How to Write a Book in Two Simple Steps

Advice on writing a book from a new writer that did it wrong.

[2014 Camp NaNoWriMo]Well, just past a week and I’m over a quarter of the way into the second half of my novel. I’m not sure this is the best way to write a book, but so far Camp NaNoWriMo has been a perfect excuse to scratch a long time itch. I’m no longer just reading about writing or scratching out silly blog entries, but putting thousands of words into Scrivener that I hope one day to publish for all to ridicule. Okay, I’m hoping the ridicule part isn’t true, but I do want to get this book to a state that I can publish and hopefully entertain someone other than myself.

If you find your self in the same place as me, let me offer some advice. Just do it! I know, it sounds cheesy and too easy, but it really is that simple. You just need to find what motivates use and use that as a form of encouragement. For me, deadlines, reminders, and short-term targets help me focus on my long-term goals. Maybe it is the programmer in me, but breaking problems into smaller parts has always helped me to focus. In many ways, writing a novel is similar to writing a program. To start a program, I often write high level pseudocode that maps out how the program will work. This is very similar to writing an outline that guides how your story will flow. I would then flesh out each function, interactively improving them until the program is complete. When writing, I’m fleshing out each scene, iteratively improving them until I finish my story. Sure, the The syntax is a different (English Language vs. Perl or C), but both follow rules that help your audience reach a goal. Sure, a program’s results are more dynamic versus the static prose of writing, but the process is very similar. I’m not assuming you are a coder, I’m just urging to look at what you have been succesful at and use those same techniques to help you write. For me, having an outline and working on scenes is similar enough to how I program. I can focus on a smaller scene of a few hundred words without worrying about how I’ll write 50,000. If you find a task too big, find a way to break it down.

For the May Camp NaNoWriMo, I set reminders each day to tell me to write. It was silly, but by having them pop up on my phone as I arrived home it helped me build the habit of just writing. It worked very well, so well in fact that I don’t even need the reminders this time around. My book is always in my mind and I’m thinking about how to fit it into my schedule, and push other things off. Not work mind you, I still have a day job. Not family, I still have to find time for the wife and kids. Nope, my other hobbies get shoved to the side. I still have my monthly ZX81 program, so it really means I’m not spending much time in POV-Ray or gaming. I still had to make sacrifices, but I’m enjoying the rewards from my new habit.

Which leads me back to July’s Camp NaNoWriMo. I’m doing better this time around, keeping my focus on writing. Like I said, I’m not having to force or remind myself to write as much this time around. The outline I created before Camp started is much broader this time, focused at the chapter level. This gives me more flexibility when writing scenes. I can add or cut them on a whim and not feel constrained. I may not always know what I’m going to write each day, but I always get something down on paper. Hey, it’s a first draft. Don’t worry too much if things don’t always add up just right.

One other thing I’m realizing is that I don’t have to write every scene from beginning to end. Since I have a general outline I can actually work on a scene in any chapter. For example, yesterday I actually wrote most of the ending scene of my novel. I had a good idea in my head about how I wanted to end the book and decided I better get it down before I forget it. I think we often get hung up on how we should do things, when we should be challenging our norms. Like my structure problem, I found that once I shook myself from having to write linearly I was free to write what came to mind. Now, I could meet my daily targets and write down interesting scenes as they came to me.

Since Camp NaNoWriMo has a set goal in a set time period, it is pretty easy to chunk that out into a daily goal. Camp is a bit more flexible than the NaNoWriMo in November, but I stuck with the default 50,000 words. I used Scrivener to set my target and it automatically sets your daily target to reach your goal. If you use the NaNoWriMo demo version, it includes a template with the target already set for you. Now you can now track how well you’re doing while writing. I found this very helpful in ensuring that I didn’t quit too early. Sometimes I didn’t need it, but it helped on days when I was struggling to write and needed a bit of encouragement to get me through it. Your mileage may vary, but it worked for me. You can also just count your words and enter it on the NaNoWriMo site to track your daily progress. Or, like me, do both.

But wait, doesn’t that title say two simple steps? Why yes. Yes it does. Those two steps were May and July. Confused? Don’t be. Let me tell you that 50K isn’t much. For a first book, it may seem very daunting. It was for me. But as I got closer and closer to the that target, I came to realize that 50K words isn’t enough. My plot had outgrown my original outline and I realized that I had a lot more to tell. Plus, 50K is a pretty short book, about 120 pages. 100K words is realistic, about 240 pages. That is a good novel size, especially for Sci-Fi. Since Camp is two months, separated by a month in between, I realized that I was actually writing two halves of my novel. Having that month in between really helped me take a breath. I stopped writing, allowing myself to think about what went right, what went wrong, and what changes I could make. This resulted in my writing becoming two: May and July. See, easy peasy.

Okay, one last thing. You don’t have to wait for Camp NaNoWriMo. Find your own cadence, create your own targets or even split your writing up over a couple of years. Whatever works for you. The trick is starting. Just do it!

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