Concrete Tips on Book Writing: It’s Like Working a Puzzle

Jigsaw 3 bits out

Just how does one go about writing a book?

Have you ever had that thought?

I am a published author and most days, I still struggle with that question. There’s so much involved in writing a book: craft, connections, moxie, perseverance.

And then there’s this, too: writing is vulnerable. Edna St. Vincent Millay said “a person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down.”

But what else can we do? We must write. And sometimes our efforts turn into a book.

I am in the process of writing my second book, which has pretty much eclipsed everything else in my life. With my first book, I took years writing the whole manuscript before finding an agent and a publishing house. This time, my agent sold the book on proposal with a deadline. I was given eleven months to write and submit it. Yikes.

But how do you actually do it?

I’ve decided that, either way, whether you are on deadline or on your own agenda, writing a book is like doing a puzzle.

I write creative nonfiction. My puzzle pieces are anecdotes and stories from my life. I lurch around in the darkness of my writing cove, type words, peel back memories and scenes from the past, and try to find something salvageable to get down on paper. I try pieces in different places, and attempt to trust that the piece has a place, and that at some point the puzzle will be complete.

Yeah, but, can you answer the question?

Oh, right, I’m supposed to give you a few concrete tips on writing a book.

Let’s assume you are a writer. Here are skills you already possess: you read a lot, you write, you have taken classes or participated in a writing workshop that critiqued your work. Let’s assume you are ready to write a book, and you are looking for a few quick, concrete tips regarding the process.

OK, I can help with that.

-I prepare. I read a chapter from a book I love. I pray about my writing. I block common distractions (i.e. if the kids are home, it is off to the coffee shop I go). I look at my calendar on Google and plan writing time. It is as official as doctor appointments and school functions.

-I write. I can’t tell you how many people have talked to me about writing. “How much of the story do you have down?” I ask. “Oh, I haven’t started writing yet. It’s all up here.” (points to head). Yeah, no, that’s not going to work. I try to find several hours to write. I shoot for 1000 words or two hours editing. I spend time looking off into space, though, too.

-I realize that it takes a lot of work. It took me years to write the first draft of Sun Shine Down. And just so you know, nobody writes wonderful first drafts (if they do, I am going to avoid them and refuse to read their work on principle). Rewriting is key. I hired a professional editor, printed out her suggestions, sat down to the blank page, and re-typed the whole thing.

-I look for tools that will help. I purchased Scrivener, a word processing program specifically for writers. I can pop in and out of chapters easily and I love the cork board feature that helps me see the big picture of my book. I also found an app in Google Chrome based on the Pomodoro Technique. It blocks social media for 25 minutes and then gives me 5 minutes to check email or get up before returning to work. Keep your eye out for tips and tools that will help you and then go a step farther, and utilize them.

-I try to ignore negativity. Beware. Throughout the process you will assume you can’t do it. After, God willing, your book publishes, you still won’t believe you did it or that you could do it again. One of the best ways I know to ignore negativity is to keep writing. I also talk to other writers and attend a monthly writing group.

The second half of Millay’s quote is “If it is a good book nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book nothing can help him.”

So, here’s to good books! Here’s to puzzle pieces in place, and here’s to us in our writing pursuits!

Write to be Relevant

Twelve years ago, tragedy struck our nation. For the second time in United States history, we experienced a day that “lives in infamy,” a day we were attacked on our own soil. From across our country, people came together from every religious, ethnic, and cultural background. The walls fell for a few short weeks between liberals and conservatives, and we stood united in the face of great threat.

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So many years later, many have forgotten the pain they experienced that day, but they are reminded through the documentaries, television shows, and news broadcasts. Flags will fly and people will remember where they were on 9/11.

The news will make much of the event that marked this day twelve years ago. Why? Because people want to know. They will take to the internet and read articles and more new stories. They will remember the valiant plane crew and cheer their heroism. They’ll remember the firefighters and first responders who bravely ran into the towers as they crashed.

As writers, our bread and butter is anticipating what our audience wants. Where are the holes in the market? What’s doing well? What isn’t? Judge the attitudes and mindsets of people. Teen fantasy sells well because those that buy it want to escape reality. The same could be said for many Amish fiction readers.

Know who you are writing for. Let’s be honest. Most of us would like to say that our audience is everyone from 16 to 95, but that’s not realistic. While you hope that those in that age range will read your books, attempt to tailor it to a certain group within that and then market hard. I am a young adult who understands the heart, habits, and hang ups of my generation. I can tailor my novels to my age group. However, I also want to make it relatable to every age group, so I create characters that every group can somehow identify with.

At a mentoring clinic I attended, one of my mentors, a very successful author, looked at me and said, “Kariss, your books perfectly describe your generation’s desire to not simply DO church but to BE the church. You have a lot to learn from those who have gone before, but my generation could learn a lot from your generation by reading this book.” Why? Because at one point, this man was my age. His children are my age. His grandchildren will be my age. It’s still relevant and relatable to him.

We’ve been at war since I was 13. But as a result, I’ve come to value the brave men and women who serve our country and protect our freedom. It’s affected the way I write. It’s even bled into my characters as I researched and created courageous Navy SEALs. I live in an age of everyday heroes who are seldom recognized. 9/11 is relevant to me today, but it also shaped my teen years. It sent my friends into the service and combat. While the media markets this day for other reasons, I choose to remember. And in my writing, I make these heroes front and center, because no matter the day, they are relevant. Now that’s something to market.

Three Ways to Focus on Editing for the Web

“Real writing begins with re-writing” (James A. Michener).

I began blogging in 2008, and I’ve visited many websites to determine the most effective way to communicate online. I developed a helpful web-editing checklist below from my research for a writing workshop using three photographic terms—the panoramic, macroscopic, and microscopic viewpoints.

Panoramic View. Begin the editing process by determining the overall, or broader view, of contents and evaluating your audience, purpose, context, and the design elements.

  • Read aloud from the reader’s perspective (not the writer’s).
  • Find main point and sub-points. Can you summarize your piece easily?
  • Examine benefits for reader (take-away value).
  • Use appropriate fonts (not fancy or distracting to your content).
  • Use subheading in boldface type to introduce more points.

Macroscopic View. Take a closer look at paragraphs, word usage, and tone.

  • Place main topics near beginning of each paragraph and sentence.
  • Limit each paragraph to one main idea.
  • Use shorter units of text with more breaks.
  • Use an introduction for a “teaser” paragraph (preview for content).
  • Avoid long texts that break content into several pages.
  • Provide a brief summary or table of contents hyperlinked to each section for text over 500 words. Use lists, hyperlinks, and extra white space for a long document to break up dense patterns of text.
  • Avoid slang, jargon, and inappropriate humor.
  • Use nondiscriminatory language (e.g., bias based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, sexuality, disability).
  • Use common words (appropriate for target audience).
  • Avoid vague words.
  • Use key words to describe the site in the first 50 words of text.
  • Build verbal bridges to connect text (transition).
  • Use action verbs rather than passive.
  • Incorporate single links into content (embedded into the text).
  • Make short, bulleted lists of links.
  • Use “Find Out More” links, when details are needed.

Microscopic View. Zoom in on the elements of grammar, mechanics, and punctuation.

Self-editing should distance you from your piece, so you can examine it without the emotional attachment. You can see your actual words, rather than just intentions. Consider these final ideas to help you edit for the web.

  • Create style sheet/guide with some common problems, to avoid repetitive research of the editing rules (e.g., grammar, mechanics).
  • Find someone to read and edit your work (e.g., critique group, another writer).

Remember: “You write to discover what you want to say. You rewrite to discover what you have said and then rewrite to make it clear to other people” (Donald Murray).

Image(s): FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Do you have any tips for editing for the web?

Making Dialogue Work

Dialogue is one of the hardest working tools we have because we ask it to do so much. It has to convey information, develop and move the plot, increase tension and conflict all while sounding natural.

Perhaps most importantly, dialogue must engage the reader through revealing our characters. It brings them to life and shows their personalities, their quirks, their goals, and their fears.

The most effective and real dialogue comes when we know our characters as intimately as possible. Whether our story is plot-driven or character-driven, we have to invest the time in writing biographies, character analyses, Meyers-Briggs assessment, journals, interviewing them, and experimenting with how they speak, act, think, and feel. And they’ll still surprise us.

In my first novel, Journey to Riverbend, I had a problem with the story arc of my female protagonist, Rachel. She was a former prostitute who received Jesus. She was also striving to open a dress-making business in a town where many were hostile to her because of her past. It wasn’t until I interviewed her that I learned Rachel was a feisty, determined young woman with numerous questions about her new-found faith, anxieties about her future, and wondering if love could ever be part of her life.

And I discovered her voice changed depending on her situation. She had a business voice she used with customers and an almost child-like awe when she talked about her faith. At times her prostitute “don’t mess with me” voice came into play. When the mayor attempted to get too familiar, Rachel stopped him cold with the whispered line, “I’m making dresses for your wife. I can make her look like a laughing stock while convincing her she looks like Queen Victoria.”

With these new insights, Rachel’s dialogue became stronger, more connected to her emotions at the moment, more realistic. It revealed more of her personality, her dreams, her fears.

Rachel came to life through her dialogue.

Make the time to know your characters. They’ll reward you with stronger personalities and become people that readers will keep turning pages for.

How has dialogue allowed you to develop your characters even further? What have you learned about your characters through dialogue that surprised you?