How to Write (and Finish Writing) a Book
Or at least how I did it
I am by no means an expert on book-writing. The only things I can attest to having done that are relevant are deciding to write a book, starting to write a book, and finishing writing that book. One of the most common problems for writers or not-yet writers isn’t inspiration – it’s finding difficulty transforming their idea into the finished form of a book. There were three steps I took that really helped me get through this process:
I used the snowflake method – start with a single line or paragraph of what your story is about and expand. What really helped me was to get a poster-size bit of paper and draw up a grid, then in each box I wrote a small summary of each chapter. On the back I wrote notes or drew diagrams of important plot points, short character summaries, a few rough maps. It was great having the entire story there in front of me on a single document. As I wrote each chapter I started with the summaries I had written in the boxes, keeping them in view the whole time.
Inevitably the story changed as I wrote, some chapters completely, some not at all. Halfway through the first draft I drew up another grid on a new piece of paper of the same size and filled in the boxes with the updated chapter summaries. My first book, Moment of Kairos, was around 75,000 words, so with a longer book I might have repeated the process one or two more times. It’s a good way to check over what you’ve written so far, where you are at the moment and what’s changed since your original plan.
I knew the start and the end when I began Moment of Kairos, and the middle at a high level. Knowing where the story was going and would end up made detailing the middle much easier, because it gave me a framework to roam around in and a clear endpoint that I could stop at. The beginning and end didn’t change at all for me as I wrote, and though I can imagine it might for other writers, it meant I didn’t have to rewrite the middle to fit the new ending.
2. Keep at it
It sounds simple, but that’s really it. Writing can get tedious, particularly writing certain parts of stories. The chapters that step away from the action into a slower, calmer plot can seem to take a very long time to write – but the better the calm, the better the storm that follows. There were parts of Moment of Kairos that I wanted to skip so I could get on to the more exciting parts even though I knew you can’t have constant action; even thrillers and action books need some breathing room, if only to make the action that much more exciting.
Personally I didn’t adhere to a strict schedule. I tried to spend a few hours each week writing and not go more than a couple of weeks without writing anything substantial. I didn’t worry if I did go a few weeks without writing, but kept the story in mind, and ran through parts I hadn’t written yet to better cement them in my head. I would write down any rough ideas I had either on Google docs (where I wrote the majority of Moment of Kairos) or on a Post-It note, and expand on them later when I had more time.
There will be days when you look at what you’ve written and wonder if what you’re writing is any good at all. Don’t give up just because you happen to be perceiving your book badly at that moment – take some time away from writing, then come back and carry on. Making changes is fine but try and avoid changing too much – there comes a point when it’s better to finish what you’re working on now and use those ideas for something new. Also try and avoid being too influenced by current media. There were a number of times when I read a book or watched a movie and seriously thought about including whatever element I’d just seen or read about, however random, just because I enjoyed whatever it had been in. Getting inspired is good – but stick to your guns. In a few weeks you’ll look back and laugh at how ridiculous it would have been to include that thing in your story.
When you’ve finished a first draft, or maybe before then, stop creating new chapters and start reviewing your story from the very beginning. You need to review your book so many times that you have the whole thing in your head. If someone says to you, ‘Hey, you know that bit when that thing happened?’, you need to know what they’re talking about, what characters were involved, and when it occurred. Not so you can answer interview questions on the fly (although that’s always useful), but because when you get to that point, you know you’ve thought about your story and reviewed it to a pretty decent standard.
Other people (as long as you’re sure they’ll be critically honest) are always useful – a completely fresh pair of willing eyes on your work is something that you’ll quickly run out of. If possible, don’t share ideas or notes with your friends and family; instead give them a finished product, maybe not a final draft but something they can start and finish. Think about who might enjoy your book and what sort of person you’re getting feedback from. If they’re dead-on your target audience and you know what else they like or dislike, give a heavier weighting to what they say. If they’re not at all the sort of person you were aiming for, listen to them but don’t feel obliged to cater to their suggestions – there is no one book that everyone likes. There are books that most people like, but never all people.
I ended up reviewing Moment of Kairos, every word from start to finish, about four times. First pass was more of a grammar and spelling check, second was a bit of grammar, bit of story, and third and fourth were mainly about the flow of the book. I rewrote a lot of sentences that made sense, but just didn’t quite sound right first time around. I don’t think I would have gotten anything more out of repeating the review process, though you can always check through your work again (and again). Four complete reviews, as well as intermittent shorter read-throughs of individual chapters, were good enough for me.
You might end up writing a book that no-one likes but you – but that’s OK. Writing a book is something that a lot of people want to do in their lives, and that’s great – technology today makes it easier than ever to get something down, review it and finish it. I would advise against writing in an attempt to create a bestseller for two (though there are many more) reasons: firstly, because very few people get lucky enough to make enough money to be a full-time writer; and secondly because you’ll end up writing too much for other people. This might sound bizarre, given that writing is about creating a finished thing that is completely for other people, but it’s important that you like what you’ve built. Everyone’s got a viewpoint but there will only be one end result; and you, as the writer, have to decide what that is. Better to be pleased with what you’ve created than hope someone else will like it instead.