Thursday, June 25, 2009

Once Upon a Time… One Writer’s Approach to Slogging a Book

By Writer X

Once upon a time, a book started with an idea.

A simple idea. That’s how a book always starts, although most writers are all probably a little different in how they approach building a book around the idea. I’m no different in that I have developed a sort of routine over the years. It’s nothing fancy; it’s not even that complicated.

My writing process goes in stages, depending on how far along I am in developing the story. If I’m just getting started, I tend to take my time developing plot lines and characters. It’s kind of like buying a new car: I have to take it for a test drive and make sure I’m ready for a long-term commitment. But, if I’m totally into my book, consumed with putting words down on paper—look out! That’s because the book becomes all that I can think about 24/7.

So, I’ll get an idea. Maybe it will come from a quote that I read or someone I met or a song that I heard. I once built an entire book from a line in a song that inspired me. I’ve never been guilty of having a shortage of book ideas either. I have, in fact, pages of them.

Once a particular idea latches onto my brain, I’ll do some character development. I’ll picture my main characters in my mind—what they look like, where they’re from, the sound of their voices, how they behave, their likes and dislikes. Then I may (not always) loosely outline the plot lines in the book. For me, the first chapter is critical. Even more than that, the first sentence of the first chapter is super critical. That sentence must reach out and pull the reader into the story by the collar. It must be compelling. I’ve spent hours, even weeks, agonizing about the first sentence, making sure it’s just right. It may be only a few words; it may be a bunch. But when it’s right, you just know. As an aside, most literary agents will tell you that they make up their minds about a book after reading the first page. Brutal reality, but true. And think about when you go to a library or book store and you open a book, if that first page doesn’t speak to you on some level, don’t you put it back on the shelf?

Once I’ve written the first few chapters and I’ve realized that it’s a story that I simply must tell, I commit to writing about 2000 words a day till the book is completed. Some days, writing 2000 words takes me a couple of hours; other days, it can take 24 hours. Some days, I can’t tap out a single word on my keyboard. It just depends. Rarely does a day go by, though, that I’m not writing something.

I have a few trusted people to whom I feed drafts as I’m writing, just to make sure my story is flowing, interesting, compelling. A lot of writers belong to writing critique groups. I strongly recommend them, just as long as your writing group doesn’t consist solely of your mother and best friend. Trust me, your mother will LOVE everything you write. Your best friend will only be slightly less objective. And you can find writing groups just about everywhere—libraries, book stores, colleges. Many are even on-line.

Keep in mind that a book that’s longer than 100,000 words will be difficult to sell, unless it’s a literary masterpiece. Or you’re an established author. Conversely, a book that’s less than 70,000 words is probably too short. In any event, finishing the first draft is key. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect; you’ll have plenty of opportunities for revision. It usually takes me around three months to finish a first draft. After that, I put it aside for a couple of weeks. Then, as some writers will say, the real work begins. Editing.

Editing can be tedious and slow—you must make sure that all your plot lines mesh, your characters are three-dimensional (believable), and your dialogue doesn’t sound like drivel. More than anything, you must remember to show more than tell. In other words, if your book is one big long narrative, it’s probably a boring read.

You will revise your book again. And again. And there’s no telling what will happen when an agent/editor gets his hands on it. That’s why I always tell writers to enjoy the writing experience while they can. Until I turn my book over to someone, I’m writing for myself, for the pure enjoyment of writing. If you’re writing with the sole intention of selling a book or chasing a trend, it will show, and you will most likely be unhappy with the end result. That’s why you have to write about something you love and let the rest take care of itself.

And they all lived happily ever after. The end.


AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, thanks for another great article. I've actually wondered for a long time how long books are "supposed" to be in terms of number of words.

I see your point about the first page, and I have to admit that I often do that myself -- check out the intro and then put the book back.

Of course, I have to say that some of the classics had some of the best intros: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." I LOVE that! And if I recall correctly, Hitchhiker's Guide begins with the words "Don't Panic."

I think that when I finally write the great American novel, I'll start with the words -- "KEEP READING YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON IT."

Writer X said...

Andrew, you're welcome!

Yes, the first sentence is so much more than the first sentence of a book. It sets a tone; creates a feel; gives the reader an idea of what's to come. It can be incredibly powerful.

BTW, love the first line you've got for your novel. I'd keep reading!

ScottDS said...

Another great article, Writer X!

Re: what you said about the first line, I believe TV writer Jane Espenson (Firefly, Buffy, Galactica) once said that, when she writes a spec TV pilot, she always tries to have the very first line of dialogue encapsulate the entire show.

In a future article, can you talk about how you go about research once you settle on an idea? :-)

Writer X said...

Thanks, Scott. Regarding research, the book that I just finished required a great deal of research, probably the most I've done so far. I'd be happy to talk about research at a later date.

Viewers probably give even less time to television programs than they do to books, especially armed with that remote in your hands. Dialogue can't be cheesey, that's for sure, but at least TV shows get the advantage of being able to actually show the imagery versus having to write about it.

JG said...

Love it. Reminds me a lot of what I heard in my college writing classes (good to know there was SOMETHING behind all that!)

I really need a critique group. Not just for the fresh set of eyes, but that is what helps me stay motivated on a daily basis. I have to have something to show them! Over the last year or so I've had to drop my beta readers. Really should get back on that.

Writer X said...

Thanks, JG. A writing group can be motivating, too, especially if you meet, say weekly, and you know you have to show up with a new chapter each week.

Unknown said...

WriterX: My opening line will be: "It took me thirty-two years to get past this first sentence, so if I was able to finish writing this book, the least you can do is finish reading it." I really respect writers who can actually get fast their first chapter. For me, I think it's too much ego, not enough guts, but you keep giving me hope.

Writer X said...

LawHawk, LOL. I can so relate to your opening line. Sounds like you have a memoir that should be written. Hey, memoirs are hot right now!

AndrewPrice said...


I thought your opening line was "It was a dark and stormy night. . ."?

StanH said...

Lawhawk’s beginning, “Cash only please!” Ha!

I love your essay’s WriterX instructive.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

"And think about when you go to a library or book store and you open a book, if that first page doesn’t speak to you on some level, don’t you put it back on the shelf?"

And the pictures gotta be cool.
Especially the cover and the first picture. When I was a kid I bought many crappy sci-fi books becuse of the great covers (or pics inside, if applicable). That's not to say that they were all clunkers, however. I thought Roger Zelazny was always excellent, for example.

Thanks Writer X!
These are some extremely useful tips, and sound advice.
Do you ever exceed 2,000 words per day and get on a roll? You know, get into the "zone" so to speak, and write a book in a few days?

Besides the first sentence, I would think that the title would also be tough to come up with.

Writer X said...

Thanks again, Stan.

Ben, there's been many a crappy book that sold big simply based on the cover. Cover art is uber-important. "Don't judge a book by the cover," is true but rarely followed.

Regarding word count, yes, there are some days when I get into a Twilight Zone roll and far exceed my 2000 word goal. It's usually when I'm in the middle or nearing the end of my book and I've already decided how it will play out. Or I have a deadline. That's pretty motivating, too.

Titles are funny, though. I can usually come up with the title pretty quickly. But, like the first sentence, there has to be something special about the title of a book, too.

Thanks, Ben!

CrispyRice said...

Very interesting article! And it strongly reinforces to me exactly why I'm NOT a writer, LOL. I'm impressed by people who can do it well.

Writer X said...

Thanks, CrispyRice. Believe it or not, there are a lot of great writers out there still trying to get published. It kinds of goes back to the first post I did at Commentarama about being persistent and timing. Conversely, there are a lot of poorly written books that get published. Go figure, but books, kind of like art, are beautiful but in the eye of the beholder.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X,

"there's been many a crappy book that sold big simply based on the cover" is exactly what we're counting on!

Lawhawk and I are preparing the Commentaramaopedia. It's just incoherent babbling really, but the cover is really. . . really cool. :-)

Writer X said...

Andrew, look forward to buying your book! :-)

Unknown said...

WriterX: Thanks again for the encouragement. My memoirs would be filled with one exciting moment after another, each one followed by a thirty year gap. It'll be a short book. Actually, my transition from leftist radical to rock-ribbed conservative might have been interesting, but my old friend David Horowitz beat me to it with Radical Son.

StanH: Thanks for mentioning that I always say "please." And WriterX really knows her stuff.

WriterX: I didn't realize Andrew would let our publishing magnum opus out of the bag. But since he did, he will be doing the American version, and I will be doing the British version of Commentarmaopedia. I get to go through his version, and add the letter "u" to every word that ends in "or." We are devoting much of our time to this labour of love and honour.

Writer X said...

LawHawk, if Miley Cyrus can write her memoirs, I'm sure there's room for you and Andrew. Don't delay. Seriously. Even with the British spelling.

CrispyRice said...

LOL, Lawhawk. Or should I say LOUL?

patti said...

i love writing BUT i bet i will love getting an agent and publishing just as much. or maybe i'm a dreamer. wait that gives me an idea for a story...

Writer X said...

Patti, just last week I was dreaming about putting my hands around my agent's neck and squeezing tight--just a dream, of course. I think the world could use a Hitchcockesque agent-writer murder mystery. The writer would be totally justified in murdering her agent, naturally. And the agent would be a creepy troll of a person. That's a given.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, that sounds like there's more for us to learn about the relationship between writers and agents?

Writer X said...

Andrew, for sure. I'm surprised there isn't a reality TV show for it. The relationship is bizarre enough.

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