Peter John McLean

Steps to Writing a Book (Writing)

Writing a book is hard.

It means gathering all kinds of information, organizing ideas, and developing them all into something cohesive enough that readers continue until the end. I think that novel writing is a lot harder than non-fiction writing, though I’m sure a lot of people disagree with me, because most of the ideas in a novel are not very concrete until they’re written out, whereas many non-fiction books can rely on a little thing called facts. While a character in a novel may be completely reworked into something new, the core precepts of a non-fiction book are likely agreed upon before the book is started.

Regardless, there are a number of awesome steps I use when I’m approaching writing a book. I’ve used this system while writing my current novel, which is unfinished, as well as while working with others on books on various subjects.

Answer a Few Questions

  • What is the point of this book?
  • Who is this book for?
  • Why should I write this book?

I like these three questions because they quickly get you focused on what is important. If you don’t answer them all honestly, it’s easy to write a hundred thousand words for no specific audience about a subject that you have no unique knowledge of. By answering these three questions you can ensure that you’re writing something that has a real value that you believe in. This doesn’t really matter whether or not it’s fiction or non-fiction, again, even if you’re writing a novel there should be some underlying value to it, some way that it moves a reader emotionally.

You should also be clear about who your audience is.

This doesn’t have to be a concrete demographic that you’re trying to market your book to, but someone you imagine picking up your book and getting a ton of value out of it. For a non-fiction book, this may be a person with no familiarity with your subject, who you want to influence in the right direction. For a novel, this may be a person who simply wants a great book about a specific subject, or incorporating specific mechanisms that you find awesome.

I know the kind of fiction that I like (wandering, puzzling fiction with darkly comedic elements, plenty of violence, a hybrid dildo-plunger [something my novel is not lacking], and plenty of postmodern gang violence). Feeling that there weren’t any serious but bizarro works dealing in slow decline dystopias and incorporating hyperbolic inner city violence (that isn’t tropey as shit and based entirely on the 1950s lets-meet-and-settle-a-truce), I decided that I would write my novel. I felt that there was a vacuum and I set out to fill it with awesomeness.

Similarly, when you are writing your book, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, you should feel that you are finally going to put out something great that no one else has done. You should be wondering why no one has written something like what you’re about to write. You should not be double-checking someone else’s book to make sure you ripped him off completely and didn’t accidentally forget to rip off one of his scenes.

I remember helping this indie filmmaker with a screenplay when I was nineteen, this was a couple of years after Garden State blew up and a time when every indie filmmaker was trying to be Zach Braff, and his screenplay basically read like he’d watched Garden State and followed its structure scene by scene.

Don’t be that guy.

Write the Book

This may seem obvious, but lots of people get bogged down with outlines.

I wouldn’t worry about that. Outlines generally stymy the creative awesomeness you have buried among your juicy organs, so it’s best to just sit down and write the book. If you let yourself share the ideas you have in an organic manner, they will probably come out in a much more interesting way than if you had outlined it.

Have you ever sat down with a friend and told him a hilarious story about what happened to you over the weekend? Did you outline the story or did you just extemporaneously share it with him, probably pausing for dramatic effect at the right times?

You’re probably much better at telling stories than you give yourself credit for.

Rewrite the Book

If you want your book to be really good you have to rewrite it. If you want your book to be great you’ll probably rewrite it twice.

Like it not, effective writing comes from doing it over and over again. As you become a stronger writer, your rough drafts get better, but even then you will find your writing tightens significantly with more drafts.

Revising is a decent alternative, but the problem with it is you often read quicker than you rewrite and therefore will continually miss errors you would see if you actually sat down and rewrote it word by word.

I have rewritten my in-progress novel one and a half times. It is exponentially better than the rough draft, with much more realized characters, a far more cohesive plot, and the setting has developed into a place that I find believable. In the first draft the setting was jarring and often major economic and sociological aspects of it changed with my whims, most of the characters were pretty flat, and the dialogue especially was short, stilted, and generally meaningless.

By going back and rewriting it, I saw all sorts of opportunities for increased depth and I was able to add new thoughts and ideas, while organizing what I already had in a better way.

It doesn’t matter if you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, the essence of book writing is the same. You have ideas and you want to share them. Find ideas other people aren’t talking about. Get an idea of the type of people you want to share it with, write it for them. And finally, figure out why you should write this.

Why can’t someone else write it? If it seems like anyone could write the book idea you have, try to find a more creative place to approach the problem from. What special experience do you have? What’s your unique perspective?

I ask myself these questions when I’m jumping into a new project and they help me write books that have value. If I just wrote books without caring whether or not the idea was already saturated, or if I was the least qualified person in the world to write it, then I think my book would have a lot less value.

This is also why that one old adage creeps up all the time, “write what you know.” This wasn’t invented by a fourth grade schoolteacher to ruin everyone’s dream of writing serial killer fanfic. It exists because readers want to read about something that has authenticity behind it. You are more interesting when you are writing passionately about the most mind numbing aspects of your under the table upholstery gig than when you write yet another hack and slash story about killing zombies with a machete. It’s just the way it is.

Now real quick, before I end this blog post, let me be very clear. If you want to write zombie hack and slash fiction that incorporates the awesome brain scattering power of machetes, do it. But figure out how you can write it from a place of zombie killing authority. I have done this with my slow decline dystopia starring an anthropomorphic rat with a drinking problem. I wrote a protagonist based on what I knew, I put him around people similar to people I have known, and I drew upon my experiences and a lot of reading to create a setting that I believe in. Similarly, if all you know is how to wax floors and properly dispose of hospital sharps (respect if you do, it’s not as easy as it sounds) then the logical next step is to work to write a zombie hack and slash from the perspective of a person who has no experience with machetes, who has yet to witness the awe inspiring splatter of brains when a zombie head is sliced in two.

Your goal is to write a story someone else couldn’t write. So write whatever the hell you want, but write it from a perspective someone else couldn’t.