Writing a book – a simple checklist

tree on mountain top - writing a bookIt is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed. This is just one of the innumerable quotes likening writing to hard toil, self destruction, and whatnot.

Indeed, writing a book isn’t exactly a piece of cake. After all, on average, a novel is 80.000 words long. Considering 5 characters for each word, this means that our fingers will have to strike at least 400.000 times on the keyboard. And this just for the first draft. Without taking into account any mistake, any rewriting.

In fact, chances are that, before we are finished, we’ll have hit no less than a million keys on the keyboard.

Just at the thought, my fingertips ache…

However, truth be told, writing a book can also be an incredibly rewarding experience. Besides, many of the difficulties beginning writers encounter are nothing else than the result of quite preventable mistakes.

All we need are some down-to-earth tips. And determination, to follow them.

Note taking

I’m a pantster. I just sit down and write. But this doesn’t mean this is necessarily the best approach to writing for everybody.

Besides, even though I put into my first draft every detail I can think of, I write in such a telegraphic manner that a dozen lines can easily grow into a three page scene on my second draft.

So, in a way, I guess my first draft could be likened to an outline of sorts, couldn’t it?

However, irrespective of you being an outliner or a panster, there’s something you’d better pick up early on. I’m referring to the habit of taking notes. This is an essential one for any writer—unless you’re endowed with a prodigious memory, that is.

In fact, the best ideas are also those which, later on, are the most difficult to recall. I think this is so because what makes them so intriguing is also what makes them so difficult to remember.post-it

I mean, when you make a brilliant connection you manage to metaphorically open a path of brilliance among a forest of mundanity.

But the forest is pressing hard on the path, and if you don’t tend it immediately, chances are the forest will erase the path within minutes.

Jotting notes down is exactly this: the art of tending the potentially creative paths you open up in the forest of your thoughts. If you want to discover more about this, you can read my previous post about taking notes

Daily writing practice

Paraphrasing Aristotle we can certainly say that: We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.

This is why writing every day is important. Even if at the beginning most of what we write is rubbish. In fact, in this way, with each new writing session we first create a habit and then reinforce it, over and over.

This process is so effective that, if coupled with some kind of reward after completion, at a certain point we’ll start to feel the need to sit down and write. Pavlovian dogs date back to 1904, but they’re still quite popular.

Set a daily quota

It’s certainly great to have a healthy habit. But it’s even better to make it as profitable as possible. This means that, given that we’re in any case going to sit down and write for a certain amount of time, we might try to write a set amount of words as well.

Of course, we don’t need to write 5,000 words a day or even more. However, if we are insanely inspired, nothing prevents us from writing a novel in a day. More realistically, even a daily quota of 500 words can lead to solid tangible results.

In fact, in just four months we can write the first draft of a 60.000 word novel. This means that in one year we can write three such novels. Three stories from beginning to end. This is not at all that bad.

Of course first drafts need revisions and improvements. Rewriting at times. But the point is that first drafts have to exist if revisions are to be undertaken.

Deadlines are your friends

I’m quite an experienced hiker. So it doesn’t really matter that much whether or not when I start out for one of my hikes up a mountain I tell myself, today I’m going up there.

moonI’ve hiked for so many miles I learned to enjoy every aspect of it. But this appreciation isn’t the result of passive adaptation. Rather, it’s pretty much the opposite.

In fact, over the years I gathered a lot of data about myself and the mountains, and adjusted my behavior to what I got to know.

For example, I now know I must start slow and steady for the first 30 minutes. I know that if I don’t force my pace during those 30 minutes, then I can go on hiking for pretty much the whole day. I also know when the weather is going to turn nasty and it’s probably better make a face about and go back home, or find shelter.

Instead, if I pointed with my finger at a distant peak and told someone who has never hiked before, Look, we’re going up there,  chances are they’re going to feel exhausted even before they have taken the first step.

You see, the only thing they would think about would be the distance and the elevation difference. Not exactly the best way to start a hike…

When writing a book the same principle applies. If we think about that damn million of strokes, we’re going to feel intimidated and unable to write at all.

Instead, if we set a lot of small intermediate goals, all of a sudden our mood changes. In fact even if the final destination remains the same, now we can work toward the first goal with a lot more of confidence.

In fact, we no longer need to write a novel. We just have to come up, let’s say, with an opening chapter. We’ll bother about the following chapter only after we have completed the chapter we’re writing now.

Sure, the closer your goal, the harder you have to work, some people say. But they are often talking about losing weight. Besides, considering the alternative, that’s to say doing nothing and wasting time, I think no one in his or her right mind would have any doubt about what to choose.

In any case, if I feel I’m really close to my goal, I noticed I tend to work harder and harder. Maybe this is just me. But I don’t think so.

Writing a book – do not disturb

When you’re writing your novel, write it without telling anyone about it. Just write it the way you feel right, and don’t stop till you reach the last word on the last page.

Do so because the first draft is all about you. Your ideas. Your story. Your characters.

I read somewhere some authors claiming that it’s better to write the first draft while discussing it with others. In this way we can prevent some serious mistakes, they say.

Ultimately, it’s your choice. But the fact is that you cannot explain fully yourself and your characters if you don’t have already written the whole damn thing.

For example, what would you do if the character you like most turns out to be the one your wife, your husband, or reading group, hates the most?

Sure, you can say it wouldn’t matter. That you would go on writing what you want in any case. But the truth is that we don’t function in that way.

As a result your character will be invariably shaped by the reactions other people have had about him or her. Even if you’re just halfway through your book.

I don’t know about you. But I like to have a first draft I feel totally mine. It’s like a foundation. With that secured away I’m open to debate with whoever. But not before.

It’s never about quantity

Writing a book is a feat. As a result the ones I outlined here might look like few tips. But if properly enforced they can be tremendously powerful. They can really help you ferry a whole new world into existence. Your world.

Have faith in yourself. And keep working.

Picture by Jarekgrafik – Alexas_Fotos – Mysticsartdesign

Bad stories, good stories

bad stories, good stories

In Irish mythology there’s a story about a pot full of gold hidden at the end of a rainbow.

But, probably, it’s not the case you stop reading and go out in search of a rainbow right now.

As you can see from the picture, I’ve already gone… And I can assure you there’s no such a pot.  Or it’s indeed very well hidden.

I know, I know. I’m a sucker for stories, especially good stories. But, apparently, it’s quite a human trait.

Old stories, but evergreen nonetheless

I know I’m wrong, but I’ve always considered this story about the pot full of gold as a loose variant of  the proverb, every cloud has a silver lining.

In fact, even when the whole universe seems against us, if we keep a constructive mindset and endure long enough, we can end up anyway with some sort of reward.

For example, being a writer I tend to come up with a lot of ideas. Some are good. Some others–many others indeed–sheer crap. Unfortunately, at first, they all seem good to me. And the only way I know of to discover which are the really worth ones is to try to write them down.

No shortcuts here. Just old plain work. Write, read, and decide. If it’s good, I keep writing. If it’s not, I pass to something else and go back to square one.

However, usually it takes at least a dozen pages to realize if my story really has legs strong enough to walk on its own or not.tell your story

This means that over the years I have completed a fair number of short stories and half-written longer works that are far, very far, from being good. At the moment, they sleep all in my hard drive, in a cloud, and on a couple of USB devices–yes, I’m a bit paranoid about my (precious) work getting lost.

Of course, I could erase all those stories. Sure I could. Just like I could fly if I really wanted.

However, for some reason all those works remain where they are. Someone might argue that they remain where they are just out of the gigantic ego of their author. And such someone would most likely be right.

However, there are also other reasons for keeping all those works. I’ve already spoken about them in another post. Here, however, I’d like to focus on something else.

How good stories are (sometimes) born

In fact, sometimes the idea for a story is truly great. Instead, it’s the author who is not able to treat it adequately. In a way, it’s like having a sports car at your disposal but knowing jack shit about driving. There’s nothing wrong with the car. It’s the driver that needs a fix–no, not that kind of fix.

silver liningSimilarly, keeping all those stories aside is just a way to give the truly good ideas some more chances to emerge.

For example, I could have tried to write a story about a subject I knew nothing about. Maybe for purely lack of experience.

Now however, some years down the line I might have gathered experience enough to rewrite the story and make it work.

So, next time one of your story doesn’t pan out as intended, make yourself a favor and don’t discard it entirely. Instead, put it aside and let it rest. You never know what time can do. After all, if it can turn grapes into wine, I say there’s no reason to despair.

Chances are that, with a bit of work, some of those stories, the rainy days, will at last brighten up and serve you a shiny unexpected rainbow and the pot full of gold.

In any case, remember that such stories don’t need to always end with a happily ever after. That should be how the author feels once she’s finished. But of this I’m going to write in another post.


Pictures by Damian Gadal and Micolo J