If you’ve always wanted to write a book, make sure you read this first:
It never ceases to surprise me how many people tell me that they’ve always wanted to write a book. Of course, it makes my heart sing, but be warned, between writing a book and thinking about it, there’s an entire world to be conquered.
My first published book, Mapping Complexity, was based on my PhD. I was glad when it was all over.
I never thought I’d embark on another book. I saw my future as a writer of articles—scholarly papers at first, travel and lifestyle features later. Small but meaty self-contained pieces.
But then my life fell apart and I became a furious journal writer. Writing things down helped me heal.
After I’d filled more than a dozen journals with my pain, I realised I had enough material for another book.
Falling Apart Gracefully is a memoir about going through a difficult time and coming out of it stronger, more in touch with myself, and fundamentally transformed.
I spent a decade thinking about it. When the pandemic was declared at the start of 2020 and I found myself unexpectedly separated from my old life, but reunited with my old journals, I finally committed to writing it.
Writing a work of narrative non-fiction, allowed me to discover a new writing voice, but it also challenged me to learn what it really takes to write a book.
Before my memoir sees the light of day, here’s what I learned about the writing process.
Always wanted to write a book? Here are some handy tips:
1. Stop thinking about writing a book. Start writing.
Seriously, just start writing. Allow the first draft to be messy. Think of your first draft as the vomit draft. Let your story pour out of you, don’t worry about polishing anything just yet, just get the bones down. Trust me, once you have that messy first draft, you can move forward more quickly. Writing that messy first draft means banishing your inner editor to a remote island for a couple of months. Which brings me to my next point.
2. Editing and writing are two separate processes.
Once you have a first draft, it will be so much easier to shape whatever you’ve got, into a second draft. As Stephen King says, write the first draft with the doors firmly closed. You’re writing the story only for yourself at this stage. This will allow you to banish your inner editor so that you can get to the real story and into the writing flow.
Your first draft is essentially you telling yourself the story. Your second draft is when you start to tell the story to your reader. That’s when you put your editor’s hat on and get rid of all the excess stuff that slows the story down.
Repeat after me: writing and editing are two separate processes and should not be done in the same session (or even on the same day).
Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right — as right as you can, anyway — it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.Stephen King
3. Pay attention to structure!
Writing lovely prose has always come easy to me, but shaping the material in my messy journals into an engaging story that would hold a reader’s attention from start to finish, forced me to really pay attention to structure.
There are plenty of resources out there to teach you about structure. But don’t get bogged down in learning how to write. That’s another form of procrastination.
Understand the main building blocks of a book:
Choose your overall structure. The classic three act structure works well for both fiction and narrative non-fiction memoir.
Learn to write in scenes. A scene is centred around an event. Something happens that advances the plot. Anchor your reader in time and space, make sure there is some form of conflict and transformation within a scene.
Dialogue should always be a form of conflict, ie. two characters disagreeing on something. It doesn’t have to be a fully fledged marital fight. It can be as simple as one character wanting to eat in, the other preferring to go out.
Pay attention to dialogue tags. Usually the word ‘said’ is sufficient. No need for fancy dialogue tags like ‘he groaned, she shrieked’ etc.
Get in late, get out early! This is one of the best pieces of advice that changed everything for me.
In the first draft of my memoir I made the usual beginner’s mistake of starting with loads of boring backstory.
In my current version, I start in the middle of the conflict, a key turning point of the book, which will (hopefully) ensure that my reader stays hooked from the first sentence.
This also holds true for each scene: ie. you don’t need to tell us that your character has come home after a hard day at work, pops open a beer, sits down, deliberates, then finally picks up the phone to dial the number of a love object. Cut straight to the chase. Give us the conversation, then cut to the date, don’t show the character going to bed, then getting up again, going to work again and then finally on their date. Get in late, and out early!
Create suspense and narrative tension. Like a good curry, a good book needs a decent amount of spice. How do you spice up your book?
Keep your character suspended between fear and hope. That’s what creates tension, what will keep the reader hooked.
Every scene, every bit of dialogue you write needs to have a reason to be there. It needs to raise the stakes, it needs to advance the story.
4. You’ve always wanted to write a book, but you’re just too busy.
Yep, that’s pretty much all of us. We’re all busy, even those of us who identify as writers. But it’s like anything. If you want to run a marathon, you’ve got to train. Writing a book isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.
Like a marathon runner, you’ll need to commit to a schedule. Carve out small chunks of time. Commit to writing regularly. An hour a day is better than sitting down on the weekend, overwhelmed. Chip away at it in regular chunks. There’s great joy in watching your manuscript grow, trust me!
These tips are meant to help you get started. I’ve got so much more to share. Make sure you sign up to my newsletter (link below) for the next installment and to hear about the new mini-podcast sessions I recorded with my dear friend and editor Edwina Shaw.