Writing 101: How Do I Write a Book?
Updated: Aug 23, 2021
Quite a few people, especially other autistic people, have asked me whether I have advice on writing a novel and getting published. As it turns out, yes, I do. So I thought I would try and compile some of it here.
Before I begin, a big disclaimer. Writing advice cannot possibly be one-size-fits-all. There are as many different ways to be a writer as there are writers. I very much do not want to be one of Those People who insists that everyone do it her way. So I am not going to tell you that you have to write every day, or make an outline before you write. I don't do either. I am, as you will see, somewhat chaotic in my process. But for purposes of this post, I will describe some things that work for me. You may want to try some of these suggestion out. You may think they're completely terrible. In that case, feel free to ignore me! I'm not in the business of telling anyone how to write a book.
Also, for purposes of this post, I will assume that your goal is to eventually write a book that will be traditionally published. Obviously, this is not the only way to build a career or receive fulfillment from writing. But this is my area of expertise, so that's what I'm writing about.
So, with that disclaimer, I'll start with the most obvious topic: writing and finishing a book.
This is a really hard topic for advice-giving. Honestly, I've written five novels from beginning to end (two published as of this writing), and I still don't feel like I know how to write and finish a book most of the time. So keep that in mind when reading my thoughts on the subject.
For me, the thing that helped me most to write a book was just to do it. When I wrote my first (unpublished) manuscript, I was at a difficult point in my life. I poured years of my life into a PhD only to not get an academic job. I felt like I had failed at the only thing I ever really tried to do. So I decided, on a bit of a whim, to finally try writing a novel. I wasn't really sure if I could do it, but I came up with an idea and a loose outline and I started writing. And eventually I got to a point where I had something that was sort of book-shaped, with a beginning and ending and conflict and all of that.
Now, I should say that this first book was in no way ready for querying, let alone actual publication. The final word count was about 57,000 words, which is way too short for a YA historical fantasy, the category I was writing in. It was a bit of a mess in all sorts of ways. But it was finished, and that was such a point of pride for me.
For my next book, I decided to switch to MG, which was a more natural fit for my style and voice. That book wasn't the one, either, but it was a lot closer. My next novel was Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen!
So here's what I've learned from the process of muddling through five manuscripts:
If you want to write, get started writing. You don't need to have an outline or anything like that. (Although if that's your jam, give it a try. Most people don't discover if they're plotters or pantsers until they have a few manuscripts completed.) Just try to start putting words on the page and see what comes of it.
You do not have to write every day. However, I personally find that it is easier to maintain momentum if you write at least semi-regularly. Your writing sessions don't have to be long. Even ten minutes or a few hundred words is progress. Social media is full of writers talking about how they wrote 15,000 words in a week, but that's not the only way to do it. Try to tune that out if it isn't helpful to you. If you steadily work on something, you will finish it eventually, even if it takes years.
When you're writing your first novel, resist the urge to go back and fix things. I admit that I sometimes do this now, but I feel okay about it because I'm reasonably confident that I can finish. For a writer attempting to finish their first manuscript, revising before you get to the end is unlikely to work. You can so easily fall down the revision rabbit hole. For the first manuscript, finishing is more important than perfection.
If you decide to make changes halfway through, just pretend that things have always been the way you want them to be. Change a character's name. Pretend that a pivotal scene actually happened way back in scene 3. You may want to take note of your changes so you don't get confused later, but the key is to not kill your momentum by going back. At the same time, you don't have to proceed down a path you know to be wrong.
Experiment with different tools to get your writing done. A blank Word document, or Scrivener project, can seem incredibly intimidating. I usually begin a project by writing something in the notes app so that it feels less high-stakes. And then when I do start an actual document, I already have something for the beginning. Try using a word processor machine, or longhand, if that appeals to you. Basically, it doesn't matter how you write. Using different methods can create organizational issues, but so long as you keep it somewhere, you can eventually use what you write.
If you reach a point where you're frustrated, take a moment to write about your writing. Try to diagnose why you might be struggling with a certain scene or character. You may find that you can generate ideas in this way. Alternatively, you may discover that you don't want to write a particular scene because it's boring. In that case, kill the scene and move on. If you don't want to write the scene, no one will want to read it.
It's okay to write scenes out of order. Some writers write the last line before they begin. I've never tried this myself, but it seems like it could be useful for many people. Using a program like Scrivener can help you keep your work orderly even if you're jumping around on the timeline. (I swear, I'm not being paid to advertise Scrivener! It's just useful.)
Find someone in your life who can read your work and cheer you on. At the drafting stage, you don't really need someone to give feedback or criticism. (Actually, that's probably counterproductive.) You just need someone to say, "cool! Great job! I want to see more." My husband does this for me, and I am so fortunate to have him. (Hi, honey! Shout-out to you.)
Use placeholders. If you don't want to describe something, write ((DESCRIPTION GOES HERE)). You can do that for dialogue, action scenes, or whatever else you just don't feel like writing at the moment. This can also be useful for instances where you don't want to interrupt your flow to look up the state flower of Florida.
Opinions vary widely among writers about whether it's a good idea to read while you're drafting. That's a personal decision. However, if you want to be a published writer, you do need to spend some time reading recently published books in your genre and category. This can serve as a source for inspiration and also give you an idea of what kind of books are being published. In most cases, a first-time novelist can't get published if your book is radically different from most others in your category in terms of wordcount or style. This is especially true in children's fiction. Kid readers are capable and insightful, but they will struggle through a 100,000-word book written in highly experimental prose. (So will most adults, for that matter.) If you want to write effectively for your audience, you need to know what else they're reading. Reading in your category will also help you in the querying stage.
Once you finish a manuscript, be open to exploring multiple categories and genres. I always thought I would be a fantasy/science fiction writer because I just love the genre so much. But it turns out that at this point in my writing life, my abilities are best-suited to realistic stories. If I hadn't been open to trying a different genre, I would probably not be published today. Writers are always discovering who we are. Don't pre-emptively close doors for yourself. (Having said that, you are unlikely to find success writing in a genre that you don't like and don't read.)
This is by no means a comprehensive list of How to Be a Writer, but I hope that it's helpful. More coming!