Getting Ready to Write a Book

Will has finally been released. To mark the occasion, I thought I'd post a few tips for writing a book. This isn't necessarily about writing a good  book, or becoming a successful author, since I'm not sure about that. But, now that I've at least put in some time, it seems only fair to share my thoughts on the process of starting with a blank screen and ending with a finished book. Obviously, this is all highly subjective.

Phase I: Before You Start

Read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

A writer and co-worker named Andy gave me some awesome advice when he heard I was quitting my job to write. I really wish I still had his email, because it was great and I'd love to pass the whole thing along. Sadly, I forgot to print it or forward it to my personal email account before turning in my badge and Blackberry.

But, I can at least pass along his book recommendation. The War of Art is a quick read and the perfect way to kick off an artistic endeavor. I ran into a lot of Pressfield's examples of Resistance as I wrote, and his book helped me identify and (usually) push through them. 

On Writing, by Stephen King, is also very good (especially if you like Stephen King--and who doesn't like Stephen King?). 

And, read a lot of books in general

Everyone says this, and it's true. It's helpful and inspiring to read things you enjoy with an eye toward how each author writes. Some of my more productive writing occurred just after reading for awhile. Similarly, if I was in a slump, taking a break to read something good would often get me going again.

You might want to avoid Cormac McCarthy at this stage, though. I read Blood Meridian  just as I started out, and (besides destroying my glamorized perception of the wild west) it screwed up the part of my brain that builds sentences for months.

Refresh Yourself on the Rules of Grammar, and Make Some Stylistic Decisions Up Front

I had forgotten about comma splices, I unknowingly used the poor bastardized periods like the one you just read again and again.

I apparently really liked to use run on sentences and if I had just taken the time to remember what, technically, they were, it would have been easy enough to avoid them.

I finally had to write down the lay vs lie grid from Grammar Girl's blog and tape it to the wall above my desk. It would have been a lot easier to do that right away and not spend hours searching for "lay", "lie", "laid", and "lain" to make sure I'd used the correct word. (Grammar Girl, by the way, is a fantastic resource in general.)

I had to make a decision on toward vs towards and backward vs backwards. Sometimes Will dragged things around, other times he drug them.

 And there was more, lots more, that I had to go back and correct after the first draft was done. Some of this is, of course, to be expected during the editing process, but you can make your life a lot easier by putting in a little extra effort up front.

In other words, while there's a lot to be said for not getting hung up on the details of grammar and style when the creative juices are flowing, there's also a lot to be said for pausing the first time you write "goddamnit" to make note of how you spelled it so you spell it the same way later.

The commas were the worst for me; I still get them wrong at least 30% of the time. I blame a dozen years of reading and writing corporate emails.

Create an Outline

Having tried it both ways, I'd say it's far easier to write a long story if you have an outline. I didn't use one for Will, and spent a ton of time rewriting and reworking a story that was at first meandering all over the damn place. There were fairies in there at one point, and Lars Jackson had a pet bear, and Lucy was twelve when Will rescued her from a possessed wolf that was working for a white witch or something--not bad ideas, necessarily, but kind of a jarring reading experience.

Conversely, before I wrote the first draft of my fantasy novel, I spent a few afternoons making notes. I summarized the whole plot in three or four sentences. I put down some potential "major scenes" as bullet points. I drew a map. I named the characters and wrote short descriptions. I did all of this in longhand on two sheets of notepaper, erasing and reworking these tidbits again and again until I could kind of picture the whole story in my head.

This, incidentally, was also a good excuse to indulge in one of my fantasies concerning what it would be like to be a writer: I wrote this outline while sitting on the dock and drinking beer, Hunter S. Thompson style.


Then, I sat down and wrote the last chapter. (I planned to write the whole thing backward, buying into the theory that it's easier to stay focused that way, but it became too awkward after another couple of chapters, so I switched to the beginning.)

It was much easier to write when I knew where I was going. Any time I felt stuck or wasn't sure what was supposed to happen next, I'd look at the outline to find the next bullet point to remind me where I needed to end up, and the scenes would line up in my head and pour out. I didn't stick to the outline all the time, but having it there as a rough guide was very helpful. I finished the first draft in just a few weeks, and it was much better than the mess that was the first draft of Will. 

Phase I Checklist

So, if you are: 

  • ...reading other authors that inspire you to write.
  • ...fired up because you read The War of Art  and are confident that the first time you have the urge to fart around on Facebook, or pester your spouse/partner/hand for sex instead of writing, you'll realize that that's just Resistance trying to beat you down, and you'll get back to work.
  • ...tuned-up grammatically-speaking because you read through Grammar Girl and/or thought back to the grammar quizzes you bombed in high school to identify where you're likely to mess up. 
  • ...full of ideas and, ideally, have turned one of them into a rough outline of what you're about to write.

Then you, my friend, are ready to rock and roll.