Bill’s Guide to Writing a Book
I have been on the Facebook group Writers Helping Writers for a while now. People often post questions about the writing process. Since I see the same questions posted over and over again, I thought that I would come up with my own guide for writing a book.
Some background first. At present, I have written 4 books and I am now writing my fifth. One book has been published to Amazon and 2 more are now in the works. Book number 4 is about to enter the editing process. Book number one is beginning to gain some traction, but sales are at best limited.
Now, you are probably asking, “Wow, you are not exactly a prize-winning author. Why should I read this?” Hmm. Good question. My only answer is that when you are trying to develop your technique [in anything] it is important to look at several sources. Then take the best ideas and go with it. In addition, I am certainly classified as a “new writer.” Times have changed and people do not write like they used to. So, there may be value in my words or this could just be useless junk. Never know until you read.
So, you have never written a book and want to write one. Where to start? First, get a Goodreads account, an Amazon account and an Amazon authors account. Make a list of every book you have ever read and start posting reviews onto both sites. I would recommend about 2 per day and you review at least 200 books. You can cheat a bit by looking at other reviews and get some ideas in case you forgot about what the book was about. Important tip. Review only the books you really liked. Why is this important? All will become clear in my next, next 2 blogs on self-publishing and self-marketing. Writing lots of reviews will also help you write. You need to be aware of what people think of works that are already out there and get into the mindset that people will be reading your work. You then have to think that you want people to buy your work.
Second, join Facebook and write a short bio about you. Also post stuff about you. Important tip, post only light-hearted stuff. If you like/hate famous person X, keep it to yourself. Remember,there are many potential book buyers who just love X. Try to make as many contacts as possible. Again, this will help you our later. Build up some hype. “Hey, just about to release my book.” Third, join a writer’s forum like Writers Helping Writers. There are many other writer’s forums on the internet to choose from. Find one that works for you. Important tip. Start by reading lots of posts. Do this for at least two weeks before making your first post. Then post as often as you can, even if it is just a “thumbs up” to somebody else’s comments. Another good post is, “That makes a lot of sense.” The point is that you are getting yourself out there. This will help you later on. Fourth, READ A LOT. Just read, at least 2 hours a day. Try to read in the same area you are thinking of publishing. This will improve your writing ability and help you come up with ideas. It will also get you into the mindset that you are writing for others.
Fifth, start a blog. I have one on Goodreads and cross post it to Facebook. Talk about how your writing is going, what books you like to read and what it means to be a writer. I recommend that you keep it lite. No politics or other controversial topics… yet. Unless it is your thing to offend people.
Sixth, start thinking about marketing. Begin doing research on how to get your name out there. This is a long process that will consume a lot of your time later on.
What you will need.
A computer with Internet access that has a good word processor. You can pick up an old copy of Microsoft Word [like 2010] for $30 on eBay. I would not recommend any other programs. Despite all the evil that Microsoft is, they make a great product. You will avoid issues like “It looks good on the screen but when I print, the margins don’t work.” In the end, the minor cost will save you lots of time. The reality is that this is what the professional world uses. If you do not consider yourself a professional writer (or are at least trying to be one) then you have to ask yourself why you are even trying. Trust me, there is a lot of hard work ahead of you and your need the right tools. In addition, if you have a Microsoft word related question, you can always find the answer on the internet. Other word processors, not so much. Often the answer is, “Ya, we know that’s an issue.” Important tip. BACK YOUR WORK UP!! The number of times I read, “My computer was stolen and I lost 5 years’ worth of work.” Get a memory stick, back up ONCE A WEEK and put the stick in a fire proof safe. Easy and NO EXCUSES for not doing this.
How to begin? First off, you have to stop and ask yourself if you have it inside of you to really do this project. This is going to be a LONG and COSTLY road. To give you an idea, at least 6 months of effort (2 hours per day) and $5K. Yes, that is a lot of money. There are helpers, smart tips and people you can beg to do free stuff, but no real shortcuts. Remember, 6 months and $5K. If you are not prepared for this sacrifice then writing a book with the intentions of making a profit is not for you.
Now, let’s say you use a shortcut like not having your work professionally edited. Trust me, no matter how good your efforts and skill with grammar/spelling/punctuation, the readers will tear you apart. You will get one-star reviews and harsh comments like, “This reads like a 5-year-old wrote it.” There is nothing more crushing than that. My point is that readers will not be able to get beyond an unpolished work. “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing correctly.”
If you have it in you, start with the main concept of your work. Write a short paragraph on what your book is about. Take some time to work it over in your head. It should be a polished work. Important tip. Keep this paragraph, you will need it later.
Next step. STOP. Just stop. Put the computer down. Now, take your concept and show it to people. Ask them what they think. This is why you made this paragraph a polished work. If people seem apprehensive when you tell them about it, I would go back and ponder your idea some more. Normal people are generally good at telling you when a simple concept is not in the right direction or that it is not something they would like to read.
Example bad children’s book idea: Wilber the farting bulldozer. Your friends should say, “I’m not sure about this. Parents might not want their kids reading about a farting bulldozer.” Also think about the positive comments you may get. “Cool idea, you can introduce kids to sex at the same time.” Clearly, there is an issue.
Then do some research. If the concept has been done before, then you will face a lot of competition. For example, writing a book that has the exact same plot as Harry Potter is going to get 1 star reviews like, “This is just a re-write of Harry Potter. What a rip off! Don’t bother reading!” There are a lot of writers out there and a lot has already been done. Remember, your work needs to stand out if you ever plan to make a buck.
How much does your work need to stand out? Say 40%. [I have discovered that 40% turns out to be an important number in publishing.] Another part of your concept must have a foundation and you cannot go too far out of the normal books. Look at the various categories on Amazon.com. Ask yourself, Which category would my work be in? What other books are already there? How does my idea stand up to these books? Would readers of book X like my work? If your idea is too difficult to grasp, then readers will have a difficult time making that initial purchase.
Now the important part. What is your hook? What is the magic that will make people want to “buy it now.” I often see the book idea in Writers Helping Writers, “I had a messed up life and I want to write my story.” I typically reply, “What is your hook?” Their answer usually is [if they answer at all.] “My life was so bad that people will naturally want to read about me.” They seem to have it in their head that I should somehow connect with their plight. Why would I ever want to read this book? A depressing person told their story. Not much there. Where is the hero? Why should I feel sorry for you? Where is the spunk? What did I learn? HOW DOES THIS HELP ME?!! Honestly, if your answer is, “My concept is a great story, but not really that special” then you should reconsider the project.
Now let’s consider story with a hook. The book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is an interesting account of a funeral home worker. Lots of info and insight. Did the author have a bad childhood? Yes, but that was not the focus of her story. Remember, your book must stand out. Doing what has already been done is essential. That was where the book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes stood out. The author told the reader all about the mysterious world of working at a funeral home. It made for a really great read and I recommend you check it out. As a side note, you will see that I gave a positive review in Goodreads and Amazon. More on that later.
So, what idea should you peruse? There I cannot really help you. Your story has to come from within while at the same time has to be worth reading. Important tip. You must be passionate about your story. This is going to be a long road and if you have no passion, it is probably a waste of time.
Now that you have your concept with at least a partial hook and people like it. STOP. You need to understand if your idea has marketing potential. This is a different question from “I have a good idea.” At this point, I would post your idea to a writers group. Specifically, ask: Would you buy a book like this? Even better, get the opinion of a professional book person who knows the publishing industry. How do you find such a person? Well, that’s the tough part. Ask on a writers group for advice. Often this will cost you $ to get a valid opinion. It is worth it and could save you $$$ for writing a book that nobody will ever buy.
When you are at least 40% sure that you have a marketable concept, you’re ready to begin. How do you see the story unfolding? When are you going to introduce your main character? Ask yourself how you want your book to be structured. Look at how other books are structured. When you are confident on the format of your idea, start with an outline. This outline is for you, so don’t get too wrapped up in making it look great. The goal is to develop a simple guide to show how the story flows. There are many outline formats you can use including the flower method. Here is chunk of an outline that I did to give you some ideas on the format:
They travel around Italy. [Research towns in Italy. Find one near the coast.] X find evil man H, he is in a bad way, not good at making money, confront him, argument, X feels the evil for the first time. [chapter break] Learns H has been killing a lot of people to steal their money. X captured by evil army W, escape. H reveals he did not find the secret and said, “Damn what would my hero Jake do?”
Notice there is some sample dialog, notes and I used X, H, W for names. Remember, your outline isn’t made to be perfect and my sample is clearly far from it. The idea is simply to get the essence of the story and to show the story flow. When you have completed your outline, go over it several times. Try to take a high-level approach and pay attention to how the plot unfolds. At this stage it is easy to make huge changes, move chapters and alter the direction. Ask yourself questions like, Should I introduce the main character now? What would happen if I did X. Is the reader going to get confused? When you are confident, show it to somebody. The outline should just be enough to get you some feedback. Stand firm, but do not be afraid to make bold changes.
Now, start a list of the characters. You can also do this as you write. For each character, make up a name and a basic bio. Group your characters together. Add any notes and add inspirations about the characters. For example,
Mom=Karen, Father=Joe, Son=James. Cat=Mr. Tumbles. Live at 1010 East Street. Joe is like an angry Darth Vader
Now, as you write you can refer to this list to get spelling and facts strait. Readers will immediately pick up on a mistake like: Sara Doyle lives at 1010 East Street. Important tip, don’t have characters with the same first name. This will confuse the reader.
To help you with this character effort, use a random name generator to make character names. They have them for different countries, medieval times and science fiction. My advice is to keep hitting the generate button until something pops.
Now some basics of writing. There are some key areas that you need to remain consistent. The first is dialog and quotes. This is how I deal with this strange issue: Tim was happy and said, “That’s good.” Here are two other ways: “That’s good.” Said a happy Tim. Or
Tim was feeling happy.
Whatever method you decide, stick to it. This makes it easy for editors to go over your work and make corrections. Next, you have to think about “dialog management.” In your work, dialog is not dialog. It is another form of written communication. In real life, we just talk but this assumes that the other person is a person that is understanding you. In a book, you have to give the reader an idea about who the person is by the words they use. For example, a silly person would say, “What’s up, my peep!” and a serious person would reply, “That’s inappropriate.” Remember, dialog should only be used to convey what cannot be written. IE, thoughts, emotions and understanding. Ideally, the writing supports the dialog to make it special. Keep in mind that your dialog has to and keep the story moving. Also, remember that the reader is not a mind reader, so the dialog has to make sense. Don’t get too caught up in slang or other crazy stuff.
My overall “dialog management” point is that when creating your character, think of their voice. Assign some personality to them. For example, person Bob talks like Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway. Bob said in a serious voice, “Now that’s a really good idea. Stick to it.” As you can see from my short quote, you absolutely cannot tell that Tom Hanks is speaking. My point is that when you write this dialog, the sentence flow came out from the Tom Hanks prospective in your mind. Tom Hanks would never say, “Golly gee, that’s goody-goody.”
Next, focus on your grammar and spelling. Look up the many resources that are available to you online. Now for the easy part. Start writing. In this area, my only advice is keep at it. If you get stuck, exercise, talk to people, post on writing groups and take a short period of time off. A moderate amount of wine also helps. Keep plugging until you are finished.
In my experience, I use 40-90% of my outline. Generally, the overall plot is followed, but often there is a big chunk that is different. The good thing about an outline is that you can make huge changes at the outline stage. If you finish your work, then make big changes then it will get complex. For example, a big change is converting the main character from a man to a woman. What ends up happening are mistakes like accidently refer to the woman as ‘him.’ If you have enough mistakes like that, one or two will get through the editing process. A subtler issue is when you are writing, there is a mindset to the character. “She drove her pickup truck like a bad-ass boss!!” This is a perfectly valid sentence however, readers would comment [or think as they are reading]: A woman would just not drive like that. Readers are really great at picking up on the small details and their comments will be brutal. Ideally, you want to make the least number of big changes after you have finished. This is where proper planning comes in.
Now the fun begins. Read over your work and make edits. Do this at least 5 times without any specific goal. Then start with a goal like: Consistency, punctuation, spelling, continuity and most importantly, CHECK FACTS. For each of these items, I would do one complete pass. Then read over your work and make edits at least 5 more times. Trust me, this will make for a much more polished work and save you a lot of heartache. Of the works I have done, I make at least 30 passes. Some passes take 5 days or more.
When you have done all of this, give your now first draft to somebody to look over. See what they think. Then more edits biased on their work. That’s it. You’re done. Now for the harder part, publishing your work. Then the impossible part, marketing your work.
You’re the best -Bill
January 15, 21, 2018
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