So, it turns out that writing a book is hard. Difficult. Really hard. But I did it, and it seems that I did some things right and some things wrong. Following is a user’s guide for you if you are contemplating having 2017 be your year to write a book.
I did two things right from the get-go. First, I had a terrific idea for my book’s concept. A real-life murder decades ago in my home county was the loose inspiration for the book’s story. I say “loose” because other than my novel’s setting, the story quickly diverged from the real case. But because I was familiar with the territory – people, geography, culture, weather – the writing of the first draft was, dare I say it, easy. Story comes first.
The second thing I did right before I began my work was to read Stephen King’s “On Writing”. Aside from the highly entertaining account of King’s life, his advice and “how to” on the craft of writing proved invaluable to this novice. My primary takeaways from his practical advice were to:
“On Writing” is loaded with tons of other writing advice and inspiration. Don’t even think about turning on your laptop until you’ve read it.
One thing I did wrong was not read other great books on the craft of writing. Here are two more I wish I had read before I wrote my book instead of after: Jane Smiley’s “13 Ways of Looking at the Novel” and Robert McKee’s “Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting”. Even though McKee’s book is technically for screenwriters, his writing advice can also be adapted for novelists. Both of these books helped me when I started my rewrite. You should read them before you start.
What else did I do right along my journey? I attended the Willamette Writer’s Conference in Portland, three days of unrivaled knowledge, inspiration, and networking. I was only two-thirds of the way through my first draft at the time of the conference, and hated to spend the money (it’s not inexpensive). Looking back now, I realize I wouldn’t be anywhere near as far along on this process as I am if I had skipped this conference.
Not only did I make contact with five literary agents who expressed interest in my story, I also got a lead on a developmental editor in my hometown, whose hiring was the single most important thing I did correctly (more on that coming in my next blog). Add to those crucial contacts, the workshops that seemed to be specifically designed for what I needed to know precisely at that point in time, and being inspired by successful writers from all over the country, and, well, it was the best investment in my new career I could have made.
What did I do wrong? You’re waiting for this, I know. Several things, but none – thankfully – turned out to be unfixable.
I made one “new writer” mistake that, as I now know, almost every new novelist makes: Info dumping. Instead of jumping right into my plot action, I spent wayyyy too many pages giving the reader the complete backstory on my protagonist. I wanted you, dear reader, to love him as much as I do. But I have now learned that the correct way to introduce readers to your main characters is to layer in their backstories a little at a time. Introduce your plot action, your characters, and their conflicts in chapter 1, but dribble out their backstories until you’re at least halfway through your story.
My other mistake was to take a lengthy break from writing when I was approximately halfway through my first draft. It was brought on by real life demands, but still. Stephen King was right: Write every day and keep your story momentum going. I lost my mojo, and it took me a while to find it again. I’m finishing the second draft of "The Port Stirling Murder" now, and will soon start the second book in my series. It's my intention to write every day if at all possible.
I will still have time to attend to my life, including, most importantly, planting my spring vegetable garden. Peas are in the ground; spinach and lettuce this weekend!
COMING NEXT: “Why you MUST hire a developmental editor for your debut novel”. Yes, I’m looking at you.