Wednesday, December 30, 2009

How to Write a Book in 2010

It’s that time of year again, when people start making new year’s resolutions. Right up at the top for many people, just below “lose weight,” is a resolution to write a book. For many people, I think writing a book is some sort of mysterious thing. Conceptually, they believe it is within their power to write a book, but three hundred pages is a daunting task. That could explain why so many authors send unedited first drafts to agents and publishers; it feels like so much of an accomplishment to complete the first draft that the author can’t imagine that there is more work to do. But that’s a topic for another day. If you’re sure you want to write a book, let’s take a look at what it is going to take.

Be Inspired

I’m going to assume that you intend to write a novel, since that tends to be what is on people’s bucket lists. Before you do anything else, you need an idea for a story. Some authors will suggest that the best approach is to come up with some interesting characters, throw them in a box together and see what happens. Sometimes that works, but I don’t suggest you try it for a first book. The problem is that some people throw their characters in a box and all they do is sit there staring at each other. To fix the problem, you have to modify the characters and try again. It’s easier to just figure out what you want your characters to do and then develop characters that will do that.

Ideas can come from anywhere, but since we want this manuscript to sell, we might as well start with the genre. What kind of books do you like to read? Its anyone’s guess as to whether books in that genre will be selling when you finish your manuscript, but you’ll have a lot easier time of it if you write in the genre that you read the most. Just knowing which genre you want to write in may take you a long way toward a good idea for a novel. You have some idea of what fits within the genre, so your story will fall somewhere along those lines, but give it a twist that makes it a little unusual and you are in business.

Write the Pitch

At this point, what you need to be able to do is answer the question of what the book is about and you need to be able to do it in one sentence. Some people will balk at this because they think that because they haven’t written the book they can’t know what it is about. What they miss is that many readers will make a decision about whether to read a book based on the first sentence of the back cover. While the reader may read the rest of the back cover and read a few pages of the book before buying the book, at that point, he is just looking for confirmation that the book is what he thinks it is. That first sentence has already given him a thirst to step into the world of the book. So we want our one sentence pitch to be good, but it is much easier to change our pitch before we write the book than after. The best thing we can do is to write what we pitch, not pitch what we have written.

A pitch might be along the lines of “A boy trains two dogs to hunt and learns what it means to be a man,” to draw on one of my favorite examples, Where the Red Fern Grows. Compare that to “A girl searches for a mother through an online dating service,” which comes from my first novel, Searching For Mom. Just by reading those two one sentence descriptions, the reader knows what to expect from the books and probably has enough information to know whether he wants to purchase the book or not.

Write the Synopsis

A lot of writers hate writing the synopsis, so why not get it out of the way? Actually, the intent here is to outline your book. I start with a structured outline that every story follows. Mine is primarily based on the work of Blake Snyder, who based his off of some other guys, so I’m not sure who deserves the most credit, but you can look at my outline from For the Love of a Devil for an example.

There is enough in that outline to write the synopsis, but you might find it works better for you to just tell the story in a one page format. Once you have done that, you can pull out the sentences that apply to each section of the outline and populate most of it. In any case, it is good to have the whole story on one page so you can work through the high level issues before you spend a lot of time writing stuff that isn’t going to work.

At this point, I also determine lengths for the various sections of the novel. You can do it in either word count or page count. Novelists typically talk in terms of word count, but I’ve found it easier to track where I am in terms of page count. I use a font and line spacing that gives me 250-300 words per page. I then know that the setup section takes about 30 pages, the inciting incident occurs on page 33, debate ends at page 72, the midpoint is at page 160, etc. I don’t always hit these page numbers on the nose, but it gives me a good idea of how much I must write for each and when it is time for a particular event to happen. Because writing is so much slower than reading, it is good to have a method like this or you will tend to write too much for one section and too little for another.

Write the First Draft

There’s no way around it, you have to do the work and write that first draft. This will take you longer than anything else. Some people like to work with a daily quota. If you write 3,000 words per day, you will have your first draft done in a month. I tend to be the type that writes nothing one day, but may put out 5,000 to 10,000 words the next. But however you do it, you are going to have to put in the time and crank out the words. Don’t worry too much about getting things perfect; just crank out those words and you’ll save yourself a lot of time.

Write the Second Draft

If you’ve followed me so far, you now have a 300 page manuscript. I know you’re proud of yourself and you’re anxious to send it out to an agent or send it off to a subsidy press or whatever it is you intend to do with your manuscript. This is the hardest thing to do, but I suggest you put your first draft aside until the buzz wears off. Go read a good book. (Read one of my books, if you haven’t already.)

After you’ve had a few days away, you can start on your second draft. The good thing is that it won’t take nearly as long. Your goal with the second draft is to find the big problems. Read through your manuscript. You are looking for chapters and paragraphs that might be better if in a different order or even deleted. There may be gaps you need to fill. You are looking for issues like attributes of a character being different in one section of the book than what they are in another. Does she have a mother and father in the second half, but her father is dead in the first half? Now’s the time to resolve those kinds of issues. I can assure you that there will be a few. There always are.

Write the Third Draft

You aren’t done yet. But this won’t take more than a couple of days or so. Go back to the beginning and read through the whole thing, out loud. Do the words flow from your tongue easily? Are there run on sentences? If you stumble over your own wording, think what the reader will do. Your goal for the third draft is to smooth out your sentence structure, so it flows well and doesn’t sound corny.

Write the Fourth Draft

The fourth draft is the least subjective draft. You are looking for spelling errors, word usage problems and grammatical issues. Before you do anything else, run the spelling and grammar checker in MS Word. It isn’t perfect, but it will help you spot some things that you might otherwise miss. It could take you a couple of hours to work through all of the problems. Some you will correct and others you will ignore. With a novel, there are plenty of things that are perfectly okay in our context, that would not be okay for a technical document, which is what MS Word checks for.

Once you get past the grammar check, print your manuscript. If you don’t want to print three hundred pages on your desktop printer, you might consider taking it to a place like FedEx Office and letting them print it. With a red pen in hand, read your manuscript. Look specifically for word usage problems and punctuation. Did you use affect when you meant effect? Did you use thy when you meant the? There are a ton of problems that MS Word may not spot. Once you have finished, make your corrections in the electronic manuscript. I suggest doing it from back to front, so that your corrections don’t mess up the page numbering, making it hard to match the marked up pages with the electronic pages.

Now, let’s read it one more time. Read it as if you are the reader. Don’t look for mistakes, but if you spot one, correct it.

Congratulate Yourself

If you’ve reached this point, pour yourself a cup of coffee with extra creamer; congratulations are in order. You have now completed your manuscript. There’s still a lot of work ahead of you before you have a copy of your book in hand, but you have written a book. Call yourself an author. Your manuscript is now suitable for sending out to agents, entering in contests or tucking away in the back of a closet.