A few years ago I had an idea. A very powerful idea. One that kept me awake at night and gnawed away at me from the inside. It was an idea for a book that my inner being told me I simply must write. Write a book! It sang to me. Write a book! So on long nights of insomnia I would lay awake plotting and planning. And that’s how it began.
Of course, it took me almost a year to actually put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and start writing. Because my mind was clouded by my own limiting beliefs. I can’t write a book! I haven’t studied creative writing! This idea is silly. I don’t even have the whole story planned out in my head yet. My head was so full of self doubt that it took the influence of my BFF writing her own first book to finally get me into action.
One thing is for sure. If I’d known how long it would take, how many re-writes I would do, how many adjustments I would make and how many bouts of self doubt I would have to tackle, I probably would never have started.
But now, here I am, with a completed young adult, modern fantasy novel of 85,000 words, ready for the literary agent query process. I have written a book. So how did I do it?
How to Write a Book: Step 1 – The Idea
You could be anywhere when it comes to you; gardening, at the supermarket, stuck in traffic or my personal favourite – listening to Radio NZ and doing the dishes. Out of nowhere it descends upon you. You can almost feel it settling on your shoulders like dewy mist. You have an idea. A great idea. An idea so amazing it gives you goosebumps.
Getting an idea is like a spiritual experience for me – like being graced with the presence of a deity or divine being. It sends me into a sudden sweat and causes me to mutter “fuck” under my breath.
In tarot, the ace of wands symbolises the exciting energy of a new idea. The spark of inspiration that floods you with motivation and oomph.
The trick is to hold onto the power of the idea long enough for you to use it. Sometimes that power can be fleeting; if you don’t sit down with it immediately its energy will float away to someone else. But other ideas are more persistent. They need you, and only you, to bring them to fruition.
As Elizabeth Gilbert explains in Big Magic, an idea is the very beginning of the creative process. Without it the creative process simply doesn’t exist. But Ideas, as wonderful as they are, are not complete in themselves. They need us to bring them into the material world.
“Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human’s efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the realm of the actual.”
I had my idea for two years before I finally accepted that it wasn’t going to leave until I used it. Or until it found someone else willing to take it on. After two years of hanging out with my idea I couldn’t just let it float off to someone else! Someone who didn’t understand it. It was mine!
I made a deal with the idea that it was us together. Two peas in a pod. We were going to do this. But that’s when the my inner critic decided she had something to say…
How to Write a Book: Step 2: Tell your Inner Critic to Fuck off
My inner critic was not chuffed with me and my idea getting cozy together. She was concerned. She had our reputation in mind, our time and energy. She didn’t want me spending all that time trying to write a book only to fail! What if you find out you can’t do it? What if you never finish it? What if you tell everyone and then lose interest and it becomes just another one of those things you never achieved? What if you do finish it but it sucks and no one will publish it? You could make a fool of yourself! I think it’s best if you just clean your house instead. A clean house never hurt anyone.
I would like to say I found it easy to ignore her. But I didn’t. Her messages of self doubt were loud and distracting. It took me a long time to realise that she was always going to be there but I had the power to tell her to shut the fuck up.
How to Write a Book: Step 3 – Decide if you are a Plotter or a Pantser.
Plotters are writers that plot everything out before they even start their book. Pantsers are writers who just dive on in with their idea and ‘write by the seat of their pants’.
I am a plotter, open to some pantsing in between. Personally, I highly recommend doing some basic plotting before you start writing. Knowing your setting, season, characters and basic premise BEFORE YOU START is super helpful. I only know this because I dove in with most of these things undecided and every time I got to a place where I had to make a decision I was halted in my tracks, forced to go back and do research and make decisions.
However, maybe you have to write one book the wrong way before you can learn what kind of writer you are.
How to Write a Book: Step 4 – Start Writing
This is actually the easiest part of the whole process. Just fucking start. If you’ve committed to plotting give yourself a time limit. Set a date on the calendar. But the thing is if you don’t actually start you’ll NEVER have a book.
How to Write a Book: Step 5 – Allow Yourself to Fuck it Up/Learn
I have a saying I tell my kids when they are doing something for the very first time: The first time’s the worst time. Basically, you’ve gotta start somewhere and, while you may be impressed with how you’re going straight off the bat, remember – the only way is up. You can truly only get better from here on in. It’s both comforting and terrifying but you have to accept it to allow yourself to begin the learning process.
How to Write a Book: Step 6 – Cry
I feel like at this stage, if you haven’t already, it’s probably time to have a cry. Trying new things is scary and hard. There’s a whole monologue of self doubt voices in your head telling you that you can’t do it. If you’re lucky, that magical Ace of Wands feeling will be strong enough to drown out the doubt. But for most of us those nasty inner critic voices are loud and mean. If you feel them slowing you down, telling you to quit or forcing you to overthink every word, stop and let it out. Cry. Let them tears roll down your cheeks. Let that shit go so you can move forward. There ain’t no point holding on to those tears – there will be plenty more to shed later on in the process.
How to Write a Book: Step 7 – Commit to the Shitty First Draft
Being able to commit to the shitty first draft is the most important part of truly committing to your project. In my opinion the best approach is to smash out that shit. It’s like ripping off a Bandaid. The quicker you do it the easier it is. Bang. It. Out.
Set yourself a daily word count target and do whatever it takes to meet it. I find getting up at 5am to be my most successful writing time. My mind is still in the world of dreams and my kids are still (hopefully) asleep. I can smash out 3000 words before breakfast – but not after.
How to Write a Book: Step 8 – Keep Writing
In order to complete the shitty first draft, you must KEEP WRITING. There will be times when you feel confused, tired, doubtful. But under no circumstances are you to give up and stop half way through. Believe me, a complete shitty first draft is 10 times better than a half-finished shitty first draft.
In my opinion the best thing to do is set aside six to eight weeks to write your first draft. You must finish the whole thing in one go but it is okay to leave some gaps if you must. Then, once it’s done, stick that ugly baby in a drawer for six weeks and fuggetaboutit! Under no circumstances should you re-read what you have written until the six weeks waiting period is up. It will only make you cry again – which is far too soon.
How to Write a Book: Step 9 – Read Shitty First draft
This could very well be the hardest part of the process. There is a reason we call it the shitty first draft. After reading it you will see about 90% shit and 10% gold. You will doubt your abilities as a writer and as a human. Which leads to Step 10…
How to Write a Book: Step 10 – Cry
Yes. It’s that time again. Cry. It is okay to cry. You are sad because you hate your work and you obviously have no idea how to use basic grammar because you found so many ridiculous errors. But that is okay. It can only get better from here. This is the worst it will ever be. The very fact that you have found so many errors and awful sentences means that you have the skills to make it better.
How to Write a Book: Step – Polish that Turd
The best way to polish a turd is in real life, so that means print that puppy out, in double lined spacing and sit down by the fire with a stiff drink and a highlighter. It’s time to polish your baby turd.
-Make the first page a slap in the face
-Get rid of needless words
-Adverbs are not as cool as they seem
-Show don’t tell
-Don’t repeat information to the reader
-Keep them on their toes
-If it doesn’t progress the story, develop characters or conflict, do you really need it?
How to Write a Book: Step – Make Changes then Give it Another Coat of Polish
Yep, that’s right. Once you’ve made all the changes it’s time to read through it all again. It can also help to read it out loud – that way you can hear when things don’t sound quite right.
How to Write a Book: Step – Cut the Emotional Chord
I understand how hard it can be to let go. But in order to make this book the best it can be you are going to have to learn to distance your self from your work. The next step in the process is going to involve opening yourself up to feedback. Honest feedback. Feedback basically means telling you all the things that are wrong with your work. All the mistakes you have made. And all the silly things that don’t quite make sense. But feedback is the THE MOST IMPORTANT AND HELPFUL THING YOU CAN GET.
So before you set out to get feedback, remind yourself that this is something you created but it is not you. The bones of it are the magic, now allow the universe to help you do that magic justice.
How to Write a Book: Step – Beta Readers
Now it’s time to send out the call for beta readers. Some people use friends and family but I would select people who are interested in the genre and market of your book. I wouldn’t ask my Dad to read my YA fantasy book because he would hate it regardless of quality. The best beta readers are people you don’t know because they are more likely to give you honest feedback. Try people from your book club, writers group or your High School English teacher friends. Select at least five beta readers so you get a wide range of opinions.
How to Write a Book: Step – Receive Feedback/Cry
Even though you previously cut the chord it is still hard take feedback on something you have given your soul to. It is okay to cry. It is okay to give yourself a day of Netflix binging to process all the things that are wrong with your book. You probably can’t get your head around them right now and have no idea how on Earth you will fix the problems. Don’t panic. Just relax and get back to it tomorrow.
How to Write a Book: Step – Implement Feedback
Now, you do not have to implement all feedback. Some opinions come down to the individual and at the end of the day this is your book. If one person suggests something you don’t agree with you don’t have to use their input. If 10 people suggest the same thing, you might want to consider it.
How to Write a Book: Step – Proof Read that Sucker
This is where you can ask anyone and everyone to read your little bastard of a book. You don’t really care if it’s their thing – because you are officially detached emotionally. Now you just need to make it tidy and tight. The more people read over it the more typos they will find. You want that bad boy looking as spick and span as possible.
You could at this stage hire an editor to check and format your book perfectly in prep for the next fabulous stage….
How to Write a Book: Step – Query Literary Agents
Now that brings me to my current nightmare stage; the agent query stage. If you thought writing the book was hard, try dealing with the slow and painful waiting game of querying agents! I can’t really complain. I’ve only been in this stage for six months and I’m less than 20 submissions deep. I’ll keep you posted!
How to Write a Book: Step – Start your Next Book
So this is where I’m at. My first book is currently complete and awaiting representation and publication. We have now learnt that writing books is not for sissies. It is hard and painful. But because we are silly and sadistic we can’t help but do it all again! So why not start book number two!?