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.


18 thoughts on “How Do You Write A Book?

  1. Matt Wainwright says:

    Pretty much the same way. I’m on Book 2 myself now, and I’ve realised that more planning means a smoother ride. I basically write a VERY detailed ‘treatment’ after my planning stage (present tense, omniscient 3rd person), including snippets of dialogue as they occur. This is always on paper so I can add scenes on separate sheets, draw pictures and diagrams etc. Then it’s something halfway between a vomit draft and a first draft, but ideally with as little editing as possible. My reader reads chapters as they come out, and his feedback gets … fed back, I guess, into the first draft, or else kept for the second draft. Then it’s a second go around to get the thing in better shape, and off to the publisher.

  2. CMG says:

    Thank you for posting that picture!! I am currently in the middle of draft 2 version 5 and the post its have gone a little overboard on me and your post made me remember that there is nothing wrong with my process as long as I keep moving forward. 😁

  3. nerdywordybirdy says:

    So simple. A lot of authors I follow chart characters and plot points and other details before they even begin to write, but I don’t think I could do that. Of course, that may be a genre thing — a lot of the authors I follow write fantasy (not sure how that happened, since I don’t really read much fantasy, but anyhow), which requires a lot more worldbuilding. But I love the simplicity of this tactic.

  4. Danielle says:

    Your approach, and the way you have laid it out, and the poor experience you had with doing it differently, may have just given me a BIG understanding of where I am going wrong. Thankyou!!

  5. Joel D Canfield says:

    First book I just sat down and typed. It shows, in the lack of foreshadowing and whatnot.

    Next couple, I drafted, then retrofitted structure. It shows, in the occasional forced feeling to events.

    Next couple were planned out, all the major plot points, then pantsed from waypoint to waypoint. Better stories, still not as fluid as I’d like.

    The one I’m working on now, #6, came to a screeching halt at 30,000 words. Paused it for months while I finished #5. In the interim, read Lisa Cron’s two books, and now I’m working out whether I can finish #6 writing from the inside out, or if I need to cry really hard.

    Next book will be planned using Lisa Cron’s Story Genius method, which is simple, psychological, and totally story oriented. It feels natural and obvious to me and I wish she’d written these books a decade ago.

      • Joel D Canfield says:

        After devouring Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering and Story Physics and every other book I could find on story structure, to the point I was teaching it using my own version of it, Cron’s books made my entire theory implode. After reading both books twice through, I re-read Robert McKee’s Story and realized that his methodology is precisely what Cron is talking about. I just hadn’t seen it the first few times I read McKee because I wasn’t looking for it.

  6. Melissa Stacy says:

    I write a chapter at a time, share it with my alpha-reader, revise with her feedback, and write the next chapter. Then I start sharing the revised chapters with my critique group partners (who are fellow writers), revise those chapters again with their feedback, and keep writing new chapters that go to my alpha-reader.

    I get to the last page of the book having followed this process the whole time. I finish the edits from my alpha-reader and critique group partners, and now have a complete first draft. This is when I turn to my beta-readers.

    I have three rounds of beta-readers I use, and some of them are fellow writers, but most of them are not. The first round of beta-readers send me their feedback, I revise with their comments, and now I have a second draft. Then the manuscript goes to my second round of beta-readers, I revise again with their feedback, and have a third draft. Then one more round of betas, one more round of revisions, and I have a fourth draft.

    Sometimes, that’s enough. Other times, I have lingering problems, and have to beg earlier beta-readers to read the fourth draft. Or go out and find new readers who can help me.

    When I decide I have “a final draft,” I find a “reluctant reader” for the finished product, and that is my test-run reader — to find out if the book can hook someone chosen at random. When they tell me they stayed up till 2:00 a.m. to finish, that’s when I know the book is ready to publish.

    This is the process I use because I cannot afford editing services. Not content editing, line editing, copyediting, or proofreading. Believe me, with that many eyes on a page, the feedback is extensive. It’s time-consuming, but also extremely rewarding. It gives me a great bond with people and opens up space for all kinds of discussions. I love it.

    Some of my most “reluctant readers” have become my biggest fans. Some of my beta-readers only read one or two books a year, and find my whole desire to write for a living completely bizarre. I bribe people with chocolate. Lots of chocolate. Also, cheeseburgers. Cheeseburgers and Dr. Pepper can persuade people to beta-read for me.

    It would be a lot simpler if I had one agent and one editor to please. But I still manage to be pretty productive this way. The feedback fuels me, because I always have something to tinker with while I plunge ahead into the dark unknown of the first draft, and the dark unknown of substantive plot revision. It’s pretty thrilling. I like to talk a lot. This process allows me to talk a lot as well as write a lot. So that’s why it works for me. 🙂

  7. thereaderiswarned says:

    Really great post! I love the idea of using the post-its (as a visual thinker/writer) and then redoing that after the first draft/vomit stage.

    I am currently writing my first book and had the strange thing of having originally written it as a drama screen play, so that is kind of acting as my post it notes. But am going to try the timeline for draft 2 I think!

  8. Lene says:

    1. Get the idea.
    2. Percolate.
    3. Start outline/start chapters, even if it’s just a title, perhaps with a reference and a sentence of where I’m going or a point I want to make (so far, I’ve been writing non-fiction).
    4. Vomit draft.
    5. Break.
    6. Draft One.
    7. Read through and polish
    8. It goes to my beta reader/initial editior.
    9. Draft 2
    11. Draft 3.
    12. Editor
    13. Draft four and close-to-final

  9. poomanchoo says:

    This is so great reading this and the process you’ve gone through, I haven’t written anything yet, in fact I gave myself the challenge to write a play yesterday (which will be the first project I have started which requires writing) and this piece has been very helpful so thank you for the inspiration.

  10. cherylsterling1955 says:

    My system is similar to yours, except I use index cards. Once I’ve picked what goes in the book, the index cards are transferred to Scrivener, then it’s off to the races.

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