So You Want to Write a Book: Seven Rules for Novel Success

One of my earliest memories is writing my first book. It wasn’t a novel or novelette. I was maybe five. My favorite books at that age had fuzzy hair to feel, and shiny pictures, and scratch and sniff stickers. Therefore, my first book included all of those elements using smooth tape, smelly markers and whatever fuzzy things I could find around the house (I don’t remember exactly, but fuzzy things could have included some ill-gotten cat hair). I loved that book. I loved it so much I made another one, and another one. Literally, from the minute I could read, I have been writing.

Fast forward about twenty years. I’m living all alone in a studio apartment above a house in Fairview, Oregon. Aside from my job–which I detest–and spending time with my friend T.J., my life is pretty boring. I don’t even have cable. After years of perfecting poetry and attempts at two novelettes, I decide that I’m finally ready to write my first full-length novel.

The idea was simple enough to conjure up. “I’ll just write a novel,” I thought, as if it would be so simple. I attacked the page with feverish enthusiasm, writing whatever came to mind. Shortly after its inception, however, I got bored and couldn’t figure out where I was going with the few thousand words I had now put to paper. The desire to complete a book was so powerful though that I refused to give up. I had to find a way to keep going. So, I started a blog. My book became an ebook which I updated every week for readers who followed.

It was a brilliant device! Now I had a reason, motivation to keep writing the book. No matter how stuck I got, or how tired I became, disappointing my audience was not something I was willing to do. More still, I didn’t want to disappoint myself. Failure was not an option. I pressed forward, writing “Shadow of Truth” to its completion.

By the time I was done with the book, I had learned that writing a book isn’t as easy as it might sound. It’s hard, time consuming, grueling work. It takes patience, foresight, research, planning, and hours and hours of editing. Then, after the book is written and edited, you still have to think about what you’re going to do with it. Did you write it just for fun or to be able to say, “I wrote a book”? Do you want to publish? If so, you’re work isn’t done. Do you want to keep writing? Is there going to be a sequel? Now you have questions to ponder and probably more work to do.

For me, the answer was easy. I’ve been writing since I was five. Writing is what I love. It’s how I want to make a living. So, after all the pitching to agents and marketing and eventual publishing of “Shadow of Truth,” I decided to write another novel. Actually, I set the outline for three novels–one being the sequel to “Shadow of Truth,” another being a love story with the working title “The Love Hermits of Foggy Bay,” and the third being a thriller that is to be published on Halloween, 2014 entitled “Ecce Signum.”

I have now finished writing a second novel. It’s nearly 20,000 words longer than my first novel and was written in a fraction of the time. The writing in more professional. The characters are more developed and the words came so much more easily. Why? I followed a few rules that I learned when I made my outlines. These rules will not only help you get your book idea off the ground, but will help it be a much smoother, more professional experience.

Rule number one: Show up to work. – We all have good days and bad days. Writer’s block isn’t a myth, nor is the strange phenomenon we commonly refer to as “having a muse.” However, if you want to successfully write a book, you have to show up to work. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” describes this rule eloquently in her 2009 Ted Talk “Your Elusive Creative Genius” saying, “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be.”

Rule number two: Keep track of everything. – This was probably the biggest difference between my writing book one and book two. While writing “Shadow of Truth,” everything I wrote was research this, place event, write. It made for difficult and sometimes sloppy writing. However, with “Ecce Signum” I learned that if I keep a notes page running as I am writing, everything is clearer. Every new character, location, organization or important bit of information I introduce in the story is noted, described and outlined. Not only does this help later on in the book when you have to mention something from before or need to work in some foreshadowing, but it also helps to build depth. Your characters will be more real. Your locations will be better designed and your plot will be deeper if you simply keep track of them as you write with a short, concise synopsis that serves your purposes.

Rule number three: Know your characters. – If you are keeping track of everything, you are going to have a character log. This will include a description of your characters traits, aspirations and their roles in the book. However, as the author you must understand your characters on a deeper level. If you were to be asked a question about your protagonist such as “What would Bob Johnson do if he were in a life or death situation?” You should be able to answer that question. You will have to answer those questions as your narrative progresses. An important skill of an author is character development. The best way to develop a character is know the character as well as you know yourself.

Rule number four: Get writing. – Sometimes I get so concerned with all the details that I forget the most important thing; the writing. I would get so lost in my own head while writing “Shadow of Truth” that I would be pondering more than I was writing. Though pondering is important in some aspects, its amazing what happens when you just put your fingers on the keyboard and go. If you’ve shown up to work, you know your characters and you are keeping track of everything, the words will come.

Rule number five: It’s okay to make mistakes. – This fits in a lot with rule number four. People think that in order to write a book, everything has to be perfect on the first draft. That is simply not true. Though it’s understood that your grammar will not be perfect the first time through, it should also be mentioned that your plot, characters and story line don’t have to be either. That’s what editing is for. If you sit around trying to make everything come together just right before you start writing, you’ll never get your book done. Write what comes to you until the book is complete, doing your best to have a coherent first draft, then perfect your words in editing. On that same train of thought is…

Rule number six: You don’t have to have everything figured out before hand. – Just like its okay to make mistakes, it’s also okay to not know everything that’s going to happen in the book from day one. Having a rigid structure and plan might help you in some ways, but in others it will actually impede your ability to create a good story. It may sound strange, but as you write and get to really know your characters, plans can change. In fact, I changed the main antagonist (basically the “who done it”) in my recent novel as I neared the end of the book just because it made for that much better of a book. Have an idea, yes, but allow it to be a dynamic one. Allow it to change and progress as the story progresses. Your words will flow easier and your writing will be better.

Rule number seven: Have fun (cliche I know) – If you aren’t having fun writing your book, if the story doesn’t interest you, then what’s the point? It will come across in your writing as well and your audience won’t enjoy a book that bored you to tears. For me, this means creating fiction that is thought-provoking and allows me to research things in which I am interested. For you, it might mean writing a great romance or fantasy world. The best thing about writing is the best thing about reading; the ability to be transported to somewhere you never could gone otherwise. Writing has the added benefit of allowing you to create that place for yourself and others. Enjoy it!

Whether it’s a lifetime passion or a simple bucket list item, writing a book is an amazing feeling. If you follow these seven rules and really apply yourself, I have no doubt that I’ll be reading your new novel in the coming months. Now get out there and get writing!


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