How Do I Write My First Book?
February 8, 2013 6:26 AM   Subscribe

How Do I Write My First Book? I'm a bit shy and uncertain about the whole process and need some help in understanding how to just let the words and story gel into something readable.

I have stories to tell. Just don't know exactly how to go about this. So I'll be needing assistance from experts, preferably the most successful and widely-read who have some pearls of wisdom to impart to fledglings such as myself. So I guess I'm looking for written guides, videos (how-to's step-by-step) and other relative resources. Just not joining a writer's club - that wouldn't go well.

Much thanks in advance.
posted by watercarrier to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Really... Just write. First drafts are not generally where it comes together. Just write, and write a lot.
posted by DoubleLune at 6:34 AM on February 8, 2013 [8 favorites]

Seconding DoubleLune. Whatever else you do, write every day. Revise, revise, revise until it takes a shape you recognize as right. Very few of your original sentences will survive. Tolerate your own incompetence until something wonderful emerges.
posted by markcmyers at 6:44 AM on February 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

How to Get My Job, by Jerry Pournelle. An oldie but a goodie.

Major takeaway: "I am sure it has been done with less, but you should be prepared to write and throw away a million words of finished material. By finished, I mean completed, done, ready to submit, and written as well as you know how at the time you wrote it."
posted by dzot at 6:47 AM on February 8, 2013

Steven King has a whole book about writing, and it is an amazing and very informative read on his life and writing process.
posted by markblasco at 6:55 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Starting from Scratch by Rita Mae Brown is my favorite writing book.
posted by xingcat at 7:01 AM on February 8, 2013

You learn how to do the sentences and paragraphs by writing constantly. Blogs are actually good for this. As time goes by, you see your bad habits, you learn to work with your tics, you learn how to be the writer you are.

Write some short stories. Write this and that. Don't sweat it. You just have to do it.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 7:09 AM on February 8, 2013

Write like you're in a pottery class.
posted by headnsouth at 7:16 AM on February 8, 2013

As said before, write: there is not much else to do. Many books on writing do deal intensively with the cogs of a well-wrought novel, but all insist on the grave importance of work ethic and stamina. If you're in it, you're in it for the long haul. This is a good thing, if you find some characters and places you like. Expect to hate them by the end of the process if you do make it to an ending, and then to miss them terribly once you've pushed them away.* And if you don't hate them, be thankful.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is a popular guide for developing the ethic others have described above, and for dealing with some practical particulars. Her "shitty first drafts"—not unlike headnsouth's pottery class suggestion—is an approach that works for many, though writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., will insist that it is possible to slog through the process of writing one or two good drafts at a snail's pace and finding yourself atop a heap of a good story. Whichever works for you, Lamott's book is worth a read. The title may sound flimsy (or maybe it's only me), but the book isn't.

Reference to Strunk and White will help you in tight corners.

* - If you get through some books on writing and characterization, expect plenty of bad jokes comparing characters to "lovers." I know, I hate the word as well, but nothing better fits the quality of joke we're talking about. See above.
posted by mcoo at 7:27 AM on February 8, 2013

Take a look at either Alan Watt's The 90-Day Novel (which is basically directed exercises for brainstorming/character development/outlining for 30 days, then a plan to bang out a first draft in 60 days) or Robert Olen Butler's From Where You Dream (which is a method of using notecards for up to 12 weeks to "dreamstorm" as many scenes as possible, which you then organize in sections into a roadmap for your first draft; he's also very, very big on writing from sensory experience more than intellectualizing plot, structure, etc.).

Watt's method provides more structure than Butler's, so you may prefer one over the other (I prefer Butler's approach myself, though Watt's definitely got me going again after years of not writing), but both basically let you balace the process of first imagining the world of your story in an organic way while giving you a concrete method to actually produce a draft.
posted by scody at 8:36 AM on February 8, 2013

You might enjoy with an application like Scrivener. I tend to write scenes and figure out later how they all come together, and Scrivener lets you shuffle the sections and snippets around very easily. Also, the format is very accessible/conducive to the playfulness of writing and not nearly as daunting as opening up the scary blank page of a Word document.
posted by mochapickle at 8:44 AM on February 8, 2013

This book is mostly about self-publishing, but the early sections have a lot to say about writing one's first book.
posted by mark7570 at 8:53 AM on February 8, 2013

I'm in your same position, although a bit further along in a novel. One of my teachers told me, "Writing a novel is an ordeal." Not exactly encouraging - and he was published! It's hard for everyone, but there's tons of great advice out there.

Some of my random ideas, in no particular order -

Conflict drives good fiction. You can introduce a character who is a good-hearted, fortunate, ruggedly handsome man with lots of money who does volunteer work for Save the Children and spends alternate Saturdays relaxing in coffee shops and producing award-winning nature poetry on his laptop. You could start like that, but it's boring - so you'll have to introduce trouble immediately. Let's say he is and does all of those things, but he's also got a coke habit he can't kick, a psycho ex who's stalking him, an unpaid debt to a local kingpin, or the runs from last night's meal at Beppo's Basement Italian Buffet, or whatever.

Your characters don't have to be nice. There are charming villains in real life and in fiction, and they work particularly well in fiction. We'll follow a character who wants something badly enough to take big risks to get it, whether or not we find him or her likeable.

There are no good guys and bad guys. Everyone is a mixture of both, at least in mainstream and sophisticated genre fiction for adults. If you have a character who seems too good, give him a flaw. (You'll need that flaw too, because it'll drive your plot.) If you have a character who comes off as evil, give him some back story or some quirk that will make him human to your readers. Your characters will have reasons for what they do, even the worst ones.

Make sure your main character isn't passive. This person has to want something, and will need the courage to go for it - otherwise why write a book? Readers care about passionate characters, even if they're wrong-headed, under some delusion, or lacking in maturity or self-knowledge. The process of acquiring some of these things can drive the arc of your story.

There should always be something going wrong. If your main character is unemployed and lands a job, great! Until he finds out he's got a micro-managing, sadistic freak for a boss. Don't let anybody coast for too long before throwing something new at them.

Your complications should not be random things that go wrong, but events that actually change the position of the character. If you have a character who's an alcoholic, and he opens the fridge and there's no more beer, that's a complication. Another complication happens when he goes to the convenience store and tries to buy some beer, but realizes he has no money. At that point he takes the beer anyway, and is now being pursued by the cops. But he's still an alcoholic - there has been no fundamental change. On the other hand, let's say your alcoholic character gets in a wreck while driving drunk. His two-year old daughter who was in the car was injured, and his wife doesn't trust him anymore. She takes the kid and leaves without a forwarding address. Your character ditches the alcohol and now has a new purpose in life - to find and recover his family. Suddenly we have real momentum in the story, because we changed the character's position.

There are so many fun and super-readable books on this subject. My three faves right now:

Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern

Rules of Thumb: 71 Authors Reveal Their Fiction Writing Fixations

Writing and Selling your Novel by Jack M. Bickham

Have fun, and good luck!
posted by cartoonella at 9:51 AM on February 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

There is some excellent advice from Jim Butcher here. Scroll all the way to the bottom for the first entry and work your way up to go sequentially through the concepts.
posted by tdismukes at 10:18 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

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