So You Want to Write a Book, Part 1: Ready, Set, GO!

photo by Jacson Querubin via Flickr

Last month, in the first installment of So You Want to Write a Book, we talked a lot about the things you do before you sit down to write. We talked about research, character development, world building and outlining, and even using Pinterest. But that was Part 0. That was the list of things I, a novelist, believe a person can and should do before sitting down to write their novel.

Knowing your writing style will keep you from beating yourself up as you write.

This month, it's time to sit down. To write. Are you still with me? Have you researched and outlined, or decided to say "the hell with research and outlining, I'm ready to  write by the seat of my pants?" 

Are you ready to dive in?

(As for me....I dived in. I've been working on a particular novel for a month, and while going is slow due to Life and Family and Soccer-Mom-ing, I'm making progress. I hit 30,000 words last week, which isn't bad, and I'll check in next month with another progress report. This column is about you and me going through the process together.) 

Since I didn't start all that long ago, the beginning is still close. I remember quite clearly the first day of sitting down to write, and the answers to the questions we're about to discuss can set the stage for your entire novel-writing process. So let's talk. Let's say today is Day 1 for you. You're ready to start writing. Now what?

Now we have some more immediate questions, and decisions, that will help you get those first words out. Let's dive in together!

Where Will You Write?

What do real estate agents say? Location, location, location? 

The same is true for writing a book, and it sounds trite, but the answer(s) to this question are actually important. And what's more is that the question can be interpreted two ways.

Way #1: Are you a long-hand, notebook writer, or a computer writer? If the answer is long-hand, notebook, you're now free to close the computer and get started. Or at least you can skip the next major question in this column. Go get your notebook, your special pens, and your kerosene lantern (because this feels archaic and I like to tease people who write by hand, although I do admire their gumption), and head on down to the Great Prologue Debate section instead.

But if you're a computer writer, you should read the next section carefully. I've got good info there. Regardless, knowing if you're going to write longhand or on a computer or typewriter will determine the answer to...

Way #2: Where's your lucky writing spot? Where do you feel most comfortable working? In On Writing, Stephen King talks about his office, the placement of his desk (so he can't stare out the window). That's where he does his best work. Me? I have an "office" space set aside in my bedroom, with a cool desk and chair. But I write best in my living room, in the corner of my little red sofa. Beside me I need a glass of water (or coffee if it's early in the day, but caffeine and I don't get along past 10 a.m.). I like it when my puppy is snuggled up against me, though he's not supposed to be on the couch. 

That's my lucky spot. I've written five novels there. I've written countless columns and newspaper stories there. I used to sit there just to be social and keep my husband company when I was working full time and writing at night. Nowadays, I sit there during the day when there's no one home, and maybe I'll turn on some music and maybe I won't, but it's my writing space. It's where I'm sitting as I write this column. When I sit here with my computer, I'm already primed to write.

That's what it's about. Having a special spot, your space, nudges something in your brain and tells you to get to writing. Writing is a mental game; having a space set aside for the task may help you stay in the game longer.

Format Now or Later?

If you're writing in a notebook, don't read this. It doesn't affect you at all. You're going to do your thing with your pen and paper and simply thinking about it makes my hand cramp.

But if you're writing on a computer, this is an important question. I've done it both ways. I've opened a Google Drive document and started typing with no thought for formatting, and I've opened a Microsoft Word doc and very carefully chosen my fonts and paragraph indentations and line spacings and the like. Both have benefits, and both have downfalls.

Let me tell you a little story. The first book I ever wrote was Zombie Days, Campfire Nights, the first book in my Undead America series. When I started it, I had no idea what I was doing. I'd never written anything longer than a thousand words. I had a pink netbook as my computer, and it didn't have Microsoft Word. I had an idea I wanted to try writing, so I opened up Google Drive and created a new document. I started typing.

At the start of every paragraph, I hit the space bar five times. I hit Return twice between paragraphs. I had no thought of line spacing or anything like that. For me, it was all about the words.

Writing is a mental game; having a space set aside for the task may help you stay in the game longer.

It was weirdly cathartic, writing that way. I didn't have to pause or think about anything like publishing back then. I just...wrote. It was lovely.

Life changed. Two years later I had a publisher and we were about to release my zombies as an eBook. My baby! Release day was about three days away when I got an email.

"Oh my God," it said. "I need you to go through this file. Something bad happened, and every carriage return was deleted. Every indentation is gone."

Oh, fuuuuuuuck.

This was the results of my cathartic no-formatting-writing. At the beginning, knowing nothing about formatting, I just wrote. When I started submitting to agents and small presses, I'd copied my Google Drive document into a Word doc (yes, by then I'd purchased Word, trying to be All Official). Between the two programs and my own lack of absolute ignorance, the file was corrupted. It fell apart when my publisher attempted to upload it into publishing programs. I spent the next 24 hours reformatting the entire file, two days before release.

So, you know, that sucked. So keep in mind that, while there's something fun and theraputic about writing without formatting, if you have any desire of actually publishing your novel, formatting now is probably a better idea. There are a million posts all over the internets about how to do it—you can google and find details just as well as I can. But some basic tips include:

  • Indent using Word's paragraph indent feature, not by hitting the space bar five times like I did. And definitely don't use the Tab button. That mixes you up completely.
  • Use a readable font (Times New Roman 12 pt is fine) and double-space—this makes it easier for agents/editors to read your words
  • Use the Page Break feature. Don't just hit Return a million times to get you down to a new page.
  • Use headers and footers and page numbers—these will also help readability

Seriously. Look it up. There are how-to posts everywhere. If you want to be published, you need to be formatted. It's easier to format in the beginning than to re-format later. Trust me on that. I learned the hard way.

To Prologue or Not to Prologue?

Oh, hello. Are you writing a book? Then you should be finding and following all the agents and editors on Twitter. Writers, too. You can learn so much on Twitter by following a few key people. Start by researching agents/editors/writers who work in your genre, and follow follow follow.

Something I learned early on from following agents and editors on Twitter is this: agents and editors currently hate prologues. They hate 'em. So much that, for some of them, a prologue in a manuscript is an almost-automatic deal-breaker.

But I hear you—and me—saying this: As a writer, I love a prologue! I can use important literary tools in a prologue! Imagery! Foreshadowing of dark things to come! And then I can dive in and start the story in Chapter One!

Welp, here's the thing...you're starting your first draft here. If you feel like you need a prologue, write one! Go for it. Have fun with it. Use your foreshadowing and your dark imagery and your references of things to come. You can always edit/delete it later. This, the first draft, is your draft. Do what you want!

But do remember when you're about to start submitting (that'll be about five posts from now) that agents don't like 'em. Editors don't like 'em. In fact, some of them cringe when they see them. 

That said, almost every agent/editor I follow on Twitter also says this: there are no hard rules in writing, there are only guidelines. If you're going to do something that breaks a rule/guideline, do it so well that you'll make people wonder why it was ever a rule! In short: if you're going to do it, do it right, and no one will care that you have a prologue.

The All-Important First Line

I took a "boot-camp" style class six months ago in which we writers attempted to whip our first ten pages into awesome shape for submission to agents/editors. As part of the class, I listened to a notable agent give a 60 minute seminar about those integral first pages (by which SO MANY agents will judge your manuscript). About twenty or so minutes of that presentation were devoted to the importance of the first line of your book. The line by which you will capture your audience, make them care about your story. The line by which you will essentially sell or not sell your book.

So as you start writing your book...FORGET ALL THAT GREAT ADVICE! Seriously. As I started the project I'm working on now, I spent about two hours contemplating a solid first line. I wrote it. I deleted it. I wrote another one. I deleted it. After two hours, two hours I could have devoted to actually, oh, I don't know, STARTING MY STORY, I still had no first line, and it was time to go pick up my daughter from school. I'd accomplished nothing that day but for a lot of hair-pulling-out. I still had a blank document.

The next day I sat down to write, I wrote something silly as a first line, moved on, and wrote about three thousand words in two hours. I flew, and I got a lot of the story established, simply because I stopped caring about that first line. I got past it. It sucks, that's for sure, but that's the beauty of writing and editing—YOU CAN CHANGE IT AS MANY TIMES AS YOU LIKE! 

The first draft of the first line is just that: a first draft. And first drafts will always change. So don't sweat the first line. Tell your story. Move on.

Which brings us to our final question of this already lengthy article, which is...

Barf on the Page or Edit as You Go?

Remember last month when I asked you if you were an outliner or a seat-of-your-pantser, and I told you this was a Very Important Thing To Know? The answer to this question is just as important.

Do you barf on the page for your first draft, literally vomitting words the way...never mind, that metaphor is getting messy. What I mean is, do you write a first draft as fast as you can, simply for the joy of getting words on the page, and story down on paper?

...that's the beauty of writing and editing—YOU CAN CHANGE IT AS MANY TIMES AS YOU LIKE!

Or do you edit as you go, meticulously adding/deleting/changing words in each sentence you write until it's practically perfect in every way?

As with outlining/pantsing, you should know this before you get going. There's no right answer here. Both will lead you eventually to a finished product. But knowing the answer will help you immensely along the way.

Me? I'm a barfer, plain and simple. I write write write a story until I'm able to type those miraculous words (The End). Then I go back and start fixing. I never show anyone (NO ONE DON'T EVEN ASK) a first draft because it's so terrifyingly ugly, and I say with all honesty: I'm a much better editor than I am a writer.

But one of my favorite writing buddies has shown me her first drafts (i.e. read this, it's a sloppy first draft so don't judge), and it's always meticulously beautiful. Magical. If I could write first drafts like that...

But there's the difference. I write fast. She writes slow. I take a LONG time editing. She barely has to edit anything. Neither one of us is better than the other, and we both (eventually) produce quality fiction. 

Knowing your writing style will keep you from beating yourself up as you write. Maybe you only wrote a single page in a three-hour writing session: that's okay! I bet that single page is gorgeous! (Unless you really spent three hours reading this article and then playing on Twitter...but whatever.) Maybe you wrote twenty pages in that same three hours, but they're so embarrassing and bad no one will ever see them. Also okay! Get your story out. You can fix it later! Just write, dammit! Get it done!


By now, I think I've divulged all the preparatory advice I have to offer. I think, if you're still here with me, it's time for you to write. Next month we're going to talk about the daily grind of writing your words, and I hope, if you're just starting a project, that you make some decent headway before we get together again. Good luck, and happy writing!!

Image of On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft
Author: Stephen King
Price: $13.99
Publisher: Scribner (2010)
Binding: Paperback, 288 pages
Leah Rhyne

Column by Leah Rhyne

Leah Rhyne is a Jersey girl who's lived in the South so long she's lost her accent...but never her attitude. After spending most of her childhood watching movies like Star Wars, Aliens, and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and reading books like Stephen King's The Shining or It, Leah now writes horror and science-fiction. She lives with her husband, daughter, and a small menagerie of pets.

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Comments

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami September 26, 2014 - 10:18am

I barf on the page per short story, then because I write as a short story collection (largely because my short stories are longer than my chapters), I edit each short story with the same main character at a time.

I still remember the first two pages I wrote in my moleskin of Nymphs Of Winter Fire. I wanted to write about a something very sad at 16,000 words, and set in a northern European island with a culture of a French/Dutch. I had a very vague idea of the large scope culturally-driven midpoint around chapter eight.

  • I actually still have pinned my first 16 page hand written short story collection outline. Paired with an island map.

My luck writing spot is the Sofa, with my moleskin. I write largely in a stream of concious half awake state anyway. Less of an inner editor. Sometimes I might have a few character illlustrations to, and drawings of locales. Though that's more eight years ago when I was more into manga and graphic novels.

I couldn't do thing larger than 5,000 words because I was still stuck thinking in terms of "this story must contain a single character arc." Instead I prefer them to change several times throughout the story. Much like a JRPG.

Sorry, there I go not being brief again.

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. September 27, 2014 - 3:46am

Ha! I love it when you're not brief! And I love that you share your stuff after I share mine. It always makes me so happy to see what other people do, and to know they cared enough about something I wrote to then let me have a peek at their own experiences. Thanks, as always, Sarah!

big_old_dave's picture
big_old_dave from Watford, about 20 miles outside London, Uk September 29, 2014 - 9:41am

Great stuff leah,

up to chapter 10 first draft on my first novel, I'm shorthanding and pukeing it up going as fast as i can. 

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. September 30, 2014 - 4:53am

Yay Dave!! Keep it up! Can't wait to hear how far you get by next month!

Incidentally, next month's column will be about the daily grind of writing, and how to keep going even when the going gets tough. So keeeeeeep going!!! :) :)

Redd Tramp's picture
Redd Tramp from Los Angeles, CA is reading Mongrels by SGJ; Sacred and Immoral: On the Writings of Chuck Palahniuk; The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault October 22, 2014 - 12:14pm

I edit as I go, and it drives me crazy. I can't put a single frickin paragraph down without dissecting it at least a little bit. And every time I crack open my notebook or word document (I seem to go through phases of writing by hand/typing) if I don't immediately start gushing out new stuff, I can't help but start editing what's already down. My brain is constantly picking things apart, examining the pieces, finding a better order or rhythm, and setting them back down. I probably edit everything a hundred times over before I even manage to get to the end of my story. Sometimes, I never even get to the end, I lose interest and put it on the back-burner. 

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. October 28, 2014 - 10:33am

Ouch! That sounds like a tough way to do it! But if it works for you, and it sounds like mostly it does, then go with it. Really, my only real "writing" advice is: find what works for you, and DO IT to the best of your ability. :) Good luck!

Redd Tramp's picture
Redd Tramp from Los Angeles, CA is reading Mongrels by SGJ; Sacred and Immoral: On the Writings of Chuck Palahniuk; The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault October 29, 2014 - 7:20am

Amen. That's the best advice. Thank you! This is a really great column, by the way.

robertjacob's picture
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