Well, now that I’ve published a book, I get to sit back and sagely dispense Wisdom on Writing, right?
Wrong, but, now that I’ve published a book, I’ve had people tell me that they’d like to do the same, and do I have any advice for them?
Maybe I do.
Decide what you really love: writing or the idea of having a book published. There’s a big, big difference. If you don’t really love writing–and by this I don’t mean that you are rapturously in love with the process of writing at all times but rather that something essential to your well-being is fed by the sometimes-painful and/or boring process of putting things down into words, reworking those words, scratching half of them out and starting again, and so on–having a book published probably isn’t worth the bother. Seriously.
Find all the books that are sort of like the book you’d like to write. Search for them on Amazon and Google books. Request them on interlibrary loan, use the ‘look inside’ feature, buy a few of the most successful/critically acclaimed ones. Read a lot of them. You need to do this because there are lots of books out there, and you need to be able to tell the editors and/or agents who are skeptical about ‘another cancer memoir?’ that you know what is out there and that you are offering something that no one else is offering. By suggesting this I do not mean to suggest that every single page of your book has to have startlingly new ideas. Rather, you need to be aware of what has been done and what hasn’t; what has worked well and what you think you can improve on. It helps to think of your book as joining in a conversation that’s been going on for some time instead of as a new, prophetic voice speaking out of an empty wilderness.
Find the books that aren’t much like the book you’d like to write, but that have moved you deeply in one way or another. Ask your friends (and enemies) for the titles of books that have done the same for them. Read these books and be sensitive to why and how they achieve certain effects. Read them again. Then find some more books, and read them.
(Are you seeing a theme here? In case you aren’t: READ. A lot.)
Write a little every day. Jana Riess recently posted that this is what separates ‘the real writers’ from ‘the amateurs,’ and there’s something to that, I think. In his recent book The Antidote (which I liked very much, being semi-allergic to positive thinking, myself) journalist Oliver Burkeman notes that Anthony Trollope “wrote for three hours each morning before leaving to go to his job as an executive at the post office; if he finished a novel within a three-hour period, he simply moved on to the next.” He wrote forty-seven novels. Burkeman also quotes the artist Chuck Close: “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” Word.
I know that I am treading on dangerous territory here, but I will expand “write a little every day” to “write a little something that makes sense every day.” Often enough I hear reference to ‘morning pages’ from The Artist’s Way which is basically the total freewriting advocated in the writing pedagogy of the 1970s but, having tried this, I’ll come out and say that I don’t think it’s all that helpful to just write out your stream of consciousness for a period of time each day. At the very least, I don’t think that can count as your writing for the day. If freewriting helps you to uncover what you care about, then, fine, do it for ten or twenty minutes. If it doesn’t do much for you, don’t do it, and don’t think for a minute that you’re leaving out something essential. You’re not.
Re-read your writing with fresh eyes and re-write. How long a gap you need between the writing and the re-reading/re-writing will depend on you, but I think it takes at least a day and as long as a week or more to be able to see your writing with fresh eyes. If your drafts always seem so perfect so as not to need any changes, then find someone who knows good writing and is going to be honest with you and have them read your writing, because everyone’s drafts need changes.
Write short articles, book reviews, and blog posts related to the topic(s) you are interested in writing a book about, and try to get those ‘out there.’ Some of these may even become part of your book, but the process of submitting queries or ‘pitches’ and working toward a finished piece will help you become familiar with working with editors and engaging with readers, and it will help you sharpen what it is you want to say and how you want to say it. It will also help you decide whether you have ‘enough’ for a book…if you are always left feeling that there’s much more you want to say, chances are good that you have a book, and not just an article or two. Plus, engaging in this kind of writing keeps you aware of what’s being written on the topic, and by whom. You
probably definitely want to be in conversation with these people. (See #2 again.)
Finally, enjoy the process. It can bring you a lot of pleasure. Don’t do it because you think you ‘should,’ or because you’d really like to see your name on a book, because as fun as that is–and it is fun–it’s not as satisfying as doing the messy work of learning, reading, writing, and re-writing itself. (See #1 again and also this thoroughly depressing but realistic piece ’10 Awful Truths About Book Publishing.)