect it may not. Guess we just have to really, really want it. Enough to overcome the blues and dragassity of the down days.

    ....I wish Leonard would hurry back in the time machine...I need more ideas

  8. I did skip some steps, mainly because I have an editor friend who invited me to submit a story idea for a popular YA series. Once the outline was accepted, I had 6 weeks to write the first draft. So it was "jump into the deep end to learn how to swim" from the moment I started. I really admire people who toil and wander in the woods until they finally get published--I'm not sure I would have persisted that way. Which is a bad thing to say about myself.

  9. Basil, you just answered your own question: "Guess we just have to really, really want it." It has nothing to do with a paycheck.

    Years ago, when I was involved with the music industry, a mentor of mine once said, "You've got to be eat up with it." Whether it's writing books or songs or painting or any type of artistic endeavor, it must be the equivalent of a disease eating away at your insides every minute. Anything less is boring.

  10. Oh, and I'll add that until I was recruited by an editor to write a book, I'd had a vague longing to write a novel, but had never tried doing it. I had, however, previously worked as a journalist. Maybe that experience did teach me some writing basics that I was able to apply to creative writing.

  11. Reading Robert Ludlum's Bourne series was the first time I was really in awe of writer craft. And my love of crime fiction was solidified. You have some GREAT tips here, Joe. Spot on.

    I think writers learn best from their mistakes. So instead of editing that first manuscript to death and watering down whatever voice you started with until it's unrecognizable, I would suggest you move on to book #2 & 3 etc. Keep challenging yourself by learning something new with each book.

    Most authors will admit to having unsellable books under their proverbial beds that will never see the light of day ... if they're lucky.

  12. Yeah, this is very true. I'm a teen writer, and even among teenagers - people like to write. They want to. Everyone has a story inside them, it seems, but I guess that if writing isn't that important to you, if you're not willing to put in the work - then getting published ain't gonna happen.

    Great post.

  13. And please, PLEASE don't publish your book to Kindle the day after writing "The End." David Hewson had a cautionary tale about this at Bouchercon last week. Edit, edit, edit. Give it to other people to read, then edit again based on their comments.

  14. Also, I'd recommend against starting a second book in a series before the first is sold. Steig Larsson is the exception, not the norm.