How to Write a Book and Why I Write About Writing

Even though I’ve written two novels, I’m amazed when people write and ask me about writing. After all, my is site called How Not to Write and both of the aforementioned novels were absolutely dreadful. Still, I’m flattered and I think it’s fun to connect with other writers. I also enjoy sharing what I’ve learned pecking around these last 20 years or so (even if it’s not worth all that much).

But last week something odd happened… A famous, or rather infamous, blogging entity wrote and asked my advice about writing.

Anyway, as I would with anyone, I decided to answer the query as best as I could. After sending my reply, I found out that the entity is not infamous as a joke. It’s a professional vocation.

I’ve been sitting on this for awhile, letting the whole thing settle. I’m not going to name names, but I liked my email so much I thought I’d share it with everyone (after making it anonymous and doing a little formatting).

It’s a little sassy, because the entity is sassy. Hopefully someone will actually get some use out of this.

How to Write a Book… Or Not

Dear […]:

No imposition at all. I’m happy to help…

Writing a book isn’t all that different from blogging. Each day you piece a little bit together. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but either way wanting to do it doesn’t get the posts up. Wanting to write a book doesn’t get it written.

So the first thing is in order to write a book you need to write the book. I like Charlie Stross’ thought on this:

“You eat or starve on the basis of your ability to put your bum in a
chair and write. BIC or die, that’s the first rule. Lifestyle issues
come a distant second.”

Of course, this doesn’t tell you how to start, so it has the distinct advantage of being both profound and shitty advice.

Amazing how often the words “profound” and “shitty” go together, isn’t it?

What I’ve learned by observing other writers is that no one has a clue how to do this thing called writing a book. Everyone is winging it. There are formulas of course and if you’re going for formula fiction you just pull one off the shelf and start filling in the gaps. But you’re not doing formula fiction, right?

Of course not. You already have the story and you already have the name. So let’s begin again…

The first rule of writing a book is to have fun, and I don’t mean having fun like riding ponies at your fifth birthday party. I mean having fun like flirting with someone at a bar or skiing down a black diamond run. Writing a book is a tough slog day in and out. You’d better make sure it’s fun for you or you’ll burn out.

The second rule of writing a book is to have a plan. I just knocked the formula thing, but in truth you need a plan. Some writers like to plan out every little bush and shrub. To me, that’s boring as hell. I like the idea of a rough sketch, just big blocks of, “This happens, then this happens, and oh, this happens next.”

The point is to get the big ideas down in a way that you can shuffle them about until they look right. After that you go back and start tidying up. Some writers use index cards to do it. That’s how Nabokov did it, and things worked out pretty good for him.

The third rule of writing a book is to keep it to yourself. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve killed perfectly good stories and novels by showing them off too soon. Even worse is talking about the damned things. Once you’ve let the cat out of the bag, you’d rather kill it than try to get it back in. Part of the thrill of writing a book (see fun back at #1) is knowing you have something that no one else has seen yet. This is what will keep you going.

Finally, the fourth rule of writing a book is to sit down and write. Even if all you do is write nonsense to begin with, just keep going. Write faster if you can. Will Self is an advocate of this method. I’ve found that if I stop looking at the screen and just focus on the keys that my fingers eventually find the groove and I write some amazing stuff or at least I stop being so self-conscious, which may be all you really need).

Ok, I could probably write another half dozen rules here, but this is a good start. Don’t let doubt get in the way. (rule 5?).

I hope this has been of some help. Write back if you need more. I find that swift kicks and kind words are good for writing books if doled out in equal measure.

Why Bother? Because This Isn’t About Me.

As is par for the course, the entity sent me a rather patronizing note. No biggie, since I have no real idea of what I’m doing. I’m very up front about that. Again, why else would I have a site called How Not To Write?

So why bother with the cranks? Because this site isn’t all about me. It’s about helping others by sharing what I know.

I received an email from an interesting fellow not long ago. He promised a sort of writing elixir (I’m not making this up), not the sort you drink with the mouth but with the mind. I told him to bring it on and he did. Some people I know thought he was crazy, a loon. And they were right…

Yet, as it turns out, I’ve enjoyed his work and look forward to the next installment. I learned the hard way that crazy is sometimes where the greatest truths lie though you might need to dig through the weeds a bit.

We’re all working to do the best we can. I’m no different from anyone else in this regard. I write because I enjoy writing. I share what I’ve learned during the process because that’s all that I have if nothing else.

17 thoughts on “How to Write a Book and Why I Write About Writing

  1. It kills me to hear that happening to you but I’m really impressed on how you handled it. I don’t know how I would have responded.

    I enjoy the blog. Keep up the good work.

    David Gane’s last blog post..Tricks and Rules

  2. I’m glad you enjoy the work, David. It’s for people like you that I peck away! πŸ™‚

    By the way, great line!!

    If you aren’t willing to do the writing, all the tricks in the world aren’t going to help.

    Tricks and Rules

  3. “no one has a clue how to do this thing called writing a book”

    Stephen King talks about how there comes a point where you either have it or you don’t. I think these two things go hand in hand: you don’t know what you’re doing, nobody does, and so you do the best you can and you are what you are. And there will a point where you’ll realize that your not having a clue (like everybody else) means that you can write a book, or that you can’t.

    The best way to learn to write is to do it. Finding out if you’re any good is another matter.

    Edward Atkinson’s last blog post..Poetic Archives

  4. Great point, Edward.

    After I finished my second book, I felt like I’d crossed a river. I almost drowned, but I made it. For a moment, I turned back and admired the effort I’d put into the struggle. I felt like I was on my way.

    Of course, I found a chasm waiting on the other side of the river, but I’m not afraid. I might not get across the gap in style but I know what I need to do to make it.

  5. Over the past few years, I’ve found writers who are trying to figure it all out much more helpful than those who claim to know exactly what they’re doing. Sure, they might have found something that works for them, but not everyone writes in the same way. Isn’t that the beauty of it? If we all followed the exact same methods, chances are we’d end up with shelves filled with cookie cutter novels. Boring!

    Discussion and trial and error make for effective learning tools. Listening to someone who thinks they know it all and talks down to those who happen to disagree is a waste of precious writing time.

    A. B. England @ Tekaran Lady’s last blog post..Unexpected Hiatus

  6. Reading between the lines of what happened, I get the feeling you were politely understated in your synopsis of the events.

    Regardless of the attitude and demeanor of the party to whom you wrote this advice, the situation served a greater purpose. It was written, it has been read, and appreciated for the advice it contained, and the manner in which it was written.

    Simply said (simplicity occasionally escapes me) -I enjoyed it, glad you wrote it.

    End note: you wrote …No biggie, since I have no real idea of what I’m doing. I’m very up front about that.

    That is rare, and refreshing. As a fellow-admitter-to-knowing-nothing, I do admit however that it gives me a certain feeling of freedom to drop self-doubt/castigation and just say “Ah well, I am just human, and I know nothing.” πŸ™‚

    Nicely done, Jamie.

  7. @AB It’s tough to listen to someone drone on and one about the “right way.” I’d much rather have someone tell me their failures. It certainly makes me feel better about myself. πŸ˜‰

    Seriously though, there is far more to learn in the interesting mistakes that come along through experimentation.

    @Barbara Rock on! I noticed you are both a coffee fan and a martial arts enthusiast. You would like my guru barista. I just posted a video of him demo in Kali knife fighting techniques in the comments of my recent post about Twitter.

    @Isle Thanks so much. I’m glad to find another member for the club of We Who Know Nothing and Will Gladly Tell You. πŸ˜‰

    By the way, you’re right about my editing. I’ve left out a lot of details in the events but the “Why Bother” section is pretty much a verbatim copy of what I sent to the entity after their response to the first message.

    @RhodesTer No problem and thanks for saying so. I firmly believe that we’re all just a bunch of monkeys clinging to a mudball at the ass end of space, so what have I got to lose anyway?

  8. Nicely done, Jamie. In your place, patronized by that oh-so-amusing Entity, I am very much afraid that my head would have exploded.

    How do you know that your novels were “absolutely dreadful,” by the way? Perhaps they simply needed the gentle guiding hand of a gifted editor? Dreadful is a very strong word, after all; and stronger yet when one looks at some of the tripe that does get into print.

  9. @vimoh πŸ™‚ I’ve written many a long email that I’d never turn into a blog post. However, once I found out what the Entity was, I figured all was fair play.

    @rjleaman That’s a fair statement. I’m a firm believer in the power of the editorial process. The core material in book two was pretty good (though it was probably a better fit for the stage). Maybe I’ll write a post about it this week.

  10. Your four tips sum up book writing nicely and it’s also nice that you took the time to write such a thorough response, Jamie. Sometimes when we get emails from folks asking how we did this or how we did that… it’s too easy to get snotty in your reply (while thinking “I’ve worked hard to get this far… you expect me to help you shortcut your way there in one long email?”).

    I back off from that and try to help. I’m sure I’ve done the same thing to others when I asked them questions. Recently, someone emailed me for advice and said he was too poor to buy books. I shared my advice and pointed to a few great resources. He writes back and said if I have any books I want to toss… to send it his way. Yeah.

    Meryl K. Evans’s last blog post..Write Funny: 3 Timeless Rules of Comedy That Every Writer Should Learn

  11. @Meryl Thanks! You never can tell how help will turn out, but I find that 9 times out of 10 folks are pretty happy.

    P.S. Hey, that CommentLuv link in your post looks might familiar. Aren’t you supposed to be on vacation? πŸ˜‰

  12. I write only when it flows, whether it comes in the morning or it comes at night.
    Mostly poetry and sometimes a short story or two. A novel would drain me too much because I only have so much blood to give.

    A true writer bleeds his words because they are made out of the passion that comes from somewhere out there and flows through him. A sort of pure energy. If you don’t have this you are faking it and it will be easily uncovered.

    People relate when they feel and the more you make them feel, the greater the experience is. I have friends who chew me out when I recite poetry to them, they actually get mad and say I can’t keep this to myself. I will share one day but for now I enjoy easy laughter and silly things, it makes me forget about the horrors of this world.

    It makes me forget but it doesn’t desensitize me. My mission is to take others by the hand and let them forget for a brief moment by allowing them to immerse themselves in a period of laughter and the ability to share that moment.

    I hate to write so when I do, it’s for a reason and it’s for the passion that flows and who am I to alter its course.

    Thanks for reading and mentally listening and hopefully emotionally feeling.

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