Author Chronicles: Beginning a Book

What keeps you up at night? Is it a noisy neighbor, a bad dream you had the night before, or even more existential: the meaning of life, or your finances, your goals?

I know— what is this, Lana? This is new. Get to the point. Well, what I mean is, everyone has their stressor; there is something that keeps them awake, makes them think, worries them. It can be different for everyone, and it can be multiple things— for me, it’s a concept for a developing novel.

I’m writing a book.

** cue groans **

Or, rather, I’m trying to. The road to publication is steep and treacherous. In a world where everyone and their mother is writing a novel, it’s almost embarrassing to share this little piece of myself. “Oh god, another aspiring author. Here we go.”

Before you close that tab, I beg of you, listen. The difference in my situation is this: I will follow through. Thus, I’ve decided to chronicle my book-writing misadventures in a column, for any other blossoming writers out there who find themselves stricken with self-doubt. That is, I’m writing about writing, and therefore avoiding my book by writing this, which is pretty backwards, if you ask me— but it’s all part of the process, right?

With all of that said, I now cordially welcome you to the Author Chronicles, otherwise known as the series of unfortunate events leading up to the publication of my first novel. Since you’re here, I’m assuming you’re either a writer or an avid reader, but all are welcome to the sh*tshow that is my manuscript! Reading and writing are great, aren’t they?

As the book progresses, the chronicles will adjust accordingly, from rants to other pro-tips— but here, you’ll find a how-to guide to starting a book, advice from published writers, and photos of my tear-stained pillowcase.

I’m only half-kidding about the last one. Without further ado, let’s begin!

Step 1: Develop an Idea

This could be a writer’s favorite part, or the absolute worst.

Thinking of an original concept is difficult. What can we write about that hasn’t been discussed already? How could I possibly think of something to rival the greatest authors of our generation and before? Instead of inundating Google with searches like:

Start by looking for inspiration in things that are both familiar to you and wildly out of your comfort zone. Both extremes have potential for inspiration; your home experience is strictly yours. What can you say about it? Then switch tactics, and examine the other hand: never studied Greek mythology? Take a dive into your local encyclopedia. There are many different interesting and unique concepts that have not been explored at depth. It’s a matter of finagling it to make it your own.

Even the most mundane experiences could prove helpful. You never truly expect to witness something or meet someone who will heavily influence your life, but they could hold the key to your success. I know that we, as students, live assignment by assignment on Easy Mac, and the idea of a revolutionary professor or in-college soulmate is an old cliche. Regardless, have faith; people can surprise you (OR BLACKLIST YOU, SO LIVE IN FEAR YOUNG AUTHOR).

However, if your surroundings just aren’t doing it for you, try to examine other works. I don’t mean plagiarize, but did you know that some great, everlasting novels began as fanfiction? No, I’m not referring to Fifty Shades of Grey, but rather Paradise Lost by John Milton, which is essentially Bible fanfiction, or even The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. Apparently, Dumas took the three iconic characters from Mémoires de Monsieur d’Artagnan, a book that he checked out of the Marseille Public Library and never returned. He just kept it, and you know what? Same, Alexandre Dumas. I know what it’s like when you just have to have a book.

The point: Use your passions, people you know, and things you want to explore to spark your plot idea. Or just use a random plot generator on Google. That works, too.

Step 2: Consider Your Goals

When you want to try your hand at novel-writing, you have to consider your ultimate goals with the project. Are you writing for fun, or are you aiming to publish your work? I have a few cringe-worthy pieces that will never see the light of day, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the process of writing.

With publication in mind, you have to consider the length of your manuscript— whether you’ve written it or not. With a fully-formed plot, it’s fairly easy to estimate the length of a book. Even if it lacks the substance needed to create a novel, it could very easily become a short story. Likewise, if it’s a very visual text and you’re also artistically-inclined (which some writers are, some aren’t), you could consider developing the story in a comic or visual novel format.

Example: I have developed my own plot ideas with a very creative friend of mine, Ben. Say hi, Ben!

Ben’s head is full of incredible ideas, but in terms of writing, he claims his skill is just so/so. He spent months writing and rewriting to no avail, when he eventually decided to convert his novel concept into a comic strip series. It’s still in the works, but the product is phenomenal.

The point: Considering the future of your work is a super-important first step in the process.

Step 3: Practice Creating Uncomfortably

In the rough and tough world of publication— and it truly is tough— there will be no ideal writing conditions. As an aspiring author, you have to learn how to create while uncomfortable, and that is meant both physically and emotionally.

If one of your fingers has been cut off, for heaven’s sake, go to the hospital. But don’t use the injury— after it’s been healed— as an excuse. What I mostly mean by ‘physically uncomfortable,’ could be in terms of location or your general well being, which may or may not be ideal for the production of a story. Sometimes, the last thing you’ll want to do is write. You might be tired, or totally uninterested. Grant yourself that break, but don’t stay away for too long.

Writing can— no, will— seriously drain you emotionally. You may be impatient with your work, or you might not like where it’s going— writing is supposed to be enjoyable, but it’s okay to be uncomfortable with the material. Build and learn from it. If you wouldn’t usually study people for inspiration, really dive into the nuances of people’s emotions. Scrutinize how feelings work. Make yourself uncomfortable. Allow yourself to be surprised by what discomfort with your material can become.

Don’t be afraid to write something out of your comfort zone, and practice optimism through uncertainty. Concrete setbacks happen. Nobody knows how your work is going to turn out, not exactly, until your editor signs off on the very last page of your manuscript.

The point: Don’t hinder yourself by allowing temporary setbacks to stop your production of the story.

Step 4: Get a Critique Partner

Of all people, I know how terrifying it is to showcase your work to other people. It’s like stage fright for authors; writing is very raw, your innermost thoughts, and so exposing them is like putting your heart on a platter and giving someone a fork. Once you trust someone enough to share your story with them, they wield a certain power over you. They can decimate you in one minute, and there’s nothing you can do but look, listen, and weakly defend yourself, if that.

That is not the sort of critique partner we need or want. There is a difference between criticism and constructive criticism, and our goal is the latter. With a critique partner, you can observe how readers will react, what they like or don’t like. See in real time how your words land.

Example: I slaved over my novel for one month, two months, three. I made little to no progress but for a paragraph here, a revised sentence there, and I was mostly ready to give up. The Word document tab sat ever present on my laptop screen, minimized so I didn’t have to pay actual attention to it. Instead, I wrote articles like these. Ha.

As it turned out, though, a close friend of mine— also a big reader, as we like very similar books— asked me what I was writing. She convinced me to spill the details and listened to my retelling of the plotline without interruption. When I finished, she filled plot holes that I hadn’t even noticed, and she rebuilt the story without changing it drastically, so that it had potential for far more interesting development.

The point: You want to see the impression your words have on a reader sooner rather than later, and the best way to do so is with someone who will not only read your piece, but who is unafraid to critique it.

Step 5: Push Through

Contrary to popular belief, the secret to success in the writing industry— or any creative business, really— isn’t entirely skill. Certainly, there has to be some level of literacy and writing ability present to have your work acknowledged, but it is not the defining factor that will put your books up for sale. What is it?

It’s determination. Grit. And as little comfort as that may offer, it’s encouraging to know that no matter what, there is space for your book, or your comic, or your movie script on the shelf.

In the wise words of my favorite author, Maggie Stiefvater:

Eventually you pass the suck threshold and your writing becomes good.

-Author Maggie Stiefvater, BookCon 2017.

The idea is, your writing can and will improve, with work. However, being the most talented writer in the world won’t grant you a novel if you don’t put in the effort. Take this: I often think about this specific set of tweets from Stiefvater, once again, back in May 2017.

Maggie Stiefvater on Twitter, 2017

Despite the (hip and cool) quote, she’s an incredible author, I swear. Do I reference her too much? Maybe. Stiefvater is the author of several bestselling book series, including The Raven Cycle (I WILL PREACH THESE BOOKS UNTIL THE DAY I DIE) and Shiver. So yeah, you could say that her advice—however vague— is definitely backed by some experience.

The point: Push through. Hop over your hurdles, dodge your obstacles. If you don’t give up, you will get there.

Remember that unfortunately, in the words of many writers, “nobody owes us anything: time, money, respect, emotional investment. You have to fight for all of it— and the playing field is never even.”

Reassuring, I know. I understand the struggle. I feel my main character on my back, calling my name into the void as I sit fiddling on Twitter. No, main character, I haven’t forgotten you! I’m just painfully lazy!

In any case, the trait all successful writers have in common is determination. Using this advice— and probably some caffeine— I hope you’re able to achieve your writing goals. Here’s to crossing that threshold, and happy reading!

Lana’s novel status: in-development, page 51 of ???

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