So You Want to Write a Book – Well, Now What?

William Faulkner's Underwood Universal Portabl...

William Faulkner’s Underwood Universal Portable (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Has this ever happened to you? You’re with a group of people – let’s say a moms’ group, with everyone exchanging tips and anecdotes – and someone says, “We could write a book.”

“We really could!” someone else chimes in.

Another mom even throws in a title: “Temper Tantrum on Aisle Four – How to Survive the Toddler Years!”

Everyone laughs, and they go about their lives and forget about it. But you linger on the thought that maybe you could write a book. Then again, the idea that you don’t know how to start – and what would make your book any more special than any other, any more worthy of the New York Times Bestseller List? – is intimidating, so your idea stays an idea and no more.

On the one hand, you might be right. Everyone does have a story (or three), and some of them aren’t worth telling (and those are the ones that seem to be repeated the most). But any time you impart a nugget of knowledge to someone else who seems to get something out of it, you feel that I-should-really-write-this tug.

Nowadays, blogs (much like this one) pick up the slack. A mom blogs about potty-training her strong-willed toddler, and other moms unite behind her or take comfort that they aren’t alone in the struggle. A man loses his job but figures out how to make a living from home – and writes a great how-to post. Someone with an incredible weight-loss story posts a menu and workout routine online to help others in the same situation. Blogs are great resources, and the topics they cover are endless.

But still, there are those for whom blogging and swapping stories around the water cooler aren’t enough. The problem is that they aren’t necessarily writers and don’t know what to do. The idea persists, won’t let them go.

Sometimes for decades.

I get all kinds of mixed reactions when people find out that I’m a writer. They want to know what I write. (“Novels? How can you write so much?”) They want to know how much freelance work I can handle. (“How do you manage it with two kids?”) They marvel that I’ve actually made an occupation out of this – you know, it’s not just a cute hobby. (“You mean you edit and write for a living?”)

And sometimes they ask me, kind of sheepishly, if I can help them with something they’ve been wanting to do for years.

One such person is a client of my parents’ business and happened to mention to my mom that she had a writing project. My mother said that I’m a writer, and the next time the woman came in, I was there. I gave her my business card and promptly forgot about it. I talk to a lot of people about my services, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to hire me.

A few weeks later, to my surprise, she called. She went into great detail about this project, one that she started over ten years ago. Her kids have been encouraging her to write a memoir because she’s led such an interesting life, but she doesn’t use computers, and the woman who helped her start it has been too busy to continue.

As I talked to this woman and learned her story, I realized that there are so many people who lead amazing lives, but some of the best details will die with them. They may not have a great command of the English language, but they have stories worth passing on. It would be a shame for this woman to never see her dream fulfilled just because she’s not a “writer.” I feel privileged to help her share her bit of history with her family.

Another opportunity arose in late May. I had just published my children’s book Hero (shameless plug – buy it here!), and Peter shared it with his kindergarten class. Afterward, one of his teachers mentioned that she has always wanted to write a book but needs help.

“Sure, let’s do it,” I said before I even knew what she wanted. Hey, I had just illustrated and published my first children’s book – I was flying high and felt like I could do anything.

Her face lit up as she described her 20-year dream. She used to take her children for bike rides around Amelia Island. They would stop at interesting trees, and she would make them create stories about how those trees came to look like that. Combining her love of nature with her interest in developing writing skills in children, she wants to create a book with photos of interesting trees and writing prompts. As with her own children, kids will “Look at this tree” and be encouraged to write a story about it.

It’s right up my alley. Although I’ve never created a book like this, I must admit that I love writing prompts. I love anything that starts with a tiny seed and blossoms into a beautiful story.

I really feel that I could give her a push – much like with a child on a bike with the training wheels removed for the first time – and watch her go, but I also understand that I’ve been in the publishing world for a while now, and it’s no longer mysterious to me. If you’re not right in the middle of it, though, you might think writing a book is unattainable.

I was there once. I’ve talked about my college fiction workshop before, and the second time I signed up, our instructor Ari pulled a group of us together (the ones who were serious about getting published) and gave us the low-down on publishing. 1) It’s a competitive market that’s difficult to break into, and 2) it’s still not guaranteed to be everything you hoped and dreamed even if you do get published. What Ari suggested was that we pull our best stories together and create our own publication. And so Fiction Fix was born. With his direction, we figured out what we were supposed to do, and more than 11 years later, Fiction Fix is going strong as an online fiction journal. We’ve grown quite a bit from that group of desperate writers who just wanted to see our stories in print; now we receive submissions from all over the world.

We were lucky in that we had someone who saw our desire to write and be read and who knew just when to push us. But for those out there with the desire but no direction, no help, no idea except THE IDEA for a story or book, the task can seem daunting. But here’s the thing: if you have a book that you want to write, the only thing in your way is your own indecision. Instead of dreaming or joking about maybe writing a book some day, you need to take action.

Indie (self-published) authors are more prevalent than ever. The internet has done many wonderful things for writers, on-demand and e-publishing being two of them. And even if you don’t write, these tools and their practitioners have made publishing a much more attainable reality than it used to be.

An internet search can give you everything you need, from writers’ support groups and social networks to online book publishing to lists of freelance editors (like me!). Don’t ever assume that the person you’ve just looked up is the real deal until you’ve done some research. (I learned this the hard way, regarding literary agents – read my story here.) Also don’t assume that the big companies are your only choice. Everywhere you look, you will find writers and editors with different levels of expertise. You’ll even find local printing companies, graphic designers, and illustrators who can all help bring your book to life. These are real people with whom you can share a cup of coffee – and your dream.

But if you’d like some resources, here are some websites to check out:

  • Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace (’s answers to e-publishing and on demand publishing)
  • (distributor of eBooks to every conceivable e-format)
  • Writer’s Digest and Writer’s Market (tips for writing and publishing)
  • LinkedIn (where professionals go to network – Facebook and Twitter are great, but if you want to connect with writers who can help you get started, I can’t think of a better place)
  • (Ever wonder if you could write a novel in a month? If you’re serious about this, I promise that you will have the writing experience of a lifetime.

So… do you have a story to tell?

Want to help with the writing prompt book?

Look at This Tree

Look at This Tree

The writing prompt book I mentioned is the brain-child of my friend Karen Saltmarsh. We’re going to title it Look at This Tree, and we’re looking for high-quality photos of interesting trees that could tell a story. To the left is an example from a park that I visited in Washington State. (Don’t you think there could be a secret hideout for some mythical, woodland creature under the roots?) If you have something you’d like to submit, please fill out the contact form on my Writing Services page, and Karen and I will consider your photo for her book.

Adding to My Personal Soundtrack

Quarta gregoriano

Quarta gregoriano (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t talk enough about the musical influences in my life. I know it’s all books-this and writing-that, but I really wouldn’t be the well-rounded individual that I am (ha) without the music in my life.

There are times when music surprises me; a song that I’ve heard many times will suddenly awaken a creative something within me. Since I’m a writer, that “something” is usually a scene in a book I’m writing. Sometimes it’s the “aha!” moment I’ve been waiting for. Other times (like what I posted about most recently), a novel almost gets derailed by a new scene that I never would have imagined, were it not for hearing the right song at the right time.

Then there are other times that music doesn’t necessarily evoke a specific image or scene, yet it fulfills some emotional (and I would go as far as to say spiritual) hole and leaves me pleasantly full and happy, even energized.

What brings all this up? Well, I’m kind of riding a high from attending an evening of uplifting, choral music. A boring way to spend a Friday night, right? Well, not if I got chills during the first song (I did) and can’t stop thinking about the sound and the joy on the faces of the singers (I can’t).

You see, that’s how it is in this relationship I have with music. Many songs or musical events become a part of what I think of as the soundtrack of my life. (Don’t worry, as a writer, I sometimes narrate my life, too, but today it’s all about the music.)

Alanis Morissette

Cover of Alanis Morissette

For instance, any time I hear “The Sign” (Ace of Base), I’m overcome with nostalgia – it’s the title song of my first CD. The same goes for Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill; I bought that CD in the seventh grade, and so did my husband. It’s part of our middle school soundtrack.

And so it continues: musicals I participated in as a teenager, such as Annie and Fiddler on the Roof; Metallica’s S&M CD (one of the best Christmas presents Thomas ever bought); our first System of a Down CD, which we bought and listened to when we drove to a Gator football game; the mix CD Thomas’s brother burned for us a couple days before we got married, so we listened to it everywhere we drove on our honeymoon. And our wedding itself contained a mini-concert. Some people told me it was a long ceremony because of all the music. But we’re musical people. Thomas’s grandfather was in a band. My mom’s mom and dad’s dad were both organists. It’s in our DNA.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So I’m raising my kids right, making them listen to “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Thriller” wherever we go. (Hey, I also downloaded “Let It Go” – don’t worry.) I’m helping them create their own soundtracks.

Most recently, I’ve discovered Rachael Sage; her single “Happiness (Maddie’s Song)” just came out on iTunes. I heard it once and couldn’t stop humming it for a couple days. And then there’s Pentatonix. I love it when someone posts one of their new songs on Facebook – which I’ll watch over and over, to my children’s chagrin. And Bastille – who doesn’t dig a rocker with a cool British accent?

Rachael Sage

Cover of Rachael Sage

Every new song, every concert, is a possible source for inspiration, but it goes deeper than potential best-selling novel ideas (as nice as they are). Songs are little triggers. I can hear one in the grocery store and be transported back to the fourth grade. Or remember the last concert I attended with a friend before she passed away. They’re pieces that may not always seem to go together – discordant, you might say – yet they make up the puzzle of me. And as strange as it may seem to hum classic rock in the store, listen to folk songs in the car, and spend an evening listening to choral music, I totally dig the big picture.

And it just keeps getting bigger. But I wouldn’t call that a bad thing.

The NaNoWriMo Loophole that Could Solve Your Early Inspiration Problem

Gearing up for NaNoWriMo.

Gearing up for NaNoWriMo (Photo credit: This Year’s Love)

Okay, I know I said “loophole,” but the solution I’m about to address isn’t really in the fine print. Anyone who cares to know what it is can just go to and read their FAQ. (Thank goodness for an organization that gives clear and concise answers.)

So what is this “loophole” that I’ve discovered, and what does it address? Well, excuse me if I digress by way of explaining…

Readers who have stuck with me since the beginning know that in 2012, I thought people were crazy to participate in NaNoWriMo (writing a 50,000-word novel from scratch, all in the month of November). Then in 2013, I had a change of heart. Or, that is, mere days (like two) before November, a story idea popped into my head, and I realized that I could wait a couple days to write and hope that magic would follow.

It did, and I am glad to say that it’s been the most fun I’ve ever had writing. Not only did I finish my novel, but I’ve edited it once and am currently putting the finishing touches on it, so I can send off to CreateSpace for my two free print versions, which I will then distribute to beta readers.

After participating once, I sometimes wonder what this November will bring. Will another idea come out of nowhere in the nick of time and make it possible for me to enjoy the same success as last year? Or could I possibly write a sequel to one of the other novels I’ve written, waiting until November to start? (This is what I consider a fallback option – but at least I do have a sequel that I’ve considered writing.)

I received an unexpected answer to these ponderings this past week. It hit me as inspiration almost always does – unexpected, uninvited. It’s not that I don’t like inspiration, but why can’t I be inspired at times when it’s a little more convenient?

I was driving across town when an image popped into my head. Two characters. And then a scene began to form. From there, it was a novel-size idea. And I was on my way to teach four- and five-year-olds in Sunday school, with no time to even jot down my idea.

I realized that this could be the idea I’d hoped for, except that it had arrived six months too early. I didn’t dare write anything except notes – character’s names and ages and little bits of backstory. If I wrote an actual scene or dialogue, that was it; I could forget using it for NaNo and would have to hope that either I could make the sequel idea work or that another novel-size idea would be born in the intervening months.

As it happens, I have several big projects in the works, and a new novel does not fit into my busy schedule. I barely had time to capture the scope of my idea in writing, much less sit down and let the prose flow. I figured that if I could stall long enough to finish these projects, maybe I could endure until November.

Being extremely busy, however, does not mean that I’ve quit thinking about this new, unwritten story. I’ve been walking around in a daze of possible scenes, sometimes whispering lines – maybe if I do this, I can make them stick. I’m sure anyone who catches me at it will think I’m nuts.

And in stolen moments, I’ve written loose descriptions of these scenes, where and when they happen in the flow of the story, creating – ugh – a sort of outline. Despite being a planner, I like to outline as little as possible when writing fiction. Yes, it’s great to know where a story is going and even some destinations along the way, but during the writing, the adventure is letting the story and characters dictate, day by day and scene by scene, what happens next. So waiting until November to write, allowing myself to put down bullet points and thus possibly boxing my story into a particular shape, isn’t sitting too well.

It’s gotten to the point that I’ve realized I can’t let this go on much longer. Once these projects are no longer occupying my time, and especially once school is out and the kids and I are spending a lot less time commuting and a lot more time at home, it’s going to be hard not to write.

I decided to check out the NaNoWriMo FAQ again, thinking that I would have to use the sequel idea if I wanted to be able to participate this year. I was sure that was one of the questions I saw listed before, but I wasn’t worried about it at the time and didn’t read the answer. Upon checking the site, I didn’t see the sequel question after all, but I did find something else. From their website:

We think NaNoWriMo works best when you start a brand-new project. However, what’s most important is being excited about what you’re writing. If you want to work on a pre-existing project, you have our full support!

Outlines, character sketches, and other planning steps are encouraged. Just be sure to only count words written during the month.

Here’s the loophole, people! Not only are sequels okay, but I could pull out something I started five years ago and pick up where I left off. The only words that count, however, are the ones I write in November, of which there must be a minimum of 50,000.

Hmm… This is very tempting. I can go ahead and write the scene that keeps popping in my head and won’t leave me alone – that way I don’t have to continue whispering it to myself like a crazy person. What I’m afraid of, though, is that once a little fissure opens in the dam, I’m going to invite the whole flood, and I won’t have 50,000 words left to write, come November.

It’s a risk I’m willing to take. After all, I have that sequel that could still work if this new idea takes off. And I think the NaNo people would agree that it’s wonderful that new ideas are still occurring to me and begging to be written. So I’ll hold off as long as I can, but when I can’t keep the creativity in any longer, watch out.

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The Sock Graveyard

An argyle sock, knit using intarsia

Argyle Sock (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know your secret. Oh, yes, I do. You don’t tell other people because they’ll think you’re crazy. I know you’ve been doing your laundry as usual, folding the clean clothes, but that one stubborn sock is missing its twin. Where is the stupid thing? Why, it’s one of a myriad of socks in the great sock mountain, probably underground, with a little hairless sock goblin perched on top. He’s got bulbous eyes, a wide mouth, and he’s currently rubbing his hands together in glee, croaking, “Mwuhahahaha.”

If you live in a house like mine, where there is a place for everything, even if everything isn’t always in that place, you’ll understand that odd socks just don’t belong. The sock drawers in our house have the socks neatly organized in pairs, or in my kids’ rooms, I just roll pairs together because I know that, otherwise, they’ll become hopelessly separated.

These odd socks, the ones that don’t belong, live in a sock graveyard. And where is the sock graveyard? Well, in my house, it’s in the laundry room. That’s right, those socks don’t ever have a chance of getting onto a foot, not while I’m on the case. I currently have four, one that belongs to my husband and three to my elder son. Now, I have a pretty good idea where those three little socks are, but that one poor, black dress sock? It’s been hanging out for months, wishing I would put it out of its misery already. Perhaps waiting for me to turn my back, and the little sock goblin will take it away to be with its brother.

But I’m smarter than that. I know that if I throw it away, either the matching sock will suddenly decide to come back from wherever it’s been, or another of Thomas’s black dress socks will have a hole or something, and then the joke’s on me.

Now, why is the full-time writer mom pining away about a few odd socks? Well, “mom” is a part of my title, right? And my job description does include laundry. But you know I’m going to tie it back to writing, like I always (well, like I frequently) do. If nothing else, the sock goblin makes a good story, right? It takes the socks and replaces them with those totally useless wire hangers that only serve to ruin my shirts.

But there’s more to it than that. Sometimes I get an idea on the road or while wrestling my toddler or when I’m desperately trying to fall asleep, and the only thing to do to get that idea to leave me alone is to jot it down. I have an entire folder on my hard drive that is full of these unfinished (or barely started) documents. Sometimes I’ll simply write a title, knowing that it will be enough to get me started when I finally have time to write the content. Sometimes I have a bullet list of points I don’t want to forget. They’re incomplete and would make absolutely no sense to anyone else. They’re so much clutter when I have more fruitful projects on the line. Yet they still belong. Throw them out, and I may lose something important. Wait long enough, and the story or article may bloom some day when I least expect it.

Little sock/idea goblin, I’m watching. I know you’re there, and I’m holding onto what I have for dear life.

If Morning Is the Best Time to Write, Why Does Inspiration Strike at Night?

Français : Logo de la société de conseil en sé...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m driving home, minding my own business, thoughts jumping all over the place, from the uplifting choral concert I just attended to all the necessary housekeeping things that I have to do when I get home. And for some reason, my novel decides to join the mix. I don’t know why. I’ve given it a rest while sending out queries to literary agents. It’s no good thinking about what I should have written because the letters are all sent. I know they’ll all be rejections, so why dwell on what’s going to turn into a bunch of nothing in the end?

I can’t help it, that’s why. I’ve invested an awful lot of time and effort over the past decade into this unpublished book and its sequels. I’ve written my soul into it. And is it even any good? I’ve had two other writers (neither one related to me) read its latest revision and praise it. The pacing is good, the plot is solid, the fantastical elements aren’t too out-there, and even the ending is satisfying without wrapping it up too neatly. Sure, they suggested a few tweaks, which I made. So why am I not happy? Well, because I can’t sell the damn thing, that’s why. And you know I’m frustrated if I start throwing the D-word around.

As I’m driving along, enjoying my little pity party and wondering what else I can possibly do to make my story a little clearer to someone who doesn’t know me from Eve, an analogy pops into my head. It’s pretty good, too, one that should make my fantasy kingdom understandable to people who live in this world. Not perfect, but it’s the start that I need. I can get it on paper, show it to my mother, ask her if I’m crazy, then do a lot of research to make sure I understand what I’m trying to say. . . And hope it works.

Yay for me. I only wish I wasn’t in the car at 9:45 P.M. with my children in the backseat, a million things to do between having access to paper and pen and the actual chance to use them – and my alarm is going to go off at 5:00 A.M. if I like it or not.

I call these kind of out-of-nowhere ideas brainwaves. And they usually come at completely inconvenient or inappropriate times. Sitting in the pew at church? Good time for a plot twist to finally gel. Washing my hair? What a great moment to have a story-changing revelation! In a meeting, in the classroom, in the middle of the night – that’s when these things happen. Not ever when I plan to sit down and write. Good stuff happens then, too, don’t get me wrong. But not life-changing. Not story-altering. Rarely revelatory. It’s why I carry a little memo pad in my purse, and I use the digital notepad in my iPhone all the time (and email my notes to myself afterward, just in case they accidentally get deleted).

A couple years ago, I read that early morning (we’re talking pre-dawn) is the best time to get those creative juices flowing. At the time, I was pregnant and exhausted all the time. I dreaded even thinking about getting up before six to get my son to school, especially with a second child on the way. Fast forward to now, when I get up at 4:30 during the school year and 5:00 during the summer. The problem is, I don’t do it to write: I do it to exercise. I can squeeze writing in during odd hours, but I can’t fit a workout into five minute increments during the day, not to mention that if I’m going to shower after exercising (and believe me, that’s a must), I have to do it while my kids are asleep. That doesn’t mean that the writer in me stays quiet and waits patiently, though. On a day when I really need to shed the extra pound or two that I packed on by overindulging the night before, a brainwave inevitably hits, and I end up chasing a wild hare down a winding path that doesn’t end until after the sun’s up.

So why not wake up half an hour earlier? What’s thirty minutes, anyway? I suppose I could. But inspiration doesn’t pay attention to alarms. It comes with its own alarm bells, especially when I’m already running late and don’t need another distraction.

Even so, I love those moments.

If I didn’t have them, I don’t think it would be worth it to keep on writing. Of course I write on days when I’m not inspired because I know I have to – and because, thank goodness, there is a happy medium between writer’s block and writer’s, um, diarrhea. But if I never had that spark of inspiration to begin with, I don’t know if I would have been motivated to write for the love of it in the first place. Maybe that explains why so many people who can string words together beautifully don’t have the passion for it that others of us do.

Brainwaves grab me, distract me from things that were important moments before. Granted, they kind of turn me into a monster if I get interrupted, but the jubilation that comes when I’m done makes it worth slogging through dirty dishes and loads of laundry and long car rides – and the bags under my eyes and frequent yawns the next day. Those epiphanies, few though they are, keep me excited about writing. And I hope they make what I’ve written worth reading.

Apparently, I Have A Conflicted Personality

They say you write what you know.

Well, maybe not you specifically, but I know I’m guilty.

I can’t help turning my life into stories. There I am, walking along, minding my own business, when I realize I’m narrating what I’m doing. But instead of carrying a bag of groceries into my condo, maybe I’m a World War II nurse with an armful of gauze and blankets for my patients. Or maybe the phone rings in the middle of the night. It’s someone dialing the wrong number, but I can’t help wondering, What if that had been the call that no one wants to receive, that something terrible happened to a loved one?

Years ago, that very situation happened, and instead of going back to sleep, I lay awake all night, constructing a new story. I built it around what might have happened. Since the catalyst was something that actually happened to me, it was hard not to give the main character some of my own attributes. Sure, I made her older, gave her a different job, changed her appearance, let her live in my dream house, but to take it from a theoretical “what if” to the story I’d imagined, the main character turned out a lot like me.

I decided to workshop my story, and according to the class rules, I was not allowed to say one word during the reading or subsequent critique. I’d been through the process several times before, so I was over how unnerving it feels to have my story alternately praised and criticized with me sitting right there, helpless to answer any questions or defend myself.

My fellow workshoppers started talking about the character. She was too needy, they said, and there was no way she could be A and B, when she was so obviously P and Q, as well as Y and Z. She was conflicted—how on Earth could a person like her exist? Part of me wanted to laugh, and another part was dying to defend her—because I was A,B, P, Q, Y, Z, and every letter in between. Of course she was real because she was mostly me! But I certainly wasn’t needy. . . they’d gotten that part wrong. (Gulp—am I needy?)

Since then, when other English majors I know complain about how they hate math or just can’t get organized or don’t understand other kinds of artists, I smile and remember that I shouldn’t be able to do those things either. After all, my type of personality isn’t supposed to exist. But somehow I got creativity and organizational skills from both parents, a talent for spotting typos a mile away from my mother, and a math brain from my father (and his mother before him). If asked about my favorite pastimes, I’d be hard-pressed to put my top four in order of importance, but alphabetically, they are as follows: bookkeeping, reading, singing, and writing. Yep, that was bookkeeping on the list. I also love editing (sometimes I have more fun editing something I’ve written than actually writing it to begin with), but I lump that in with writing.

It makes me think that, while I don’t know any other Sarah Cotchaleovitches, certainly there are other “conflicted” personalities out there. Come on, admit it—you are, too, aren’t you?