Want to Write a Book? Here is How.
I visited Kauai Writer’s Conference and learned from some amazing authors.
Most Meaningful Experience: Hearing established authors speak about his/her own experience inspired me to do more and push through the process.
So you have always wanted to write a book, and you don’t have >$100k to hire a ghostwriter so you need to do it on your own. Where do you start and how to go about it? I learned a lot at the Kauai Writers Conference.
I myself am in the process of writing a book based on my experiences in Africa. It is something along the lines of Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson, but I’m trying to add more layers of personal meaning, experience and growth, along with the fascinating facts and anecdotes.
I thought that meeting with other authors would help me find some additional inspiration as I enter the final stretch of finishing off my book. So I made my way to the Kauai Writers Conference that takes place in Hawaii each year. I’ve given a detailed write up of the event below, but here are my top ten takeaways for aspiring book authors
- Writing a book is hard work. Be realistic in your expectations. You could spend two or three years on it. Writing is not for everyone, it needs to be a passion.
- Find a productivity approach that works for you. Is it committing to a number of hours each day (like Stephen King), or finding a time when you are most productive (midnight to 5am for Joshua Mohr)? Find what works for you and make it sacred.
- When in doubt just write! Not everything you put down on paper is going to be pure gold. But if you don’t have anything, you don’t have anywhere to start when it comes t o editing and reimagining.
- Write about things that are meaningful to you and that you know about. The work will be better and you will enjoy it more. Don’t get caught in the trap of choosing a topic because you think it will sell.
- Write in your own, true voice. Authenticity appeals to people, and while we can’t always describe it, we know it when we see it.
- Don’t be afraid to bleed onto the page. Reveal yourself, your emotions and feelings. Go to those hard places.
- Don’t simply tell the reader exactly what is happening, use your words to let them build a picture themselves.
- Don’t save anything, thinking you will include it in your next book, or even just write it down tomorrow. Every day, spend everything that you have.
- You will write much more than you need. It is not uncommon to write 1200 pages for what might be a 300 page book. Content must be ruthlessly cut. But this does not mean that content is wasted. So “kill your darlings” and move get to the substance.
- Stories must be complex. For stories to hook the reader and keep them turning the page, the characters and the problems that they face must be complex.
Kauai Writers Conference
Kauai Writers Conference is a meeting for professional and aspiring writers that has taken place in Kauai Hawaii every year for the last four years. But this was my first time.
It is a conference of two parts. The first four days consist of intimate masterclass sessions with successful authors. These sessions deep diving into various topics such as plot development, characterization, or nonfiction writing. The second three days is a mix of workshops, lectures, networking events, and opportunities to pitch your ideas to agents and editors.
I decided to go along as I am working on my own book and thought that I could benefit from some insight from the experts, and sharing ideas and inspiration with others on the same path. Plus it was in Hawaii, so I could get in some surfing.
During the four days of masterclasses I split my time between Elizabeth Rosner’s session on “Cutting and Polishing: Turning your manuscript into a great book” and Mark Kulansky’s masterclass on “The Art of Nonfiction”.
Both were incredibly valuable. Mark Kulansky is a master who consistently manages to make the mundane fascinating. I attended this workshop with my friend Joel, who has given an in depth write up of the full four days on his blog.
My top five takeaways from Kurlansky’s workshop were:
- Always ask yourself what it is that you are trying to share with your book. What is the story that you want to tell? Start there.
- Before you start, ask yourself: do I want to spend three years writing about this topic? It is a commitment.
- Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, whatever you write needs to ring true. This requires sharing your own authentic voice. There is nowhere to hide.
- Small moments make the book. Details are gold. But the details must be relevant and must help move things forward.
- Get everything down, it doesn’t matter how much you write. Then embrace the art of editing and reworking. Don’t see it as the enemy. Recognize that it is the fun and most creative part of the process.
The Elizabeth Rosner session was invaluable for me, as she was talking about exactly where I am with my work. I have a manuscript, but now I need to make it into a great book. Her really helped my fine tune the voice that I want my work.
The main insight from her masterclass was that most first time authors stop too soon. They have their manuscript, and they have revised it, and they think that they have done all they can, and they stop, and maybe they move on. But at this point, they are only 75 percent done. Finishing a manuscript, making it coherent, and real, and something that people will want to read, is more work that people think. It can’t be rushed, and you can’t be precious about what you thought was your final draft.
The masterclasses gave me inspiration, and the three days of lectures with all the amazing authors gave me a plethora of tips and ideas for the actual “doing” when it comes to writing.
I felt like the talks that were given could be broken into four themes, under which I gathered tips and ideas. The first is how you decide what you are actually going to write about! The second, finding a process and making space to write. The third theme I identified was putting together a good story. Finally, once you have a story, how you actually get your work out there in the wild.
I have put together my thoughts and tips on each theme in the sections below.
What are you going to write about?
They say that everyone has (at least) one important story to tell. But you do need to ask yourself, should you really be writing a book? How serious is your ambition? Is it something you need to do, or is expressing yourself through the written word a visceral need, and the only way that you can imagine getting a certain important story out there?
Once you have decided that you do need to write, the question becomes what to write. Some people already having a burning story, and they need to ask themselves if their story is going to matter to anyone beyond themselves? It has to be relevant. Even if you are talking about something that happened 10 or 100 years ago, it still has to be relevant in the here and now.
If you are looking for a story to tell, the best place to start is with yourself and what matters to you, regardless of the genre that you are writing. If you are unsure, research yourself. Ask:
- What do I obsess over?
- What has happened to me or the people close to me?
- What do I know secrets about?
- What do I Google?!
- What can be helpful to others?
You can even put these things together into a Venn diagram and see where your stories sit.
Finding a Process
Everyone has a different system for getting things done, not just for writing but in life – keeping on top of household duties and finding time to go to the gym while working long hours. But this can be especially important for work like writing, as it does not always have firm deadlines, and it is not always clear what progress is.
All writers have different systems. Joshua Mohr writes from 12am to 5am every day, as these are the hours that he feels most productive. Stephen King writes for two to three hours every day without fail. This is quite unusual, as authors generally write on a project basis rather than a daily quota basis, but it may be part of the reason that he is so prolific.
Whatever system you choose it needs to involve showing up every day (well, almost every day) and making progress. The only way to get it done is to put words on paper (or rather screen).
Writing also requires focus. Writing is not something that you can do between other tasks. J.K. Rowling may have been a single mum when she wrote Harry Potter, but she wasn’t squeezing in chapters between school runs and making dinner. She dedicated serious and focussed hours to creating her fantastical world.
It is also important to find ways to stay motivated while working, as it can take much longer to write a book that many people imagine (just ask George R.R. Martin). It can take two to three years to write a good book. On some days you will feel like you are making progress and on other days you will feel like you are at square one. You need to remember why you are doing it and find the motivation to continue when times are hard.
Putting Together a Story
This was definitely the meat of the conference, and I took away so many important ideas. But here are the ten I thought were the most important.
- Start with a plan. You need to start writing with a plan of what your book is actually going to look like. What is the overarching story that you are going to tell. What is the main arc of the plot that all the sub stories and details will hang off. Whose point-of-view will the story be told from and why. Who is the book for and have you planned something that will speak to them. You can then break the story into chunks that make sense discreetly, and which break the story up into sections that allow it to be told at the right pace.
- Know your characters. Especially your main characters. You need to fully evolve your characters and understand what is going on in the heads of each of them. What is their motivation, what are they are afraid of, what do they believe (even if it is not objectively true). Never be tempted to oversimplify characters, even if they only have a small part to play. No one is ever just one thing, a lover or a co-worker, they are always much more. Characters without this depth feel two dimensional and will be difficult for the reader to relate to.
- Write in the active and present tense. While it is super annoying to enter text into WordPress and have it come back and tell you that too many of your sentences are in the passive voice, you will wish you had that tool while writing! People relate better to stories when they are told in the active voice, and the present tense. When relating histories, do it through flashbacks so that you can tell the story as in the present moment.
- Vary your sentence length. Sentences of different lengths not only add interest to the writing, but can also help express the pace of the action. Short, staccato sentences suggest events moving forward rapidly, while longer sentences suggest a languid pace. In this way, you can give the reader the impression of feeling panicked and rushed, or make it feel like time is standing still.
- Make the world real. The reader needs to feel like they are immersed in a real world, and not a two dimensional stage set like they might see in a theatre. This requires adding details, and telling stories from the periphery as well as the things that happen in the foreground. But…
- Keep it relevant. The plot should be made up of events that are relevant to the characters and that can carry the story forward.
- Focus on dialogue. Dialogue is one of the best ways for readers to get to know the characters, and one of the fastest ways to move the story forward, so spend a lot of time on dialogue. It can even be useful to compose the story using dialogue only, and then add the details of place and time to build the story up. Remember as well that dialogue does not always need to be direct. Thoughts and eavesdropping can also be forms of dialogue. Also, make sure every character has a unique voice that reflects their unique and fully rounded character.
- Have a great ending. The reader needs the pay off for the time that they have spent immersed in the story. Know the ending when you start and work towards it. Make sure it is exciting, maybe surprising, and certainly satisfying. Also, don’t be tempted to give too much detail to the ending (yes we are looking at you J.R.R. Tolkien with the end of The Lord of the Rings trilogy). You don’t need to tell the reader exactly what happened. Leave blank spaces for them to fill in themselves.
- You will write much more than you need. One of the most important parts of writing is editing. Hardly anything that you write will come out perfect the first time. You will need to go back and add details and subtle signposts that become relevant as the story develops. You will need to go back and edit ruthlessly to get rid of all the stuff that just is not necessary and slows the story down. This can be the hardest part, especially when you have spent long hours composing those words. It is not uncommon to compose 1200 pages for a 300 page book. Those 900 pages that get cut aren’t wasted. They are part of the story that the reader can see in what is left, even though these parts are never told.
- It must be complex. For stories to hook the reader and keep them turning the page, the characters and the problems that they face must be complex.
Getting it out there
Writing is definitely not a case of putting words on a page and people will read it. Getting published is hard work.
There are lots of ways to get published. You can get yourself an agent who can use their connections to represent your work to the big publishing houses on the lookout for the next money making hit. You can go to small publishers that might be willing to take a risk on a new author (but aren’t likely to give you a big cheque up front). Or you can even self publish.
Whatever path you take, you will need a book proposal. This requires a few things. You should include in your proposal:
- The genre of your work
- Comparable titles (are you aspiring to the the next George R.R. Martin or the next Terry Pratchett?)
- A two sentence ‘elevator pitch’ that sums up exactly what your book is about
- An indication of the target audience for your book
- Information about platforms that you have to promote the book, such as a blog or large social media following
- At outline of the overall story and plot
- Three example chapters
Some agents and publishers may ask for other things as well, but these are the basics.
With all the inspiration and concrete ideas I took away from the conference, it is time for me to finish my manuscript on Africa, and maybe start thinking about my next book. If you are an aspiring writer, I hope that some of these ideas have helped you as well, and given you some encouragement to move forward, regardless of whether you are just starting, editing or looking to publish.
The final tip I took away from the conference was something Paula McLaine said:
Don’t save anything for the next book. Don’t save anything for the next day. Spend it all now.