If you’re reading this I assume you’re all set. You have an idea in mind for a book and it has fermented long enough. The cop in your head is bound to a chair in a corner of your right-brain, and your get-up-and-go has not got up or gone - if it has, kindly fetch it back.
A disclaimer friends: I don’t have all the answers. Herein lies the thoughts of a working writer, privileged to work closely with other writers. Naturally there are countless ‘how to’ articles about writing books, but though many explore the craft, few disclose the graft. Writing a book is like throwing a cup of water into a paddling pool every day. It will fill up eventually, but you’re in it for the long haul. This guide will deal with both the craft and the business of writing, with these twenty simple steps to guide and motivate you:
Below are ten steps to help you develop work from the ground up.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way, courtesy of Lewis Carroll: “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop.” Learn your craft by writing. Just begin. You have nothing to lose.
2. Give it a Shape
Give yourself a scaffold to formalise your ideas. Apply an act structure or consider the given circumstances. You might simply want to think about what the book needs to do – writing a thriller? Make sure it thrills your reader. Make sure the action is vast and propulsive enough to sustain the length of a novel.
3. Develop the Character
Aristotle’s Unity of Action is your way into three dimensional characters. Why is it happening to this person; in a particular place; at this particular time? What is the journey this character will go on – is it a real journey or a figurative one? How will this character function as a surrogate for the audience? [See also character development blog].
4. Write the Action
Philip Pullman gives us a fine example in the first chapter of Northern Lights, in which our heroine Lyra discovers a plot to kill her uncle whilst hiding in a wardrobe. In the chapters that follow, Pullman unpacks the world of the book, using information we inherit from action in the first chapter. It is action that compels us to turn the page. Identify where your hooks are to keep the reader involved.
5. Build the World
This will be more or less relevant depending on your audience and the nature of the book. To quote Shakespeare: “art is a mirror held up to nature”. The world your story inhabits – our world now, a slight future, a fantastical land, a multiverse – should feel grounded in how we navigate our own, and that requires a system. George RR Martin favours core detail – a character’s clothes; what they’re eating; the immediate surroundings. Raymond Chandler navigates a parched LA to mirror the corruption concealed there. These writers identified a system to allows them to both build and reveal detail. The trick is to find a system that enables you.
6. Write the Outline
I ask writers to do this on our Creative Writing Developers course. Try and write the action of the book on as many sides of A4 as you need. Immediately writers can identify the gaps in their knowledge about the book they’re trying to write. Imagine making this discovery halfway through a manuscript – the temptation to go back and start over would be overwhelming. Writing an outline is a way to formalise the book in its purest form.
7. Give yourself a Prompt
If the golden rule is to start writing then it’s important not to tie yourself up with too much prep time. If you’re struggling to find a system to world-build, try and write it down. If you don’t know much about your main character, create an ironic narrator that can comment on that person. Write about rituals or a day in the life. You needn’t be writing the book from the get-go, and you will always be able to use this material at a later point in the novel.
8. One Step at a Time
The analogy I like to use is treading rocks to cross a river. Now you’re on this rock; now this one; now that one. Your aim is to get across, and the same for your novel. Write one chapter at a time. Meanwhile, consider the natural perimeters that characters must navigate. Take any procedural thriller: there’s been a murder. Clues must be found, suspects identified. Perhaps there is an autopsy. Interviews with those close to the victim. These protocols will follow on until new information is revealed. The question is: what are the rocks the book should tread?
9. Forget the Big Idea
It is kryptonite to write towards a theme or central idea because you won’t have anything to write about. Here’s the difference: “I want to write about faith” versus “I want to write about a priest that loses his faith and goes on a road trip to connect with his roots”. The latter has legs where the former does not. Human beings don’t live moment-to-moment pondering the big ideas or themes of our lives, not when we’re busy with school runs and food shops. Rather, we reflect on things that happened, or as they happen. Human insight is the grist of a book so make sure there are people your readers are obliged to care about, no matter what genre you’re writing.
10. Put it in a Drawer
Serious question: how do you know when the work is any good? Can you ever be objective? Well yes and no. The best advice is to put the work in a drawer – printed hard copy if you can. Now forget about it. Go and do something else. Visit family or take on a new project. After a time, come back to it. You will not struggle to be honest with yourself. The act of putting it away means you create this cooling off period that helps you to rediscover the writing. Tempting as it is to go and tinker or ask someone to read, leave the work alone. Time is a great leveller. You might be surprised to read what you find in that drawer…
Below are ten steps to help you stay motivated.
1. Set a daily word count goal
Before you begin, give yourself a realistic goal and aim for it. Is it reasonable to write 1000 words a day? If not, be kind to yourself. Set targets you can meet and try to ignore page numbers. Instead, trick your brain into thinking you’re writing 1000 words. Much easier than sitting down to Write A Book. Sounds bonkers, but it works! Meanwhile, aim for a word count suitable for the audience you’re writing for.
2. Give yourself time and space to work on your book everyday
It is a truth universally acknowledged that books do not write themselves. You need to invest in your writing. You must carve out time: half an hour in the morning or a few hours on weekends. Write somewhere that enables you. Whatever your habits, the message is clear: sit down and start. If you struggle to do this, try and gamify the experience. Set a timer or write a section of the novel that excites you – a juicy murder or the reveal of a secret. That word count won’t hit itself.
3. Get early feedback
There is no greater motivation than a request to read your work. Suddenly you feel the need to impress somebody else, or at least, to make the work lively and engaging. On our Creative Writing Developers course I ask writers to read each other’s work. You can learn so much if you listen to the material. This is another way to trick your brain: hearing the work will renew your motivation to continue.
4. Don’t edit as you write
Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? Think of it this way: you will sit down to write around eighty to ninety thousand words, perhaps over a period of months. What follows is a natural distance between starting a book and finishing one. You can objectify earlier points in the book now. You notice repetitions; holding patterns; bugbears in the writing. I’ve known students to hit the middle of the book or script, go back to the beginning to tinker with it, and ultimately never finish. Try to focus your energy in the present tense where the book still needs to be written. The rewriting comes later.
5. Embrace failure
Try as you might, you won’t write every day. Life will happen. It's both natural and inevitable. Even when you do have time to write, you may sit down and struggle to get a hundred words on the page. Be assured that all writers struggle with this, including the bestselling authors hiding in the reeds. Give yourself a break from writing. Go and do something else. You won’t write anything if you don’t want to, so give yourself a reason to come back to it.
6. Be realistic about your ability
Be realistic about your ability. If you have never written anything before, why start with a work of adult fiction in excess of eighty thousand words? When I started out I wrote countless short stories and plays, and it taught me everything I know about writing. If you have no form in writing you need to cultivate the habit of doing it, so start small and work your way up to the big leagues.
7. Manage your Expectations
The worst word is the English Dictionary is ‘bestselling’. It implies that the marker for success is that people buy your book more than any other. It also implies the only way to quantify the success of novel writing is through publication and exposure. Do not fall into this trap. The pursuit of ‘success’ has nothing to do with writing. For me, I measure success by finishing a piece of work. What comes next isn’t in my control, so I don’t worry about it and move onto the next thing. What does success look like for you?
8. Have a Break
Who says you have to write in one sitting? Not me. I often talk to writers about objectivity: how to tell when something is good on your terms. The simple answer is you must distance yourself from the work where you can. Just because you’re not writing or thinking about the idea doesn’t make that time out less valuable. I am forever stumbling across puzzles in the writing and choosing not to solve them until the next day, or even the next week. Go and make that second cup of coffee, walk the dog, or pair your socks. Engage with your process.
9. Gamify the experience
It sounds nuts to encourage competition of any sort, but it really does work! Some writers keep a visual history of word counts versus the day before, perhaps against a word target. In the hit sitcom Seinfeld, they discuss a monthly calendar entitled ‘Did you write today?’. Make a game of hitting regular word targets and reward yourself when you finish scenes or chapters. I’m a recent convert to this way of working.
Writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint. There is no secret sauce or get-out-of-jail-free card. You need to find ways to stay motivated; to engage with the work; to find a rhythm. In my own experience I have found ways to do all three by putting in the time. You need to write, rinse, and repeat. There is no way around it, so invest in every part of the process. The good news is: by giving yourself workable goals; space and time; brain tricks and games to play; and by surrounding yourself with champions; writing a book can prove to be a pleasure. Invest yourself, your time and your instincts. Who knows: you might actually enjoy it.
Jon Barton is Head of Writing at City Academy - City Academy run adult writing courses across London
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