When people ask me what I do, I tell them that I write (it’s more interesting than my other job). I tell them that I’ve self-published two novels and one novella, and that I was even quite successful for a while. Inevitably, they ask me, “How do you do that? I’ve always wanted to write a book!” I’m sure they’d like some neat, simple answer, but of course there isn’t one. Perhaps they’d like a list of ingredients, as if making a book followed a simple recipe, which it does not. So, in the interests of achieving the impossible, I’ll attempt to provide such a recipe here, amongst these hallowed posts, so that the next time someone asks, I can simply point them here and say, “Look! That is how it’s done.” *
* The author accepts no responsibility for any loss of free time, hair, or printing ink that may occur as a result of following this ill-given advice. Your experience may differ from his own. Also, if you park your car in a residents-only bay and have to pay a ticket, that’s just your own lookout, isn’t it? I mean, what did you expect? Just pay the fine; they need the money to employ more traffic wardens, or where’s the next payment coming from? That’s just the universe for you; accept it.
1. An idea! Yeah, no shillelagh. You’re gonna need a good idea for the subject of your book. The trouble here is that everything has been done before, and some of the people who have done it have done it very well.
Your work will have to offer something worthwhile: some new take on an existing subject/genre; a believable and interesting character or two; maybe even a completely new idea of your own. But most of all, it must be good to read.
George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series doesn’t, I think, deal with any new or really original themes. But it was eminently worthwhile work, because it’s good to read. The plot and setting are basically a mish-mash of Tolkien, ancient Rome, the Hundred Years War and a vast bunch of other things, but Martin did it really well. Naturally, I wouldn’t compare myself to him, but my point remains: you don’t have to offer pioneering originality, but your work does have to be good. I know how obvious that sounds, but really what did you expect to hear?
2. Dedication. This is the other big one. In fact, I think I’ll make it number one. Actually, no . . . that’d mean more copy-and-pasting than I can be bothered with . . . Let’s call idea and dedication joint number one, then I won’t have to change anything.
If you do manage to produce a book – whether fiction or non-fiction – the end result will be a congealed, condensed mass of your own sweat, blood and tears, boiled down into this fundamental format. And if that sounds gross, forgive me, because it’s true. You’ll care about your baby when it’s born. And if you don’t, then stop now. Really. That baby might be reluctant to take so much as a first, tiny step towards success. This will be hard to swallow. But you must. And at some point, if it does walk, some sort of knock-back will occur.
What do you do? Why, that’s simple, my dear human being: you continue! You write more, promote more, try more, edit more, think more, and most of all get better. Writing is a craft: you have to practice, and when you practice, you improve.
If you are one of the lucky few who has an effortless, natural talent for writing concise, readable prose first time and rockets to instant success with nary a single setback (I’m told they do exist), then I salute you. Once, I thought I might be one of you. But then I learned that this game is not so easy. And what am I doing currently about it? Why, my dear human being, I am improving.
You must persist! Be dedicated.
3. Plan. At some point, you’ll have to tear yourself away from the fun part (actually writing) and make a plan. An actual plot. Or at least, this is how it works for me.
First, I’m taken by an image or feeling for a piece of writing. I begin to write it. I think I have the reins. But then, the characters grow their own little minds, and have their own ideas. Things happen, and the whole thing either threatens to run wild, or simply run in circles ’til it dies. This is the point at which I usually say, “Damn. I’m gonna have to actually sit down and think about this before I carry on.” And I believe it’s true to say that the sooner you do this, the less repair work you will have to do.
One way around this is, of course, to have a complete plotline down before you start. I’m sure that many great writers do this. But it never worked for me. First, I have to start to write, like making a pilot for a TV series. I have to know it’s worth investing in, and if the feeling isn’t there early on, I simply move onto something else. Life’s too short for flogging dead horses, and I always have another project that I want to work on.
But inevitably, like me, you’ll have to sit down and tie up those loose ends in some sort of deliberate weave, a whole picture.
4. Know your subject matter. If you’re writing about a subject that your knowledge is limited on, then do the research. With this new-fangled intranet-thing, this ingredient has never been easier to procure, so really there’s no excuse. Artistic licence is fine, by the way, but know what liberties you’re taking with the facts. Don’t use artistic licence as an excuse for laziness.
And if you find the research boring, then maybe you should change the subject, because it should be fun to research a subject you are interested in. Frustrating, yes, if it takes time from your actual writing, but this can be avoided by reading research matter at times when you wouldn’t write anyway. I read science and mathematics for fun. If I didn’t find science interesting, I wouldn’t write sci-fi. Nor should you.
5. Wright rite. I mean, write right. Write correctly. Again, artistic licence can lend you quite a bit of leeway with the English language (or whatever language you may work in). See Cormac McCarthy’s work for unorthodox English. His punctuation is not just wrong, it’s often simply missing. But it’s deliberate. At no point do you, as a reader, get the impression that the guy doesn’t know how language works. He’s an inarguably gifted writer. Deliberate mutilation of the English language is all good; accidental mutilation of the English language is not.
This means re-write, re-write, re-write. Then send your work to an editor. Then check their recommendations. Then send it to beta-readers. Absorb any feedback. Change as applicable. Edit again. Polish, buff, rinse, repeat. Perfect your work. I mean it – there’s some shoddy work out there, so don’t let yours be part of it. Again, the use of language is a skill which you can hone.
6. Promote. If you’re self-publishing, then you aren’t just a writer, you’re an agent and promoter, too. It’s up to you to push your work, to get the word out. This is the bit I find the hardest, and I’ll admit that I’ve been lax of late. And guess what? When I promote less, I sell less. Funny, huh?
7. Read. Read everything; read voraciously; read outside your usual, limited sphere of interest. Tax yourself. Make yourself read popular mathematics, romance, history, biographies, sci-fi, fantasy, classics, comedy. Think of it as a part of your work. All good writers are, I suspect, good readers.
8. Be better than yourself. Be your own critic. Read back over your own old work: how would you improve it now, if you had time to return to it? What would you do differently? You’ll find at this point, if you’ve been doing this whole thing right, that you’ve got some new tricks, some better ways of laying the words out. Take confidence from the ways in which you have improved. Know that whatever you are writing now, when you look back in two years time, you will be even better then.
So there you have it. A simple recipe for writing successfully, written by someone who could do with listening to his own advice a little more. Maybe that was all a little too simple, a tad too obvious. But what did you expect? There is no substitute for hard work, practice and dedication. Except perhaps for Jameson’s whiskey.
And if you’re one of those politely-interested people who enquired of me how to write a book, and was linked to this page, then sorry to bore you. But you did ask.