This is a blog about how to write a book.
Note, it’s not a blog on how to write a GOOD book or a New York Times bestselling book. If I knew that, I’d be in Aruba writing off my expenses in a striped cabana instead of freezing my ass off in a cold Vermont basement.
No, this is for people who want to write a book, but don’t know where to start. In other words, this is the answer to the question I get the most from readers. (Aside from, “How would you like to review my ebook for free on Amazon?” Or, “How did you get my email? Please take me off your list.”)
In 1998, shortly after my solution to post-partum depression – BARBIE UNBOUND: A Parody of the Barbie Obsession – became a weird, national cult hit, I put this question to a local Literary Author. He appraised me, a frazzled working mother of two in her thirties, put down his linen napkin, patted his mouth and let a one-word pearl drip from his lips: “Wait.”
When I got older, after my kids left for college and I was done with motherhood, I would have time to write. It would be a joy. I would be ready. Then he talked about Annie Proulx and let me pay the bill. I smiled and silently wished gerbils would take up residence in his trousers.
I did not want to wait. I didn’t even need much hand-holding. I simply needed structure. I felt like a kid struggling with training wheels lusting after a sibling’s sleek racing bike. I wanted it so badly, but hadn’t a clue about balance, vision, pumping, and, especially, how to get up after a fall.
One year later, I sold BUBBLES UNBOUND and quit my day job, simply because I chose not to listen to a man.
So here is what the author should have told me, what I learned from other authors, all of whom were women.
- Find a space. Your space. It doesn’t have to be a coffee shop or a deck overlooking a dramatic ocean. It can be a closet. A corner of your bedroom. One author started writing next to the oil heater. Another wrote in the bathroom because that’s the one place where her kids knew to leave her alone.
- Buy a laptop. The cheaper the better. Turn off the internet.
- Write. This might sound simple, but it’s not. It’s the hardest part. Write the vague story that’s been knocking around your skull while you’ve been filing TP reports or wiping bums. Just start getting it down.
- Start to outline. I say start because I’ve found that outlines are never fixed for me. I do crave structure – 23andme says I’m 30% German! So that may be why I derive great satisfaction from seeing the story plotted out on paper – or sticky notes or a whiteboard. Don’t fall in love with your beautiful flow chart. As you get to know your characters, it will change. Or, rather, they will change you.
- Let your characters rule. As they emerge, write a little bio about them, their hair color, nicknames, fucked up family life. Put those asides, er, aside. You will refer to them often when you can’t remember if Boopsie DeLila has red hair or red-tipped hair or is bald. Trust me. You don’t want to have to find your characters like they’re lost car keys in the laundry.
- Don’t revise. Not now. Just….don’t. Think of the first draft as paint primer. Slap it on. You might find after you’ve done a whole wall (or, god forbid) a whole room, that it’s the wrong color. That’s okay. You will have a breakdown. That’s okay, too. Instead, if you absolutely cannot resist, then go back to the troublesome chapter and jot down a few notes. You can revisit them when the manuscript’s done.
- Don’t send a chapter to your boyfriend or your mother or your high-school English teacher. Kiss of death, is that. You put that story out in the world, you talk about it while it’s in draft form, and you let out the steam. You’re done, baby. You need that pressure. Keep yer goddamn writing to yourself.
- Keep going. Nancy Martin used to say that page 150 was like chiseling through granite. She’s right. Just keep going. Nora Roberts said she could fix a bad page, not a blank one. She’s right, too. Keep going.
- Write at least 500 words every day. Even if they suck. Even if you have the flu or are exhausted from a boss who just heaped a weekend’s worth of work on you Friday evening, if you’ve had a fight with your significant other. Write Friday night. Write Saturday morning. Write on the train on Monday. Write Wednesday at lunch.
- Before you write those 500 (hopefully +) words, write two sentences about what you will write: Jodi and Eduardo will fall into the cave and find eight tentacles reaching for them. Eduardo decides to confess to Jodi that he loves her. Also, that in his spare time he is an amateur octopus hypnotist. This is the best piece of advice I’ve ever been handed.
- Email your manuscript to yourself daily. This way, you will never lose your most recent draft. Date it and time-stamp it. Put a symbol like &&& where you left off because Word is a piece of crap.
- When you’re done, put the book aside for two days. Read in your genre. Read an entire book. Or two. Get a good night’s sleep. Or two. You might sense a theme here – two.
- Look at your notes from when you were tempted to rip it apart and start rewriting. Pat yourself on the back for not revising earlier because you’d still be on page 60.
And that’s it. Why stop at revise? Because, if you’ve made it this far, then you’ve written a book. See how easy that was?
Check in with me as you go along. I’m writing #18 now and it’s been slow going which is why I wrote this blog, to remember how to keep at it. But I’ll tell you one thing, I am so glad I DIDN’T wait when I was 37. If I had, not only would I have not published 17 books that were then published in more than ten foreign countries, along with one that was made into a TV movie, but I wouldn’t have published at all.
Keep the faith.