If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me how to write a book—the part other than the actual constructing of sentences, that is—I could, well, take you and a few friends out to dinner. So I haven’t been asked scads and scads of times, but often enough to know it’s a popular question.
I have four books published with another on its way in June. There are two more, but those are long ago and far away (also known as “practice”). Here’s what has worked for me……
*Have a routine
The main part of writing is here “Seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” (Click here for a possible source of that charming quote.) I have a specific time I sit down to write, which helps the writing muse come play with me. When bedtime rolls around and I do my nightly routine, I’m ready for sleep. As soon as the Vitamin D and K drops hit my tongue, I’m sleepy, even if I wasn’t all that sleepy prior. It’s the same thing in the morning: I have my coffee and read the New York Times daily briefing (I’ll always be a native New Yorker), sit in my writing nest—and I’m ready to write. The muse is waiting for me then and there.
I also have a specific playlist or album for each book; as soon as that music starts playing, it’s Pavlovian and I’m automatically transported to Old Jerusalem, the mountains of Idaho, Scotland in 1597, Los Angeles—wherever the book is taking place.
*Give yourself a set amount of time to write…or not…or alternate both
If I give myself all day to write, I then have all day to…truthfully, not write all that much. It’s as if I say to myself, “Oh, I have all this time, so I’ll just stare out the window. And then maybe I’ll reorganize a drawer or two.” Yes, if I find myself doing other tasks, that could be part of the idea-generation time (see below). But I also feel a little guilty that I’m not writing. If I give myself an hour or two at a time, I generally write for the full hour or two.
*Give yourself all the time in the world
I’m not big on deadlines because for me nothing can rush this process, although I’m a very fast writer. I also relish the spaciousness of open time. Also, in direct contradiction to the above, the spaciousness of a full day to write is, well, yummy. And if a drawer or two might even get reorganized, that’s just fine.
*Keep a notebook handy
Ideas do seem to come more often when I’m doing the dishes, taking a shower, folding laundry, and the like. My best thinking time is in the car, especially on long roadtrips. My phone is always by my side, ready to have notes put in the little notebook section thingie (by voice when driving, of course).
You don’t have to start at the beginning. And you don’t have to spend a lot of time perfecting the beginning because it’ll change once the rest of the book makes itself known.
*My writing often surprises me
Speaking of the book making itself known, it might sound a little wacky, but I’m often surprised in and by the writing process. I know many authors create meticulous outlines. I’m not one of them. I sometimes put together an outline late in the game, to track the movement and make sure it flows, but that’s about it.
One time I talked about this being-surprised thing in a screenwriting class. The professor said, “You mean to say that you say to yourself, ‘I can’t believe I just wrote that?’” Everyone laughed, including me.
But, well, yes. I do mean that. My characters take on lives of their own. They often talk to me in the shower or in the car—it can get a little crowded in both places at times. The story suddenly goes in a direction far different than I ever imagined. That’s where the magic happens.
*Where do ideas come from?
“If I knew, I certainly wouldn’t tell you!” was Stephen King’s fascinating and less-than-gracious answer to an interviewer who asked him this question. I thought he was being unreasonably snippy until I realized that he actually was providing the answer: he doesn’t know. Authors and artists often don’t know where their ideas come from.
My answer when someone asks me this question? “They just come.” My ideas seem to arrive on their own timing and of their own accord from the ethers. I finished Life in the Hollywood Lane a couple months ago (launch day is June 13) and didn’t have any firm ideas of what my next book will be about. Now I have several that just showed up in the vacuum created by finishing the previous book.
One of the main tenets of writing is to write what you know about. Taking experiences from my life and turning them into meaningful, impactful, inspirational stories is my main focus…..and the ideas just come.
*Back to that spaciousness thing
I totally get why authors need to go on writing retreats. I’m lucky in that when the door to my writing room is closed, my family and visitors know to give me my time and space. So much of writing involves what I call incubating.
I once had a job that involved writing, and I’d be incubating, need to go to the restroom, and get my thought-stream interrupted as I walked down the hall. I hope my coworkers didn’t think I was too rude, but they probably did because I probably was. I grew up with a highly creative father who had a hard time being interrupted, so I understand the creative process. Many people don’t get it at all, however. “Oh, you can just go back to it.” That’s so not true. The book or article will get written, of course, but an interruption can divert an idea. Also, it can be physically painful for those of us who get deeply (and I mean deeply) into our flow to have it broken.
I jump when someone comes in as I’m writing even a simple email—that’s how absorbed (I was going to say lost, but I’m not lost, I’m right there) I get in whatever I’m doing. That’s definitely a high-level problem to have, to be sure, but it can be frustrating. One time I was working on a review of a CD, and I was reading the lyrics, which were profoundly heart-touching and soul-moving. I was completely absorbed in the words, truly transported to another world. Someone walked in abruptly (truthfully it felt like a wild beast charging into the room…like most writers and artists and healers, I’m off-the-charts sensitive to energy), and I screamed at the top of my lungs. OK, maybe I wasn’t that loud, but the person was not amused.
I might be totally making this up, but I vaguely remember a crazy story about a writer who would capture clouds of words as they came to her. One time the cloud passed over her and she grabbed it, ran to the house, and wrote the words down—backwards (since the cloud has passed over her)! I think I heard it from a famous writer like Julia Cameron or someone like that. (If you know, could you please tell me? email@example.com.)
Writers are a different breed of people…..as are electricians, as are horse-mane braiders, as are we all. But writers and creators and healers definitely need to carve out time for uninterrupted spaciousness.
*Use all the senses
Writing comes alive with texture, smell, taste, and sound. Some writers (myself included) love telling the story more than writing the descriptions. But the latter helps the former get under the skin, become an experience that is lived instead of just read, and stay with us long after the book is finished.
*What to do about writer’s block
I don’t have a lot to say about this, because I really only write a book when I’m inspired, which is more and more often these days. The routine, along with the playlist, automatically gets me in the mood.
By far the hardest book for me to write was Spellweaver, which is about a healer during the witch hunts in Scotland. Parts were magical, so they were fun to write. I finally just wrote out the hard part and got it done with. But the book was still a hard subject. I finally just told myself, “OK, work on it twenty minutes a day.” Twenty minutes would turn into far more, of course—the main thing was to sit down and start.
Another difficult thing to write about was the crucifixion in Mary’s Message (about Mary Magdalene). Other parts were hard, too. I finally just wrote them out instead of dreading them. Once they were done, the rest of the book flowed.
*How long does a book take?
This is wild for me. I wrote Visioning in two weeks—it just came out in a download. Mary took a summer. Angles on Overtime took a few years because I was working as an editor at a magazine, and my word power went to that work. I started Spellweaver in 2009 and would go back to it from time to time; it took a year when I finally really got going on it in 2016. Life in the Hollywood Lane (the one coming out in June) took about nine months. It can vary, as you can see.
So, in conclusion………
Have you noticed how many people start sentences with “So” these days? Even high-level news reporters do, plus most of their interviewees. Speakers get clicked in Toastmasters, even when they really want to say, “So……”
But I digress. I’ve actually tried to not write. Being a writer can be a tough row to hoe, just like being a musician, an actor, or anything that doesn’t have a reliable paycheck. But for me it’s way harder not to write. Plus my characters would come, hand on hip, tapping a foot, and not leave me alone until I’ve written their stories.
I write really great books, if I say so myself and if I listen to the many folks who rave about them. I’ve been involved with traditional publishers, but these days it’s more often recommended to go our own way with self-publishing. That way we keep the creative control and a much bigger percentage of the money. Plus, J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown aside, authors are expected to do their own marketing anyway.
If writing is your art, let us read your words. Actually, anything we do can be a work of art: writing a story, singing a song, raising a child, smiling at the lonely neighbor, dunking a basketball……whatever it is, let us see it.
Our lives are our works of art, really. Following whatever it is that calls to your heart, doing whatever it is that you want to do, whatever it is we do best will benefit us and everyone around us—and that’s all of us.
Much of the muse is based on what I call magic…which isn’t a far-off quality that only a few people have. We all have magic. Let the magic light the muse. Then share your gift…we’re waiting! What’s your gift to share?