Sitting Down to Write a Book

In my last post, I shared my thoughts on what you might want to consider doing before sitting down to write a book. Here are some thoughts on the actual writing process.

Phase II: Writing the Book

Spend Days Preparing Your Workspace

Hah. No.

I did do this, and it was kind of fun, but I ended up writing wherever I felt like it and found that it didn't matter much. The only distractions I couldn't deal with were people talking to me. So, I did use my office when the kids were around. But if they weren't, I spent as much time on the living room couch as I did in my well-thought-out office. 

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Like I said, it was kind of fun to do though. At one point I said to Jody, completely seriously, that I couldn't decide whether putting my desk by a window would be too distracting. Hilariously, we happened to watch Funny Farm with the kids a few days later, completely forgetting that it's partially about a man's failed attempt at becoming a writer, and Chevy Chase's character says almost the exact same thing to his wife as he's setting up his office. It's funny how I seem to say and do the dumbest things when I'm excited about something.

Anyway, my point is, there's no need to obsess about where you'll do your writing. Any place that you find yourself able to read or do any other thoughtful activity will probably work just fine. 

Get the Best Tools You Can Afford

True, you can write on anything (including paper), but I think using a quality computer is an important part of staying motivated. You're going to be spending a lot of time with it, and you want to view it as your partner--not an annoying piece of shit. 

For me, a MacBook Pro + Scrivener is a great combination. When I sit down to write I feel like I'm properly equipped to do so. I can flip open the lid and be writing in fifteen seconds, or close the lid and relocate just as fast. The battery lasts forever (I've got the 13"), and it's tough as nails (I haven't actually dropped it yet, but it's been tossed around a bunch and has held up great). They're not cheap, though, so I realize I'm fortunate to have one at my disposal.

The practical advice, then, is to get the best tools you an afford. Avoid trying to write on a slow, outdated computer that takes forever to start up, freezes, or does anything else that frustrates you and slows you down--it will be bigger productivity deterrent than you'd think. Of course, if that's all you can afford--fine, it won't be that big of a deal. But, if you could use an upgrade and can swing it, but just aren't sure if it's worth it or not, I would say that it is.

On that note, use Scrivener (which isn't very expensive)

I started with iA Writer, and its simplicity was really nice. However, once the story broke about twenty thousand words and I started the process of revising and sharing, it became too limited for me. There's minimal support for printing, no page numbers, no way to organize the work into chapters and scenes. Almost overnight it went from being a nice clean way to write to a burden, so I switched to Scrivener. 

  Will  in Scrivener

 Will in Scrivener

It's not very expensive, and it's awesome once you get used to it. For example: after I took the time to break up what I'd written in iA Writer into scenes and chapters in Scrivener, it was great to see how the word count was distributed (Jody was right, the ice fishing chapter was originally way too long). Also, it added a level of organization and sanity to the revision process that made things go much more smoothly.

And when it comes time to start generating manuscripts for editors or agents, it's the bomb--drawing a nice distinction between your raw material and the different ways you might want to format it for printing/sharing. Finally, it's invaluable when it comes time to generate print or e-reader versions for self-publishing. 

Sorry, I guess so far I'm still talking about getting ready to write. Moving on... 

Give Yourself Deadlines

I found using word-counts to be the most effective measurement. I'd tell myself, "Okay, I'm going to get to eighty thousand words by the end of the month. I've got forty-thousand words done and thirteen working days left. This means I need to do around three thousand words per day. I can do that."

If I got the urge to quit early, I'd check my count and only do it if I was running ahead of schedule. Similarly, I wouldn't necessarily stop when I hit that day's goal--I'd just write until I felt like I was spent, and then check where I was relative to my goal.

This also helped me muscle through days when I really didn't feel like writing. I'd tell myself to just hit the word count, even if it's all garbage, because it won't be any worse than not writing anything that day.

I found it more satisfying to work this way; it's much better than just plugging away hoping you'll eventually be done. Achieving measurable goals helped me feel like I was accomplishing something more tangible than that. I could sleep better at night.

Write Through the Pain

Like anything else: even if you are very much not in the mood to do something, once you force yourself to get started, that "I'd rather clip off one of my little toes than do this right now" feeling quickly fades. 

Give Music a Try

For me, there's this small child in my brain that never, ever, pays attention to what I'm supposed to be doing and is always thinking about other stuff and threatening to distract me from what I'm trying to focus on. I'll be in the middle of something productive, and this part of my brain will suddenly scream something like, "LETSGOGETSOMETACOS!"

But I've learned that I can distract it, and music works well for me. I'll put something on I've heard a bunch of times before--a particular album or Pandora station--and that little voice spends all of its time singing along while the part of my brain meant to get stuff done can work uninterrupted.

Read and Re-read

Spend a little time every day revising. 

My process was to write the initial draft of a chapter or part or whatever, then go back (on the computer) and read through it--fixing errors or rewriting parts that really stood out as needing to be cleaned up.

And then I'd start printing. I apologize to the trees, but it was so much easier for me to read drafts on paper than on the computer screen. After each major revision was done, I'd print it out and re-read it, usually out loud, and use a red pen to make changes. Sometimes I'd just circle sentences or paragraphs and write "awkward" or "lame" or "shitty"--and then do the actual re-writing later, on the computer. I invested in a home-office-sized black and white laser printer so I could more quickly and economically print out the entire manuscript whenever I needed to.

A good time to work on this kind of editing is when you've already met your writing goal for the day, and feel kind of creatively tapped out, but still have stamina and time to work. 

Hire an Editor

I found this very helpful. If you can afford someone who will work closely with you all along, that's probably worth it. But even if your budget doesn't allow for that (mine didn't), there are lots of different options.

I worked with three different freelance editors while I wrote Will. Marlene Adelstein ( read the rough draft, and she provided tons of good advice on the storyline and writing style (she's The Editor I talked about in this blog post). Janet Steen ( provided line editing services for the approaching-final draft (patiently correcting, among other things, what must have seemed to her like borderline malignant comma misuse). And Martin Coffee ( read the print-ready version to look for any lingering or recently introduced typos (and he found a couple!).

You can spend a lot on this, or very little. My advice would be to set up an editing budget, and then start researching and talking to potential candidates until you find one you like and can afford.

Friends and family are good, too (my mother-in-law was particularly helpful with my comma disorder), but they'll always be biased in one way or another.

If you're sold on the concept, but don't want to spend much, start with posting a job on Elance--you'll likely get a huge response, which will give you lots of options (that's how I found Martin). Also, you should start the process of finding an editor pretty early on in case the one you'd like to work with won't be available for awhile.

Finally, remember that writing is not a stroll through the magical land of rainbows and butterflies

I truly thought it would be, despite all of the warnings about it being hard work. It only took about twenty minutes in front of the computer to set me straight.

There will be fun days, not so fun days, and really crappy days. It can be a daunting, frustrating, and sometimes feel impossible. Basically, it's like any other kind of serious work: it isn't easy; but if you keep at it, you'll get there.