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.

 

HOW To Finish Your Damn Book

At the beginning of this year I wrote a post for that treasure trove of writing and publishing information, Writing.ie, about why you should finish your damn book. You can read that post here. It proved really popular. So popular that it seems to me like a lot of you are in the same place I was until last summer: wanting nothing more than to have finished your book, but finding yourself doing everything but writing it.

It’s all well and good for me to tell you why you should finish your book (nutshell: a finished book is the one thing everyone who ever got published/successfully self-published has in common) but how do you do it? How do you overcome procrastination? How do you finish your damn book?

I only know what worked for me, but maybe you’ll find something in there that works for you. Let’s see…

1. Reality check: do you really WANT to write this book?

For about two years a few years ago, I was trying to write the book that I thought would get me published, not realizing that this was also the kind of book I didn’t want to read. I had plenty of ideas, a plot outline, a killer title – but every time I sat down to add to my word count, it was like getting blood from a stone. That’s okay, I told myself. Writing is supposed to be hard. When I finally realized I was trying to type my way up the wrong tree and switched to writing the kind of book I loved to read – a serial killer thriller – there was practically an audible click.

Writing the wrong book, I’d begin a chapter by thinking Okay: 1,500 words. What can happen here that will take that to unfold? I was stretching out my plot points, trying to fill the virtual white pages with “set pieces” that would take me from one event to the next. But writing the right book, that became Okay: 1,500 words. How am I going to squeeze everything that happens at this point into that? I always knew what was going to happen next and in writing it, it was a case of even more ideas popping up during the process, rather than having to milk the few I had for more than they were worth.

That’s not to say that the book [eye roll] “flowed out” of me, as I’ve heard other writers say/lie. There were still struggles, still many non-productive days. But nothing as bad as when I wasn’t writing the right book, when I wasn’t writing the book I wanted to read.

Before you commit to this, check you’re trying to finish the right damn book.

2. MAKE A PLAN

This doesn’t suit everyone, but I couldn’t even attempt a novel without having some sort of plan.  It doesn’t have to be detailed, but a few signposts along the way will take the pressure off. Think about it: how does it feel to have to work your way from 0 to 100,000 words (your beginning to your ending) compared to working your way from 0 to 25,000 words (your beginning to your break into Act II) or even 0 to 5,000 words (your beginning to your catalyst/inciting incident)?

(These word counts are just examples, by the way. You can put your plot points wherever you like.)

Making a plan also avoids having to cross the wasteland of the Dreaded Middle. When we get novel ideas, they usually come with a beginning and an end. But what happens in between? How do we ensure that our middle doesn’t sag, it being the place that’s most likely to? I think a few signposts or tentpoles will really help to lead the way and curtail any aimless wandering.

You could have, just for example:

  • Beginning
  • Set-up
  • Inciting incident (that sends main character off on journey)
  • Start of B story
  • Midpoint – what happens half-way through your story that changes everything and/or significantly ramps up the tension/raises the stakes? If you even just had this along with a beginning and an end, you’d make things so much easier for yourself
  • “Dark Night of the Soul” to use Snyder’s term (see below) – the lowest point for your character
  • Act III/finale
  • Ending

I recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder to everyone I know who writes commercial fiction. Yes, it’s a screenwriting book, but with a few tweaks it works wonders for commercial novel plotting too. Not only does it help you fill in the middle, but it shows you how to construct an incredibly satisfying story. It’s like Robert McKee’s Story, but a For Dummies version of it.

Are you shaking your head right now, dismayed at the notion of a storytelling formula? Get over yourself. This isn’t about formulae, but principles. You’d agree that every story has to have a beginning, middle and end, wouldn’t you? All that’s happening here is that we’re examining what happens between those three points. As Snyder says (and this is another paraphrase), when you know the principles of storytelling you have a framework that you can set down on top of your novel idea to check for holes. It’s not giving you a story or telling you how to make one up – it’s a stress test, a checklist that can determine whether or not the story you have has structural integrity and if it doesn’t, where the strengthening work needs to go.

Finishing your damn book will be a lot easier when you can break it up into smaller, manageable pieces.

3. the Entertainment Business

I had an epiphany while reading Rachel Aaron’s shot of motivation to the writer’s heart/e-book, 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better and Writing More of What You Love (99p on Amazon): I’m in the entertainment business. What I’m trying to create is, above all else, entertainment.

I’m with Harlan Coben, quoted in The Guardian back in 2007:

Screen Shot 2015-04-15 at 11.46.48

Aaron talks about how, reflecting on her process, writing seemed to be at its easiest and most enjoyable when she came to write the scenes she loved, the ones she’d conceived of first, the pieces of the book she wrote the rest of it to get to. When she got in the zone, writing her book became almost like reading it. She wondered: shouldn’t it be like that all the time? If your goal is to entertain readers, isn’t there something wrong if you, the writer, can’t keep yourself entertained with your own book? Shouldn’t a scene that’s a drudge for you to write sound an alarm bell?

Honestly, this idea freed me.

First of all I stopped worrying about fancy sentences and evocative language. (When I read my favourite scribe, Sir Michael Connelly, I never notice the language. It’s like a translucent membrane; I see through it to the story. It’s like the page and the words on it don’t exist, but Bosch and his LA do, fully. To me, that takes far more skill to produce than a certain literary writer who spends a whole day at his desk perfecting just the one sentence, writing it over and over until it’s good enough for him to turn around and type it into the computer on his other side…) From them on, I just had one goal: work out/get down the story. I could move much quicker this way.

Secondly, I stopped at the beginning of every chapter to ask myself how I could write it in the most entertaining way possible, a way that would be fun for me to create as well as keep any eventual reader turning the pages. I didn’t start until I could answer that and if I couldn’t, I scrapped the chapter altogether. This way, there were no “duds”. No chapters I had to trudge through to get Mr X from A to B.

I also got into the habit of ending each chapter with a line that (hopefully) forced the reader to push onto the next (the “just one more chapter” syndrome I suffer from as a reader, usually late at night), and deciding on that line at the beginning. This was really excellent motivation to finish the chapter sooner rather than later, because I knew where I was going and I was dying to get to that killer line, partly so I could slap the desk and say “BOOM!” which is what I like to do when I’m overly pleased with myself at the end of a chapter… (Don’t tell anyone.)

It’ll be easier to finish the damn book if you are enjoying the process. If you’re not entertained by your story, what are the chances readers will be?

4. stage your own NANOWRIMO

Early this year I discovered that it’s infinitely easier to commit to finishing a project by pulling out all the stops for a short, intense period of time than it is to say, commit to getting up at the crack of dawn every morning for a year so you can get 500 words down before your real life begins. It’s easier to sustain motivation, it’s easier to keep your novel in your head and when you are really going at it, writing whenever you can, after a few days you don’t even need motivation anymore because the book takes over.

I went from telling myself that there was no point in even starting anything because I only had a free hour to sitting down at my desk even if I only had ten minutes. (This from the girl who once upon a time believed that if you hadn’t started your writing day by 10:00am, you might as well wait until tomorrow.) It’s also easier to forgo socializing, appointments, human interaction, etc. for 4-6 weeks than it is to resist invitations to fun for months or years.

You will have to make sacrifices. This is something I don’t think I truly understood until I had six weeks earlier this year in which to re-write my novel, alongside being in university full-time and having freelance work to keep up so I could pay my rent too. For me, this meant doing nothing else except writing, working, being at university and sleeping – and I did a lot less sleeping than I usually do. It was hard and I had to push myself, but it was doable because I knew it was for a limited amount of time.

Be realistic about the phrase “I don’t have time.” Is that really true? You don’t have time to do the thing you want to do most in the world? You have to find it. Don’t be like the participant on a weight loss show that aired in Ireland last year who threw a strop at having to prepare healthy meals because it was sooooo time-consuming and she was sooooo busy – the same woman who, before she embarked on the programme, managed somehow to find the time to drink an entire bottle of red wine in front of the TV every night.

Practical tip: clean your entire house and cook up lots of things that can be frozen before you begin, so you have as few distractions as possible. It also helps to tell everyone what you’re doing. It makes it easier for you to say no to invitations, ignore phone calls and e-mails, etc. but it also gives you a bit of accountability.

It may be easier to press “pause” on life so you can finish your damn book in a matter of weeks, rather than trying to fit in and keep up a daily writing routine for months or years. 

5. Don’t read over what you’ve written

Again this may not work for everyone and I know there are those who like to edit as they go, but editing as you go was why I didn’t get past 10,000 words for more than a year. You just have to keep going. Stop mid-sentence so you can pick right up when you left off the next time you sit down at your desk. Resist the urge to edit. You’ll edit in the next draft.

At the same time, write the best chapters you possibly can – but in terms of what happens in them, not necessarily the line-by-line language. (If that makes sense.) Think of how professional editing works: it starts with structural things, and only then moves into the language. You should work the same way, I think,  especially if you are writing a first draft.

I really couldn’t resist this for a long time, until I hit upon an idea: print out your book as you go. Every time you get to the end of a scene or chapter, hit PRINT and then put the pages in a pile to one side. Far away enough so you can’t read it, but close enough so you can be reminded of your progress.

Speaking of progress, charts are your friend. Make a big one in which you can write the number of words you wrote per day, or use a calendar. Sometimes you’ll stay at your desk just because you can’t face writing ’29’ in the box for today, trust me.

It’s easier to keep moving forward when you don’t stop to look back. 

* * * * *

So there you go. Sorry this post is so long but I have my first lot of end of year exams coming up, so I just don’t have the time to blog as much as I’d like. A long post whenever I do hopefully makes up for this.

Also: look! I changed my blog. Catherine is still caffeinated but this pile of HTML bricks is just catherineryanhoward.com now, and the pink is more an accent colour than a drowning depth of candy floss. There’s been some reorganization too. What do you think?

Have you managed to finish your damn book? Tell us how you did it in the comments below.

You might also be interested in this post I recently wrote for Writing.ie: Should You Be Best Friends with a Writer, Daahling? 

Don’t Break the Chain

It’s T-minus 6 days until I turn 30.

Age is but a number and all that, but 30 comes with an annoying alarm sound, because my goal has always been to get a book deal before I reached the big three-oh. This isn’t because seven days from now, should an editor come knocking on my door, I’ll say, “Thanks, but you’re grand. [Meaning no in Irish-speak.] I’m 30 and a day now so the moment’s gone.” I presume I’d be just as excited getting a book deal at sixty as I would be today. It was just a goal, a self-imposed deadline intended to motivate, and one that I thought gave me plenty of time.

But there’s only six days left, and I don’t have a book deal. I’ve done all the other big things on the Before I’m 30 List—live in the U.S., see a Space Shuttle launch, see the Grand Canyon—but I’m still waiting for some Fairy God-Publishing Type to descend with a sheaf of contracts in one hand and a pen in the other.

But there’s a very good reason why I’m still waiting.

(At least one; I may also not be good enough. But let’s not dwell on that happy thought and just assume, for the purposes of this blog post and my continued mental health, that I am.)

I don’t have a book deal because I don’t deserve one.

I don’t deserve it because I don’t do the work.

I don’t know what it looks like from the outside, but I’m not very productive when it comes to writing. I wrote Mousetrapped over the summer of 2008, and Results Not Typical between September of that year and May 2009, including re-drafting and editing. I wrote the first edition of Self-Printed in a month in April 2010—I swear, my fingerprints were starting to disappear after that session!—and although I probably shouldn’t admit this publicly, after procrastinating for weeks on Backpacked, I ended up writing the whole thing in just a fortnight. (A fortnight in which there was only sleep, coffee and Backpacked, I might add.) I don’t like to talk about the work I do that’s intended for submission to agents and editors on here, but suffice to say that although there has been plenty of partials and chapter outlines and synopses and sample chapters and extravagant and superfluous visual plotting devices consisting of expensive and unnecessary stationery in complicated color schemes, I haven’t finished writing a whole novel since Results. Therefore, I have only ever written one novel, start to finish, and I ended up self-publishing that.

Therefore, I don’t deserve to get published.

(And anyway, what would they publish? My to-do list?)

But it’s okay. It’s okay because I’ve realized this—that I don’t do the work—and I’m all geared up to do something about it. And that something is my summer project, Not Breaking the Chain.

(I’m just back from a trip, and there’s another one planned for October. That makes a nice stretch of time in between: July, August and September. I know that’s not “summer” but just go with it, okay?)

Shortly after my realization, I came across three things on the internet that I really needed to see. The first was this post about training your brain to write on demand. The second was this dangerously useful post about how one author went from writing 2,000 words a day to 10,000. And the third was a post about Jerry Seinfeld.

Yes, Jerry Seinfeld.

Maybe I was the only person with an internet connection who hadn’t read it about yet (the date on the post is 2007), but according to Seinfeld the secret to his success was productivity, and the secret to his productivity was a method he called “don’t break the chain.”

Essentially, it’s this: get a large wall planner, the kind that has a box for every day, and hang it somewhere prominent. Arm yourself with a thick red marker. For every day you complete your writing task—another chapter, another page, a thousand words—put a ‘X’ in the box for that day. Do it a few days in a row and you’ll have a nice chain of red ‘X’s. Now, your only goal is don’t break the chain. As you can imagine once you have a week’s unbroken chain, you’ll want to keep it going and because you’ll probably see the planner several times a day, any break will be staring at you accusingly forever more. (Or at least until the end of the year.) You can read the full post here.

Just before I went to LA I visited The Writers’ Store website to get their address (I wanted to stop by when in LA but never got around to it) and lo and behold, weren’t they giving away a free download of a “Don’t Break the Chain” wall planner

I’m totally taking it a sign.

I love a good motivation idea, and I adore ones that involve the purchasing of stationery products. So starting next week, I’m going to try to not break the chain. I’m going to combine it with what I learned from James Chartrand’s post about training your brain to click into writing mode with a regular routine, and Rachel Aaron’s lesson that trying to simultaneously make stuff up and write it down is not good for your word count. I’m going to give it approximately 90 days—until the end of September—and see what I manage to achieve in this time. I’d like to manage 1,000 words a day, every day. If I did that—IF—I’d have a completed first draft  by the end of it.

I’m telling you this because I only ever seem to achieve things when other people are aware that I’m doing them. (And, let’s be honest, because I’ll get a few blog posts out of it.) I’ll keep you abreast of my progress. But for now I’m wondering…

Who’s with me?