The three things I’m asked most often, here on OfficeMum, and on Facebook and on Instagram, are as follows: 1. Which is the best campsite 2. How do you get into freelance writing and 3. How do you write a book – or: I’ve written a book, what do I do next. I’ve answered the first two questions in blogposts here and here, and I’ve answered the third question many times over in individual emails and messages, so it makes sense at this point to put it in a blog post (if only to save myself some future typing).
Read, read, read
Reading helps you understand what you like about particular books, and what you don’t like. Read widely, not just the genre you write. Read every day. If you’ve fallen out of the habit of reading, I highly recommend joining the Tired Mammy Book Club on Instagram.
To write a book, you must write a book. This sounds very simplistic but it’s tempting (and very common) to spend months or even years thinking about ideas, jotting down notes, wondering whether Word is okay or if it’s worth investing in a writing app like Scrivener.
At some point, you have to bite the bullet and write that first line. It can be daunting and you can feel kind of silly. I felt silly. I hadn’t written fiction since primary school when I wrote the first line of what became The Other Side of the Wall. But once it was down on paper, a weight lifted. And I wrote the second line. And kept going. The key thing to remember: Nobody needs to see that first line. Or the second line. Write whatever you want to write to break the ice, promising yourself that it’s just for you – give yourself the freedom to write without self-consciousness, scrutiny, or audience. When you’re ready to show something – this first line or an entirely different first line – to somebody else, you’ll know.
Do not edit – yet
Writing is editing – more of this below. But when you first start, when you finally break the seal and write that first line, just keep going. Like you’re Indiana Jones escaping from the Temple of Doom – don’t look back. If you go back and edit each paragraph or page, you’ll never be done, because editing never ends. Get the words down on paper.
How long is a book?
Answers to this vary but if you can hit 85,000 words, you can’t go wrong. My first drafts are always about 110,000, and then I edit down to about 95 to 100k. Some books are shorter (see Will Dean’s excellent The Last Thing to Burn) and some are much longer. But if you’re starting out and you’re writing commercial fiction, 85,000 is a good target.
But how do I know what to write?
Plotter or Pantser is a well-known term among aspiring writers: Plotters work out the plot in advance, Pantsers wing it by the seat of their pants. Go with whatever works best for you. I’m a plotter – I need to know “whodunnit” because I’m afraid to get to the end of the first draft and not have a solution that works. Plotting is reasonably common among crime writers, where, of course, a satisfying denouement is very important. But it’s not imperative. Many writers say they’d hate to know in advance what they’re going to write, because where’s the fun in that?
If you’re going to plot out your book in advance, there are lots of ways to do this – Post-It notes with the “big” turning points in the book, a Word document with a detailed outline, a spreadsheet with notes for each chapter, a notebook with a rough idea of where the book will go. For what it’s worth, this is my process: I keep a “Master List” word document of book ideas, where each one is detailed in a short paragraph. Once I decide what I’m going to scope out in more detail, I start brainstorming ideas in a notebook. If it’s a runner (it isn’t always a runner – amazing how an idea that looks good in one paragraph won’t quite stretch to filling 85,000 words) I type up an outline in Word. After that, so my new whiteboard doesn’t feel left out, I put the main plot turning points on that. Then as I write, I plot out each chapter in a notebook – just bullet points – but it saves me sitting staring at a blank Word doc. This is a lot. Nobody needs to do this much plotting but it’s a part of writing I enjoy, and it works for me. Try different ways and see what works for you.
Just write and see where you end up!
Not every book requires research but if it does, Google is your best friend and how lucky are we to live in an age when you can sit at home in your house and find out all you need to know about untraceable poisons, Californian ballet schools, and how garbage disposals work (my search history yesterday). If you do lots and lots of research for a book, let it inform you and your writing, but don’t feel tempted to put it all into your book. The reader is not there for a lecture on 19th century agriculture or how an autopsy is carried out.
Google Maps is fantastic if you’re writing a scene set somewhere far away. If you’re going to set large sections or an entire book in a faraway location, it’s best to choose somewhere you’ve been. Google Maps can only do so much and inauthenticity of setting will ring through.
People often wonder if you should use fictional towns and street names. There is no right or wrong but if you use a real town, you open yourself up to reader scrutiny – if a reader is familiar with the town and you’ve put the library in the wrong place, it jars. It can be more freeing to make up a fictional town. And you can re-use your fictional towns then too – in All Her Fault, the characters live in Northland Road in Kerryglen which is a fictional version of Westminster Road in Foxrock in Dublin, and in my next book, the characters live in Kerryglen too because this was easier than making up somewhere new.
With cities, you can absolutely get away with using real streets and landmarks, like Grafton Street or the Spire in Dublin. If your book is set in a specific time, it’s safe enough to use real shops and pubs but obviously not if you’re going to suggest the (fictional) staff were rude! (If your book is set in “now” but not any specific year, using real shops and pubs could become a problem if a particular business shuts down.)
Write what you know
Every aspiring writer has heard “Write what you know” at some point. This doesn’t mean “Only write what you know”. Otherwise, my books would all be about women living in quiet suburbs, spending their days doing the school run, with nothing much else happening at all. Here’s the thing – most of my books are actually about women living in quiet suburbs (though things do happen to them) – and that’s where the “Write what you know” bit comes in. For example, in my first book, I was busy working out what would happen if there was something sinister going on in the house next door, but I also needed my character to have a job. So, for ease, I gave her my old job in Financial Services. I didn’t have to think about what she’d do there nor do any research, which meant more time for imagining the sinister goings-on in the garden next door.
So to continue that example, if the character’s job matters to the story, yes, do the research and conjure up the job. But if it doesn’t, just give them one of your old jobs to keep it simple. This can apply to any aspect of a book – if you are a parent, characters with kids might have kids of similar age to yours. If you live in a particular town, you might write a fictional version of that town. In other words, for the background elements, write what you know.
First person or third?
First person is the I-narrator: “I woke up” and third person is “Sarah woke up”. There are no rules, go with whichever one feels right for the story. If you are going to have more than one “POV” (point of view i.e. voices or perspectives from which the story is told) there is an argument for using third person and therefore using the character names in their respective chapters. But it’s not a rule. You can have one POV or many POVs and use first or third or a mix. You can also have an “all seeing narrator” who can see what’s happening to all the characters – see Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng or Bear Town by Frederik Backman for very effective examples of this.
Past or present tense?
Again, there are no rules and you can have a mix e.g. main body of the book written in present tense, with backstory chapters in past tense.
Do character names matter?
Yes, but don’t worry in a first draft – call them anything just to get the story flowing. Although, don’t call anyone “Jack” if it’s just a placeholder name, because otherwise when you use Find & Replace to change “Jack” to “Alec”, every time someone zips up a jacket, they zip up an Alecet. Speaking from experience.
Now that you’ve got your character names and your outline ready to go, get writing!
I’ve written a book, what next?
If you’ve written down your story and you’re somewhere around 80,000 words or beyond, that’s draft one done. You can type “The End” and celebrate! (Everyone’s experience is different, but four books in, the first draft is the hardest bit for me, and getting it done is my favourite moment.) The next step is to go back to the start, and edit your work. This is Draft Two. Read your words aloud to see how they sound, cut out padding that doesn’t really move the story along, replace repeated words, fix typos.
When draft two is done, start again. You will still find things to change. After that, it’s up to you how many more drafts you do. You need it to be in its best possible shape but you also have to stop editing at some point and send it on to someone else to read. I usually feel it’s ready for sending at draft four, but everyone is different.
Who do you send it to?
If you have someone whose opinion you trust – a friend, a sibling, a parent, a writer friend – you could potentially ask them to read it for you. Be careful who you choose! You should pick someone who is your Ideal Reader (a Stephen King term) so if you write crime, don’t ask someone who never reads crime. You need someone who’ll tell you the truth – there’s no point in sending it to a friend who’ll tell you it’s the best thing they’ve ever read. But at the same time, you don’t want it torn apart. So send it to someone who is ultimately kind. I send mine to my three sisters and ask them if they can guess the reveal – that’s all I want to know to begin with, and they usually send me further feedback too, always constructive, always useful, always kind.
What about agents and publishers?
Maybe you don’t want to send it to a friend (that’s fine too!) or maybe you’ve done that and you’re ready for the next step. That next step is usually to query agents. An agent is someone who potentially takes you on as a client and finds a publisher for your book. An agent is paid on commission – usually 15% of everything you earn. A good agent is worth every penny of this. Remember, 15% of nothing is nothing! Agents know the publishing world, they know how to find the best home for your book, and how to get you the best deal. They know how to read contracts and stop you from making mistakes. They are GOLD.
How do you find an agent?
It’s a good idea to start gathering agent names while you’re writing and rewriting. Check who represents authors you like – you’ll often find agents referenced in author Twitter bios, and almost always in the acknowledgements of their books. Check the agent websites to see if they’re open to submissions and what kind of books they like to see coming in. If an agent says “no crime”, don’t send them your psychological thriller. Check their submission policy, and check again, and check again. Follow that policy to the letter – number of chapters to send, Word doc or email, synopsis requirements etc. If an agent asks for the first three chapters, do not send the full manuscript. Stick to the rules!
You might not hear back from the first agents you contact – don’t be disheartened, this is very, very normal. Many agents say if you haven’t heard back within x weeks, it’s a “no”. But there are many, many agents out there, so keep trying. If an agent asks you to send a full manuscript, it’s OK to go back to others you’ve queried and let them know this, and certainly if an agent asks to meet or to represent you, let the others know.
When you find an agent who seems like they’re the right person for you, you make an agreement for them to represent you, and off you go to the next step.
What about skipping the agent?
Some publishers accept submissions from un-agented authors. If you haven’t found an agent or choose to proceed without one, you can submit to those publishers directly. The downside is not having someone to negotiate or explain your contract but if you really want to get a foot on the publishing ladder and can’t get an agent, this is an option too.
Finding a publisher
Once you have an agent, they will have advice for you on how to tweak your book to get it ready to go out on submission. When it’s ready, your agent will submit it to publishers she or he thinks might be most interested and best suited to publishing your book. This is another nail biting waiting process, and it’s hard not to keep refreshing emails. All going well, your agent will find one or more interested publishers and you will live happily ever after!*
(*Not true – once you have a publisher, you’ll want a hardback/ US publishing deal/ film deal/ literary prize. But let’s pretend for the purposes of this post that getting a publisher is the holy grail.)
PS I’m sure there’s loads I’ve not covered – feel free to leave questions in the comments and I’ll add to the post if needed. Good luck with your book!