How do you write a good book? I’m sure there’s a trick. There’s certainly no dearth of how-to-write and how-to-get-published books out there. A lot of people buy those books. I buy them. I’m reading Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain right now, but I’m pretty sure there are no tricks in this one. I’ve read reviews from aspiring writers and one individual lamented that she’d read dozens of books on writing, and none of them really told her how to do it. There must be a trick, a scheme, a short-cut, a paint-by-numbers approach, and this doesn’t even begin to address what happens after you write the damn thing.
Here are some of the things that go into writing a book—
- Ideas – Some people get ideas from real life, from sitting in coffee shops, from brainstorming, mind-mapping, prompts. They write snippets on envelopes, old receipts, their phone, a notepad, the palm of their hand (OMG, no, I’ve never done that!), the inside cover of a book, the back cover of a book, index cards. Some people work the ideas right away. Some people file them. Some people set them aside for years – to ripen, mellow, bloom with complicated flavors and aromas, or something like that.
- Process –Pants it? Outline? Combo? Word count? Page count? Morning? Night? Again, for questions on process there’s an ample selection of books to lead the way. Some people will say that to outline or not is a personal choice. Some people will lift their chins, sniff, and suggest that outlining is a failure of creative courage. Some outliners will tell you that if you don’t outline, you’re a useless resistant rebel who will never be published. And as far as outlines go—30 days, 2 weeks, 1 week to a finished-ready-to-be-polished-into-a-final-draft outline, anyone? 500 words a day, steady and sure, to a completed novel? Or how about 2000 words a day? Or 10,000 words a day? Type faster, think faster. Get that book done!
- Structure – So you have an idea. You pants it or you don’t. How do you put your story together? Is it a three act structure? A four act or five act structure? Is the trick in the structure? The beginning, the middle (Oh, god forbid you have a saggy middle!), the end? Is it in the inciting incident, the first five pages, the first fifty pages, the first or second plot point, the pinch points, the climax? Is it plot or character or both. Is it in the scenes or the dialogue? Or the tension or the foreshadowing or the emotion?
- Revision – Do you have holes in your plot? Would you even know it if you did? Well, there are books for that too. This is where you plug those holes, prop up your saggy middle, tie up your loose ends, layer in meaning, deepen characterization, highlight theme.
I think it’s pretty clear that if there is a trick, you’re gonna have a hard time finding it, so you might as well just give that idea up.
I love to read these how-to books. I’m an absolute sucker for them just because I love all things writing. A lot of the books I buy are physical books. Sometimes I get the Kindle version. But I’ve begun to read these books for fun now (there are exceptions that I make for books that inspire) because I’ve noticed something. Here’s the thing—let’s say you are that reviewer I mentioned earlier who’s trying to find a tried and true method to produce books. You decide to outline. You decide on a four act structure with an inciting incident, two plot points, two pinch points, and a rising hell-raising climax! You fit your characters in. You develop scenes to match your structure. You connect the dots. I suppose it’s possible to do it this way. It’s functional and replicable. But where’s the joy? The adventure? The wonder where the hell I’m going with this breathless, surprised, wondrous, mind-blowing trip that a really good story takes you on (and, yes, you can get there with an outline).
What makes a really good story? Joy. Mystery. Expectation. Surprise. Enlightenment. Belief. Disbelief. Wonder. Resonance. The echo of an experience that carries past the pages into real life for days or months or years. Is there a trick? No. There’s a leap of faith. The blank page. Follow the fucking story. I’m willing to bet that nine times out of ten, form will follow substance. Heart and soul—I think that’s what readers want. And I’m pretty sure that that’s where the story is—and where the sheer joy of writing is wearily lying under the cover of way too many rules.
Anyway, I’m going for the fun. Writing is hard. Story is tough. There are no short-cuts, and there are no tricks. Write the story. Read it. You’ll know if it works or not. And if the story’s good, you can fix it. And if it’s not, nothing can fix it. Writers keep writing! Readers keep reading!