As the author of 5 books, (it still feels strange saying that) I’m often asked – ‘how do you go about writing a book?’ or ‘I’d love to write a book, but I don’t know where to start.’ If you are someone who has always felt that you have a book in you, here are some lessons I’ve learned from my writing adventures.
William Faulkner reputedly said – ‘I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes at nine every morning.’ In essence, this means you have to show up, sit down and start writing. If you think you have a book in you, it will remain in you until you start writing it. The timing will never be ideal and you’ll never feel ready. Every writer has their own ritual for starting work and let’s be clear, writing is work. Some writers commit to a certain daily word count, others to an allotted timescale, it’s whatever works for you.
There is a famous anecdote of James Joyce that goes something like this. A friend came to visit Joyce and found the great writer in despair. ‘Is it the work?’ the friend asked. Of course, it was the work, Joyce indicated. ‘How many words did you write today?’ the friend continued. Joyce still in despair, with his body sprawled across his desk muttered ‘seven.’ ‘Seven? But that’s good for you James.’ The friend responded. ‘Yes,’ Joyce said, looking up. ‘but I don’t know what order they go in!’
It rarely happens (for me at least) that the sentences come out in perfect order. Occasionally they do and they are like gems, but 99% of the time, I chip away, refining, cutting, pasting and polishing until the sentence feels right. A practical tip I picked up from the author Deirdre Purcell is the idea of finishing your day’s writing in the middle of a sentence, so the next day you start by concluding the half-written sentence to help you get back into the flow.
Many writers, myself included, carry a notebook to jot down ideas, fragments of dialogue and observations. I even have one beside my bed so if I wake with an idea, or have had an inspiring dream, I can capture it straight away. I also use the notes function on my iPhone which is rarely out of arm’s reach. This means when I’m working on a book project, or even an article, there is a patchwork of ideas and notes I can draw upon. I never start with a blank page, that’s just too scary!
I’m also asked frequently, ‘where do you get your ideas from? It always reminds me of Deepak Chopra’s question – ‘where are our thoughts before we have them?’ In her wonderful memoir ‘This is the Story of a Happy Marriage,’ the writer Ann Patchett speaks says – ‘The book I’ve not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its colour, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life.’
She goes on to say that she starts to write only when the pain of further stalling becomes greater than the pain of actually writing. I can empathise with that. My books all started with an idea that I couldn’t shake. It’s almost like the books wanted me to write them.
Another favourite author Donna Tartt has a different approach. She sees her books in the early stages like Frankenstein’s monster and she spends years standing over the monster trying to breathe life into it. I agree with Maya Angelou who said that ‘there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’ That’s why I write.
In his aptly titled book ‘The War of Art,’ Steven Pressfield says, there will always be resistance, it’s just part of the deal. The bigger the idea or the loftier the dream, the greater the resistance. Resistance takes many forms but usually has an underlying theme of ‘this work won’t be good enough.’ Every writer and artist experiences this. As a creative person, you just have to learn to manage it. As I like to say, learn to resist resistance!
Because sentences rarely come out perfectly formed, you just have to start writing, or to paraphrase Truman Capote, at least start typing. When I’m starting a new chapter or an article, I dump all my ideas onto the page – fragments of sentences, keywords, a quote or reference and so on. I don’t worry about spelling, grammar or flow, I just get something onto the page. Creative writing and editing do not make for good bedfellows because each fires up a different part of the brain. So like unruly children, I separate them.
After I dump the contents of my brain and tip in the assortment of ideas I’ve gathered in my notes, I will revisit the piece and start massaging it. Expanding on ideas, ordering themes, dropping what doesn’t fit. I will typically do six or seven rounds of this editing and fine-tuning process before the article or chapter feels cohesive. Usually, around five I will read the piece aloud. It’s amazing the difference this makes in terms of flow and it is vital when writing dialogue. If it sounds clunky, it will read clunky.
For me, non-fiction writing is easier, perhaps because I’m more used to it, (hundreds of blogs, magazine articles and three non-fiction books later!) When I was writing ‘Soar – Powerful Questions that will Transform your Life, I had a clear plan for the book from the outset. Each chapter had a subject matter and was divided into sections. By chunking it down, the overall project what less daunting and progress was easier to measure.
It was the same with my eBook ‘How to Excel at Interviews’ and it’s the approach I’m using with the book I’m currently working on.
With fiction, I have themes I want to explore, characters I want to write about, so the process is more organic. I start out with a rough plan and a degree of certainty as to how I want to start and end it. Many characters will grow and develop or drop out in the process of writing. There is plenty of space for inspiration to strike.
When writing fiction, the adage ‘you cannot see the end from the beginning’ rings true for me. I write with my heart, not just my head, especially when writing fiction. Does this feel right? Is there an emotional connection? What’s the character feeling? What’s their motivation?
The process of writing and overcoming resistance is hard enough without trying to write on a topic you care little about. I write the sort of articles and books I like to read. One of my favourite quotes by E. Delacroix is ‘What moves men of genius, or rather what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is not enough.’
A book starts in the imagination of the author and stirs the imagination of the reader. When I write from my heart it reaches other people’s hearts and that is what good writing and good books should always do.
I hope you enjoyed this post and if you would like more information about all my books visit my website here.
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