“How do I write a book?” I get this question all the time and this is what I tell aspiring authors who don’t know where to start:
1. What do you want to say? What’s the point of this whole thing? What is it you want people to walk away with? What’s the main point and supporting points of the journey you’re about to take me on? Does it even need to be said? Answer these questions first.
2. Why are you writing this? What should people know at the end of the book? Is this book for you or for a group of people who’s plight needs to be known by the world? Are you writing for pleasure or profit (and don’t be ashamed if it’s for profit)? Side note – If it’s for profit, ask yourself a very important question…can you sell a book? What is your marketing strategy?
3. Who do you want to say it to? Who’s your reader? Female or male? Older or younger? Employed or not? MMA fan, ghost hunter, or a soccer mom who reads romantic novels at the beach? The more you can zero in on your reader, the better you can focus your writing.
4. How do you want to say it? Is this fiction or non-fiction? Funny and sarcastic or serious and poignant? Hidden in a bigger story? First person narration or third person omniscient? These are important things to figure out because it determines your voice and will have a huge impact on the story and how it’s told.
Now stop. If you can’t clearly identify these four elements then you shouldn’t write a book. Just gonna say it. Stop and take up a new hobby. If you have successfully figured out these four things (preferably by writing them down) then continue on. The next steps are mainly for fiction writing, but can be applied to non-fiction as well.
1. Outline the main story and backstories.
2. Determine the main beginning and end points-where the story begins and ends, but don’t plan it all out because many stories change as you write them.
3. I recommend every story follow the three-act structure (for fiction). Non-fiction is usually best in chronological order though I enjoy a flashback style.
4. Spend time developing the main characters and determining the character arcs. What do the main characters go through from beginning to end? It’s very important to know your characters and I even recommend writing their biography in a paragraph or two. Homer Hickam said it best – “People are interested in other people more than the story. They read to see if the characters are going to make it or not.”
5. Fill in the body. Write without thinking from beginning to end. Just write. Even if it’s really bad, just write.
6. Walk away for a while. Seriously…like a month.
7. Begin editing. Go from front to back completely. Add deep thoughts and life lessons where needed. Ensure the characters stay consistent. Determine the main emotion of each character in each scene and add or delete anything that doesn’t support this. The best stories start and end every chapter with a bang.
8. Walk away again.
9. Edit again to ensure a balance between exposition and action (personally I like the “show don’t tell” style where the characters act out the action instead of a narrator telling the reader what is happening).
10. Walk away yet again. Trust me.
11. Edit one more time and sprinkle in things you haven’t yet thought of like physical characteristics of the settings (sights, smells, sounds) and physical motions (though a leftie, he reached for the salt shaker with his right arm).
Some other things to remember when writing fiction:
-Let the audience discover things about the characters that they might not know themselves. Layering a character is an art form (The Orphan Master’s Son did this incredibly well).
-Use subtleties to make the reader feel like they know something about the story the characters don’t. Drop clues here and there so they figure it out.
-Educate the reader if possible. My friend (a doctor) wrote a book that taught me a lot about medical issues, especially the adrenal glands, that blew my mind.
-Streamline the writing when editing. Example – “Fifteen of the highest ranking Army officers on the island sat around…” is clunky. Streamline it to “Fifteen high-ranking officers sat…”
-Don’t be afraid to kill your big characters or shock the audience.
-Don’t interrupt the flow. When the writing is flowing, let it. There will always be blocks later.
-Let the writing cool. NEVER EVER EVER go with your first draft.
-Drinking while writing is encouraged.