How To Write a Book (Part 2 of 2)

Here’s the second half of my guide to book writing —

Austin Kleon

— Austin Kleon

How to Write — a Practical Timeline

Here’s the nitty-gritty of how I get to ‘The End’:

  1. Get an idea.  You might be reading a news article, or a another novel, watching a film, or daydreaming a ‘what if’ and it gets you — this is a good book idea.
  2. What kind of book?  If you want to explore organic farming, is this a non-fiction investigation?  A ‘how to’?  A novel set on an organic farm?  Figure out what first drew you in — that’s your passion.
  3. Who lives there?  In a novel, for me, the people arise from the idea.  In ‘A Caged Heart Still Beats’ I ‘saw’ a cage in the middle of a Regency England estate and started asking ‘Who would be put in such a cage and for what purpose?  In a memoir you might be writing about your grandmother but who influenced her?  Who were her heroes?  Her nemeses?  Even a non-fiction book may need examples of people who succeeded — be in it building a birdhouse or starting a business.
  4. Make an outline / roadmap.  A couple of page document, meant just for you, that hits the main points of what you want to tell.
  5. Research (if the spirit moves you).  Some people LOVE research, others can’t stand it.  Depending on the story you’re writing, you may eventually need to do some, but whether or not you like it, don’t let research slow you down too much from actually starting writing.
  6. Boldly begin.  Start a chapter one, and make time to write.  I also don’t believe in writer’s block.  If something isn’t interesting to you, set it aside and write something else.
  7. Edit (a little) as you go.  I know this runs counter to what a lot of people do but my way is to start each day rereading the pages I worked on last session and making spelling/grammar corrections along the way.  I don’t worry about making big changes though; I mainly read just to get back to the flow and excitement of what I’m doing.
  8. Finish the first draft.  Hit the last page and celebrate.  Buy yourself dinner or a nice bottle of bubbly.  Then put your book aside for two weeks or a month.  This time is crucial to getting some distance and seeing your work with new eyes.
  9. Do a second draft.  Reread the book, see how you feel about it — is there anything BIG you want to change?  New chapters, love interests, and ideas can be worked in now.  Once the ‘big picture’ looks good . . .
  10. Do a third draft.  Start looking at the little things — each line, each word.  You may feel like an extra scene is needed to explain a growing friendship, or you may discover new data to share in your ‘how to’.  Reading aloud to yourself is also a great tool for ferreting out awkward sentences.  The third draft is about making it as good as you can make it.  Then . .
  11. Find trustworthy readers.  This is super-important: only use people you trust, love, share your idea of a good book, and WANT to read it.  If you can’t find that, it might be better to go it alone.  But getting these outside opinions is valuable, provided you remember it’s your book at the end of the day and the most important person to please is yourself.
  12. Do a forth draft.  Take feedback from your readers (try to find at least three) and decide if you need to make a few changes.  If all your readers mention something, you might want to look closer at it.  Most of the great feedback I’ve gotten has been about beginnings (orient  the reader about the world better), little side endings (couldn’t they get away and get the money?), and lackluster areas (the ‘food’ section of my self help book eventually became ‘Energy’ after reader feedback).
  13. Do a final draft (and copyedit).  Go over your book again, seeing how it strikes you now.  Are you happy with everything or is there anything that still sticks out and bothers you?  Take the time to fix it.  And you do need to copyedit a lot, catching all the grammar and spelling errors you can.  It can be hard to do this on your own, but there are a lot of inexpensive copyeditors out there, or you might be able to do an exchange with another writer (you’ll catch their errors easier than your own).
  14. Cerebrate!  You just became an author!

Some common questions —

How do I get published?  It’s pretty confusing these days and only you can decide what ‘published’ means to you.  The traditional way is to get an agent, who in turn will try to sell your book to a traditional publishing house.  You can also query a small publishing house, self-publish, or hire someone to ’self publish’ your book for you.

Say I want an agent — how do I get one?  First you’ll need a very good query letter and/or proposal.  There are whole books about how to write them — in a nutshell, they should recapture in a few pages what made you excited about this book and let the agent know what to expect.  Queryshark is a great site about queries for fiction writers.  You can find an agent on agentquery.com or by googling your favorite writer and the word ‘agent’.  But, it’s super hard to get an agent right now, as their whole industry is changing and they’re not taking on a lot of new clients right now.  So don’t be discouraged if you’re not chosen.  And always remember, you don’t pay for an agent — instead, they get a percentage of the book sale.

How do you ‘self publish’?  You can pay a printer to print up copies of your book.  But the best option for a lot of people (if you book doesn’t have many pictures) is to create a paperback and an ebook using services like Createspace and Lulu.  You’ll need a program like Microsoft Word, and then Createspace will give you a template that helps you design the book.  The upside is that Createspace is free (you only pay for the books you buy), and puts high quality paperbacks (of yours!) into the hands of Amazon customers (and you get a percentage of the profit [higher than traditional publishing] from each sale).  The down side is that it doesn’t work for books with a lot of pictures, and EVERYTHING is on you.  You control how good the cover, editing, format, and marketing is — that’s a lot of power and responsibility.

What about companies that ‘help’ you self publish?  The best examples of these companies really are invested in making your dream come true.  The trade off is usually that you give them several thousand dollars and they take back a lot of that EVERYTHING responsibility that self publishing pushed into you — editing, formatting etc.  Different packages are different prices — just be sure to do a lot of research if you go this way.  And remember, it’s not anything you can’t learn to do yourself — but then, neither is making your own clothes.  You just have to decide if it’s worth the cost.

I have a great idea for a book.  Can I get someone else to do the ‘writing the book’ bit?  Yes — if you pay them.  Yes — if you want be part of a writing team and do half the work.  Yes — if you’re famous in your field and have a big built-in audience.  But if you have an idea (especially for fiction) and you just want someone else to do the work of writing — you’ll find writers already have too many good ideas and won’t take on some else’s.  So pick up that pen!

Can I get rich and famous doing this?  Of course; we’ve all read the success stories.  But the most important question is What do I really want to get out of this?  Don’t just lump your book in with your job, the painting you found in the attic, and the lotto ticket you bought this morning at the Quik Trip.  To paraphrase Fight Club — you are not your get-rich-quick-scheme.  If you spend time with your grandmother, learn her life story, and self publish it as a treasured family heirloom — does it really matter if every book club in the country isn’t reading it?  If your great new plan for paying off student debt faster helps 100 kids have better lives, is that not a success?  If the characters that seem as real as day to you suddenly find a home in a second heart — have you not succeeded spectacularly?

Some Tips —

  • Use a computer if at all possible (it will save you a lot of time later)
  • Use 11 or 12 point Times New Roman font
  • Use format>linespacing>Between Lines 2 SP (or something similar in your program).  This is double spacing your lines — it’s easier for editing.
  • If you only have one backup of your book file, you don’t have a backup.  Keep several copies on different flash drives, hard drives etc.  And emailing yourself the file is a good way to keep it ‘in the cloud’.
  • Name different saves along the way — yourbook010414.doc — might be a good name for an extra copy you made on Jan. 4th.  If you don’t like changes you made, you can go back to the older file.
  • Remember to find inspiration — songs, paintings, picture, articles, jewelry etc that can inspire your book and your characters.  Put the pictures around your work area (or on a Pinterest.com board to inspire you).
  • Printing out a chapter, editing it pen in hand, and reading it aloud to yourself can really make a difference in your finished product.
  • Don’t worry about copyrighting your work.  It’s yours from the moment you write it.  If you’re concerned, you can always print out the pages and mail them to yourself.  Don’t open the package; the postmark now serves as a date of when you began the work.  If anyone later tried to claim it, they couldn’t.  But honestly, I’ve never worried about it.  And if you’re afraid of someone stealing your once-in-a-life-time Matrix-like idea — then keep it to yourself until the book is written.
  • Read different things.  Don’t read only romance and write romance, or only self help books and then write one.  Instead, try all sorts of things and let them inspire you.  Graphic novels, rap songs, 500 year old poems, British TV shows, documentaries!  Your work will be better and more original if you have more interests and express them in your works.
  • Get excited.  There has never been a better time to write, to publish your own book, and/or to share your work online!
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