Writing Tips

8 things I learned about writing a book

A couple years ago, I completed the final sentence on my first draft. It clocks in at eighty thousand words and took about seven months to write. It was my first attempt at writing a novel, and I’m pretty proud of myself for finishing it. It’s now available for purchase!

It’s a laborious and thankless job with a remote probability of success  Still, it’s better than the alternative, which is not writing a book. During the process, I figured out a few tips along the way that might help someone else thinking about taking this journey.

Writing is hard.  That’s my only writing lesson.  The end.

Thanks for reading, everyone!

Okay, I may have discovered a few other things. Here we go:

# 1. IT’S FINE TO BE TERRIBLE

I put this first because it was the hardest lesson to learn and slowed me down the most. The first draft does not need to be perfect. For my first two months of writing, I was unable to move past a chapter unless it was “publishable”. It was an absurd waste of mental energy and it nearly stopped the whole process. I would rewrite the same first two chapters over and over and ignore the process of actually writing a book. I had to learn just to get stuff down on the page so I could get going. It sucked, but I finally got there.

This was probably the hardest thing to learn, but once I got comfortable with “failing quickly”, I was able to move past the mental block and write.

# 2. THERE’S A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A “BAD” CHAPTER AND A “WRONG” CHAPTER.

What do I mean by this?  “Bad” chapters are completely fine – they might be poorly written, they might be clumsy, they might have a mess of grammatical errors, but they’re the “right” chapters, in the sense that the characters act like characters, the plot moves along and so on.  It fits in the book.

“Wrong” chapters might be beautifully written, have luxurious prose and have all the right beats, but if it’s not the right chapter for the book, it sits there like a rock in the road.

Learning the difference between the two types was critical.

An example from my early days: I was trying to write a chapter about a character getting from point A to point B. I wrote it three different ways and none of them felt right.  I couldn’t get past it, even though the chapter was well-written. It was like a splinter in my brain. Finally, I figured out it wasn’t the writing, it was the chapter. It was wrong. It wasn’t needed for the book. Once the chapter was gone, the rock removed, I was able to keep going. I had two “wrong” chapters in my book, and I’ve learned how to spot them.

#3. STEPHEN KING IS FULL OF CRAP

Writing Tips from the Pros
You’re a monster

Like everyone, I read “On Writing” by Stephen King. Like everyone else, I fixated on this one piece of advice: “The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.” Eg. you should write 1,000 words a day.

Guess what? That advice is great if you’re a writing savant, like Stephen King. For the rest of us, we write at our own pace, appropriate to us.  Maybe we have jobs, or kids, or other responsibilities.   Some nights we come home and we’re tired.  Fine.  It’s not about cranking out 1,000 words a day, it’s about setting goals and hitting them. You need to set a goal that works for you, not a goal that works for Stephen King.

After a couple years of this, I’ve learned that my pace is about 15,000 words a month.  Not as fast as I’d like, but it works for me and my life.

#4. THERE IS A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PRODUCTIVE SELF-CRITICISM AND WITHERING SELF-DOUBT

A writer needs to be their own worst critic. You’re the first one who sees what you write, and only you can stop the garbage from making it onto the page. But, there is a huge difference between being ruthlessly critical of your own work, with the goal of making it better (productive) vs. telling yourself you’re a horrible monster for even trying to write and everyone hates you (counter-productive).

I learned to be all about productive self-criticism. Is that sentence really needed? What would happen if I removed this character altogether? Can I say this whole chapter in three sentences? All great, productive questions.

versus:

Am I the worst thing ever? What if I never succeed?  What if everyone laughs at me?  What if I show this to people and they throw mud and eggs at me – even if they’re nowhere near a mud pit filled with eggs, almost as if they were carrying around sacks of mud and eggs just for this occasion? What then????

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None of this is productive. Sadly, it’s natural, and I feel like everyone goes through it, but one version helps, one hinders.

Gang, it’s fine to be critical of your work. What’s not fine is being critical of yourself.

#5. IT’S NOT THE DESTINATION, IT’S THE JOURNEY

About halfway through by book, I hit the wall of “what’s the point”?

Seriously, why bother with any of this? Even if I finish, my chances of getting published are infinitesimal. Even if I get published, my chances of being a best seller are non-existent. Even if I become a best-seller, the chances of meeting Stephen King and exchanging emails and becoming best friends is so, so unlikely.

That’s okay, though.

I’m writing and it’s pointless and it’s fine. I either like it or I don’t, and about halfway through I discovered I like it. I like it, and that’s enough. I’ll finish this book and I’ll do another and another and maybe nothing will ever come of it. You know what else I do? I play piano and guitar because I enjoy it, but I’m never going to be a rock star. I go running because I enjoy it, but I’m never going to win a marathon.

The point is, I learned to enjoy writing for the act itself.

#6. YOU DON’T NEED AN OUTLINE (OR MAYBE YOU DO, I DON’T KNOW)

This might be controversial, but I wrote the whole book without an outline. It wasn’t for lack of trying. I made many attempts, but the part of my brain that I use for writing seems to be inaccessible when I’m trying to outline. So what did this mean?

It meant I had to write 10,000 words for every 5,000 that make it on the page. I wrote the first third of my novel, realized I had written myself into a number of insurmountable plot holes and had to go back and re-write a solid chunk of the book. It meant I sometimes surprised myself and my characters went in directions I didn’t plan.

I always had the opening scene, the middle scene and the end scene plotted, so I had some rough signposts to guide me along the way, but I never knew how I was going to get there.

The point is, everyone tells you that you have to have an outline and… no, you don’t. It’s just a different writing style. Everyone is going to write differently, and I needed to write the way that worked for me.

#7. YOUR STORY DOESN’T MATTER

Here’s the reason I’m saying this. A comment I hear from a lot of new writers is “I don’t know what to write about.” I’m telling you, the answer is the same every time. You’re writing about characters.

I think about Cujo a lot.  It’s one of Stephen King’s earliest novels.  The entire plot can be summed up as: “Dog traps a woman in car.” That’s it. He took that single sentence and turned it into a three hundred page novel. A great one, at that. And he did it because Stephen King writes compelling characters.

Books aren’t great because of the plot.  They’re great because of the characters.  Because of the drama.  Because of the struggle.  The plot is only how you screw with your characters.

If you’re ever stuck and think you don’t have anything to write about, remember: “Dog traps a woman in car.”

You can do this.

#8. THERE ARE HUNDREDS OF RESOURCES AVAILABLE FOR NEW WRITERS, SO USE THEM

You’re not alone. So many people are trying to do exactly what you’re trying to do. Here’s a fraction of the resources I used when I was starting out.

  • This book on How not to write a novel:  Personally, I learn better when people tell me what not to do vs. tell me what I should do more of.
  • This fantastic blog that should be considered mandatory reading for everyone who wants to be an author.  This links to a great post on common beginner mistakes.  I checked my writing against every item on that list  About a third of the way in, I found I had done mistake number 17 (my character had no purpose). I felt sick. It required me to rewrite a large chunk of my first few chapters to give my character agency (up until this, the story had been happening to her, she hadn’t been happening to the story).
  • I read other books that I aspired to be like. My favorite book from the last few years was “The Library and Mount Char” by Scott Hawkins.  I went back and read that with a critical eye to try to figure out why I loved the book so much. I started doing this with every book I read. I’d read a chapter and totally forget that I was reading. Then I’d go back and try to figure out how the author did it.
  • The #WritingCommunity of Twitter. Filled with great, supportive people.
  • Scribophile, an online writing community

There are hundreds of communities out there. Find them. You’re not alone.

2 comments

    1. Hmm good question. I guess when I’m writing a scene, I’m mostly trying to consider what the character would realistically do in what (for my stories, at least) is an unrealistic situation.

      One of my biggest challenges is when I have a scene I want to write but I can’t convince myself it’s something the character would realistically do.

      Mostly I try to follow this rule – what my characters do is up to them. The problems they need to overcome are up to me.

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