How Do You Write A Book?

Welcome to the Distress Signals Blogging Bonanza! What’s that, you’re wondering? Well, you can either go and read this post or read the next sentence. In a nutshell: Distress Signals was out in paperback in the UK and Ireland on January 5 and hits the U.S.A. on Thursday (February 2) and every day in between I’m going to blog as per the schedule at the bottom of this post. 

So Distress Signals is out and Book 2 is almost there. Although writing them were two very different experiences, without setting out to do it, I wrote both of them pretty much the same way (albeit in very different periods of time):

  1. Initial idea. Fun fact: both thrillers were sparked by magazine articles, although in very different ways. Percolation ensued, i.e. I didn’t immediately sit down and start writing.
  2. Post-It Plotting Party. I get a pen and a stack of Post-Its and I write down every idea I have about the book. This could be something big, like what it’s actually about, or something as small as a sentence a character may utter at some point. Then I take a chart of some kind – calendars are my new thing – and I arrange all these Post-Its on it in the order in which I think these events might appear in the book. This gives me some signposts to help lead the way.
  3. Vomit draft. A draft that doesn’t even deserve to be called the first one. A free-wheeling experiment. No editing as you go, no reading back if you can. This is where I figure out 70% of what happens in the book – the ideas come while I work through it. This is why Book 2 turned into a bit of a stressfest: because, drowning in self-doubt and distracted (oooh, shiny book launch stuff!), I pathologically procrastinated and didn’t leave myself enough time to do a truly vomit-y vomit draft. I had to go straight into a first draft, which proved to be a pressure cooker because I had to figure out if I could tell this story and how to tell it at the same time. Never again. Lesson learned.
  4. First draft. I give the book the break and then I go and re-do step 2. Except now that I have a vomit draft behind me, I know enough to plot out the whole book in more detail before I type ‘Chapter One’. This makes writing a first draft – the first one that could be read by someone else as a coherent book, realistically – much easier than writing the vomit one. Once this is done, my agent and editor come in and we start the editing process.

Here’s the thing though: there is no right way to write a book.

 

The ‘Getting Published’ Advice I Wish I’d Listened To

Welcome to the Distress Signals Blogging Bonanza! What’s that, you’re wondering? Well, you can either go and read this post or read the next sentence. In a nutshell: Distress Signals was out in paperback in the UK and Ireland on January 5 and hits the U.S.A. on February 2, and every day in between I’m going to blog as per the schedule at the bottom of this post. 

As you may know, I’ve led many a ‘how to self-publish your book’ seminar in my time. The first few times I did it, I’d sit down at my desk to start putting together my PowerPoint presentation and despair that I only had 90 minutes or however long to squeeze in everything I needed to tell the group about how to self-publish successfully. After I did a few of them, I realised that the best approach was not to aim to tell them everything about self-publishing, but to tell them everything they needed to know in order to start, and start off on the right foot. Those are two very different things.

So I stopped talking about making and selling print-on-demand paperbacks with the likes of CreateSpace and Lulu. Instead I advised that they treat the e-book like a hardback, releasing that first, testing the waters, adapting their plan if need be, and then – if it went well – reinvesting the profits in their print edition. After years of this self-publishing lark, both doing it myself and watching others at it, I think now that this is the best approach. It’s logical, it’s risk-averse and it keeps it simple. But during the Q&A, someone would always ask something like, ‘What about Lightning Source?’ And I’d groan inwardly, because I’d be thinking to myself, Go home, finish your book, self-publish it as best as you possibly can in e-book – and then start worrying about Lightning Source. But not before.

I wish someone had said something similar to me when I was traipsing into Waterstone’s Cork every Saturday afternoon in the early 2000s, systemically working my way through their How To Write Books books section. I hadn’t finished my book – I hadn’t even started it – but I felt like it was really important I know exactly how much an agent’s commission was on translation rights before I even thought about putting put pen to paper. The proliferation of blogs and the constant, never-ending, information tsunami that is Twitter only made things worse. Much, much worse. Years later, when I finally got a clue and concentrated solely on the things I should be concentrating on, I finally learned that getting published is all about the book. So I finished my book. I signed with an agent. And then I got published.

But, but, BUT.

It’s easy to forget that information you think is common knowledge is not actually so. It’s just that you’ve known it for so long, you’ve forgotten you didn’t once. And starting out, I think you do need to know some things. So here is my absolutely bare bones, rock-bottom minimum place to start if you’re aspiring to see a book you wrote on the shelf. This is what I wish someone had said to me five, ten, fifteen years ago.

(Well, someone no doubt did say this to me. But boy, I wish that I had listened.)

Step 1: Write the Book

If I could go back in time and talk to Me From 2009, this is what I would tell her: do nothing else except sit down and write, and keep doing that until your book is finished.

Now, there’s loads you can to delay this. You can read stacks of how to write books books, you can attend workshops, you can hang around the writers’ water cooler on Twitter, you can blog about all the writing you plan on doing, you can play with Post-Its. But honestly, I think there’s only two things you need to do: read as much and as widely as you can, and put your arse in the chair in front of your computer. Honestly, you will never learn as much about how to write a book as you will from the act of actually sitting down and writing one. So go do that. First.

Step 2: Pick a path

Now comes the decision: to self-publish or try to get published? Well, no one can answer this question but you, so there’s really no point in asking me or anyone else.

What you can do is:

  • Research, so you know exactly what you’re getting into (and you can make a plan)
  • Set yourself a deadline

It’s possible that your book will decide for you. It might be very short, too short for a traditional publishing house. Or it might be about something that means time is of the essence, and you need to publish it now. For instance, last year you might have written something about the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising here in Ireland that really needed to be published in 2016 to take advantage of this increased awareness, public appetite, publicity opportunities, etc.

If this isn’t the case, I will say to you what I always say to writers who ask me this: set yourself a deadline. If you’re not sure, give yourself 12 months. Submit to agents, enter competitions, attend conferences, etc – basically, network – and do everything you can to try to find a traditionally published home for your book. Then, once the 12 months is up, if it seems like nothing is happening, perhaps self-publish instead.

Step 3: Don’t Rush Things

Here’s the thing I would love for you to take in: don’t rush. Don’t panic. Don’t feel like you’re missing out or that you need to get your book on Amazon yesterday. I completely understand the feeling you get in your gut when someone says, ‘When is your book out? I can’t wait to read it.’ It’s itchy. It’s panicky. It increases your heart rate. And suddenly all you can think about is getting the book up on Amazon so you can capture that one sale. And that’s a huge mistake.

Just on a practical level, self-publishing does not mean uploading your file to Amazon this weekend. Self-publishing means launching a product. You need to plan. You need to prepare. You need to build anticipation. Ideally, you need to have another book nearly ready to go. (I think, these days, the only way to succeed at self-publishing and to maintain your momentum once you do is by releasing more than one book.) All of this takes time. You can only launch your book once. Don’t diffuse your own momentum by doing it too soon, before you’ve done the work.

Similarly, don’t give yourself 6 weeks to get an agent. Leaving aside the fact that the top agencies get thousands of submissions a year and it would be nearly impossible for even one of them to get back to you in that space of time, that’s so little time that you’re guaranteeing failure before you’ve even begun trying. All this stuff, it takes AGES. Use it to start on your next book.

What I didn’t realise before I got my deal is that, you know what? It’s not the worst thing in the world to be waiting for your dream to arrive. It’s a nice bit. There’s no deadlines, no pressure, no contracts. You’re writing purely because you love to write. Forget about the destination for a second. Enjoy the journey.

Everything else – that can come later. Worry about it then. For now, just finish your book, pick a path and don’t rush.

In its own way, this is the good bit.

dsbb

Remember: there’s a super sexy hardcover edition of Distress Signals (the American one, out February 2) up for grabs, signed to you from me. To enter, simply leave a comment on this post or any post published here between January 5 and February 2. One entry per post, so comment on more than one and increase your chances. Open globally. Good luck!