After years and years (and years) of trying to write a book and failing miserably, I have finally written my first novel. *Waits till the applause dies down* I’m still editing and tweaking here and there and I’ve actually started writing my second novel (and had a baby too), but I wanted to take a few moments to share with all aspiring book-writers how I finally did it, so that you can do it too.
I now realise that one of the reasons that I hadn’t managed to finish writing a book was because I was too busy (a) reading advice from authors on how to write books and (b) trying to follow all their advice down to a T. This is not to say that I didn’t read any good advice. I did. But if you read 10 different recipes for beef stew and try to incorporate all the advice from all 10 recipes, it’s safe to say that you’ll probably be giving the stew to your dog. The way I wrote a book may not be for everybody but it was literally the only way I could write a book, and I’ve debunked quite a few book-writing myths I got suckered into believing along the way. Warning: I’m OCD so there are a lot of spreadsheets involved.
(Please note: this is not about how to get published. If you know that, please let me know too.)
How to write a book in 10 steps (with myths debunked)
This post is about how to write a book, assuming that you already have an idea for a book. It’s not about how to get ideas. I find it hard to believe that someone who wants to be an author doesn’t have at least one idea for a story. I may have only finished my first book at the ripe old age of 34 but I have no less than 11 started-albeit-unfinished books on my laptop that span almost two decades, and triple that many book ideas in a spreadsheet. This is not to mention the random pieces of paper with book ideas scrawled on that I find everywhere strewn around the house and in old bags and clothes. I’m not saying they are all good ideas. Jesus Christ, no. You know how some people are worried that people will find their internet browser history when they die? I’m scared people will find some of these crappy book ideas and think, “thank fuck she died before she could write up any of this nonsense.” So, assuming you have at least one book idea, here’s how you can do it.
1. Know your story
Myth: The story will unfold as you write. WHAT? What story? Story, story, wherefore art thou story? I can’t being to tell you how many times I have read that authors write and as they do so, the story and the characters and the plot all miraculously unfold themselves. I don’t think so, mate. And neither does my favourite author, bestselling crime-thriller novelist, John Grisham.
I’ve got to plan it out. I need to know where I am going otherwise I will get hideously lost. I need to know my book’s beginning, middle and end, and also each chapter’s beginning, middle and end. It all needs to be carefully outlined. Every chapter. John says 40 chapters, but I tend go in tens, because splitting up my story into 10 segments, almost like episodes in a series, comes easier to me. I guess you can then split your ten chapters into four afterwards and get your 40 chapters. Also imperative is a detailed chapter synopsis (this is why splitting it up into ten was easier for me than 40). I have a spreadsheet for each book, and each chapter is fully laid out. The text is hardly legible but if you know what you are talking about and what’s going on in your head, that’s all that matters. I had a 30-page synopsis (no paragraphs; it just looked like computer code but thats the beauty about a detailed chapter synopsis, it doesn’t need to make sense to anyone else but you).
All that being said, some of the best writers of our time (and times past) write and let the story unfold as it goes along. They like to see where the story takes them. If it works for you, then of course, that’s what you should do. But I have a feeling that if I let the story unfold as I went along, the story would take me sooner rather than later to the trash can.
2. Know your characters inside-out
A detailed character list is a must. I have a spreadsheet which includes important information such as age (I like to put zodiac sign too as it gives me a little extra insight into their personality), appearance, personality traits, occupation, relationship to lead character, and any other must-know bits of information. I also have a places list. Home. The cafe. The local pub. Gran’s. The best friend’s. What these places looked like. Who worked there. Opening hours. Anything else I could think of for these places. It helps you immensely later on when mentioning them. Also, if something changes with any one of my characters, I go back and fill in the spreadsheet.
Myth: You can always add in characters later on. Technically you can. Is it a good idea? Not in my experience. At least not important characters, anyway. They always seem to look and feel like filler characters. Unless they’re imperative to the plot, leave them out.
3. Put a knife to your own throat
Giving yourself a deadline helps you stick to writing your book. But if you’re your own boss, it’s easy to skive off. So I found a great way to make sure that you stick to a deadline. Competitions or social media challenges! Let people know you’re doing it because then you’ll feel like a dumb fuck if you don’t! The 100 day project is a good one. Nanowrimo is another. There are many more about, or you could do your own one with a friend or a group. If you think that doing it alone and posting your progress on your socials will help, then go for that. Anything, any extra little bit of motivation that you know will help you stick with it – do it.
Myth: Write your book whenever you have spare time. Seriously folks. I have a baby, animals, a partner, and a job (I may still have some friends left too). When is there spare time? If you don’t factor it in, it won’t get done.
4. Write every day
Even if it’s 100 words. They all say this but it’s one of the tips that is true. You have to write a little bit every day so that you stay on the ball. If you skip a day, it’s not the end of the world (I once skipped a month which I only managed to do because I didn’t have the hypothetical knife to my throat) but it really makes it harder to get back into it. 1000 words is nothing, really. Some of my social media captions are 1000 words. If you’re on a roll, you can write that in an hour. Fact: 1000 words a day will have you a complete manuscript in a little over three months… Doesn’t that make you wonder why you haven’t done it already?
Myth: You can’t skip a day. You can skip a day. But try not to make a habit of it. All the greats write every day. Aspire to write every day. Write every day. Did I say it enough?
5. Count your words
Keep a spreadsheet of word count. No idea why this helped me, but it did! Seeing the words get higher every day, seeing how much I can write before I get tired, noticing my own rhythm and writing patterns, seeing when I was likely to work, how many days I skipped, etc… it was eye-opening! It was like a Google analytics of myself! V interesting. Get to know yourself.
Myth: The longer the better. Hold on, what are we talking about? Oh, yes, books. No, in fact, popular opinion in agent-land (according to my extensive research) is that between 100-100k words is best for a first novel so try to keep it down.
6. Put it away
Now this is where it gets technical and adhering to the tips from the pros is advised. Stephen King says once you write the first draft, put it away for six weeks. Stuff it in a drawer and start to write something else. A short story, a blog, a fully comprehensive outline for your new novel. Anything to cleanse your palate.
7. Do a second rewrite
Next, King says to dig your manuscript up after six weeks and spend a few days – not more than a week – doing your second rewrite. This is eye-opening. You’ll be like, “did I really write that?” and wince, and then, “did I really write that?” and slap your thigh in a “well-I’ll-be-damned” proud joy.
Myth: Editing should take as long as it took to write the book. No, actually. Read and edit it. Read and edit it again. Read and edit it again. Even if you do that 5 times, it should only take you a few weeks.
8. Give it to trusted friends
When you’ve done your second rewrite, give it to a few trusted friendly critics (you can give it to your mother but it might not be the most unbiased review you’ll get; use your own judgement about who to give it to and how helpful their review will be). Their job is to give you constructive and honest criticism about your manuscript. If you’re brave enough, you could ask them what they liked, didn’t like, what they would change, etc. If you feel that you might be offended beyond repair (which is understandable because you’ve just put your raw heart complete with live nerve endings on a plate and offered it up to them) then you could simply ask them to just point out any glaring mistakes, typos, inconsistencies, etc., and to keep other criticism and opinions to themselves, although, asking them to be fully honest is probably the best way to take the blinkers off and start to prepare yourself for those scathing Amazon and Good Reads reviews that we should be so lucky to one day get.
Myth: Critics are always right. If you give it to eight people and over half of them feel like the main character is not believable, they probably have a point (even though you love the character and this is a bitter pill to swallow). If only one of the critics is adamant about this, but the rest love the character, I’d go with the masses.
9. Do a final rewrite
Finally, you take your friends critiques and make any changes you feel they were right about. In my instance, I got a few comments like, “I’d like a lot more sex” which you learn to ignore and then another one like, “you said her daughter was six years old five years ago and now she is still six,” which obviously had to be rectified because I couldn’t account for a time machine. Then do a final proofread. Do a proof-read on the computer, but then get it printed off and read it again (I proofread the life out of my manuscript on the laptop, and as soon as I got it printed, I noticed a missed full stop on the first page. On the very first page for crying out loud! That page that you by now should all know by heart, that page which is as familiar to you as “when he was 13 years old my brother broke his arm at elbow” from To Kill A Mockingbird). If you are still not convinced about your proofreading skills, get a proofreader. They cant be that expensive and they’ll find anything you missed.
Myth: Editing ends at some stage. I’ve actually found that the more I re-read, the more I want to change. After a while, you kind of have to end it yourself at some point to save from going mad.
10. Research your agents
Before sending to agents, do your research. Do you know how lucky we are in this day and age with the internet to be able to research which agents are for our genre, who’s accepting, who wants it as a PDF, who wants Word, who prefers double-sided, who wants it in Comic Sans (no one. No one wants it in Comic Sans).
Anyway, I’m now at that stage. I wont discuss about how to get an agent. This post is not about that. It’s not how to get an agent or how to get ideas. It’s a post for someone who just wants to write a complete novel. There are people who write books not to get agents, or to be published, or for money like J.R.R. Tolkien. This is how to write a book. Tried and tested by yours truly. It might not work for everyone. In fact, I’m sure that it won’t work for everyone, but you might find something here that will help you finally write that book.
Let me know what you think, if you found anything helpful, or if you have any super tips of your own that you’d like to share.