How to write a book

A couple people have asked me how to write a book. I'm typing up this quick post so I can just send them a link instead of repeating it over and over.

First, there's no one way to do it, and different people have achieved success using wildly different methods. I've read that Stephen King just starts writing with no idea of what's going to happen next in the plot, he just comes up with new ideas as he’s going and has no idea how it’s going to end when he starts (I’m sort of skeptical of that, but it’s what he says). Philip K. Dick says he used the I Ching to write The Man In The High Castle, letting the random drawings guide the plot twists. What i’m describing here is just what I do, and I might do something different in the future.

I came up with my technique from writing screenplays, and it's based loosely off David Lynch's statement that “If you want to make a feature film, you get ideas for 70 scenes. Put them on 3-by-5 cards. As soon as you have 70, you have a feature film.”

First, I write three paragraphs. One describing the beginning, one describing the middle, one describing the end. This shouldn’t take more than an hour, if you have an idea in mind already. Here is a real example of something I wrote as a “beginning” summary (I ended up not writing this as an individual book, but incorporated it into a larger book, Cousin Calls).

Alex hears a call from his cousin Mortimer, challenging his territory. He goes to fight. It is an epic battle, and they get their antlers locked. They start to realize they are in trouble. Days go by. They are thirsty and come to a truce. They agree not to fight over does anymore, they just need to survive. They walk together to the stream for a drink, and Alex drowns him. He thinks now it will be easy to unlock, but it’s not.

These descriptions should be pretty high level. The beginning summary and end summary will be shorter. The summary of the middle will contain the bulk of the action and might actually be a few paragraphs. Once you have three paragraphs describing the beginning, middle, and end, you’ve finished step one.

For step two, you need to flesh out each of those paragraphs into several chapters or scenes. I expanded the “beginning” summary above into summaries of three chapters. Here is one:

After fighting until exhausting themselves to sleep, they wake up, antlers still locked. They stand with difficulty and make a truce, they will stop fighting now so they can make it to the stream and get some water. They try to eat grass but their mouths are too dry from dehydration. Mortimer is in bad shape, snout split and bleeding, can barely stand. Alex is plotting something, he isn't sincere in the truce making. Mortimer falls several times on the way to the stream. Alex lets Mortimer drink first, then drowns him as he is drinking. Mortimer is too weak to struggle much and drowns easily. Alex drinks some water and eats some grass after, relieved and safe. He thinks it will be easy to unlock their antlers now that Mortimer is dead, but it's not. He goes to sleep, realizing he is in even more serious trouble.

The paragraphs should be short and describe what you think will be about 5-10 pages worth of text. How many chapter summaries you need will depend on how long your book is going to be and how long the chapters will be, I do about 30-100.

The third and final step is to write the book. What you have now, you can think of as 50 or so assignments for short stories. Writing the book is in digestible, manageable tasks now. Take them one at a time and turn each summary into prose. As you're writing, you will find that some chapters that you thought of as two different chapters end up being too short in the final book, and can be combined into one. Or you have more to say in one chapter than you thought, and end up breaking it into two or three. Some you’ll find you don’t use, as you said everything you need to say already in previous chapters. Don't worry about quality much during this phase, just write and get through it. You can go back and fix things after you finish this first draft. Accept that the first draft won't be good, you just want to get through it. You'll refine it afterwards.

I don't have much to say about editing. You just want to read it through several times, fix things, and do as much rewriting as you need to. Take a break between each pass. After several passes, your first draft is your final draft and you can publish it.

There's another step, more vaguely defined than the others. You could call it the zeroth step and it can be done either before you start or during step two as you're coming up with ideas for each chapter. Basically, maintain a separate file in which you list the characters and a few sentences about them, as well as any disorganized notes about things that you want to happen in the book, but which you don't know where to place yet. This step can take a few minutes a day and happen concurrently with step two, or it can happen before you even start writing and take twenty years, slowly adding up and refining vague ideas.

I think a good writer will refine their own process as they go along, but if you have no idea how to start, you can start with this.


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