Thursday, 12 January 2012

How To Write A Book

This, believe it or not, was my Christmas gift from 
The Niece From Hell - a 'starter pack' of book napkins!.

You have to bear in mind the advice below comes from a self-published author who's just started out and will likely never sell more than a couple of hundred books, not Jeffrey Deaver, okay? You are, of course, more than welcome to buy my book and decide for yourself whether to listen to me.

Pal Abdulla Al Suwaidi (@Aabo0 to you) asked me on Twitter to share the resources I used developing my book, Olives - A Violent Romance. To that end, the below.

In terms of actual literature on writing books, there are hundreds of books on how to write a book. It's notable that few of them are written by successful authors of anything other than books on how to write books and many carry mendacious subtitles such as 'How To Get Published'. I think you've more chance of being published by wearing a duck on your head and standing naked outside Blackstone's than you have by reading these books. Books on writing will only take you so far - the rest of the process is as arcane and mystifying as the famous Nebulising Nonentity of Nether Thragulon Nine.

I own two books about writing, foisted upon me by an insistent and exasperated Phillipa Fioretti as we worked together on an early edit of Olives. Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King and The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman. Both are books I am very glad I bought. Other than those, I suppose I've read a load of articles and stuff online but most of my learning has come from working with writer friends on my manuscript or theirs - there are writer's websites such as Harper Collins' Authonomy or Litopia which let you post up your manuscript and allow others to 'crit' it. The upside of this is you get lots of advice and input, the downside is there can be a lot of backbiting, competitive 'backing' where, for instance authonomy, the site is based on competing and it can be hard to know if the advice comes from a seasoned pro or a complete dufus.

Should you join a writers' group? I have found (as I acknowledge in Olives) the company of writer friends utterly invaluable, but I stress they are friends - people whose company I sought and enjoy. I have never belonged to a writers' group as such and look on them with mild horror. But don't 'go it alone' for pity's sake. I did that for over five years and now fervently wish I hadn't wasted so much time.

I follow a number of blogs, but these are more focused on publishing rather than writing. However, I'd recommend:

The Passive Voice - mostly posts from other people's blogs, but his selections are usually thought-provoking and his observations often add value, too. And, of course, he's finding other writers worth following for you.

The Shatzkin Files - Consultant Mike Shatzkin was one of the early voices that 'got' digital and he remains a must-read commentator on publishing.

The Bookseller - The trade journal of publishing. I find this great for following the industry and occasionally  useful for 'reality checking' some of the more strident neologist voices.

Pub Rants - A useful agent's blog. Kristin is one of the very few agents who I follow.

Writer Beware - A good early warning system for scams and scammers. As self publishing grows, so will the marketing scams that promise to market your book etc.

Mad Genius Club - A bunch of writers writing about writing, always worth a visit.

The Independent Publishing Magazine - Does what it says on the cover.

Obviously, if anyone else has any smart ideas on writer/author/publishing blogs to follow, feel free to chuck 'em in the comments.

As for the rest of it, here are some of my learnings so you don't have to smack your head against the same brick walls I did.

How to write a book

So, you've set up all these blogs in your reader and popped off to Amazon to buy those books. You've got a nice, sharp pencil and a piece of paper ready. Now you can start writing your book. Step back from that keyboard, I was serious about the pencil and paper.

1) A Novel Form
What kind of book are you intending to write? Be clear with yourself, categorise it from day one. Chic-lit for the over 30s European housewife? A thriller for early 20-something professionals? Tighten it as much as possible and try to imagine your audience. Is it a large audience? What kind of books is it buying? Where is it buying them? Is your genre of choice one you read a lot in? Which authors do you admire/enjoy the most? Are they selling well? How will you be different to them, yet occupy the same space on the shelf? (One writer solved this problem by using a pseudonym that placed him next to his 'target author' on bookshelves!)

These questions all seem far removed from the beautiful process of creating literature and they indeed are. But if you want your beautiful literature to get published, you'd better start thinking commercially from the get-go. Publishers don't buy beauty any more, they buy books they think they can sell in the mainstream. If you're in it for the beauty and to hell with the consequences, then you're self-publishing and you're as well to understand that before you press a single key.

Now to use that piece of paper (some people use whiteboards or big charts, I happen to use paper). Presumably you've got an idea of the basic plot of the book. Now you can Google 'narrative curve' and came back to this after you've spent a couple of days reading all the advice out there. I start out by putting the events in my book in little clumps of text and linking them with arrows, so each clump is a little like a scene. Each scene, then, takes your character forwards on the journey of your book (the journey can, of course, take place on an armchair), by moving the character or by moving other characters and situations that influence or impact your character. The arrows let you move to the next scene and connect scenes. Force yourself to do this through the whole book to the end (the temptation is to do about half and then decide to resolve the rest when you get to it). It doesn't have to be totally granular - it can be a very 'broad brush' approach, but you want to have an idea of what you're setting out to do. Ideally, the whole thing can also be colour-coded to belong to the beginning, middle and end, which takes you back to the narrative curve stuff.

2) Start writing
Now you can start putting your scenes on paper, knowing where they belong in the full picture. In fact, books are ideally structured in scenes, each scene having an objective to it that moves the story forward. Each scene belongs in a place, so be careful to let your reader know where he or she is. Each scene has a single point of view, that is the events are witnessed through one character. If you start using two or more POVs, you'll confuse the reader. This is where you Google "point of view" and come back to this article in a couple of weeks when you've exhausted yourself with the endless debate writers love to have about POV.

How much should you write? I'd aim for 1,000 words a day, but if you're doing 500 that's fine. The keyboard has arguably done us some dis-favours here as it makes it all to easy to dash ahead like a charging rhino, which is hardly the stuff of considered prose. Writers who worked long-hand did a great deal less editing, I suspect, than we do today.

3) Consider these things.
What person will you write your book in? There are arguments for first person and arguments for third person. Come back when you've done Googlin' - I wrote Olives in the first person, but my other books are all written in the third person. The first person demands that you really get behind one character and I created something of a rod for my back by choosing to narrate my story through a character who isn't intended to be necessarily likeable or admirable, in fact other characters elicit your sympathies and admiration. I personally think it's worked, but I'm biased. And it was a hell of a lot of work to do. Third person would have been simpler and easier all round. Having said that, there is some really smashing literature out there written in the first person and a cherry-pick of the very finest I'd suggest would include Camus' The Stranger, Fowles' The Magus and Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. If you're going to write in the first person, I'd recommend some movement of green paper over to Jeff Bezos' account.

Who is your main character? No, I mean really who? One of the things that makes JRR Tolkein's work so fabulous is that he created his world before he populated it, even down to defining its history, folk-lore, culture and languages. What are your character's personality and quirks, background and situation? How will your character be changed by the story you're telling? How will other characters interact with your main characer - and who are they? All of this is "characterisation" and, yes, you should Google it right now and come back to this article in a few days when you've defined your characters and fleshed out their lives so you feel you know them. They can develop as you're writing, of course - but you're best having thought them through first so you can have them react to situations realistically and in a way we believe and can empathise with.

4) As you write...
Think about where you are in each scene and how it is best experienced through your character's POV. What are the sights and sounds? The smells? The feelings? Close your eyes and  breathe it in, live it. And now put it down on paper. Use one word where ten will do, but pick the word that really nails it. Don't kill yourself being a 'rivet man' and detailing the scene to the point where we all start haemorrhaging , just set it up in a few well chosen words and then make it come alive for us by referencing it through your characters' senses. Don't forget touch - a cold key in the pocket, a warm baby. You might like to Google "writing style" here and come back in a couple of months or so.

Language is the only tool you've got, in the same way as voice is the only tool you have during a phone call. That means you have to use it to create pictures, draw the reader in and build a sense of reality. Strangely, less is more - a few well chosen words is all you need because we will fill in the gaps for you. But do avoid cliché and don't use two verbs where one will do. In fact, one writer friend is a passionate killer of adverbs and she's right almost all of the time. Consider your choice of words. If Simon gets up and walks from the room leaving Helen behind is Simon being as interesting or engaging as if he pushes back the chair irritably and strides out of the room, brushing past Helen? Be careful not to let yourself get too 'purple' here, it's a balancing act.

Focus on your characters' emotional responses, but do try and avoid telling us what those responses, those feelings and reactions are. We're better off you showing us what they are in the way the characters react. Here's another Google moment, the idea of "showing not telling". See you in a few days.

5) Hammer away
 Keep hammering away at it, building your scenes and helping your characters live the lives you've given them in your mind. Keep to the straight and narrow, don't forget we're going to have to read this, so your amusing, if self-indulgent invention of Granny Smith who is a totally great character but actually matters not one jot is something you might like to reconsider spending time on given you're almost certainly going to dump her when you get around to the edit. Do bear in mind many books suffer from a 'soggy middle', something you should avoid if you've planned well but can also avoid by bearing this particular bear trap in mind. One day, probably in about 80-100 days depending on your genre and story, you're going to sit back and experience a remarkable moment of satisfaction.

Now the doubt can creep in from the dark corners and gnaw at you. Is it any good? Did it all work? Will anyone read it? Is it just a pile of self-indulgent tripe?

Welcome to my world. And good luck to you.
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Robb said...

There are writing books I could live without too!

Reeves said...

I think the easiest way to get yourself noticed as a writer nowadays is to publish an e-book on Amazon's Kindle. Some authors doing that have many hundreds of thousands of dollars and gained millions of readers.

If my novel doesn't get accepted by a publishing house, that's the direction I'll probably go.

Look at Amanda Hocking, and how successful she has been - made over $2.5 million on Amazon!!

Either way though, good luck with yours :)

Meenu Mehrotra said...

Another good site to follow is

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