I wrote a blog post a while back about the difference between writers, authors and wannabe's. I feel that it's relevant here.
Authors: have constructed a body of work (book, article, paper) and published it. Self-published or through a publishing house, either way. Not necessarily a working writer, and not necessarily concerned with the art and craft of the written word. Mathematicians can be authors. So can painters.
Writers: The short version: Writers write. They're never not writing. They are students of the written word; always looking for new ways to express ideas through the act of writing. They keep journals, or they blog, or they write articles or they write novels... It can't be stopped. The words pour out. And Writers don't necessarily have to be read to be Writers. In fact, Writers may or may not want to be read, but they MUST write.
Working Writers (AKA: Those who have the right to, when asked "What do you do?", answer "I'm a writer"): Take the above definition of Writer. Add the fact that this person received a check for an amount of money for a piece of writing, deposited it or cashed it at the bank, and the check cleared. You have a Working Writer. Now, Authors may have done the same thing - but remember that Authors aren't really students of writing, they just compose works which include written words. Writers are not necessarily Authors. Authors aren't necessarily Writers. But a Working Writer is an Author. Make sense? No? Too bad, I'm kinda bored with this point, because I now want to talk about:
Wannabes (AKA: Douchebags): Blah. Blah blah blah blah. This is what you hear out of the mouth of a Wannabe - first they disparage the unfair bias of The Industry because they can't get published and are too lazy (or weak) to self-publish. Then, they won't shut the fuck up about their work... Regardless of whatever else you may have been talking about beforehand. They mention their "short fiction" while giving directions to the interstate. They bring up their book during discussions on the weather (usually on Dark and Stormy Nights). They've participated in and failed to finish NaNoWriMo, usually only once, and usually a few years ago, but it STILL HURTS. They go on and on about how tedious and tiring and laborious the job of writing is, forgetting that every job on Earth can (and probably should) be that if it's worth doing - but unlike actual Writers, they can't see past that stuff to realize the good parts, because they're too busy focusing on the lifestyle of the tortured artist.
This section is intended for Writers who want to become Authors and, possibly, Working Writers. It's not intended for Douchebags. But that's okay, most of them stopped reading during the TL;DR portion of the introduction to go cry in a coffee shop about how nobody gets them. Why a coffee shop? Because there's other people there.
Okay, so, you want to know how to write a book? I won't lie to you - It's very tempting to just say "just write the damn thing." And guess what -- it's the correct answer. It took me years to learn that.
I thought every author who said "just write the damn thing" was a big prick. But they aren't - they're being honest with you. Something you figure out after you've written a book or two is that writing a book and creating a book are two entirely different things, and most if not all of your questions are focused on creating a book. It's a faint line to draw for those who don't know what they're looking for, so I'm going to point it out to you. That way, you'll quit tripping over it.
This whole guide on writing, publishing and selling your book could end up being a book itself. It very likely might be (a free e-book - I refuse to charge for it). The whole thing started as a single blog post, probably about five printed pages long. I intended to simply make a short list of self-publishing services and stick it out there. But I realized I had much more I wanted to say, so it has morphed into this five chapter monolith of a thing that I never really intended it to be.
That's writing a book. You start with an idea, you begin writing it, it takes over until it's done talking, then you finish. You want to write a murder mystery. Great. That's all you need to start with. It's that simple. You can start right there, then think about what kind of gal your detective might be, or think about the world in which this murder mystery takes place (is it in space, or Hartford, CT?), or focus on what the room that the body was discovered looks like. Start writing. The story will be as long as it needs to be. Chapters will stop when you feel like they need to stop.
This is how I've come to write. You're witnessing right this very minute my process. I like writing in front of an audience, in parts and pieces, and editing as I go along. I can't sit on ideas. Once I finish a piece of writing, I want feedback immediately. That's just me. It's very atypical -- most authors I know want everything finished, polished and ready before they'll even show it to an editor, much less their audience. I'm strange that way. But it's my way.
I start with a blank page -- and oh, what TORTURE that stupid blank page is. I spent years (literally, years) fighting that stupid blank white word processing document. It's the single most oppressing thing I've ever encountered. I stared at it for minutes and hours at a time, just wondering where to start. I'd type a line, then backspace it out. At some point, I'd let a line sit long enough to join other lines and become a paragraph. Then I'd highlight and delete that whole thing. Over and over. It was awful.
One day, I figured out that I could just stick my notes into the document and start from there. It wasn't so much like a breath of fresh air as it was an oxygen mask placed over my face in the midst of a room full of smoke. It changed the way I do things forever. Now, I just start with notes. Ideas jotted out in short form, as they come into my head (or, chronological events if I'm writing a short story like what's in Mentally Incontinent). I then just start fleshing out the various ideas into sentences, like a potter does with clay. Slap a little here, shape it. Stick some there, smooth it out. Before I know it, I've got a story.
To continue abusing the pottery metaphor, once I see the general shape of the thing, I begin really working on the details. Individual jokes or phrases placed in parts. The overall tone of a peice begins coming into view. Before I know it, my little word sculpture has definition. Then I edit and chip away the flakes, edit again to sand down the rough parts, and edit once more to polish and shine the peice for display. Then I stick the sucker on the mantle and turn it so that no one sees those rough spots in the back that I didn't know how to do right.
Some people create outlines first. I know one writer who can literally just start typing and finish a chapter (or a story or an article), go back through, edit it, and it's good to go. My friend Drew Curtis's method for writing his book was to just write 500 words a day, every single day, then go back and edit the blocks of text together until his book was done. Another friend of mine dictates his books into a text-to-speech program and then goes back and edits that.
You won't find your own personal process until you've tried every single other process in the world and decided whether or not they work for you. I've tried hand writing a story. I've tried dictation software. I've tried every word processor there is. I've finally settled on using Pages for Mac. I tried Writeroom and OmmWriter (word processing programs that obscure the entire screen so you can "focus" on just writing). I hate them. Too isolating. I'm very werid, in that I'm ADD in a way that actually thrives on visual and auditory noise. I need music and visual distractions around me so I can force myself to block them out and focus on writing. I know, it's weird - but that's the thing. It took me a while and a lot of trial and error to figure these things out about myself. What's really strange is that I actually LOVE OmmWriter for writing my personal journal. But for any sort of "creative" writing? No thanks. Again, something I learned by doing.
There's also "Writing in the cloud" -- Google Docs and the like. I personally don't like these, mostly because if I have no internet connection, I can't write. But they're free and they work.
A lot of authors, especially fiction writers, will put plot items or key milestones in their plotlines on post-it notes or index cards and arrange them on a wall or on the floor, so that they can be arranged and re-arranged on a more meta scale, before they're committed to pages and pages of text. There's some great software out there for that purpose if you want to go digital. CelTX starts off free (but you can add all sorts of "packs" to it) and does all of that, without costing an arm and a leg for Final Draft. I don't do that, but then again, I don't write traditional fiction or novels. I probably will one day, and when I do, I'll use CelTX.
But the big thing is, software is just tools. Tools aren't writing. Writing is simply the process of getting what's in your head, out of your head and onto the page. Everything else is just details or creature comforts or how you like doing it. Start with an idea. Start writing about that idea. Stop when you're finished. If you have enough pages to be bound and printed, you have a book. Don't buy $400 worth of Office software to be a writer. Don't invest in a $299 Mont Blanc pen and a $24 Moleskine notebook, unless it just makes you feel really good. Pens are pens. Paper is paper. Software is software. The tools are not the writer. The method is not the writer. You are the writer. So write.
If you're still hung up on the process, feel free to copy mine. Or, just do what you learned in English class - start with an outline, then do the introduction, body, conclusion thing for each chapter until you've finished your story. It'll all work itself out. The most important thing is that you start putting words on the page. Remember, working on your book isn't anything other than starting at line one, word one and writing until you're done.
The Technical Bits
- Word counts dictate the classification of a book. The Nebula Awards (a very prestigious sci-fi award) uses word count to classify the categories for its awards. From Wikipedia:
|Novel||over 40,000 words|
|Novella||17,500 to 40,000 words|
|Novelette||7,500 to 17,500 words|
|Short story||under 7,500 words|
- The standard paperback book has roughly 300 words per page, give or take. It varies on font size and font choice, but 300 is a good guideline for a standard size book (textbooks, which are larger, might have up to 500 - 600 words per page. Children's books have 50 or less).
- A novel is a story that is roughly 180 pages or more. I haven't yet written a novel. I've written collections of short stories, between 4 and 30 pages each, and then collected them into two 240+ page books. It's where I'm most comfortable, and its a format I'm happy with. Write a bunch of content and see where the page counts end up. There's no reason to force yourself to write 60,000 words just because you really, really want a novel. Arthur C. Clarke and Issac Asamov wrote TONS of short stories. Fantastically great short stories. Let the story itself dictate how long you take to tell it. If you want to beef up your book's page count, add more stories; don't make one story anemic on content because you forced it to come out longer.
- When it comes to grammar, The Elements of Style by Strunk & White is is the Bible. In fact, it's more important than the Bible -- it's how the Bible gets written. This is the word of God himself when it comes to writing. Defy it only when you must.
- There's no set rules for paragraph lengths. One thing I can tell you is that people get fatigued almost instantly when they see massive "walls of text" with very few breaks. They also get fatigued very quickly when they have to jump from line to line of single or two-line paragraphs.
- Margins should be about 1" on all sides while you write. It keeps the page clean and readable, and gives just enough "buffer" between your writing and the desktop of your computer (or, your writing and the desk / table that your notebook is sitting on). Being in the space matters a LOT. If your eye keeps getting "caught" by either edge of the page, you'll get distracted.
- There's no correct font for writing. Choose one that's easy on your eyes. I write in serif fonts (Specifically Georgia). I find it easy to read and not distracting. I write at about 14pt, so that I can relax my eyes and not have to squint as I read my words.
- Learn to touch-type (type without looking at the keyboard) if you're going to work in a word processor. The best way to do this: Chat in chat rooms a lot. It works. Otherwise, you're going to have a very hard time with your fingers keeping up with your thoughts.
- If you feel like you need to write down ideas while you're writing your book, try to either a) do it in a separate notebook that's close by, or b) in a completely different color and size font than what you're working on, at the very end of your document. Otherwise, you will end up stumbling on it during your process and it'll just screw you up.
- Please, please PLEASE only use words you know. The best writing is simple writing that sounds natural and provides context for ideas. As Stephen King said in his amazingly awesome article Everything You Need To Know About Writing In Ten Minutes, "Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word."
- Commas are speed bumps. Use them when you think you need the reader should slow down and take a breath, and even then, use them sparingly. Don't fucking abuse them. "When in doubt, leave it out" -- remember that old saying from English class? Here's a new one: Misuse a comma, and I'll misuse your head. Take that however you want.
- Learn to use a semi-colon.
- Wait until you're done with a piece of writing before you edit yourself, or you'll make yourself miserable. When you do edit yourself, become someone else. Don't let your artsy writer self get in the way. Edit ruthlessly. Cut out all unnecessary words. Cut more. Does the sentence still make sense? Cut more. Keep cutting until the sentence stops making sense, then re-add in only the words that get it to a point of making sense. Then stop.
You'll save yourself a lot of headaches if you just focus on the actual content when writing your book, and leave everything else for later. Everything that isn't directly related to putting words together into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs is a distraction. Forget about the "book" part of writing a book, and focus on the "writing" part. After all, a book is just a container for writing. No different than a cup is a container for water. In the immortal words of Bruce Lee, when you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. When you put it into a kettle, it becomes the kettle.
Focus on the water. The container comes later. And ultimately, what I said in Chapter 1 applies: if you want to write a book, you'll write a damn book. Nothing's going to stop you. You'll figure it out.