“Hey Hillary, how do I write a book?”
“You make words in a notebook or on a computer. This is not a hard question.”
Technically speaking, that answer is correct. Unfortunately, it’s not sufficient. Not by a long shot. Writing a book (or short story/script/epic rp post/blog post etc) is a lot more than Person With Creative Idea Sits Down, Writes, Stuff Happens. What do I mean? Well, did you know that the idea, the characters, the plot, and all of the things that the words create aren’t the killer? In fact, those are the -easy- parts. So you may think you’re King Shit of Turd Mountain because you have a storyline and a cool cast that includes a talking cactus. Great, congratulations, that’s the germ.
But it ain’t writin’ a book.
You may even make notes about the story, outline it, start the first couple chapters and get into a groove. You may – gasp – NANO and get 50k words into the project.
But it ain’t writin’ a book.
Because writing a book means you start and finish. It means not getting bogged down by things like plot holes you can drive a Honda through, or lack of drive to finish. It means looking away from shiny distractions. It means having a beginning, a middle, and an end. It means telling your inner critic to go take a flying fuck and make words anyway – worry about the quality later on. It means knowing you’re too close to this idea, that you can’t be objective about it, and the only way you’ll ever know if it’s really good is handing it off to people who’ll tell you the truth. It’s setting realistic expectations about the publishing industry, your place in it, and understanding that weighing success or failure against other people is a huge waste of time because everyone’s book journey is different. It’s rarely “HUGE SUCCESS” or “HUGE FAILURE”. It fits somewhere in the spectrum. Aim too high you’ll shoot yourself in the dick. Aim too low and you’ll probably write a crappy book.
Newsflash that’s not really a newsflash: writing a book is fucking hard, folks. And there’s a lot of things to it you need to understand before you set out on your epic word adventure.
Part One: Discipline
Bar none, this is the most difficult thing to master. Discipline. The discipline to stop looking at pterodactyl porn and to make a thousand words. You may say to me “Yeah, I can do that, I really want to write the book.” It’s amazing how quickly you will abandon your discipline when the story’s not going as smoothly as you want it to, or a Jersey Shore marathon is on. It’s amazing the excuses you will make to yourself to justify NOT writing. I know no less than a half dozen spectacular writers who probably won’t finish something within the next five years because they’ve given me (and by default, themselves) a laundry list of reasons for “why it’s not happening”. The worst part is, they buy into those excuses and then lament the fact that their productivity is shit. If you want it that bad, cram the excuses where the sun don’t shine, sit your ass down in a chair, and write. The bar’s open another night. Write. The television can be shut off. Write. The internet will still be there later, so unplug the modem and write.
Falconesse calls this “butt in chair” time. It’s absolutely the hardest part. How you get into that chair and make words happen is unimportant. What’s important is that you do it, period, and continue to do it without fail. A lot of writer moms I know wait ’til the kiddies are asleep and sneak in five hundred words before bed. I personally tell myself “a chapter a week, no less” and kick myself if that’s all I manage to produce. Some people set a couple days aside and block off hours within those days. They treat it like a second job in that they show up, do their word count, and clock out. Find what works for you, and stick to it.
The Ugly Truth: You Will Never Write A Book If You Have No Self-Discipline. You Will Start Many, And Finish None.
The Good News: Once You Master It, It Gets A Lot Easier.
Part Two: Don’t Edit As You Go
So I won’t pretty this up. STOP EDITING EARLY. JUST DON’T DO IT. After awhile, toying with the words to make them “perfect” means you’re not writing NEW words. It becomes a roadblock to productivity, and before you know it you’re right back at that Discipline thing because you can’t/won’t let yourself get past Chapter Eight. The rule of thumb for me is “tinkering with already produced shit before you finish your MS is a BAD idea”. Minor edits here and there – a word misspelled, a dangling participle correction, maybe fleshing out a sentence or two – okay, but rereading the same six paragraphs for a day and a half is a “get nude, paint yourself with tapioca, and run up and down the street screaming a guacamole recipe” level of time waste. What good is having eight chapters of GREAT STUFF if you won’t ever let yourself write chapter nine? Understand that authors edit their work after the fact for a reason.
The Ugly Truth: There Are Very Few Edits You Make Now That Can’t Be Made Later.
The Good News: The More You Write, The Better Your Work Gets, The Less Editing It Will Need Overall.
Part Three: Managing Expectations
“Author L got a $500,000 dollar advance, was bought on auction after a week on submission, and went on to win a Nebula. I want that, and if I can’t produce something like that, I won’t write.”
1) Hey look! It’s an excuse. See Part One! You are quite literally talking yourself out of writing, and failing on the discipline front.
2) Get real. Let me rephrase. Get real and get over yourself. Every author wants to be good. Every author wants Rowling-level fame and success. Every author wants a Hugo award, and to be on the NY Times Bestseller list. I’m pretty sure if you polled a bunch of published folks, they’d all say they’d be pretty keen with any or all of that good shit happening. Fact: shitty writers sometimes get published, but not as often as you might believe. It’s hard to convince an editor that you’re good enough to be bought. I’m STILL trying to do it. Does fear of rejection and not being the next Stephen King stop me from writing? No. Why? Because . . . well mostly because of that little number one thing right above. I get that there might be better books than mine out there, but I also know nothing ventured nothing gained. I’m not going to use the excuse of I MIGHT NOT BE AS SUCCESSFUL AS I’D LIKE TO BE as a reason to not -try-.
Look, it’s one thing to want to produce the best quality material you can. I am all for that, actually. It’s another thing to essentially give up because you won’t achieve what the VAST minority of writers achieve. If you seriously look at award-winning books and tell yourself “I can’t write until I get that” you should probably ask yourself why you’re writing at all.
Are you writing for the money? If so, reality slap – most writers have a day job. Most writers make a couple thousand dollar advance on a book. Most writers won’t ever see a royalty statement on their first book because it won’t earn out its advance. This is not the industry for would-be millionaires. Do James Pattersons happen? Yes, but again, miniscule segment of the writing population. Have realistic expectations, all the while hoping for more.
Are you writing for awards? Umm. Why? Do you think a prestigious award will make you like yourself more? It won’t. It’s just a shiny trophy, and after awhile it too will lose its shine. Besides, the way to get awards is to write a good book. I’ve never heard of them giving someone who theory crafts a book a pat on the head. Again, realistic expectations, hope for more. Write the book and write it to the best of your ability and THEN some. What’s there to lose? At the very least you have the satisfaction of saying “I produced a book. I sat down and wrote a story. It is mine and no one else’s, and I saw it through from start to finish.” It’s hard to explain the euphoria you get saying THE END after that last page. It’s a little high, like you climbed Mount Everest. The awards should be the frosting on the cake, not the cake itself. The book is your cake, and it’s mighty delicious.
Are you writing because you have to write? Because not writing makes you feel soulless and empty? If the answer to this is yes, you’re writing for the right reasons. Discipline yourself to channel that passion onto the page, to give birth to a complete idea, not just a portion of it.
((Also if you’re unsure if the above is true, check out Chuck Wendig’s article about “When It’s Time To Toss In The Writing Towel”. Good stuff, as always))
The Ugly Truth: Most Books Don’t Win Major Awards Or Get Trillion Dollar Advances. That Does Not Mean A Book Is Bad.
The Good News: Writing A Good Book Gets You A Lot Closer To Both Things.
If you asked me how to write a book to completion, there’s a couple tips I can give but only because they’ve worked for me. Other people might tell you different, but here’s Hillary’s take on it: I’d tell you to set small goals within your overall goal. “This sucks and I hate it, but if I can just get to the scene where Joey molests a petunia plant, I can take a break.” I’d tell you expect to get stalled out, and to find friends and other writers to cram a taser up your ass to spark you back into motion. I’d tell you that you’re going to worry a billion times whether or not this is worth it, that you’re going to question if it’s any good, but that you have to have faith that things work themselves out. I’d tell you that understanding these things, and combining them with the discipline to just sit the hell down and write is a skill set that’s developed over time, but once it’s there, it never goes away. I’d tell you it’s hard, but it’ll be okay because other writers understand how hard it is, and are very good resources when you’re feeling down.
Having ideas, starting ideas, formulating and theorizing is great. It’s how the book process starts, but it’s not how it ends. And believe me, ending it is the doozy, guys. You start off with unbridled enthusiasm, and then four or five chapters aren’t as tight as you want, and a plot hole manifests, and you’re less excited because the idea isn’t as shiny anymore. Next thing you know you have forty thousand words of good intentions and that’s it. That’s sad. That’s abandoning hours of work. A book’s journey is an arduous one. It’s not always going to be as exciting as you hope. The trick is to tell yourself FUCKIT (say it loud) and to keep trudging along. Build momentum. Get a couple more chapters under your belt, even if you have to grit your teeth and tie yourself to a chair to do it. Even if you hate every last stinking word you write, keep GOING and worry about editing it later. Getting past a hurdle is a small victory. Embrace it and use the pride of completion to propel you into another chapter, and then another. There will be dips and valleys, there will be self-doubt and fear and exhaustion. It’s expected, it’s part of the process. Stop looking at the negative in front of you and look past it, to another goal. Tell yourself that just getting past this scene will make everything better. Nine times out of ten it will. No really, it will.