Peter John McLean
Steps to Writing a Book Part Two, the importance of concept (Writing)
This is not a true part two—I’m not writing it as a sequel to my first blog post about this—I just had more thoughts about the elements that I’ve struggled with in my own book writing odyssey.
I’ve written a few books now, some ghostwritten for clients with big ideas, some poorly organized novels through my formative years, and then a slightly more serious novel that I’m still working on, called Most of Our Jugs Are Empty. I’m definitely still learning how to put a book together, especially a novel, which has a lot of challenges to it that nonfiction books simply don’t have.
However, there are a lot of commonalities between writing fiction and nonfiction that I find interesting, as well.
Have a Clear Concept
I think that having a clear concept for a book seems like an obvious thing, but the more I talk to people who are writing books or have ideas for books, the more I realize that a lot of people haven’t put thought into this. It’s easy to overcomplicate a book by spending time developing ideas. What is hard is drilling down to the core essence of a book until you have one succinct concept.
If you can’t sum up your book in about thirty seconds of rambling you aren’t clear on the concept and if you aren’t clear on the concept it will show in the process of writing the book. You may think that in the process of writing the book it will end up making sense, but even the most complex books break down to simple concepts. The entire seven book Harry Potter series could be summed up as: a boy discovers he’s a wizard and goes to wizarding school where he fights evil and comes to terms with the death of his parents. Voldemort, a particularly shitty wizard, tries to promote evil right wing supremacy ideas and is eventually destroyed by the forces of globalism #muggleswelcome.
Even though JK Rowling wrote pretty sophisticated plots with tons of characters intersecting and subplots weaving in and out of the books, the actual core concept was extremely clear. And when the concept is clear there isn’t any chance that the book will suddenly wander in a new direction. For example, if there had been no clear Harry versus evil concept in Rowling’s mind, she might have decided to have the books arbitrarily start focusing on Hermione’s social justice efforts or just the challenges of maintaining strong academics in the wizarding world. Since the concept is clear, things like wizard classes are never more than an entertaining part of the background, as they aren’t actually important to the story.
In my book, Most of Our Jugs Are Empty, which isn’t finished, I still have a clear concept: an insecure rat meets a girl while living in a declining neighborhood in a declining part of town, he struggles trying to establish himself in his new violent surroundings and impress the girl and eventually pushes her away.
Sure, you might not be interested in a rat meets girl love story with drug use and TEC 9 references, but at least the concept of the book is clear. I’m not trying to write a book about a rat whose deep love of Søren Kierkegaard is probably going to become relevant eventually and wants to date a pretty girl who likes him but is insecure that he isn’t violent enough and so he’s just going around in circles and then some magical realism comes in probably later and that really complicates things and I really want to incorporate some of Philip Roth’s narrative style. Okay enough, I don’t even know what I’m saying anymore.
Write a Complete Draft
You may wish to outline before you write a draft. I’m not going to say it’s a bad idea, but for some people (myself included) it doesn’t really work. I prefer to figure out my whole story by sitting down and writing it and since I know I will rewrite it again and again afterward I don’t mind the inherent sloppiness of just trudging along without much structure.
Some people will want every chapter broken down into bullet points. There is nothing wrong with that and for some people it’s probably really useful, my only warning is that it gets easier—both with novel writing and nonfiction—to lose the dramatic tension and excitement from the narrative if you just pace everything the same and slip from one element to the next. The benefit of writing a draft without an outline is you’ll naturally gloss over the less important stuff and focus on the details and concepts that are most important, which your readers will appreciate.
I’m all for the organic method.
When I’m done writing a draft I move on to something different for at least a month, usually writing about donating plasma or how Harry Potter invented Hogwarts. The goal is simply to let go of my main project for a while.
This is a pretty common practice and the more writers I talk to the more I hear others reinforcing this concept. As soon as you’ve finished a book you’re too close to the subject matter and won’t be able to read it objectively. Truth be told, you’ll never be able to read it objectively, but with a little time you will start to see the glaringly obvious omissions from your draft and major issues that you need to fix.
When you have taken a nice healthy break from your book and are ready to jump back in its time for the best part.
This is one of the most important steps to writing a book. Basically every decent writer everywhere (and all the great ones and horrible ones too) agree that the process of writing really boils to down to the act of rewriting the same thing until it sounds right. This demands patience, but since when did writing a book not demand patience? If your idea of writing a book is simply to write your ideas down and publish them, you aren’t really writing, you’re simply thinking and then selling those unedited thoughts in word form.
When you read something that flows excellently it is likely because the author took time to find the right words, often reading it out loud and considering how it sounds.
Revision is for slackers, rewriting is for the glorious champions of the written word.