7.13.2010

The Absolute No-Bulls**t Guide To Writing, Publishing And Selling A Book, Chapter 2: Writing Your Book

The Absolute No-Bulls**t Guide To Writing, Publishing And Selling A Book

Introduction and Chapter 1: 90% Of What You Need To Know, In One Chapter
Chapter 2: Writing Your Book (you are here)
Chapter 5: Selling Your Book

*        *        *

Chapter 2: Writing Your Book

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.

But when I first started, the idea of writing a book was so scary and strange and new. How do I format it? How do I get it into stores? How long should chapters be? How long should the whole thing be? How do I tie stories together?

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. 

One thing I won't be talking about: What to write. I'm not a creative writing instructor. I cannot tell you what to write. I cannot help you come up with ideas. I cannot give you advice on plot devices, characterization, clever turns of phrase... What you write and how you write about it are very individual experiences that colleges and workshops across the nation charge handsome sums of money to educate you on. 

You can write about anything you want. Hell, you can write about anything you DON'T want. Novels, how-to, slice of life antecdotes, poetry... Whatever. You can crank words out about anything, even if you hate the topic. But the best stuff is going to be stuff you care about. 

Note that I didn't say stuff you know. "Write what you know" is old and very true advice. You'll get honest, open writing that connects with audiences when you do that. But I have also found that I can write about things I don't know per se, but I care deeply about. I care enough to go research it. I experience it. Then I write about it on the fly. It's a whole different experience, because instead of opening the door to a new world your reader may not know about, you're walking through that door with them and learning as they do. 

I think the major thing is that, if you want your readers to give a shit about what you write about, you need to give a shit about it first.  Trust me -- if you don't, it absolutely will show. 


A Few Words About Twilight (Or, "Art vs. Commerce" or something equally trite but true)

Let's go ahead and get this out of the way: if you're looking for a step-by-step guide on creating the next Twilight, move on. I can't help you. 

Now, I LOVE to hate Twilight. It's one of my favorite things to do. Stephanie Meyer is not a good writer. In fact, she's awful. She has absolutely no technical writing skill, save for a somewhat tenuous grasp on the English alphabet. I've read better writing on the sides of cereal boxes. Her characters are about as three dimensional as the sillouettes in the "A diamond is forever" commercials. 

But here's the thing, and there's no getting around it -- she tapped into a very real place with teen (and sadly enough, adult) females. It's a very unfufilled place where romance and passion and the idea of a man's complete dedication to his lover go to die inside a girl. 

Yes, Twilight is rife with glittery gender-ambiguous vampire boys and underwear model warewolf boys and a girl who really, really, really just needs to get her head out of her Barbie Playset world. But the sentiments are genuine. There's romance. There's passion. Bella is what just about every female wanted to be when she played princess as a child -- vulnerable and at odds with the two sides of herself which want passion versus romance. She needs protection. She wants to be just powerful enough to push her lover away, but not powerful enough to keep him from coming back and taking ownership of her. 

It's disgusting. But it's true. Bella is the western female archetype. Edward is the western male royalty archetype. Jacob is the western bad-boy archetype. It's Philosophy 101. But Meyer didn't hold focus groups to decide what teen girls wanted to read about. She didn't study human behavior and draw vectors for emotional engagement based on archetypes. She was an unfufilled female craving romance and wrote what she knew about. The setting and characters she used are absolutely unattached to why Twilight is such a success. 

Sexually-unfufilled women across the globe aren't into Edward because he's a hot VAMIPRE, they're into Edward because he is attractive and has the means to protect Bella in all regards - financially, physically and emotionally. The franchise of Twilight and its ensuing financial windfalls were byproducts of striking a chord in a massive audience and casting underwear models in the movie adaptations. Lightning struck. But it started from an honest place, and from the interviews I've read, the person most shocked by Meyer's success is Meyer herself. 

As much as it galls me to say it, Meyer is a writer. Is she a shitty, horrible, talentless writer? That's what us other writers who obsess over our own craft say because we're jealous. We say the same things about Dan Brown -- another guy who started with an idea borne of what he knew, which was acadameia and historical landmarks. Neither one of them started by saying "What could I write that'd appeal to a mass audience?" They started with what they knew, and it just so happened what they produced sturck a chord.

If you start with the commercial success of your material as the primary energy source, it's going to burn out and leave you in the dark, because the motivation isn't what you're doing - it's what might happen when you're done. It's not "wrong" to do per se, it's just really dishonest writing. You're not writing a book, you're managing a product which happens to be bound on paper. You're no different than Hasbro or General Mills, only instead of doing brand awareness studies on kids about toys and cereal, you're doing it with written words. 

Again, nothing wrong with it. Just know what and who you are. It helps the process tremendously. Case in point -- it helps the process of using this guide, because you now know you can safely stop reading and go do something else. I can't help you here. It's not my expertise. My base is writing books and getting them out the door. I care about what I write. Not just the content, but the craft of it. The actual mechanics of saying something the right way so that it lands safely in your skull. I want nothing more than to emotionally connect to people who read what I write. I want you to feel what I feel when I write it. It's a big, big, BIG fucking deal to me. I obsess over it. 

Do I hit the mark? Not nearly as often as I wish I would. But I try hard. And while I do care about the sales of my books, it's because it's a metric for how many people I've reached, not how much I have in the bank. 

If you want the next big hit, go hire a focus group and poll them about their favorite genres, then craft something that fits their liking. You'll end up with a Michael Bay-esque flat peice of shit that hits every note your audience says it wants, without once striking a chord and creating beautiful harmonies in them. It'll be forgotten just as quickly as it was read... If it's read at all. 


Creating A Book vs. Writing A Book

Creating a book is much, much different than writing a book. Anything that can be printed, can be printed and bound and called a book. Cookbooks are books. Dictionaries are books. Novels are books. Collections of short stories are books. 

Books are containers. Nothing more. They're the exact same as a shopping cart. When you go shopping, you don't choose the container before you decide what to shop for. You need food; you go buy food. And when you do, don't buy enough food to fill the shopping cart each trip. Sometimes, you just need a few things -- some capers and a fresh cut of salmon. Other times, it's time to stock up, so you head to Sam's Club and buy five gallons of mayonnaise among three hundred other things. 

Writing is shopping. You start with what you want to say, and you worry about how to say it along the way. While you do, you'll browse the creative shelves in your brain and pick up a few things you may not necessarily need, but want to add. You might even stumble upon some really great stuff you didn't even know existed, or maybe something new to try that you have no idea how it will work. 

Don't worry about the container - you'll get the shit home eventually. Focus on the shopping. Start with the shopping list. Browse a bit and pick up other things (or leave them). Worry about the container when it's time.

Page counts, chapter headings and length, margins, font sizes, font faces, page offsets, photos and cropping, target markets, hardcover versus paperback, dimensions. That's all part of creating the book, and believe it or not, has fuck all to do with writing. I won't be so blasé as to tell you not to think about it while you're writing. You're excited about your book; it's natural and even okay to think about this stuff while you're writing. Just make sure you think about it in its seperate container, with its seperate process. Don't start there. Start with the writing process.


On The Writing Process

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.

The same goes with a self-help guide, or a series of essays on your favorite vacation spots, or how to program in Objective C. The material is agnostic to the format. I still haven't written the last three chapters of this guide as of the day I posted this one. I know what they'll be about, but I haven't the first clue how I want to organize them or what wise-ass remarks I'm going to make in them. And yet here you are, reading this chapter, because I hit "publish" in my blog editor. 

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.

That's me.

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:

ClassificationWord count
Novelover 40,000 words
Novella17,500 to 40,000 words
Novelette7,500 to 17,500 words
Short storyunder 7,500 words

National Novel Writing Month requires its novels to be at least 50,000 words. While the length of a novel is to a large extent up to its writer,[2] expectations of novel lengths may differ by genre: a typical mystery novel might be in the 60,000 to 80,000 word range while a thriller could be over 100,000 words.[3]

  • 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.

I said earlier that this isn't a creative writing course. But I'd be remiss if I didn't share just a few rules I've figured out the hard way: 
  • 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. 

Summing Up

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.