In the past fortnight I’ve had about half a dozen email/actual conversations with friends and acquaintances writing their first books. Or trying to write them. Or considering writing them and stopping. Or getting halfway through and stopping. Or on the verge of giving up because they’re stuck.
Some of the same questions keep coming up. So, with thanks to the people who prompted me to write this (you know who you are and I look forward to reading you in a year or two’s time!) the following is an attempt to answer a couple of the most-often-asked questions.
First though – when I started I knew nothing. I knew no writers to ask. I just did it. So did most of the writers I now know. The same way you too can just do it. There are no tricks. You write a book by writing a book. Sit down, get the words out. That’s it. (Though I can suggest some books to read and maybe an Arvon course or similar – and if you check out either of those you’ll be one up on where I was when I started!)
Anyway, here’s the latest couple of questions I’ve answered and I hope the answers are useful :
1. How do I approach the publisher?
I’d suggest trying for an agent first as most books these days go through agents, not direct to a publisher. And you want to have a good chunk to show someone first anyway. I know it sometimes happens that people sell a book on an idea, or three chapters and a synopsis – but that’s rare and much more a case of knowing the right person/being in the right place at the right time, for most of us it doesn’t work that way. I’d say get at least 3 chapters (or about 7000 words) AND a synopsis you’re happy with before trying to look for an agent or a publisher. I’d also suggest that you may not know what it’s really about, what you’re trying to do, until you’ve written the first draft. So maybe you want to do that first. Most writers I know (myself included) wrote their first book with no publisher and no agent and no contract. It’s far more usual. Then, with a product to offer, we showed it around.
But by all means go to the shops, check out who’s publishing what, see where you might fit. Maybe write to or call a couple of publishers if you’re feeling brave and ask. You might get lucky.
Otherwise, when you have 3 chapters/7000-ish words and a synopsis you’re happy with, you go to your local library, look through the Writers and Artists’ Handbook (in the UK), see who handles the kind of book you’re making and start sending it out. (Prepared for rejection!!).
2. I love my idea, but can I turn it into a book?
I don’t know, can you?
If you REALLY want to tell this story (fiction or non-fiction) – then I believe you will. And if the story you REALLY want to tell is a book (as opposed to a short story, film, play, tv script) then here’s a plan :
Write 500 words a day, five days a week. You can have weekends off and 2 weeks ‘holiday’ (not that I personally ever have 2 weeks off, but I know writers who do!) – keep that up and you’ll have a first draft of a good-sized book done in a year – and plenty of extra words to cut/move/re-draft, get rid of entirely in your subsequent drafts.
Don’t keep going back and editing and making your first bit brilliant, DO write 500 words a day. By all means, make notes to yourself about what you want to change or move, but keep going FORWARD!
The word count soon adds up.
And sorry, you don’t get to claim no time/full time job/family commitments – I know too many parents of small children who’ve done it, too many people who’ve done it while holding down full time jobs, or being carers, or being ill themselves – too many people who’ve done it regardless. Most of us write our 1st/2nd/3rd and more books when we can grab the time and not as our living. You can too – IF you really want to do it!!
I would really recommend ‘The Writer’s Journey’ by Christopher Vogler – it’s about film, but he writes as if he’s talking to you as an artist and makes a lot of sense. I personally wouldn’t use it use it to plot (too formulaic for me), but it’s brilliant to complement your own thinking about character/plot/structure.
And Stephen King’s’ ‘On Writing’. It’s brilliant about writing, rejection, craft as opposed to art.
There’s more like this in earlier pages on this blog, especially in the Sort of About Writing section, about story/’talent’, craft vs art, the non-existence of the muse.
You do it every day, EVEN WHEN THERE’S NO INSPIRATION.
Just like running, yoga, getting the kids to school, calling your mother, making dinner, taking care of the dog or the cat or the garden, or whatever else it is you do on a daily/regular basis. Real life. Every day.
You’ll soon get into it.
Right now it’s a thousand blank pages.
But 500 words, 5 days a week and it’s do-able, handle-able. Honest.
(Then there’s the editing and the re-writing, but that comes later – or see earlier blog pages!)
And as an added bonus, here’s the brilliant Laura Lippman saying the same but different.