There are countless ways to write a book and even more people who’ll tell you how to do it. Ultimately, you need to find your own way to do it that works for you, but this is how I’ve always done it.
It all starts with an idea. At this stage it doesn’t have to be fleshed out or even coherent, just something that you can think about and develop. Some of mine have been as simple as ‘I like vampires’ to the more thought-through ‘half demon, half human prince of Hell on Earth.’ If in doubt, follow Stephen King’s advice and ask, ‘What if…?’
Once I have some semblance of an idea in my mind I leave it for a while, until one or two main characters come into my head. Let them breathe so that they become real people. Character questionnaires or ‘what if’ scenarios will help bring them to life, as they need to be more than just archetypes or clichés before you start writing them.
With an idea and characters fermenting in my mind, a scene should start to develop. For my vampire concept, I had this crystal-clear image of the protagonist and antagonist drifting apart on a pair of rafts in the middle of the ocean. That scene actually never materialised but it opened the doorway to the rest of the story. Who are they? Why were they fighting? What led them to being on the raft?
When you are able to answer some the questions that came out of the random scene you saw, you’ll have some idea of what your story is going to be. If your idea is a little more informative then you can have an opening sorted quite easily. The opening of your book or story is often regarded as one of the most important parts, and it is, but not straight away. In fact, when you start writing a story, it’s irrelevant. It literally doesn’t matter at all. At this stage, the beginning needs to be the beginning. Eventually, when you rework it, it will become interesting enough to draw in a reader and make them read the rest; for now it just needs to set up the main meat of the plot and establish some of the characters. But, as you’re the one who is writing, you don’t need that. You don’t need to be encouraged to turn the page; you have to do it anyway to write the next one. You know the plot so the set up isn’t that important and you know most of the characters so there’s no great need to establish them.
Crafting a fantastic opening is hard work. It’s necessary work but it’s hard and it takes time and effort to get everything into it that needs to be there. You’ll also probably want to be adding things that you simply don’t know yet; things that come from ideas you had mid-write. You need to write a great opening, but you don’t have to write that when you start writing. I think that’s something that’s often overlooked or is a stumbling block for a lot of writers because the beginning causes them so much stress. Write an adequate opening and move on. You can do a better job when you have all of the information about the story and more of a complete picture, when you go back to revise and rewrite on the second draft.
The First Act
Much like the opening, the first third or so of a book is one of the most vital things in the finished product. So, naturally, writers have a habit of stressing over the strength of it. Again, it doesn’t have to be good now. You’re still finding your feet with the story. You’re getting to know your characters, learning how they act, what they’re like and how to write them. The only way you can get all of this information is to write, so write. Again, you can fix the opening later.
If I ever do any plotting it’ll be at this stage. When I’ve got the first section of the book of the way I may take a while to plan out the rest of the book. The reason that I do it here and not before is that I have a much better understanding of the whole picture. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with the characters, in their world. It’s only here that I feel comfortable enough to make decisions about what will happen further down the line. Having said that, I very rarely stick to what I have written down in my plot notes. It’s mostly just an exercise to flesh out some of the ideas that have been developing in my head into more well-thought plot points.
Not plotting early allows you to spread your wings a little and explore different avenues because you’re not boxed into your initial ideas. The beginning of your story or your novel is like a breeding ground for ideas. Give that little petri dish everything it needs to grow whatever it wants to grow, and then you get to pick out the best ideas: the ones that will actually work in the big picture. I find plotting from the start to be far too restrictive and can stop the ideas forming.
The First Draft
How to write a book? Write a book. There’s no magic technique or anything special to writing a book. It’s hard work, don’t get me wrong, but it really is that simple, ultimately. Write it.
When you get to the end, you will usually know. There will be some kind of resolution. You may find that you need to go back and foreshadow a few things or hide that Chekhov’s gun that you didn’t know you had written in. Then you can relax and take a while to let the book settle. Don’t go straight back in to the next draft, as it will be too fresh. You need to look at it objectively.
Your first draft will be quite poor, generally speaking. No matter how good of a writer you are, no matter how long you’ve been doing it, you will still have a lot to fix. Inconsistencies, plot holes, flow issues, character development, foreshadowing and a few dozen other things that need to be taken into consideration in your finished product. Go through the book. I find a printed copy is best for me to go through but do whatever works best for you. Go through it, word by word, line by line, chapter by chapter, and find everything that’s bad in it. Fix those problems.
Some people suggest that you just scrap your first draft and write a second draft from memory. The important parts you’ll remember, and you’ll cut out the stuff that you don’t want. It’s not a bad idea but, again, go with what works best for you. Personally, I find that just very aggressively editing is enough for me. But, it is at this stage that you have to be happy to do anything to your work. Cut entire chapters, strip half your book and redo it if you need to. Do whatever it takes to make it better. Even if that means starting again.
No matter what you do to your work, it is a very good idea to give a bit of breathing space between you and your work between each draft or edit. Leave it alone for a little while. Write something else. Go on holiday. Do whatever you need to do to take a step back. Give it a couple of months and then go back to it.
When you do, you’ll realise that you’ve probably made some significant changes to your book now. You need to read the whole thing as a whole, with the revisions, and see how that’s changed the bigger picture.
Edit and then go over the new version again and again until you are happy that what’s in front of you is the best that you can produce. This is a very laborious task and it’s one of the reasons that writers end up getting sick of their own work. It’s not uncommon to read through your book five or six times, often more, before you get to the point where you think you’ve finished. No matter how good your book is, that’s a lot of times to be reading the same thing. Stick with it and do your best.
If you can, ask other writers to read your finished manuscript. Don’t do this until it is finished, in your opinion, and definitely don’t do it after the first draft. When we write, we may not actually put down what we mean on paper. What’s there makes perfect sense to us because we know what we meant. Having some space between you and your book by letting other people read it allows you to forget what you meant and things will become much clearer. I was calling my protagonist the wrong name (there was some kind of witness protection thing happening) for about a third of a book, once. It took someone else pointing it out for me to realise, despite me editing it several times. It’s easy to miss things when you know what you meant.
Anybody’s opinion has merit when it comes to your book. However, if you don’t value somebody’s opinion, no matter how good of a writer they are, there’s no point asking them to look over your book because you won’t listen to them. So, give a copy to people you trust. Writers are good people to ask, but readers are just as valuable too. Ask as many people as you can so you get the biggest sample size of opinions that you can get.
If you don’t know anybody you can ask, there are places on the internet you can go to. I would exercise some degree of caution, however, in doing this. There are a lot of nefarious people on the internet. While you are protected from a legal standpoint if they decide to steal your book and publish it themselves, in order to enforce this you could end up having a lengthy court process because you gave a copy of your book to some random person on the internet.
The Final Draft
Now you have other people’s edits and comments to look over, you need to use your judgement as to whether or not you should change things. If one person hates a part, but everyone else loves it, it may not need changing. But if everyone hates it, it probably should be changed. Go through each person’s edits in one go. I like doing this page by page. See what everyone said about page one, make my notes on what needs to change, and then see about page two. Then make some edits. Once you’ve done all the changes you need to, look through the finished product again and make any changes that came from the last round of edits.
Finally, leave your book for a while. Go and do something else. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and read it again. Print it out, if you can, and go through with a red pen. Take notes. Check all your grammar and spelling. Look for tiny errors. Tweak and change and tidy. This is where you obsess over whether that sentence needs a comma or a semicolon. Take your time. Go through again. Check, recheck, make sure it all adds up.
Give a copy of your final, finished work to a few proofreaders who can check for any errors in your prose. Make sure you ask your favourite grammar-obsessive. Fix any flaws that they see.
Congratulations. You’ve finished writing your book. Now it’s up to you to decide what to do with it. But, well done. Not everyone makes it to the end of this process. It’s long and it’s tough. But it’s worth it. So jolly good show. If you are self-publishing, you can do that. If you want to query agents or submit to publishers, now is the time to start. The journey isn’t over yet, not by a long shot, but this part is. On to the next.
© 2017 David Chitty
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.