How to write a book (an ongoing project)

Please note that the following is written and intended as a comedic piece and should not under any circumstances be taken as a definitive guide to writing a book.

Also, please note that this is the comedic guide to writing A book. For the guide on writing bestsellers, please refer to the literary magazine that you consider your personal bible and/or the diety of your choice.

 

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Right, the first thing you need is an IDEA.

You can get those by drinking unicorn tears by the full moon. Alternatively, read as many books as you can and then write as many practice stories as you can by copying the plot and changing the names of the characters, while also writing tons and  tons of fanfiction.

Bonus points if you play with genders of characters in fanfiction.

Extra bonus points if you write crack pairings.

Once you have developed your idea muscle by rote-learning ALL OF THE PLOTS (or you drank your magical unicorn tears, which by the way taste like boiled broccoli) it’s time to diversify. Read ALL of the books you can get your hands on in your chosen genre (what, you thought you were done reading? Dream on, sucker!) and then find out what is missing from it.

Bonus points if you write snarky reviews for these books online. Points deducted if you send the author a link to the negative reviews because really? Not cool.

Having identified what is missing from the genre of your choice, you have the building blocks to write your book. For the actual writing, there are several schools of thought that fall into the broad categories of plotter or pantser. In Internet update terms, the plotters are the ones who always have a new chapter of their fanfic up on Tuesday. Pantsers are those who give you radio silence for a month and then come back with ten million chapters, thus clogging up your inbox with automatic notifications. Don’t sweat too much about which camp you fall into though. Everyone deals with huge amounts of guilt and unreasonable expectations of their writing.

If someone tells you they don’t use coffee to get through the day, they’re either lying or they are a zen master and it is your duty to learn their ways because caffeine shakes and long periods of writing do not mix.

Sufficient experience in writing fanfiction might have preppe d you to write your book, but you will quickly discover that it’s quite different to go through a plot without the sweet, sweet carrot that are chapterly reviews. You might find it helpful to sign up for NaNoWriMo, if only to meet other hopeful novelists who will be your betas. (You will find that good beta reading is a lot more different from leaving a comment to someone’s lemony slashfic, but the principle of giving what you hope of receiving holds.)

The process of your first draft has been detailed by the good people of the Office of Letters and Light (aka the NaNoWriMo team) so I won’t get into it here. You may find it worthwhile to come back for a repeat experience. Just bear in mind that if your NaNo project gets published, everyone will want to be your friend.

Editing also falls into a number of camps, although the differences in that case boil down to how much time will you leave between drafts, and what colour pen you will use to make edits. The answer to both questions is generally found through trial and error and reading a lot of published people’s blogs. (It’s not procrastination. It’s apprenticeship.

The point between your first and second draft is usually spent in daydreaming about literary fame, fortune, and researching agents. Such planning is expected and encouraged, but it is adviseable that you put off actually contacting agents and editors until you have at least read through your book. December is a particularly undesirable time to submit, since this is when NaNo usually finishes.

As you edit your book (and editing really is about reading and thinking critically about what you’ve done) you might experience a condition referred to as are-we-there-yet syndrome. Commonly found in toddlers and authors at various stages of a new project, this is a condition symptomised by:

  • teeth grinding
  • obsessive reading of authors’ blogs (this really is procrastination)
  • reading mean online reviews
  • practicing your Carnegie Medal acceptance speech
  • counting down the days until you’re done
  • depressive episodes when you fall short of schedule
  • binge-watching your boxset of choice and then working in a reference to the show within the manuscript

To calculate your actual finishing time, you will need to take however long it took you to write the first draft, multiply by 2 to take into account the possible redrafts that you will make unprompted, multiply that by the number of beta readers you have, add six-months when you query every agent under the sun, another six months where you make another vital edit, and then apply a Lying Weasel Factor of 2 which will account for depressive episodes, having to take time off writing because you have to work or study, and waiting for the cast to come off your hand because you gave yourself Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

Then query again.

If you think about what an imposter you are… well, you might be getting there.

 

 

Suspended

 

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Source: Death to the Stock Photo

There’s a stretch of road in every half-marathon I’ve ran, as well as a stretch in the writing of a new draft, that feels particularly difficult.

Dani Shapiro writes that when you near the end of a project, it starts to suddenly cooperate, but to me, this is one of the hardest parts of it all. Yes, middles are a slog, and sometimes just getting started is a battle in itself, but when I know the end is nearing, I feel both stuck and both full of nervous, random energy.

Jeez, privileged much? Is there any part of this process that you do like?

There is – many, in fact, and often the same ones that I profess hating. But it’s a true mindfuck (pardon my French) when I hit this space of happening and non-happening. Time stretches. I am exhausted. I am filled with manic energy. I might crash and burn at any moment. I don’t believe I’ll cross the finish line.

So far, touch wood, I’ve managed to do it. But this kind of experience is the closest I get to being suspended in time. (Until we develop space travel, I guess, in which case we all will be hopping in a sleeping pod to await arrival at new colonies. Thank you, sci-fi channel.)

This is also the part where the usual fears seem the most real. What if I never finish? What if I am never ready? I might be less than half a mile from a finish line, but I’ll have forgotten about the 12.5 that I’ve already put behind me, and convince myself that a terrible mistake has happened.

It can’t possibly be ending.

I’ve just started to have fun.

I’ve not nearly suffered enough.

I wonder if this is how other people can tell they are at the right job?

 

Inspiration

 

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They say not to wait for it.

It’s a more fickle mistress than fame.

Fool’s gold.

Inspiration. 

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If you have any desire to do art of any kind, you learn pretty quickly that you should not count on inspiration to strike before you start to work. Even though the same thing applies to all professions – you don’t see doctors waiting for the mood to strike before they see patients, or do you? – it’s the artists that are being told, over and over, not to rely on their inspiration.

Artists are also those constantly being asked where they get their ideas from, too. They are, after all, the professional dreamers.

So what happens when inspiration is literally gone?

I’m not talking about that general blank feeling you get as you sit down at your desk in the morning (or your park bench, stencil, computer, favourite seat on the train to work, magical zazen cushion, whatever). I’m talking about when the last thing you want to do is create, when your very soul seems to have been poisoned.

Every time I see the news, the sickness seems to grow worse. No matter how much time I spend around good people, doing good work, all I have to do is look around and I will find another horrible tragedy lurking at the corner. What’s the point, I ask. Why bother making art?

It just seems so self-indulgent.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a skill that would make me otherwise useful in such times. If I were a medic, or a soldier, or a diplomat, I’d probably be too busy to sit around and wonder about my purpose in the world. As is, I have to make a decision: will I be burying my head in the sand further?

I don’t think I can.

However much it hurts to look, it hurts more to pretend everything is okay.

So while it’s true that inspiration doesn’t strike down from heaven, I will also not find it by navel-gazing and playing the staring game with my laptop. I’ll have to dig it out – kicking and screaming – out of the debris of life.

 

Halfway through 2016

 

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Photo credit: Me

When you struggle with perfectionism and self-doubt, it can sometimes seem like your life is grinding to a halt and you are spending your days doing nothing. So, in an attempt to not beat myself up, here is a laundry list of what I’ve been up to in the past 6 months.

 

Work:

I had a successful annual review of my Ph.D. and I’m progressing with the writing.

I presented at 2 student-led conferences.

I submitted a distributed paper for a third.

I submitted an article to 2 different journals (it needs work.)

Volunteered for Childline.

Raised £200 for the NSPCC/Childline by running two half marathons

Travel:

I travelled to Florence.

And Sussex.

And Edinburgh.

Reading (non-academic, because if I include that my head will explode):

  1. The Gastronimical Me, M.F.K. Fisher
  2. Leg to stand on, Oliver Sacks
  3. Bound Feet and Western Fress, Natasha Pang-Mei Chang
  4. On the Move, Oliver Sacks
  5. Rising Strong, Brene Brown
  6. M Train, Patti Smith
  7. Regarding the pain of others, Susan Sontag
  8. Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
  9. The Dandelion Years, Erica James
  10. Some personal opinions, Margaret Mead
  11. Slow Motion, Dani Shapiro
  12. Love, Undetectable, Andrew Sullivan
  13. New Suicide Squad, vol 1
  14. Why we write about ourselves, edited by Meredith Maran
  15. Art and Lies, Jeanette Winterson
  16. Why we write, edited by Meredith Maran
  17. The Complete Butcher’s Tales, Rikki Ducornet
  18. The Girl on the train, Paula Hawkins
  19. Polar Bears, Mark Haddon
  20. Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed
  21. Deafness, an autobiography, David Whyte
  22. A little life, Hanya Yanagihara (reviewed for Bibliodaze, here)
  23. The Sadeian Woman, Angela Carter
  24. A Year of Marvellous Ways, Sarah Winman
  25. The Lie Tree, Frances Hardinge
  26. Far From You, Tess Sharpe

Not nearly as exciting as my peak years on Goodreads, but not too bad either.

Writing:

Ah, the big one. See, in terms of writing, I can’t say I can complain, even if my progress with the novel has reached glacial pace levels. Because after I read this article on why we ought to collect rejections, I went back and looked at how many I’ve amassed in the 8 months of queries I’ve done (plus all the contest entries and short story and article submissions.) The result was… unexpected:

Total submissions: 78

Rejections: 37

Non-response (silent rejections): 38

Acceptances: 3 (more on those soon-ish)

+ One very strong encouragement following a writer’s retreat with SCBWI

Add to that my newfound push for blogging, including the Lenten Stories, and a few pretty long fanfics, and I’m surprised my fingers haven’t fallen off from typing.

Add to that the fact that I’m about 2/3rds through version 3 (and rewrite number 8) and all the Lenten stories I’ve written, I’ve got to say, it’s been a good 8 months.

 

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Photo credit: Me

 

Misc life stuff:

I resumed driving lessons.

I got a car (AND PAID MOST OF THE DEPOSIT AND ALL OF THE INSURANCE AND ALL OF THE ROAD TAX MYSELF!)

I got my purple belt.

I ran the aforementioned half-marathons.

I finally furnished my room.

I resumed learning Italian.

I also resumed my drawing/painting.

I finally bit the bullet and made a plan with my doctor to help myself.

As we say in my support group, that’s a lot of NSVs all around. 

How’s 2016 been treating you?