Since I began writing, I’ve sold 186,085 books. Internationally. Think about that number. That’s a lot of people who have read my words and ideas. 186,085 readers are not a flash in the pan or the silly misguided efforts of some goofy farmwife. I know many other writers who have sold this, and more. The writers I know have worked very hard to write and sell their books. It’s taken me years to really understand the craft and trade of writing genre fiction.
People often say to me, “I have an idea for a book. How do I write it?”
I know many writers and we all get this comment from people. To us it says, “Yeah, writing a book isn’t a big deal. Just tell me a few things and I’ll be on my way.” Like it’s an afterthought in their lives. No big deal. Surely, we can knock out a little conversation and I’ll soon by publishing an award-winning book. After all, you did it. It must not be too hard.
And it’s true, anyone can write a book. But not everyone can do it well. That takes some serious work. This is what makes me think of a little story that’s told about Mozart. A young composer supposedly approached Mozart and said, “Herr Mozart, I am thinking of writing a symphony. How do I do this?” Mozart replied, “A symphony is a very complex musical form and you are still young. Perhaps you should start with something simpler, like a concerto.” The young composer said, “But Herr Mozart, you were writing symphonies when you were eight years old.” To which Mozart replied, “Yes, but I never asked anyone how.”
This rings true for me. When I decided to write a book, there was a story in my mind. Day by day the story grew, and I could see the characters, envision the setting, and I even heard their voices, the cadence of their speech. I saw the wind blowing in their hair, heard the noises around them, and knew the words they would say, the things they would do. I’d begun to create these beings, their homes and lives. All that remained was to birth them onto the page. Push them out through my fingers.
Once I sat down at the typewriter, the words came effortlessly and kept tumbling out. My ability to type barely kept up with the ideas. I didn’t have any choice to write the book any more than a mother has a choice to deliver her baby. My stories wanted out and I labored to create them.
At the time I wrote my first book, I had no knowledge about how to write, or even a good command of spelling, which has always been my weak spot. I didn’t think about proper sentence structure, or grammar, or punctuation. None of it mattered to me at that point. I simply had to write.
When it was finished, much like bringing home a baby, I scrambled to figure out the rest. I held it out humbly to other readers and asked them to tell me what they thought of it. Some readers were too kind and could only say nice things. Others actually helped me. They mercifully told me where I made mistakes. I learned from them what didn’t make sense, and where gaping holes left confusion. Then I rewrote those passages, and sometimes even took out entire sections.
Then I came to realize I needed more help than just friends could offer me. I searched online to find out where there might be writing groups I could associate with. I found one and joined. Through that I met other writers and joined other writing groups. And by listening to other writers, reading their work, reading books they suggested to me, and constantly searching for articles, blogs, websites, people… anything and anyone who could teach me… I learned how to hone my writing skills. I learned the rules of writing, and about writing terms practicing writers know, like passive voice, point of view, inciting incidents, character arc, three-act structure, and so on.
And now, unfortunately, writing is no longer something that just flows out of my fingertips. Now I write a sentence, delete it, rewrite it, delete it, wonder if the words even matter. I consider coming at the story from a different angle, a different character’s point of view, starting with describing setting, no, wait, starting with action… no, maybe this isn’t the story I want to write, after all.
Delete the entire document.
Knowledge makes a master of the art but can gag creativity. It’s the truly professional writer who can meld the two sides: one intelligent, and one almost blind with the need to create.
So, when you ask me how to write a book, I tell you this. Please. Enjoy this moment of not knowing a thing. Sit down and let the words splatter the pages with pigments of your story. Don’t worry about anything at all. This is the one time you have alone with your tale. Have a private conversation with your characters and their emotions, their inadequacies and secrets. Be brave, be vulgar, take risks and just write. None of it matters during the first draft. It’s just for you. Just like no one should judge a mother giving birth for how she behaves while in the worst pain of her life… no one will judge you for your first draft. Unlike the mother giving birth, no one will even have to see your first draft unless you’re fool enough or brave enough to show it to someone.
But when that first draft is done, walk away from it for a time. Read a book you love and really study the writing. Look at how the sentences are composed, how the words are used, the way the characters speak their dialogue, how the setting is described.
Now go back to your first draft, be brave, and read your work like you’re a reader, not the writer. Read it to find flaws, not to pat yourself on the back. Just like raising a child, you do a child no favors by ignoring their problems. You have to correct the bad behavior. Your goal is to raise a child who others can love… and as a writer, to write a book that others can love.
I can tell you I personally might go back through my 1st draft twenty times or more. It won’t be until maybe the third draft that I send it to a trusted writer friend to read with a critical eye. Then I keep sending it to writing friends to tell me the hard truth about what’s working and what’s not. I try to find writer friends who can do this with kindness.
But I assure you, I do the work. I put in the time. I come to the process humbly, knowing I need to keep working to make it better.
When I wanted to write a book, I just began to write. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t ask anyone how to do it. I just did. This is how it is with creativity. It’s such a desire that you must do it. One can learn technique, but the deep creative need is either there or it isn’t.
If you want to be a writer… want to write a book: just write it. Until you try, you’ll never really know if you are a writer. If you sit down to write and nothing comes out, no ideas or words come to mind, you can think of no place to begin, no idea of how it will sound or where it will take place — you probably aren’t a writer after all.