13 Tips for Writing Your First Book

Friday, December 13, 2013

So you want to write a book? YOU CAN. Stop waiting.

I was speaking at a book club holiday party last night, and more than one person quietly divulged that they had always wanted to write a book but never had. Still, they felt they would one day. And it occurs to me that most of the advice I see online for writers is aimed at people already in the trenches. And that maybe I should post something for people who are standing outside the Recruitment Office, staring at the posters and nibbling their mustaches and scared to death to step through that door.

You don't have to be a lifelong writer. You don't need a special college degree. You don't need to take any classes. You don't need to quit your job and move to the mountains to think. You don't have to have a dream in which Stephen King arrives, clad in gossamer with angel wings and taps you on the head with a quill. A writer is someone who writes, and you're just as qualified as anyone else. You have just as much spare time as anyone else, because we're all hopelessly, insanely busy. Don't let anyone tell you differently.

The secret is that you need to settle on an idea and think about it a long time before writing. The first time I sat down to write a book, I thought, "I'll write a book about mermaids!" But then I never wrote anything because I didn't know who the audience was, who the main character was, or what the plot was. But I had a great title and had already drawn a cover in Photoshop.


The next time I tried, I knew I was writing a women's fiction about a harried, dry-witted mom who won a cruise and accidentally boinked Zeus on a ferry. I knew she would have a cat fight with Hera, meet the fates, and be courted by various gods. I knew that, in the end, she would be back with her husband and happy for her life and would just see pegasi all the damn time. And once I knew that much, I was able to finally start writing just to connect the main points of interest.

Good plot? No. But it got me going. There is no Perfect Idea that will make it easy. You could spend your entire life trying to come up with something flawless. But you'll never get anything done. Pick something that you can spend a few months thinking about it and just ride that pony.

Whenever you can. Stop thinking about writing as this annoying work that you feel you must do. Think of it like a hobby, like taking a pottery class or fishing or watching a football game. It's great for your mind and soul and self-confidence. It's an activity with inherent worth. Get the support of the people around you and ask for their encouragement to help you meet your goals. Put it on the calendar. Schedule a babysitter. Or just wait until everyone else is asleep and instead of refreshing Facebook or watching Tivo, write.

You've been thinking about your story and know how it's going to begin. Once you've been running the opening scene in your head, you sit down and set a timer for, say, 15 minutes. Set your document to double-space with .5 indent and just write. Don't think too hard about word choice or typos or grammar at this point. Just give yourself the freedom to suck or be weird and let it happen. Don't think, "Wait, that's not right" or "This stinks!" or "Oh, no, wait, I need to go back." Self-editing is the enemy.

Probably not. The timer is more to make you spend the time on task. If the writing is flowing, keep going until the well runs dry. If it's not, save what you have, skip a few lines, and leave notes about things to think about, fix, or do tomorrow. For bonus points, end with something exciting that'll make your next writing session kick off with a bang.

In my experience, obsession drives writing. No matter what else you're doing, the story should be marinating in your imagination, and if you have impulses to encourage it, do. You might want to read some non-fiction on a related topic, do some crowd-sourcing, go on a day trip or take a class in blacksmithing. You might feel the urge to buy a pretty journal and pen and keep them with you to scribble things down. You might just want to build a music playlist that helps you dream. But in order for a book to happen, it needs loving encouragement.

And as I have two children under seven, a husband, and another job, believe me when I tell you that I know what it's like to be so busy you can't think straight. You might have to make a sacrifice. I don't watch TV, and when I'm in first draft mode, I don't instigate plans with friends. Obsession will take its toll, but for me, the self-confidence and power I feel when writing is worth it. And you can always invite your friends over for champagne and cupcakes when you finish your first draft.

Well, why would it be? If this is your first book, you have no right to be awesome at writing it. Much like any skill, you must practice. Stephen King says it takes 1,000,000 words written to gain competence as a writer. Or as Jake on Adventure Time says, "Sucking at something is the first step to being sort of good at something." And just like shooting baskets or centering clay, there's great value to be found in practice. Sadly, most of society doesn't appreciate the value in bad writing, but as someone who did a lot of bad writing before I moved into not-wretched writing and then into hey, this isn't bad writing, I value it.

There's an easy way to avoid this feeling: Don't read your first draft until it's done. You'll just depress yourself. Hell, I depress myself. That's why I advocate going straight through to the end and cleaning up later. You can't edit a blank document.

Just… no.
This is a very bad idea.

Either they read it and love it and tell you how amazing you are, in which case you believe it and will crash hard the first time you receive legit criticism….

Or they read it and don't like it or tell you what's wrong with it or mark it up with red pen and completely kill your spirit and your writing mojo.

Do you see? There's no good ending here.

Just tell them you can't wait to show them the finished product, but you want it to be just right first.

The secret is that you never have to show anyone, if you don't want to.

And if you want to? Have it printed up and make a fun cover for it. There's no feeling like watching someone read your book for the first time.

Every day, set that timer for 15 minutes or whatever other arbitrary span you decide your busy schedule will allow. If you write four words? Great. You sat there for 15 minutes and thought about your story. If you wrote 200 words? Awesome. That's the length of an AP English essay, and few people write those over the age of 19, if ever. If you write a ton? *GOLF CLAPS* You're doing it! You're writing a book!

Some days will be 4 words, some will be 400, some might be 4000. That's normal. Keep going.

Until it's done.

And keep in mind that a first draft might be considerably shorter or longer than it should be. With your first book, I advocate aiming for 50-80 thousand words. That's a pretty manageable size and works out to around 200-250 pages, I think. I like to email a copy to myself every 20 pages or so as insurance against computer crashes. Some people I know use Dropbox, but I prefer email pings.

And at 100 pages, your significant other is legally required to take you out for tacos and margaritas. Don't ask me why. I don't make the rules. Just enjoy it. 100 pages is a big landmark.

You can. I mean, it's your life. But everything that's worth something is hard. Running a marathon is hard. Learning to play chess is hard. Figuring out how to ride a bike is hard. And there's a point, almost always, in every difficult endeavor, when you think… THIS SUCKS AND I WANT TO QUIT.

And you know what? I'll say it. Quitting isn't always bad. If you don't get any joy whatsoever out of writing, no rush or hopeful buzz when you figure something out, then there's no reason to do it. If you want to write a book to impress someone, to make a million dollars like that 50 Shades lady, or to gain stardom, then that might not be enough of an impetus to push you, crawling, through the quagmire of suck.

To finish writing a book, you must love that book, and when it gets hard, you have to keep going.

But here's a secret: for almost every writer and almost every book, there is a point at which they stop and say THIS SUCKS AND I WANT TO QUIT. Some people call it Saggy Middle Syndrome. For me, it usually hits about 60% through, when all the newness has worn off but the story isn't rolling downhill at breakneck speed yet. That's when I have my 4-word days and play on Twitter too much. But I keep going anyway. You can, too. Set the timer, sit there, and do the best you can.

11. I DID IT. I WROTE A BOOK! (If you didn't, skip to 13. It an't over, baby.)
Good for you! Rename your doc as MYAWESOMEBOOK_V2 and close it. No matter what else happens in your life, if you edit your book and pursue a professional career in publishing or if you shove it in a drawer or set it on fire, you've written a book. Millions of people every day wish they could do what you have just done. You are part of an elite fraternity of crazy people continuing the tradition of storytelling, of crafting magic from nothing.

They used to burn people at the stake for that sort of thing.

Now you have several choices. If you want to rest on your laurels and pursue something else, then go and do that. Even if you just want to take a break without that stupid timer, go for it. But if you want to see just how great your book can become, then sit down with a notebook and start reading what you've written. You might see issues immediately, especially considering that with the Write Straight Through method, you know your characters way better at the end and will often find the beginning shaky or incomplete. If you've saved the old draft, feel free to make changes in the new draft. Make notes to yourself about things to change overall or worry about later. And if you start reading and get bored or sick of it, put it down and go live life for a couple of weeks. It'll look different with fresh eyes.

No, it is not.
Your book baby, if it's anything like my first drafts, is riddled with typos and cliches and adverbs and characters who change over the course of the book. With my first book, I was scared to mess it up and make it worse. But you know what? I've been writing for four years now, and I've never regretted hitting the delete button.

One way to free yourself from this worry is to be savvy about saving drafts. My first draft is MYAWESOMEBOOK. Then I start doing edits on MYAWESOMEBOOK_V2. When that's done, I do big revising in MYAWESOMEBOOK_V4. And somewhere after MYAWESOMEBOOK_V11, I save MYAWESOMEBOOK_FINAL.

If you save your drafts as you go along, you can always go back and retrieve something you're scared to change or delete. I also email each draft to myself as I go in case my computer crashes. And if I do a major rewrite or add 20 pages, I email that. I've gotten to enjoy hitting the delete key, but I definitely don't want to lose 3 days of work accidentally.

First of all, if you didn't make it through your first book, there's absolutely nothing wrong with shelving it, putting it away for later, ripping it up for parts, or starting over. False starts are very common with new writers when they realize that an idea isn't enough to drive the entire book. Read other books that excite you. Start thinking of new story ideas or ways to revamp what you *do* have into a broader narrative. It isn't over until you quit writing. And you never have to quit writing. Plenty of people make a living writing short fiction, webcomics, and non-fiction. Writing is writing. You can always start again.

On the other hand, if you've pumped out that first draft, you've leveled up. Congratulations! I suggest hitting my Resources page to savvy up on editing, querying, agents, writing blogs, that sort of thing. My 25 Steps to Being a Traditionally Published Author post might be especially helpful. In any case, you've done the impossible, and for that you are mighty.

Now go celebrate again. I suggest cake.