/ What does it take to write a book?
But what does it take to actually write one? Where do you start? Should you take a course on how to construct one, how to compose your thoughts, how to flow the story?
Or is it instinctive?
Or is it a bit of both?
I'd love to be a writer but I'm sure it takes a little bit more than a good story and a bit of luck.
I'm not looking for a load of links to internet sites which give some pretty generic advice btw.
What have you to lose by trying? Give it a shot.
> I'd love to be a writer but I'm sure it takes a little bit more than a good story and a bit of luck.
According to Mitchell and Webb, just two weeks off and a bucketload of Pro-Plus
Well, we're all writers to some degree. And given that, it shouldn't be beyond any of us to write a book.
However, if you are a writer then you'll write; which is to say it won't be something you choose to do, you'll already be doing it, as naturally as breathing. Books, songs, blogs, poetry or even as a job, a technical writer or journalist; whatever expression suits you. People like this are the ones you'll have heard about, the novelists you see in the shops for example - plus a great many others of whom you won't have heard, of course.
But there's always space for others. Yes, you need a good story; yes, you need imagination. But you'll also the perseverance to get that story down from the first line to the last full stop, and the dedication to your project to draft and re-draft. You'll need an editor to pick holes in your plot, your grammar and your characterisation and the patience to listen to them and re-draft again. You'll need to become so familiar with your book that it will feel as though it's taking over your life; and you'll get so close to it that you can't see errors and resent your editor pointing them out. This is *your* book, after all...
And there are different ways to plan things. I know when I've written fiction in the past (short stories) I start with a general idea but have found that as I write, things develop a momentum of their own and go places I didn't expect at the start. I'd find it tedious to have worked out a step-by-step structure but this is what works for others and may be what works for you - I know if I were to ever write a novel, I'd force myself to do this to test the idea properly before writing. When I've written more technical publications - a Lab annual report, for example - that's what the structure of chapters does for you, giving you a skeleton on which to hang the things you've written.
Tim Radford's 'Manifesto for the simple scribe', though written for aspiring science journalists and writers, contains much that is good and is worth a read by anyone earning their living through writing or aspiring to do that. It won't map across directly but there are nuggets of sound sense in there for everyone. It's at http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2011/jan/19/manifesto-simple-scribe-commandments-journalists
All this may explain why I've never written a book...
Some books require a rigid structure to make them work, or for the book to be written almost fully in outline before it can be filled in, for instance if there's a complex plot or devices set up early on which only makes sense later.
But some life story type books are better written in an ad hoc style which perhaps refelcts the authors character.
As someone else said, what it really takes is a story. Because story and description are what literature is for really.
Note: A friend of mine who wrote a reasonably popular book - enough that she was signing in Waterstones, etc - said that it had all the characteristics of a regular job, except far more unsocial hours and far less money.
Learning about structure, climaxes, reversals, that sort of thing, can all be useful if you're thinking about fiction - even if you then decide to ignore it all and do your own thing.
Having tenacity helps*, and the ability to be critical about your own work - the term 'kill your darlings' is used a lot about removing bits of text that you love but which you don't need.
All this from the woman who might finally finish writing a book somewhere around 2050... but hey, this is UKC, home of unqualified advice!
*Something I sadly lack...
Reading a lot probably helps too.
I read a book about writing a book once. It made it sound as hard as I feared it might be!
I once got as far as writing an outline for a science fiction story, I have aother in my head and a third idea for a non-fition book but, realistically, I'll never get around to completing any of them.
A really good book according to a family member who has been published about half a dozen times fiction and non, is
>>All this from the woman who might finally finish writing a book somewhere around 2050
Want a race? Whichever of us finishes the last chapter first wins? ::o)
<*powers out of blocks towards laptop*>
<*trips over own feet*>
Thanks for this.
I have written both fiction (I have 3 articles in the UKC archives) and technical stuff for news papers and magazines. I have one blog.
I think I'm really talking about fiction. But I'd like it to be good. So I wonder how you write like Steinbeck rather than Barbara Cartland.
So its the flows, the depth of detail, the sentiment etc.
> As someone else said, what it really takes is a story. Because story and description are what literature is for really.
But we all have a story, its the getting it down bit that I'm interested in.
Incidentally, Steinbeck's written quite a bit on the writing process - I have one of his upstairs, called 'Journey of a Novel' if I remember rightly.
One of the things I notice with books I enjoy is that nothing much happens i.e. they are deep and detailed observations on life but aren't epics.
I know that feeling. I try to think about what it is about them that I like. It's a massive stumbling block in my writing, that I get distracted by feeling obligations towards complex plotting, when often the books I like (and aspire to write) aren't so plot-driven. I do think you need *something* to hang things off, and that there needs to be some sort of 'moving from one place to another' taking place, whether that's mentally or physically.
Sounds like you need to start observing life deeply, and write about what you see.
How to start?
First, you must read a lot every day. I highly recommend you to give up television (or to ration it very severely) - I mean this seriously. When people say they haven't got (much) time to read, one often finds that they have plenty of time to prostrate themselves before the telly.
But you can't just be reading and thinking about writing. You have to be living an interesting life yourself. Experiencing a huge range of situations, some quite extreme. Always observing behaviour. Also, seeing what is funny in life. If you don't see or hear at least one funny/bizarre thing a day, you are not being observant enough.
Write down these things, and indeed, every good idea you ever have. Snippets of dialogue. Strange stories you hear about. Etc etc. If you're not doing this quite a lot almost everyday, you're probably not a writer.
Learn the craft. The most important way to do this, always, is by reading, as I said above. But the following books about writing are the best I've come across:
Robert McKee: Story (arguably the best analysis of what 'story' is that has ever been written)
Stephen King: On Writing (the best I have come across by an author - and there are quite a few)
Lajos Egri: The Art of Creative Writing
James N. Frey: How to Write Damn Good Fiction (which despite its trashy title is pretty damn good!)
Strunk & White: The Elements of Style (a total classic, over 70 years old - the problem is that by many it is regarding as a kind of bible, thus I think its 'rules' about writing are often taken too strictly.)
(Last but not least, in fact very, very good) Browne and King: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.
If I had to pick just two I would probably pick McKee and King, certainly as starters. The last two should be on any writer's bookshelf anyway.
Then: it takes years of work. I mean years.
I certainly have led, and do lead, an interesting life but I need to discipline myself to write down those things I observe. I watch very little telly so there's a start. I don't mind investing the time.
Thanks for the book recommendations. I will add them to my Christmas list. Perhaps I should add yours ;-)
I appreciate that you took the time to answer, I'll bet you get asked this question often?
> I get distracted by feeling obligations towards complex plotting, when often the books I like (and aspire to write) aren't so plot-driven.
Absolutely. I think of some of Cormack McCarthy's books and think that there was no "plot", just a story. And yet there was so much more....
> I certainly have led, and do lead, an interesting life but I need to discipline myself to write down those things I observe. I watch very little telly so there's a start. I don't mind investing the time.
> Thanks for the book recommendations. I will add them to my Christmas list. Perhaps I should add yours ;-)
> I appreciate that you took the time to answer, I'll bet you get asked this question often?
Yes, I do. And I always point them in the direction of McKee, who has the great adage (although he's talking about film it applies equally to a novel): 'Every scene must turn.'
You'll probably be unsurprised to learn that my latest book is deeply influenced by film making/editing, and what i have learned in my screenplay writing/attempts.
PS. Every writer must be prepared for many failures, rejections, false starts etc. I had 18 years of failures and relative flops - since my Cuillin book - before the success of Fiva. So, perhaps more important than anything I mentioned above is: never give up.
Thanks for the list Gordon, I've read some of these, heard of others, but some are unknown to me - cheers for this.
Let's face it, his books are mostly people chasing each other, or running away from things. Still remarkable books!
Have you read the New York Times interview with McCarthy from a few years ago? Worth checking out. He lived a "stony woodshed" style of life for a long time.
Another couple of widely-cited 'figuring out this whole writing thing' books are
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande - this was written in the 20s (iirc) but is still considered relevant in some quarters.
So, I'm now in the race with you and Wingnut. But it needs to be published AND have someone other than your mother buy it!
> So, I'm now in the race with you and Wingnut. But it needs to be published AND have someone other than your mother buy it!
Yup, don't listen to the nonsense that some writers come out with, that 'I write for myself'. You are writing for other people, to give them something that hopefully enriches their lives in however small a way. As I said in my acceptance speech at Banff, 'It's all about universality, about touching people around the world.' That should be your goal, anyway.
It's important to like what you write though, surely - to write a book that you'd want to read.
Of course. That's the starting point. I find it pretty much impossible to write something if I don't enjoy it, get excited by it myself. Because if I'm finding it boring, how on earth can one expect the reader to feel otherwise? When writing is going well it is a gripping, thrilling experience. In both Fiva and a previous screenplay I wrote, I myself was reduced to tears by what I was writing. That's a good test. Also, if you find yourself suddenly, unexpectedly being funny. Those are possibly the most delicious moments of all. You look at a sentence and think, I almost can't believe I wrote that, it's so good. Where did it come from? They're rare, those moments, but I guess it's what keeps writers like myself going.
I should have said, reduced to tears 'at a couple of points'. A surprising experience, when your own words suddenly have that affect on you.
He keeps scrap books of random jottings, clippings from newspapers, and just anything which interest him. When he sits down to write a novel, every January apparently, he dips into this for inspiration. Sometimes just a line or a phrase can lead to a whole book. His latest book was drawn from a line he saw in a news paper "parents mythologise dead child."
I've often wondered this as I have lots I'd love to write down.
Only issue.....would anyone else find my stories / thoughts interesting ;-)
I have no idea. I am a keen & avid reader, but I recognise my limitations & have no aspirations to write myself. However, as a reader, I found this recent "imagine..." programme following one author through the process of writing a new novel very interesting: http://preview.tinyurl.com/cy7d372 (link to BBC iPlayer)
Possibly because I'm a huge Rankin fan...
Didn't notice this before posting my iPlayer link to the Ian Rankin "imagine..." programme above, but it sounds like the programme is a lot like his talk.
That's the risk though. As Gordon says, you need to be prepared to be shot down a couple of times.
Others have covered the details, but in my view the two most important things are the determination never to give up, and a willingness to think really long-term. As Gordon said you will probably have numerous false starts. I'm by no means a successful author yet (I'm literally just beginning) but even I have no less than eight shelved novels--some finished, some abandoned.
I've written about 10 philosophy books, but I've never managed to finish a novel. It's a difference in level of self-belief.
The key to writing things that require bulk, though, is to do a bit every day.
Do you mean just write one, or get one published? There's a huge difference. If publishing, 'what does it take?' - Far more time [years] and effort/ work than people usually realize.
Lots of luck with it if you try.
> Do you mean just write one, or get one published? There's a huge difference. If publishing, 'what does it take?' - Far more time [years] and effort/ work than people usually realize.
> Lots of luck with it if you try.
I mean write one worthy of publishing that also achieves some acclaim.
Who remembers the film "throw mama from the train" with Billy Cystal and Danny Devito. Although a bit weak as a film it focussed on two aspiring writers and one word to describe a hot night. In the end the word was "sultry".
Its this kind of thing I'm thinking about. How to articulate thoughts into words, how to describe a room, or a man's face in a way that truly captures the imagination of the writer.
Is this a teachable skill or is it instinctive?
I think some people are 'better with words' than others - I'm more adept with words than I am with numbers, for instance, but whilst my twin bro can write a decent business letter, he's more in his element doing engineering things.
The thing that makes a difference is reading lots and writing lots. It's the equivalent of climbing lots and challenging yourself to improve, getting coaching, researching new techniques, etc.
At the moment I mostly write microfiction, so my aim is to get my message across in as concise a way as possible.
Flash fiction - generally under 500 words. They're also known as 'sketch stories' and have quite a long lineage, but they're quite popular at the moment.
Where do you post this? As Gordon says, you are writing for others. Who gets to read your work?
Here: http://claredanek.wordpress.com/ though I've not uploaded anything for a while. The hundred stories in that link are essentially all about moments - a sort of word-based photograph.
I tweet links to pieces as I put them up (I have around 850 followers) and also post them to Facebook. If people are interested, they read them. If not, they don't.
I could be better about submitting to some of the vast swathe of online literary journals that have sprung up in the last few years.
Do you get feedback? Has your style developed over time and is that development deemed an improvement?
I like what I've read so far but who the hell am I to critique?
How do you create that site? Is it like a blog?
So many questions, sorry.
No worries! It's just a bog standard wordpress blog site with a particular theme applied to it - I wanted it to be nice and simple. All free! It's really easy to use too.
Yeah, I get feedback mostly through facebook and twitter rather than on the blog itself. I think I've evolved a bit - I'm editing it all at the moment and there are bits here and there that I'll tweak, but overall I'm happy with them. It's like photography or any creative pursuit really, that you do evolve over time (or at least you'd hope so!)
Putting writing out there has felt a bit more daunting than putting my photography out there, but I reasoned that if I didn't do it, then it was all a bit insular. People write for different reasons and I totally respect anyone who chooses *not* to put their work in the public domain. It's personal choice! Some people do just write for themselves and that's fair enough.
About the critiquing comment - unless one's, say, a professional reviewer of literature, then who's to say one appraisal is any better or worse than another? It's like people saying they don't understand art but they think x, y or z - why is their x y or z reaction any less valid than anyone else's?
I get this, but I'm thinking about the ability to "improve" based on feedback. If the feedbck is simply "I like this" or "I don't" then this is good to know but not necessarily useful for improvement.
If you look at some of my writing, the comments are more about the subject and not necessarily about the style.
Ah, fair point. There are lots of sites out there specifically providing 'critique' but I'm a little sceptical about some of them.
Might sound like a strange question, but do you feel your writing is hitting the mark you want it to hit, and if not, do you have any 'gut feeling' about what's missing?
I also don't really go hunting for 'how could I do this better' feedback. Probably laziness or insecurity (or both!) on my behalf.
I like it (which is a good thing) but I do feel that it is still a little "amateurish" if such a word is applicable. That it perhaps makes some basic errors and possible appears as if I am trying too hard.
No one can 'improve' your writing in the sense you wish, i.e tell you what words to use. You have to find your own style/ voice. In fact every project will need to find its own voice.
Having found that, then you have to concentrate first and foremost on creating 'scenes' with action, i.e with protagonists doing, behaving, speaking in particular ways (scenes that you can literally see with your mind's eye). To put it very crudely, this means you should rely more on nouns, names and verbs - and dialogue - than on adjectives and adverbs.
This is exactly what I'm looking for. I think that early writers tend to gravitate towards the adjectives and adverbs in an attempt to be more descriptive but then tend to appear as if they are trying too hard.
Basically there's no short cut to hard work. ... See Mathew Stadien's Just Five Minutes interview with Jessica Ennis today.. Also someone put out a nice tweet today about inspiration: 'Inspiration does exist but it must find you working.' ~ Pablo Picasso
Sound advice. I will begin today ;-)
To add to Gordon's points, I have also learned that the main purpose of dialogue is not to convey information, but to demonstrate your characters through some form of conflict. Generally information-heavy dialogue gets pretty sludgy to wade through and is bad style (although obviously information has to be conveyed somehow, and occasionally dialogue is the most appropriate way).
Characters really are key when it comes to novels ... if you have good characters, everything else will fall into place. For that reason I create characters first. Storylines and subplots generally take care of themselves once you have good, well-rounded characters interacting through conflict. There's a wealth of resources and books out there to help you create good characters, but every writer finds their own way of doing it and there's no substitute for practice and experience!
(I haven't read the whole thread so apologies if I'm repeating something someone else has already contributed.)
Yes, a very important point. My main experience of this is with screenplay writing. First you need the basic story idea which includes the main character and his/her predicament; then you work out a rough skeleton structure (typically/classically three acts), with the key story point/turning points. Then you come back and work very hard on the characters, thinking also how they might change through the story (often that's a key part of the story). There will typically be about 3-4 main characters e.g protagonist, antagonist, and then at least one other key character. This can then lead to interesting relationships/shapes e.g triangles. Then there will be quite a few 'bit parts'. Then you can go back to the plot: or, at least, you can't develop the main plot at all until you've done that. Then you've got to let your characters have quite a lot of freedom. It's great when they take on a life of their own and don't do what you'd ideally like them to do from a plot point of view ...
> To put it very crudely, this means you should rely more on nouns, names and verbs - and dialogue - than on adjectives and adverbs.
'Show don't tell'.
I thought it might be helpful to tell you my exact working methods. It may not work for you, but hopefully it'll give you encouragement. For me, there is no such thing as 'writer's block'. If you have a good enough idea the creative side will not be so difficult - though always very hard work. You will only have problems if the basic story idea/premise is not really good enough. That is by far the most difficult thing about writing: getting the premise. The whole thing should be expressible in about 20-25 words i.e. what you would say to a publisher when you say you've had this great idea ... you have to be able to express the whole thing in a nutshell like that, or it's pretty much a non-starter. Never start the really hard graft on a story if the basic idea is really not good enough. I say this from experience, because on at least three occasions I've done just that.
So, to carry on from my last post: you have your idea and your characters, and then you block out the plot. This is just a guideline - it doesn't matter if the initial synopsis is very different from the final story, but you have to have compartments in which to hang your ideas. These compartments are 'scenes' (not necessarily chapters - a chapter can consist of one or many scenes). You then build up notes for each scene. What each character does, and why. Alternative things they could do. Things they might say. In the months you'll be doing this you'll be having ideas from all over the story, which you'll scribble down and then park in the appropriate box. There will be lots of ideas that don't fit into any particular scene. I call those STPs ('still to place') - not all them them will necessarily end up in the book by any means. All the time the story will be developing and changing.
You've got to be very confident that it's in a very advanced stage in your head and in your notes before you start the first draft. Because the key to writing well is all about flow. You don't want to be doing ANY ground work while you're writing a scene. I print out all my notes for a scene, now arranged in rough chronological order, before I write each scene. I then try to write it exactly as if I were telling someone the story out loud, with no interruptions. Tip: if you have trouble expressing exactly what you want to say in the best possible way do what I do: just write it crudely and put it in wobbly brackets to be expressed better later. But you must keep going, must keep up that flow and rhythm.
When you've written the draft of each scene, print it out and take it right away from your computer and office. Read it in a chair or lying on your bed or whatever. Scribble alterations and corrections all over it. Go back to computer, and correct it. Now print it out again. This time read it out loud, making a note of anywhere you stumble (means more work has to be done). Correct it again on the computer. Print out again and repeat. Make a few final corrections. And then move on to the next scene. First doing an hour or two of preparatory work, then writing it, as described above. Typically it's about a scene a day. A big scene will take several, even many days.
If the book/ screenplay falls into 3 or 4 main acts, I find I will go back to the beginning of each act when I've finished it and read it through and revise it. This then makes it a less rough draft.
When you get to the final full stop of the last chapter it's a great moment, the greatest moment in the book. But it's still only a first draft. Ideally you will then leave the project for weeks or even months, so that you can then come back to it with fresh eyes. This is the stage you will also give it to one or two close friends and professionals who are not close friends (e.g an agent, if you have one) to read and criticise.
Based on their comments and your re-evaluations you will then do a very drastic edit of the rough draft. It now becomes a First Draft.
Now you will be reading it again and again, polishing and tightening it. Until you have a Second Draft. Now at last it's ready for copy-editing, correcting typos, grammatical errors etc etc.
When that's done the Second Draft becomes the First Manuscript.
You may still be getting feedback in which case, very typically, you will have a First Revised Manuscript. Now it's ready for typesetting ...
> 'Show don't tell'.
Exactly. A key point about dialogue is that people very rarely say what they think, what they're really thinking. They typically exaggerate, understate, distort or even say the exact opposite of what they're really thinking (I found I had to do that quite a lot last week, btw:) Screenplay writers thus treat dialogue as part of the 'action' - it is really not much more than someone's behaviour - which of course is the key to any scene i.e. what they do. What they say is part of what they do. Or what they don't say. A skilful screenwriter will take full advantage, often ironic, of this split between a character's real emotions and what they say. Mostly people reveal their inner selves to some extent by what they do, or how they contradict themselves in any way.
Show, don't tell means: e.g. if scene is nasty, make it nasty, and you won't have to tell the reader that it's nasty.
> >> Only issue.....would anyone else find my stories / thoughts interesting ;-)
Write some short stories, include some climbing or have characters that indulge in it as a hobby/obsession. Post them here, ask for critique.
Grow a very thick skin first.
> Write some short stories, include some climbing or have characters that indulge in it as a hobby/obsession. Post them here, ask for critique.
> Grow a very thick skin first.
I forgot that I am now a different person ;-)
Fill yer boots, critique away.
Pen and paper?
Keyboard and mouse?
Tablet and fingers?
Vegetative state computers that pick up eyes movements etc?
Plus imagination , time, and the will to do it..
Thanks Gordon. What you have written is very helpful. This is what I was looking for, an idea of the practical steps to get a person to the end result.
One final word on McKee's adage I mentioned above: Every scene must turn. What this means is that the emotional situation/predicament of the main character in the scene (not necessarily the main character in the story) must be different at the end of the scene than at the beginning. Otherwise the story has not developed or progressed in any way, because the characters remain in the same state/situation they were in at the beginning of the scene. It tells us nothing new. It's just padding/repetition. I.e Every scene is a mini-story (this adage is mine) with a beginning, a middle and an end. Even if the action is not dramatic the emotional/psychological progression can always be expressed. E.g things have either gone from good to bad, or bad to good, or from bad to worse, or from good to better, or very bad to not nearly so bad, or from extremely good to extremely bad etc etc etc. Of course one of the key delights of any story is surprise. The reader never wants to be told what they expect, or worse, what they suspect is coming pages ahead of when it does.
This has probably been said above, and its a really basic point, but it stands repeating: get up in the morning (on those days when you plan to write) and start writing. You have to have done your preparation (I'm an historian, so this means often extremely prolonged archive work) but when it comes to it, sooner or later, you simply have to put words down on paper.
Yes, it has to be treated as a job. One tip I find helpful is: 'clock' in when you start work, and when you stop (even if for a tea break), and at the end of the day record the hours worked. Ditto per week. This is much more important than number of words written each day, because on many days you will be doing very important preparatory work.
This is my style I'm afraid. But you've exposed the flaw in the "feedback" approach to improving. I need more than just one or two opinions before I change. You might simply be in the minority. And what exactly does "stilted" mean?
I'm not suggesting that your opinion isn't valid but I'm not sure I would change my style on the basis of it. But I would if everyone said this or if a professional editor suggested changes.
I read the first two, the second was undeniably better as it had much more of a story. You could probably do with injecting a bit more pace into the stories - readers do like stuff to happen - and also perhaps a bit more conflict? In One Man's Wilderness you could have made Sam get a bollocking for soloing something, rather than have the two characters talk about a third, unknown character getting told off. That way we'd be able also to see where Aden really stands when push comes to shove.
Take a look at this piece:
You see there is some drama in the first line - the sack is gone and a whole series of problems begin to unfold. Very quickly we get to the essence of the story: the climbers are hundreds of miles from home without their car keys. In addition one of them is starting a new job the next morning so they absolutely have to be back in London that night... will they make it in time?
It's a good yarn.
I really love Michael Ondaatje's work, he's a very lyrical, descriptive writer, but if you read his books plenty of stuff happens. People fall in love, crash aeroplanes, defuse bombs, dissect bodies, hijack trains, all fairly high octane stuff but the description is not for itself, but because that's the way he wants to tell the story.
> I thought it might be helpful to tell you my exact working methods....
Gordon, this is pretty much the most useful post I've ever seen on UKC. Have filed it away for future reference. Thanks very much for taking the time, really appreciate it.
Did your screenplays get an agent?
But it is a completely different type of story as it is an account of a trip not a work of fiction.
> Gordon, this is pretty much the most useful post I've ever seen on UKC. Have filed it away for future reference. Thanks very much for taking the time, really appreciate it.
Yes. This is pretty much why I asked the original question, to get an answer like Gordon's.
So if I haven't said it before then thankyou for taking the time.
Thanks Sean. This gives me something to work on. I appreciate the feedback.
1. stiffly dignified or formal, as speech or literary style; pompous.
2. Architecture . (of an arch) resting on imposts treated in part as downward continuations of the arch.
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