Imagine the future. Your book is on a display piece at the front of a local bookstore plastered with awards and you’ve got a talk there this afternoon. You sell a hundred copies of your book every month. That must be what it’s like to be a bestselling author, right? But right now you’re at your desk. You’re staring at a blank document on your word processor and it’s staring right back at you. You haven’t taken any creative writing courses and you’ve never written anything longer than an essay for school. Where do you even begin?
How do I write my first bestseller?
To write a really great book (and to finish one at all) you have to know the rules, have a great outline, edit your work, and know your genre. If you do all of these things and spend time writing, at the end of it all you’ll have a great book that you’re really proud of. Writing isn’t easy. It’s actually one of the hardest professions you could choose. Even if you have a natural talent for writing, marketing, editing, and planning are all skills you need to know to be successful. I’ve outlined the major things that I’ve found helpful to know and have a solid foundation in in my writing career, so hopefully they’ll help you, too!
What rules do I need to know to write?
Now, you don’t need to be an expert in grammar to write a great book, but knowing the basic rules of spelling, punctuation, and grammar will be essential. No books on any shelf that was produced by any respectable publisher has grammar or spelling errors. Publishers simply will not let books go to press that are unreadable. Your book, even if you’re self publishing, needs to live up to those standards. If you don’t have a strong grasp on grammar or spelling going in to the process, sign up for a writing course at your local community college or center for the arts. You don’t want to take a creative writing course, but a spelling and grammar course. They’ll teach you two different skills, but if spelling and grammar are your weak points, a course on writing is the one you need.
Remember that rules are meant to be broken. I remember a paragraph in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children that was literally a half a page of a run on sentence without punctuation. Did his whole book look like that? No. Did he include that in his book to accent the artistic nature of the section? Yes. Now, just because Rushdie did it for a paragraph doesn’t mean you can do it for your whole book. There’s a difference between artistic symbolism and you trying to pass off a mess of a manuscript as art. No editor is going to buy it and you’re going to get shot down over and over. Do yourself a favor and sharpen up your writing skills.
How do I start my book off strong?
Planning is going to be your best friend in this process. Planning here does not mean stifling your creativity does not mean planning your novel out line by line. However, having some important building blocks in your pocket will make the whole writing process smoother, especially if you’re doing a challenge like NaNoWriMo.
Write an outline. It doesn’t have to be thorough at all, just make sure you know where you’re going. Know what kind of characters are going to be trouncing around on your demented stage and what big bad they have to fight at the end, whether it be literal or metaphorical. If you know where your story ends, you can work backwards to the beginning and tie up all of the loose bits in the middle when you write. Marking down story beats and having other useful guidelines will help you stay on track and prevent you from getting lost along the way.
Knowing your characters through and through is a solid practice. There is an excellent exercise called a Character 100 in which you answer 100 questions about your character while avoiding describing their physical appearance. By around 60 you should be losing your mind, which is good. I’m sure you can name 100 things about yourself, so why can’t you name 100 things about your character? If they’re supposed to be real, they should have real hobbies and real problems. Having fleshed out characters will make their decisions easier. If they’re being chased by dogs and they hate dogs, their reaction will be to run, not to fight. Knowing this going into conflicts will make them more believable and easier to write.
How do I edit my book?
Your book WILL need editing. You cannot go into your first novel expecting it to be perfect right off the bat. I have covered the stages of editing in other posts, so you need to learn them and learn them well. The key is developing a critical eye for your own work and not getting too attached to anything. Treat your book like a stranger. You’ve never seen it before and you’ve just picked it up from the bookstore. Do you love it? Do you hate it? It’s okay to hate it, especially if you’re still on the first draft. That’s what editing is for! You have to work to have a nice, fit body, so why wouldn’t you have to work to have a nice, trim book?
Finding and creating a network of people to help you with your book, whether it be friends or hired editors is essential. You NEED to read your own book aloud. I repeat: YOU NEED TO READ YOUR BOOK OUT LOUD. Reading your book out loud will help you figure out if your book sounds like it was written by an alien or a human being. Solicit your family and friends to be beta readers (they don’t edit your book but will give you solid feedback on them). Having some eyes on your work before it gets published, even if they’re only from your family and friends, can save your book. Don’t be afraid to show your work off to family and friends. It’s your first book. They’ll understand.
What genre is my book?
If you don’t know this before you start off, you’re probably in a really bad spot. Genre is going to determine tone and most importantly the length of your novel. Get to know the type of book you’re writing. Middle Grade books (books intended for readers aged 8 – 11) should never go beyond 50,000 words and should never be under 20,000. Young Adult novels, on the other hand, should always be more than 50,000 but never more than 75,000. By knowing what age group your writing for, you can make sure you write the correct length of novel. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen manuscripts for YA novels that are hundreds of thousands of words long. Your readers will be SO BORED if your book is that long. The only genre that can really get away with that length is High Fantasy, and even then that’s a stretch.
The actual genre itself plays a key role, too. Science Fiction typically tends to be a longer genre, simply because of the amount of information being put into the book. High Fantasy is the same way. Other casual genres such as Romance or Young Adult should not be too long because they’re meant to be short and sweet, something to enjoy without putting in too much work. When writing for kids make sure you know your word count. If you submit a work to an editor and they don’t email you back, it may be because of word count.
Your genre is also going to determine when you are going to publish. Different types of books do better at different times of the year, so knowing this is going to put you light years ahead of the game. Google publishing seasons. Trust me, you’ll be glad that you did!
My final and last piece of advice is to read and do a lot of it. The more you read, the better of an idea you’ll have about what’s out there for you to strive for. Having standards is never a bad thing, and you’ll be glad you’re staying current. Also, reading is fun! You love books! Isn’t that why you became an author in the first place? Since it’s your first novel, take your time. No one is asking you to finish a book in a year. If you need any help, feel free to email me! I can point you in the right direction or point you to someone who can help if I can’t. Remember, your story is yours alone. It’s special, it’s unique, and it’s amazing! Good luck on your writing path and I can’t wait to see what you create!