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 (Amazon.com’s answers to e-publishing and on demand publishing)
  • Smashwords.com (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)
  • NaNoWriMo.org (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.

My Summer Writing List

"Writing", 22 November 2008

Writing (Photo credit: ed_needs_a_bicycle)

In late 2012, I created a rather ambitious list of twelve books that I hoped to read this year (see it here), and I am happy to say that I’ve already read six of them and am close to being halfway through a seventh, not to mention the six additional books I’ve read that aren’t on the list at all. So since it’s summer, and all the school kids have their summer reading assignments, it only seems the appropriate time to really crack down and catch up.

And while I do hope to read more while I’m not teaching and have more time at home, I decided to create some additional assignments for myself this summer. It’s the first time in years – maybe since high school – that I’ve had a definable summer. With my elder son in school five days a week and with me substituting, this break is refreshing. No more four thirty A.M. alarm, a more relaxed dress code – and time.

It’s not infinite time. I still work with my parents part-time, and I spend half my day chasing my toddler. But mornings aren’t nearly as rushed. I’ve been able to eat breakfast while reading or writing instead of stuffing my mouth while making everyone’s lunch, getting the kids dressed, and searching for my keys in a last-minute panic.

With my few extra stolen minutes, what I really want to do is write. Of course, I want to read more, too, but I felt the pinch more when I didn’t have enough time to write during the school year. I remember back in November, when it seemed every writer in the country except me participated in NaNoWriMo, I thought how nice it would be to have the time to write 2000 words per day. Although I wasn’t that ambitious when it came to my summer writing goals, I thought 300 words a day of both new blog content and fiction would be manageable, and at least I could keep a steady pace. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but I didn’t want to overwhelm myself with unattainable goals. I mainly just wanted to get more on paper (or MacBook) while I could.

Thus far, I’ve been able to keep a post or three ahead on this blog, so I haven’t scrambled for content at the last minute (something I did too often in April and May), and even if I can’t write fiction every day, when I do I’m generally writing 1000 to 2000-plus words. As a goal-oriented person, it helped to create something constructive for me to do during the long stretch of what could easily have been non-productive days.

Sometimes my enthusiasm makes me go a little overboard, and although it’s a great feeling to ride the wave of a story over my creative horizon, it’s not so fun for the people who live with me. A few nights ago, I sat up in bed, typing well past my bedtime. My husband had been reading but had already gone to sleep. Or so I thought. “Are you going to type all night?” he finally asked. I winced when I saw what time it was and assured him that I was almost done. The next morning he told me he was sure I’d invented a new form of Chinese torture to keep him awake. I think I might be banished to the other room if I want to type late into the night again.

In addition to writing daily, I do have one concrete goal: I want to publish a new short story at Smashwords.com before school starts back again. I have about six weeks, and it’s is almost ready. Right now I’m meeting with my cover artist (AKA my mom) and polishing the story itself. If only I could figure out the perfect title, I’d be a little more confident about its release.

The only problem with all this writing that I foresee is: how am I going to be able to cut back once school starts again? My summer writing might just turn into my year-round writing. But you know, I could think of worse things to keep me up late at night.

Where Do Stories Come From?

The stork, right? Oh, wait, I’m getting confused–the stork is for babies. With stories, it’s a muse, or some other mysterious Something Out There. And while I joke about my muse or a great cosmic ocean of stories that trickle or flood into the minds and out of the pens of the writers they choose, my most successful stories certainly were not born of classroom assignments or formulas.

Sometimes a fictional situation or character takes me by surprise. This usually happens when I’ve had some form of artistic stimulation. For instance, while listening to a particularly moving song, a scene might pop into my head, not just begging but demanding to be transcribed. Then I’m left with the problem of building the story that goes with it.

There are other times that an event in my life so moves me that I must write to resolve or discover my own feelings about that situation. My story “Stranded” at Smashwords.com is a good example. Many readers think it doesn’t resolve, but what I’ve discovered is that the people who have the most difficult time with it believe a story isn’t finished if all the loose ends aren’t tied in pretty little bows. “What happens?” they ask. And I want to say that that’s not the point. Believe me, I’ve tried to change the ending or write a sequel. But every time I attempted to put a pat ending on it, it rang false. I decided to let the story be true to itself, even if it ticked off certain of my audience. And, in my opinion, some stories should stay that way.

There are other writers out there who have tried to answer questions for readers, and they often ruin a good story for me. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre are two stories that, as far as I am concerned, should stand alone. Yet other authors wrote sequels (Mrs de Winter by Susan Hill and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, respectively) that turned the original stories upside down. I guess while they make for interesting discussion, I wish I’d never read them.

So if some stories seem so incomplete or displeasing that other people find it necessary to “finish” them, why are they told to begin with? I don’t think storytelling has as much to do with finding out whodunit or the good guy defeating the bad guy as exploring the issues and truths that stimulated the stories’ authors to write. There are far fewer stories that dig and claw with bloodied fingernails for the truth than those that are written for publishing’s sake. These latter writers I call hacks, and they cheapen publishing for those of us who agonize over cutting scenes that we toiled over for weeks. They write to make a buck, not out of passion or soul-searching need. I would argue that, if there is a muse out there, he or she is not welcome by these people. Why? Because if writers open themselves to being ambushed by stories, they have to do difficult things, think uncomfortable thoughts, and face dark moments within themselves in order to tell the stories that need to be told. Plus, it is never easy writing something you don’t want to write but, nevertheless, must. J.K. Rowling wept when she killed Sirius Black, but he had to die, otherwise she could not have finished Harry’s tale.

The reason I know that “Stranded” is done is because of the satisfaction I felt when I last revised it. I resolved my own feelings about the issues behind my story, and it serves its particular purpose. If someone, someday feels compelled to write more about my characters, I only hope that it is because the story has found the right person to pick up the thread, rather than someone trying to tie up loose ends that should have remained untied.

And the Award for “Most Improved” Goes To. . .

Writer Wordart

Writer Wordart (Photo credit: MarkGregory007)

In L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Avonlea, Anne and her best friend Diana are getting ready to host an esteemed author for the afternoon, and among other worries, Diana frets about embarrassing herself by forgetting good grammar and saying “I seen.”

I recently rediscovered some of my own “I seen” moments in my own writing. While transferring all of my documents from my eight-and-a-half-year-old PC to my MacBook, I found some files that have been following me around from computer to computer since my early teens.

One story has been kicking around since I was thirteen, and although I haven’t worked on it since I was a junior in college, I still think about it from time to time. (If you read last week’s blog, it’s one of my infamous books that I wish someone else would finish writing for me.) When I was fourteen or fifteen, my computer corrupted this story’s original file. Thank goodness I’d printed some of it, but even that was only about a tenth of what I’d written and an old version, to boot. Naturally, I became depressed about not being able to replicate all that I lost. Not that any of it was great, as I rediscovered when I re-read some of it. Granted, the awfulness I am about to shame myself with is from the story’s outline, not the narrative itself. But still, I wrote it. Ready? In the second point of my outline, a character “has a car accident that strikes her in more ways than one.” I am pretty sure that I thought I was being clever with this terrible pun-slash-cliche. The only thing I can say in my favor is that I wrote it in high school, but I wish that I knew better back then.

The story itself is better, at least. I’ve always been a good speller and proofreader, and my real talent is dialogue (although dialogue tags are another matter). But there is too much exposition, too much telling bogging down the narrative. I was worried about readers seeing hairstyles and sweaters and kitchens exactly as I saw them–a common mistake for new writers. And it really did take until college for me to understand that cliches are no-nos. Here’s another little gem (from the story this time) that I can’t believe I wrote: “The world is everyone’s backyard.” Ugh. No wonder I gave up and went on to other stories.

When I took my first fiction workshop in 2002, I thought I was pretty hot stuff. Naive enough to assume that I was one of the few unpublished future bestsellers just waiting to be discovered, I was knocked off my self-constructed pedestal when my first story was critiqued. I thought it was unique. Well, it was definitely different. No one really understood it, and the piece that I thought would be published in some well-known literary rag and set me down the road to stardom soon went into my own personal slush pile. I worked with it some, but once I began to see the flaws, I realized there were more problems than acceptable prose.

I was disheartened to discover that, while I was an excellent editor, my writing skills weren’t nearly as honed or appreciated. I continued to write but with more realistic expectations. The key is that I did not give up, and I published a couple stories. One of them, “Stranded,” made it into the University of North Florida curriculum for some literature classes, and I visited a couple of those classes to talk to students. I always liked that story, had fun with the ending because it doesn’t resolve in a gift-wrapped package, complete with little bow. But I always had this nagging feeling that something needed to change, that it could be better. I even thought it might have to do with the pacing, but I didn’t know how to solve the problem. And since it was already in print, there was nothing I could do about it anyway, right?

I moved on again, devouring adolescent lit in every spare second, and that’s when I discovered my true voice and style as a writer. I started and finished my first novel, then had it workshopped and critiqued by a room full of writers. It was rough, very rough (even though I’d already revised it once), but with those critiques, I started making changes that improved the manuscript. I read more novels, more advice from writers, and I kept working. I received rejection after rejection from literary agents, which made me second- and triple-guess every element in my book. Often I despaired and gave myself ultimatums: If I’m not published by such-and-such a time, I’ll just save the money and self-publish it, so I can at least show my family what I’ve been doing all these years. I could have done that at any time, but while I might have had the joy of seeing it in print, I would not have made some of the changes that have finally brought the book to life. Recently, I asked some of my original readers from years ago to read a little of my book in its current revision. The story that had a good start eight-plus years ago but still had so far to go was met with unanimous enthusiasm, encouragement, and praise, not to mention some incredulity that I have yet to find a publisher.

As for “Stranded,” which I liked but never quite felt was finished, there’s this new thing you might have heard of called e-publishing, and it’s awesome. It puts not only publishing but even formatting into the authors’ hands. Of course, it also means that there are more people than ever who are able to publish absolute crap, but the readers are ultimately the ones who decide which writers make it or not. Through the eBook distributor Smashwords, I finally reprinted “Stranded” with the changes that I wanted (but didn’t know how) to make years ago.

I’ll never stop learning. Every time I read a book that gives me the best advice I think I’ve ever read, along comes another one that delivers new revelations. I love the challenge of topping my personal best, of moving ever forward. Maybe one day I’ll pass the level of “most improved” to “most read.” (A girl can dream, right?) Until then, I’ll make sure I don’t revert to my personal “I seen” moments.