By David Thalberg of BrandStandBooks
If only the writing a novel was as simple as wearing your lucky sweater, sitting down in your favorite chair, with your trusty pen, laptop or Smith-Corona and then getting to it. It’s become trite to answer the question: “So what are you up to these days?” With the answer: “Oh, I’m working on a book.” I live on the West Coast – you know how many people I run into who answer that question with: “Oh, I have a screenplay in development”?
It’s easy enough to give that answer. The hard part is actually sitting down and writing that damn book. Over the past few days, I’ve asked some author friends what it took for them to actually get over the hump and write their FIRST book. Below, you’ll see some of their answers.
Joseph Finder, a New York Times multiple best-selling novelists puts it succinctly: “Writing is the only profession I can think of that requires no license, no certificate, no special training, and no special tools. Anyone who wants to can be a writer. All you have to do is write.”
He has a valid point – and for me, “just sitting down and write” will be the final suggestion I have for you. But let’s not jump ahead. As Maria von Trapp once said (or sang): “Let’s start at the very beginning.”
Step One:Why are Your Writing a Book?
This is an important question to answer. Is it an inner need of yours? Do you have a tale inside you that just needs to get out, and you’ve decided a book is the best vehicle? Do you want to establish yourself as an expert? Will a book give you credibility in your field? Do you have a personal story to tell? Will your memoir give hope to others, or maybe even mend a rift in your family? Do you have new information to provide? You’re a Washington insider and you know where the bodies are buried….
Before you go through the agony (and hopeful ecstasy!) of writing a book, take a moment to look in the mirror and ask yourself this question: Why am I writing a book? If you have a solid answer that satisfies you… go to it!
Liz Hilliard (first book: Be Powerful): I was motivated to share my story of overcoming weakness to find my own strength and wanted to empower others to do the same.
Step 2: Read and Research
What do you like to read? What gives you pleasure? Spy novels, romance, literary fiction? Do you prefer the classics or books with a modern feel? Look at your bookshelf (in your living room or here on Bookstr.com): what trends do you see? I’m not suggesting re-writing “The Old Man and The Sea,” but there certainly have been variations of this tale told over the years. The same goes with any John Grisham story – the man knows how to develop a plot. It may be the same-sounding crooked insurance firm, or wayward family that he’s written about previously, but there’s always a new hook. What genre sways you?
Then look at other people’s bookshelves. Look at the bestseller lists – nationally and locally. What’s selling today? Yes, you have to write for you. And that’s important. You must write from your heart. But you need and should surround yourself with other writers – or those who understand where you're coming from. This will help you exponentially with your writing process.
Tom Bird leads writing retreats in Sedona, Arizona (I’ve spoken at the retreats and have known Tom for 15+ years). He brings together many first time writers and teaches what he describes as a “comprehensive and holistic support system that opens participants to a free-flowing, mental, physical, emotional and spiritual state.” He calls this “The Divine Author Within.” I’ve seen this process work. Build that community of writers around you – read what they're writing, and then keep writing.
Lev Grossman (first book: Warp): The reason I tried to write my first novel was that I figured out that short stories were actually not for me. When I started writing a novel, I thought, 'I'm not ready, because I've only written short stories and nobody wants them, but I also thought, for Christ's sake, what am I going to do? I can't keep on like this. I started writing the novel and I instantly felt like: Finally, I can breathe.
Step 3: Write Down Your Title
Write this title down in BIG LETTERS. Put it on a Post-it where you write. Make it your screensaver. Make it your morning mantra when you wake up, and when say it again before you go to sleep. This title will lead you to develop so much in your book: plot, character development, overall theme and structure.
The title you have in your mind today may or may not be your final title. Just like characters and plot, titles change (Original title for To Kill A Mockingbird was Atticus. You can see how Harper Lee used “Atticus” as the starting block for everything developed in that book.)
“Atticus” was Lee’s protagonist. Who is yours? Who is the antagonist? What is the angst or problem to be solved? Having your title in mind at all times will certainly help you develop the remainder of your book.
Check Klosterman (first book: Fargo Rock City): I...moved to a city where I didn't know one person so I had no friends. That improves your likelihood of completing a book.
Step 4: Make an outline
This is an important step many first time authors ignore. They just sit down and start writing. But think back to the 7th grade, when your English teacher first tried to teach you how to write a great essay. OUTLINE was and remains a key step.
- Name your key characters
- Name geographic settings
- Character conflicts
- Steps to overcome a situation – or to learn something
- Write an overview – of the entire book (in 30 words or less), or as each chapter will develop
This outline is a guide for you. It is a living and breathing document. If you’re writing a novel, you’ll take the outline in one direction. If you’re writing non-fiction, you’ll want to base this outline on your hypothesis.
Amy Implellizzeri (first book: Lemongrass Hope) I started writing my debut novel, while on sabbatical from my corporate law gig. It had been so long since I had the chance to write something in my own voice - something that was NOT a legal brief. I dove into the creative exercise enthusiastically, but quickly realized how much I didn't know about writing a book. I supplemented my earnestness with creative writing workshops, craft and inspiration books (Don Maass and Anne Lamott are favorites). Four years later, I had a finished book AND a book deal. I think the biggest mistake emerging authors make is assuming it will be easy. Once you rid yourself of that misconception, you have a clearer path toward potential success!
Step 5: WRITE!
Jack Kerouac says it all here: “It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.” Elmore Leonard puts it another way: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” However you go about your writing process, you have to dedicate yourself to the writing process and get to it:
- Set a daily time where you will always be writing
- Set a word count minimum
- Find an ideal location to write – someplace inspiring (some prefer a coffee shop, others prefer a quiet office – it’s all up to you)
- Review what you’ve written every day
- Set a plan for tomorrow, so you’ll have an idea of what’s to come
- Talk to your characters (even in non-fiction, you will have major players) – listen to what they’re saying to you, and incorporate that into your writing.
My friend Tom has writers finish a book in a weekend. You don’t need to do that, but you should set a goal – otherwise your book will become the one “still in development.”
If you’ve come this far, you can keep going. Don’t stop. Find the energy and let it lift you to new heights. Find your inspiration. Take that small germ of an idea and let it blossom.
Sebastian Junger (first book: The Perfect Storm) When I write a sentence or a paragraph or a chapter that’s good, I know it, and I know people are going to read it. That knowledge—Oh my God, I’m doing it, I’m doing this thing again that works—it’s just exhilarating.
I believe that the world still needs more new voices. Millions of books are published every year. Why shouldn’t yours be one of them… and the one that truly moves the needle.
David Thalberg is the founder of BrandStand, an affiliate of Stryker-Munley Group. A book publicist with more than 25 years experience, he is a frequent instructor at publishing and writers retreats and has a regular publishing column, Writing from the BrandStand on Bookstr.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://brandstandpr.com.
Featured image courtesy of http://triflingthings.ca/.