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

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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!

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I Told You So

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Some of the most well meaning people told me to wait to write until I get older. No way a twenty-something can write what people want to read. You don’t have enough real world experience. This is a pipe dream.

The reality of writing a book is that this is a tough job, tough business, and not everyone succeeds. So often the people in our lives have the best intentions as they quietly attempt to redirect us. They don’t want us to be disappointed, experience the sting of failure, or struggle through pain induced by rejection.

Thank goodness the Lord has different plans. I’m thankful for those who attempted to redirect me. I’m thankful for the countless friends and family members who consistently encouraged me. Both groups helped me trust the Lord more. I imagine Him smiling down with a little chuckle and saying, “I told you so.”

I am under qualified in life experience, but I serve a big God. If fisherman can become world changers, so can I. I love what the apostles say in Acts 4:20, “As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” So let’s turn that into writing advice:

1)   Write what you know.

I know the heart of young adults to make a difference and dream big. I know the pitfalls that come with learning this adult life. I know the struggles of my parents to raise kids and find a new dynamic with adult children. I know my grandparents’ joy as they pour into us and take the “friend and counselor” role because they’ve already done the parent thing.

I know the south. I know Texas. I understand different personality dynamics. I know how girls think. With a younger brother, I’ve been around guys enough to know how they react and respond.

Bam. I can take all that and craft characters, scenes, problems, and story lines. Imagination takes care of the rest.

2)   Write what you want to learn.

In the course of writing my first book, I wanted to learn more about the SEALs, Haiti, and living in the deep south. (Yep, my brain is random.) So I set my book in Alabama with a trip to Haiti and a Navy SEAL love interest. I might recommend starting out with something slightly more familiar for a first novel, but I rarely pick the easy avenue when I start a project. So here we are!

I traveled to Haiti, made friends with a SEAL, and peppered my Alabama friend with questions and requests for pictures. I worked to become an expert. I’m still a long way from perfection, but I can now speak with a working knowledge on these topics.

3)   Write from your passions.

Three things impact my writing heavily:

– Characters that dream big

– Life as an adventure

– Hope that is found in Christ

I believe we serve a big God who loves to do big things with everyday people. I believe every day is an adventure crafted by the Master Storyteller. And I believe every story ends with hope because of Christ. Forget this post-modern idea that you live and die and that’s it. We were created for something more, and my stories wrestle through hard issues that don’t always end perfectly but always end with Christ. With that fueling me, passion informs every word I write.

I don’t have to understand life, the universe, and everything. I understand my world and snapshots of the world around me. I write what I know. I write what I want to learn, and in doing so, my world expands to fuel my next novel. I write what I’m passionate about, which changes and grows constantly.

Now, I’m telling you that you can do it. You can achieve your writing dream. There were many moments when I doubted this dream would come true. But if the Lord has called, He will bring it to pass. Keep writing. Keep growing. Keep networking.

One of these days, when you get that first contract in the mail, know that you heard it here first: I told you so!