Thursday, June 4, 2015

So You Want to Write a Book: a 10 step program

A year or so ago, I wrote a series of blog entries about how would-be authors can get started at the library. These were on the Douglas County Libraries' "The Wire." When that blog was discontinued, I decided to republish the content here. Thanks to Amber DeBerry, Director of Community Relations, for passing the content along, and for her staff for many suggestions for improvement of the text.

So You Want to Write a Book

So you want to write a book. Good for you!

Do you want to write a good one?

We know from Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers (Little, Brown and Co., 2008) that accomplishment is more than a matter of talent. It's the result of disciplined effort over time. No one picks up an instrument and plays it perfectly the first time. Similarly, no one sits down and cranks out fine literature right off the bat. Just as musicians spend a lot of time practicing, good writers spend a lot of time writing. And if Gladwell is right, approaching mastery takes a good 10,000 hours. So start writing!

But just as it won't help a would-be musician to start banging away at piano without any instruction, there's more to good writing than aimless hours at a word processor. The idea is to be both thoughtful and disciplined about it. That means to start with good examples, with expert coaching, regular, informed criticism, and even more writing.

Step One: Read

It's hard to become a successful writer if you're not a reader. Reading as a writer falls into two categories.

First, read the kind of book you'd like to write. In So You Want to Write: How to Master the Craft of Writing Fiction and Memoir, by Marge Piercy and Ira Wood (The Leapfrog Press, 2010), the authors urge, “If you want to write a memoir, read memoirs. If you want to write science fiction, read science fiction…The best books you can read on how to write are books that are in the genre in which you want to write.” Librarians can help you find the right books for your kind of writing.

Second, read books, magazines and websites about writing. Entering “write,” “writing” or “write a book” in the keyword search field of your local library catalog will return many titles meant to help you get started, refine your writing, finish your book, and even publish and market it. 

Step Two: Think about It

In 1957, Dr. Seuss and Random House published The Cat in the Hat. The book not only changed the Dick-and-Jane landscape of reading primers, but the way children’s book authors learned to write, says Laura Backes in her essay, “What Dr. Seuss Can Teach Us” (The New Writer's Handbook 2007: A Practical Anthology of Best Advice for Your Craft & Career, edited by Philip Martin, Scarletta Press, 2007). “Instead of telling a thin story based on a simple, everyday incident, Seuss packed the plot with action that escalated on every page. Rather than relying on one-note characters, he populated his book with quirky, complex and surprising personalities that didn’t always cooperate with one another, thus creating tension and conflict,” writes Backes.

When you find the books you love, start analyzing them. What's the structure of the book? What techniques did the author use? If writing fiction, how does a fine writer manage plot, character, dialog or pacing? Read and re-read until you start to get a glimmer of just how the author achieved whatever you admire.

Step Three: Try It Yourself

Try your hand at re-creating the effects you like. Start small, but hold yourself to it. Some wonderful books—big books, even—were written a couple of pages at a time, at maybe 250-500 words a day. But they were written every day, not just when the muse struck. According to Priscilla Long in The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life (Wallingford Press, 2010), “Writing every day is the key to becoming a writer. Writing every day is the key to remaining a writer. It is the only secret, the only trick. Don’t despise the fifteen-minute write.” Set a schedule, and stick to it.

Step Four: Share

The first time you read your work aloud to a good writer's workshop, it can be brutal and deflating. What seemed funny and original comes across as muddled and clich├ęd, the work of an amateur. That's because in all likelihood, at least at the beginning, it will be.

To move from amateur to professional you have to learn to seek and receive professional criticism, then apply those lessons to your work. The point isn't to squash your own unique perspective. The point is to learn the craft, to make your work deliver the message or feelings or information you intend it to. Athletes have coaches, musicians have teachers, and writers have each other.Feel free to shop around. But don't look for a group that just praises you no matter what you write. You want informed and expert review from groups that are as serious about getting better as you are; people who will encourage you, but not coddle you.

Step Five: Keep Writing

If you're looking to put in 30 days of writing and launch a bestseller, think again. But while you're thinking, keep writing. In A Writer’s Coach: An Editor’s Guide to Words that Work, Jack Hart says, “The happiest, most productive writers approach their rough drafts as a literary version of Mr. Hyde. They cast civilized restraint aside, letting an uninhibited process of creation carry them quickly through the first version of the story. They don’t stop. They don’t revise. They don’t look back.”

Step Six: Re-Write

Hart continues, “Only when they’re finished with the draft do they slip back into a Dr. Jekyll persona. Then they sweat each detail, checking facts for accuracy, revising sentences for rhythm, and scrutinizing words for precise meaning.” Good, productive writers learn to re-write. Every piece of writing can be improved. Some people edit each line a hundred times before they go on. The best writers take the time to polish their work.

Step Seven: Put Yourself Out There

If your book isn’t done, but is still a work in progress, seek other ways to find an audience. Look for speaking engagements, conferences and workshop opportunities. Particularly for nonfiction, but also for fiction set in a particular venue or period, you may find yourself becoming an expert in a particular subject. That, in turn, may present an opportunity to expose your work to interested groups who just might want to buy a book on it. Submit your stories to magazines and websites, or start a blog on a nonfiction topic. If you get stuck on a book, see if you can mine some of it for short stories, articles or blog posts. If nothing else, you might get some feedback telling you how you’re doing. Or an editor might see something in your work and reach out to you, maybe with a contract for something else. Nina Amir, author of How to Blog a Book: Write, Publish, and Promote Your Work One Post at a Time (F&W Media, 2012), recommends blogging as a way to both accomplish the writing of a book and to market the finished product to a built-in audience. She writes, “Blogs constitute one of the best ways today to build the coveted writer’s platform. A blog read by thousands of people each month goes a long way toward impressing a publisher or selling your independently published book.”

Step Eight: Consider Your Options

At some point, when your book is approaching "done," you need to consider your alternatives. Traditional publishing has some pretty clearly defined steps: tracking down who is looking for new content of a particular kind, writing a letter of inquiry and/or book proposal, and finding an agent or publisher. Self-publishing is another option. The library can help with this research, by providing print and electronic information, and also through our programs and workshops.

Step Nine: Be Professional

If you go the traditional publishing route, do your research about the reputation of the company, contracts and costs. If you opt to self-publish, be willing to accord other professionals the same respect you want as a writer. That is, copy-editing is also a profession, and every writer needs good editing. Creating an eye-catching book cover is also a serious trade, and hiring a good graphic artist is money well spent. You may decide to do a print book, go digital or do both. Book design—the look of it on page or screen—is another craft. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Novel, by Tom Monteleone, assures that “The Least You Need to Know” is that “editors can help you make your novel better.” Whatever route you choose, take the time to get informed about whose help you will require, and the real costs associated with creating something you can be proud of.

Step Ten: Remember the Library

For many authors, writing the book is just the beginning. Today, there are more new titles hitting the market than at any time in human history. Now, the trick is to get noticed. There are a host of ways to do that, and groups that will help with marketing. Together, America's public libraries have millions and millions of visits, both online and in person. In both cases, people are looking for books. We hope that you'll consider donating at least one copy of your book to us. Many libraries now offer the ability to buy a book right from the catalog. Libraries also offer author events, book signings, and workshops. You'll meet potential readers, other writers, and will build a reputation.

Ultimately, the library is one of the records of human achievement. Help us celebrate your achievements.

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In November of 2018, I left my position at ALA in Chicago to return to my Colorado-based writing, speaking, and consulting career. So I'...