So You Want to Write a Book?
I've had a few friends ask me, "So how do I write a book?" And that answer is long, kind of complicated, and different for everyone. Disclaimer: This isn't how I think everyone should write a book. This is merely a collection of things that helped me write my first book back when I knew even less than I do now about writing.
1. I had no idea what I was doing.
Unlike a lot of my author friends, I have not wanted to write since I was a fetus. Not even during those angsty teenage years when I thought I knew everything. Not even as an adult. See: Imposter Syndrome. But I have been a reader for as long as I can remember. I've devoured books, collected them, hauled them from house-to-house to the chagrin of my brothers who finally screamed in exasperation, "Will someone please buy her a kindle?!" (side note: I do have a kindle and I love ebooks almost as much as paperbacks).
Fast-forward to a book club meeting at a local pub. The book that month was terrible. Even if I remembered the specific book, I wouldn't blast it here. But I'm talking... terrible. And I thought to myself, well they wrote a book and I didn't so who am I to shit on their hard work? The thought nagged at me until I wondered if I could write a book. So I sat down at my computer and opened a Word document. I stared at that blank page for quite a while, then I probably got up and went to do something else that didn't require so much thought. I started a folder of ideas on my computer and titled it "Just Write" because, damnit if I didn't just stare at blank docs or jot down ideas for months straight without ever actually writing. Because, and this is the most important lesson for point #1, WRITING IS HARD. I can almost hear the life-long authors laughing at me for not realizing this.
I eventually begged my husband, Ryan, to give me an idea for a short story and he said "Bigfoot." That initially terrible short story later became our joint novella, The Easton Falls Massacre: Bigfoot's Revenge. Oh, how I miss the days when I didn't have ideas... now they haunt me, fill up my notes app and random scraps of paper everywhere, and fight for my attention. Ideas are no longer the hard part. Deciding which one to write and see through to the end is my current problem.
2. Writing prompts and contests gave me a starting place.
While googling "writing prompts" one day, I came across the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. For a pretty low entry fee, they assign you to a group and each group has its own genre, location, and objects that HAVE to be in their (no longer than 1,000 words) story. You participate in at least two and as many as four different challenges so it's a guarantee of at least 2 different genre, location, and object stories. Perfect for the writer who has no idea what they're doing. I was never in a final group, as most of my stories were pretty terrible. The one that did the best was a 2nd round submission where I just said, "fuck it, I'm going to write something outrageous" because my 1st round score was so low, there was no way I was making it to the 3rd round (they combined 1st and 2nd round scores to determine who made it to 3rd). I received a perfect score on that "fuck it" story. Note to self: quit overthinking everything.
I also participated in the Australian Writers' Centre's Furious Fiction Contests. At the time, they held free monthly writing contests. I think it's done quarterly now. For these contests, they would provide a writing prompt at the same time the 55-hour window was open. In that time, you had to write a 500-word story and submit it via their portal for the chance to win AUD $500. That's a hell of a profit on a free writing prompt. I never won, but I did make the long and short lists a few times. PROMPTS ARE GREAT WAYS TO FIND OUT WHAT YOU LIKE TO WRITE, AND HOW YOU LIKE TO WRITE IT.
You can also look around for themed submission calls. The Horror Tree is a great resource, and contrary to their name, isn't just for horror.
3. I found my people.
Contests and prompts are helpful. Their most valuable assets, however, are the forums. I met some fantastic writers in the NYC Midnight forums, while sharing and reading each other's stories (after judging of course). One of those writers had recently started a group on Facebook and was looking for more writers to join. In that group, I met some amazing people who I'm still friends with today. Writing is a solo activity, but YOU DO NEED PEOPLE AROUND YOU. I didn't believe this when I started out, but having someone to bounce ideas off of, beta read your early drafts, and give feedback is necessary. You need people to be brutally honest, and you need people who will encourage and support you no matter how terrible the writing is. You need the former to improve, and the latter to keep moving forward despite the rejections you will get.
4. I researched. Then, researched some more.
A) I researched writing as a craft. I needed to learn how to write engaging characters, plot devices, etc. I'm still learning these things, it's a never-ending process and there are SO MANY things out there to help you out with this part. I've listed a handful below. A few helped me when I first started out and I haven't really gone back to them, and some I discovered along the way and check often for updates.
The Creative Penn Podcast with Joanna Penn
Writing Excuses Podcast
Ditch Diggers Podcast
Brandon Sanderson's YouTube Channel
Reedsy's YouTube Channel
Diane Callahan's YouTube Channel
This is Horror Podcast
Flame Tree Press
Writer's Digest's YouTube Channel
Author Learning Center's YouTube Channel
Ellen Brock's YouTube Channel
iitutor's YouTube Playlist on English
FanFiAddict's Author Chats
Paper Cuts Series (Brad Proctor & The World According to J!)
Some writers are plotters, preferring extensive outlines before they write a single word. Some writers are pantsers, who fly by the seat of their pants without any sort of outline. I think most authors, however, are somewhere in the middle. I'm still not sure what I prefer. I think, with short stories and flash fiction, I like to just see where the writing takes me. For longer works, I like at least an idea of what will be in each scene. For Come Join the Murder, I had plot points written on sticky notes covering a piece of foam board, divided between the two narrative perspectives. I had read somewhere that you were supposed to do that. For The Easton Falls Massacre, I already had the short story to use as an outline. For Parachute, I knew what I wanted each alternative reality to be, but nothing else. I haven't used post-its or foam board since the first book. We'll see what the next few entail.
If you're a plotter, check out these helpful tools:
B) I researched writing as a business. I needed to know what to do once I finished a story, like commonly accepted formatting for submissions, etc. Most of this can be found from the same links in part A above, and I'll throw in Shunn Formatting as well. There are also websites like Duotrope and Query Tracker to help not only track your submissions to magazines, editors, and publishers, but to find who is open and interested in stories like yours.
C) I researched my favorite authors. Read or listen to interviews. You'll find out loads of helpful tips on fitting writing into a busy schedule, how they wrote their book, etc. YouTube is a great resource for this, as most live readings, chats, and interviews are videotaped. The Hoover Public Library does a great YouTube series on authors, as does the Toronto Public Library, The New Yorker, Penguin Random House, St. Francis College, National Centre for Writing, and others.
D) I researched storytelling tools in other mediums. You can learn a TON about storytelling from movies, plays, radio series, etc. Alfred Hitchcock is a MASTER storyteller. Just look up his "bomb under the table" tip, then watch the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds to see how Tarantino put this into action. Then, read everything you can about both Hitchcock and Tarantino's techniques for creating suspense and tension in other movies.
E) I researched my book-specific topics. While writing, I often type "XX" in place of something I need to come back to later with more info, so I don't lose the momentum of the writing at the time. Beware of stopping mid-session to look up things, you'll end up in internet rabbit holes of information. For Come Join the Murder, I watched and read interviews of mothers who had lost their children. I know, morbid, right? I researched what exactly happens to your body when you drown, and what the human body goes through as you die in general. I reminded myself how to change a flat tire, and other things like that. You want most of your story to be believable so when you slip in that 5% or 10% suspension of disbelief, you won't lose the reader.
5. I continued to read, and not only in the genre I wrote.
A) I read in my genre. With Come Join the Murder, I wanted to know what writers were doing with psychological thrillers. Not to copy, but to be aware of what your audience expects. Tropes are there for a reason, and aren't always bad. Also, read in your genre because that's what you like. Otherwise, why are you writing something you wouldn't even read if it were on a bookshelf by someone else?
B) I read outside my genre. Learn different techniques and how to break out of expected tropes and boxes. Yes, this directly contradicts the above comment. The first rule of writing is that there aren't any rules, you're free to do whatever the hell you want.
C) I listened to short stories via podcasts like these:
The Other Stories (recently announced a hiatus but the backlog is available)
D) I read books about writing.
On Writing by Stephen King
I Should be Writing by Mur Lafferty
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr.
Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing by Elmore Leonard
How Not to Write a Novel by Howard Mittelmark
I could go on and on but, suffice it to say, there is a lot of material out there for you.
E) I silently judged authors who didn't read. I still do this. Why are you attempting to capitalize on that which you don't even enjoy yourself? It's just weird, and yes this is a hill I am prepared to die on.
6. I made writing a priority.
I woke up an hour early every morning and wrote before work. With Come Join the Murder, our black labrador Lucy was just a puppy, so I can't think of those days without remembering her chewing on my toes as I tried to write in those early hours. If it's important to you, you'll find the time. Maybe it means less TV, or less sleep (I'd say I don't recommend this one but sometimes it's the only thing to budge in a busy schedule), or less of a social life. And not everyone will respect your writing time. I'm fortunate to have an extremely supportive family, but I still had to turn my phone off when I wrote. This kept texts and calls from interrupting me, and held down the desire to check social media notifications. I would love to say I still get up an hour before my day job to write, but I don't. I use nights and weekends for writing, and not nearly as often as I think I should. But as long as you're moving forward, every sentence counts toward that finished project.
7. I finished, even though at several points along the way I hated it.
You're going to hate your book at some point. This doesn't mean it sucks. It doesn't mean your twists and turns are predictable and terrible. It doesn't even mean that you should quit writing because clearly you are terrible. It means YOU'VE READ THE THING A HUNDRED TIMES and you know all the twists and turns. Think of your favorite book. Now read that book ten times in a row. Hate it yet? Bored, at least? You're going to finish your first draft and be on cloud 9. You're going to let it rest a few weeks (about 6 is recommended) and then you're going to start editing. You're going to polish and clean this thing up so it's gorgeous. By the 3rd draft, you definitely will start to loathe it. By the 6th or 7th draft, you may be ready to throw it all in the bayou. This is normal. I'm not saying every author goes through this, but if you do.... you aren't alone.