If You’d Like to Write a Book…

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.

#1

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.

#2

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.

#3

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.)

#4

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.

#5

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.

#6

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.)

#7

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.)

Proverbs for Social Media

These days, if you want to publish a book, you pretty much have to have a blog and to use social media like Facebook and Twitter. And that’s not an entirely bad thing: in the year-plus that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve found it to be a good thing–far more energizing than draining. While there are certainly days that I think ‘what’s next? I’m out of ideas…’ most of the time I find that writing a blog post actually awakens new ideas and gets my writing going. (See my colleague Amy Julia Becker’s excellent post on the Redbud Writer’s Guild blog: “Want to write a book? Start a Blog.”)

As for Facebook and Twitter, well, they can certainly be the trivial time-wasters that many people believe them to be, but they can also foster meaningful connections and conversations between people. They have value.

Nonetheless, one of the things that is difficult about blogging and using social media is that they are relentlessly momentary. They are disposable and fleeting. And by their very design, they insist that we comment and “like” and react somehow more or less instantaneously. They want us to speak, to share our opinion, to make a statement. In a world where ‘going viral’ leads to book deals and movie deals or at least to 15 minutes in the spotlight, the incentive to offer quick, outrageous reactions is high.

Anyone who has ever read the Old Testament book of Proverbs knows that there is quite a lot in there about words and speech. The Hebrew Bible is pretty obsessed with words and with their power: the creation of the world, after all, is spoken of as a speech-act. How a person uses words is understood as fairly powerful, for good or for ill. It’s also understood as reflective (maybe even constitutive) of who that person is and what they are about.

The proverb that comes to mind again and again when I think of social media and blogging, and my place in those things, is this:

“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing personal opinion.” (Proverbs 18:2, NRSV)

Often I feel the tyranny of the news-hook (that’s my buddy Ellen’s phrase–check out her article on it!) and have this sense that when something comes up in the news or on a blog that’s more popular than mine or in a Twitter exchange between “notables” I must respond, and quickly. That’s what you do if you want pageviews, followers, retweets, ‘likes,’ and so forth.

I won’t lie: sometimes that’s fun. I get that little jolt of newsroom-energy right in my own kitchen as I tap out some response to something, somewhere, that’s hot right now!

But I fear that pleasure is pleasure in expressing personal opinion. It’s not necessarily pleasure in understanding. 
And I fear, too, that the more foolish pleasure of expression will eclipse the deeper pleasure in understanding as we all get more and more linked into our social networks. Because that does not bode well for the writing and reading of good books, the love of which, for many of us, is the aim of all this blogging and Facebooking and tweeting.

All this isn’t to say that I don’t see value in social media. I certainly do. I just use those media mindful of the possibility that hitting “publish” may mark me as a fool, and that the real reward is in the understanding of–not the airing of–a perspective.