Recently my friend got her first book deal!! Cue: marching band and full firework display
And since I can’t seem to help myself, I immediately tried to think of advice I could offer her to help her along. Side note here, I have a bad habit of offering unsolicited advice to anyone and everyone. Trying to choose a melon in the produce aisle? I’ll strike up a conversation and teach you how. Considering a blouse in a dressing room? I’ll be the first one to tell you it looks fabulous and at least three other ways you can style it. I can’t help myself! I think I’ve gotten so used to offering advice here on the site every day that it’s become a part of me. I am, mostly, sure that my friends and family don’t find it annoying.
So back to my friend and her big, fabulous, amazing book deal! When I heard about it, I tried to think of the things I wished I had known before I wrote my first book. Then, I tried to think of things that have been supremely helpful to me as I’ve written the second, third and fourth books. And then I thought, well shoot, maybe I should share this on the site. Maybe some of my readers want to be authors too and maybe they’d find this helpful. So that’s what I’m doing, I’m going to tell you how to write a book. But first I will add this gigantic caveat: I don’t know what I’m talking about! This advice isn’t something I learned in any class or school, this is just what has worked for me. So if you read my list and you think, girl, that is crazy town! Chances are, it probably is crazy town for you and you should totally ignore it! But, some of you out there might find this helpful, so here is the Rachel Hollis version of, how to write a book.
First of all, I’m not going to talk about plot or characters or what your story should be about. If you even clicked on this link that means you’ve been thinking about books and dreaming about characters long before now. I’m going to talk about the nitty gritty, as in, how did I get from an idea for a book to a finished manuscript.
What is My Word Count – If you follow many authors on social media you’ve probably heard them talk about their word count. This is because book contracts have a word count included in them. For instances, my fiction book contracts have always been for “about 90,000 words” and my non-fiction contract (my cookbook) was for “about 50,000 words” because it has photos to make up the difference. So when you hear authors talk about/ whine about/ cry about their word count it’s because they’re trying to get there… and getting there is harder than getting a your post-baby body into a pair of pre-baby Spanx and usually includes the same amount of curse words and tears! Not sure how many words you should aim for? I would Google what the industry standard is for the type of book you want to write.
How Do I Write That Many Words – Once you have a goal in mind, you need to figure out how to get there. Most people take the amount of words they need to write and divide that by the number of days they have left to write them in. So, if you want to write 90,000 words in 6 months you need to aim for 500 words a day. It’s a great gauge for daily word count when you start a project. The only bad thing about that (for me) is that I don’t do well with small word counts. I get distracted, I start looking at Facebook, I consider paint colors for my living room… it all goes downhill from there sister! 500 words is so small that I think I can put it off and then I procrastinate. So I don’t do small word counts. I like to write big chunks in a single day. I like to set a crazy goal like 3k words or 5k, or once 8k in a day. This is really helpful for me in the beginning, because the beginning is always the most difficult part of the book for me to write.
How Do I Know What to Write Next – They say there are two kinds of writers. “Plotters” who lay out the entire plot before they start writing and “Pantsers” who fly by the seat of their pants and make it up as they go along. I am a total Pantser! I don’t outline the beginning of a book because I have no idea what it is yet. I typically write half of the book before I know what the story is going to be. Once I’m about halfway in, it all starts to flow out of me and I can outline from there. But the beginning is brutal and at least eight times I’ll cry to Dave and tell him that I’m a terrible writer and that I hate this book and these characters. Then, because he’s got the patience of Job, he will remind me that I said the exact same thing LAST time. So I force myself to those big word counts even when I have no clue what I’m writing because otherwise I’d probably just stare at a computer and cry. Not saying you need word counts like mine, but find your version of a high word count and see how you like a writing sprint, versus a writing walk.
The Crappy First Draft – When I tell people about my word counts they typically ask how in the heck I can write so many words. The answer is, I never said they were good words. I didn’t say they were poetry. In fact, I didn’t say what those words are because I have NO idea. I just write whatever pops into my head until I get to my word count. Because here’s the thing, a book isn’t born in a first draft, it’s born in an edit. That’s where you’ll find your nuance. That’s where you’ll add your heart. The first draft is just about giving yourself a path to follow and until you have a full draft you don’t know where you’re headed. So think of a word count, and just start writing anything and everything. There are no wrong words in draft number one.
Leave Yourself Some Bread Crumbs – Here’s a fun fact: I stop writing every day already knowing what the next paragraph will be. There’s nothing worse than writing until you finish a chapter and then coming back the next day without a clue where you’re going. I will purposefully not finish my thought so when I come back to the manuscript the next day I can jump right in.
Reading and Editing – Another great piece of advice I wish I had known? DON’T RE-READ YOUR DRAFT!!! When I start writing for the day I go back and read the two paragraphs before I stopped so I know where to continue, but nothing else. As a new writer I had a really bad habit of re-reading my draft over and over and over. This makes you feel like you’re writing but really you spend three hours “writing” and only manage to add a couple of sentences here and there. So don’t re-read until you have a fully completed crappy first draft.
Critique Partners – Also, avoid letting other people read it until you have a first draft. When I ask someone to read an unfinished draft it’s because I’m looking for validation. It’s usually because I’m struggling and thinking I’m a terrible writer and I want someone who’s opinion I admire to tell me to keep going. The truth is, no one else can validate you enough to finish a first draft. It’s hard and difficult and you will go through every emotion on the planet but YOU CAN TOTALLY DO THIS!
Writing Essentials – I’m guessing this is different for each and every author but if you’re curious about what I always have on hand during one of those epic writing sessions here it is: Caffeine is a MUST. In fact, I’m sure my doctor would hyperventilate if he knew how many iced Americanos I drank while writing my last book. My glasses (because my eyes get strained from staring at a computer all day), snacks (almonds, almond butter, rice cakes, carrot sticks, etc) I try and load up with healthy options because when I’m stressed I eat and it’s either almonds or a Meat Lover’s Pizza! A writing notebook is also a big deal for me. I carry one with me at all times in case I get an idea or a scene pops into my head.
Making Time – Writing is like working out as far as I’m concerned. It’s hard to find the time, it sucks when you’re doing it but you feel SO great when it’s over. I would suggest writing at the same time every day. When I’m on deadline I wake up every morning at 5AM. That gives me at least an hour and a half of writing time before the kids wake up. I also like that I’m so tired I can’t second guess anything. I just drink my coffee and put down words.
My last thought is this: there will be more than one time when you think you suck and when you want to quit. Find a friend (even just online) who’s a writer too. Every writer needs another writer friend who knows how hard those moments are. Said writer-friend can talk you down from the ledge and find the words or the motivational pinnable to send along to keep you going. Need a motivational note? Here’s one from me – – > You have a story in you. You have words to say and worlds to build and characters worth fighting for. Fight for them, get them down on paper. It won’t be easy to do– none of the good things in life ever are– but you can do this and it’s going to be incredible. Have faith in yourself! xo, Rachel