Soaring to Mt Aspiring with Alex

Soaring to Mt Aspiring with Alex

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

How to Write a Book

I’ve had so many likes to my facebook status and so many queries that I thought I’d better tell you more about my book, and explain why no one is going to be reading it any time soon.
My book’s called Because of Harry. It’s set in contemporary NZ, a city with hills somewhere within running distance of suburbia, and in my mind it is Christchurch, but it could be anywhere. (No earthquake mentioned – if we’re in Christchurch then we’re ignoring all of that.) It’s a murder mystery where the police investigation bookends an unconventional love story. The blurb on the back of the book will go something like this:

  • When Meredith Pleiades is found dead in her bath Detective Carly Cunningham is under pressure to get the case closed by Christmas. The victim’s ex-husband Jack admits to having fought with her the night she died. He had motive and opportunity, but so did many others. Jack lives in a ménage situation with his “husband” Harry and “wife” Emily and their combined blended family. Jack owns a gym and has a lot of loyal staff, some of whom might kill for him, but he used to be a police detective himself. Has something from Jack’s or his partners’ past come back to haunt them? Is Meredith’s work in international banking relevant? Why is Carly’s boss so keen to see the case labelled a suicide? As Christmas approaches and Carly wrestles with her own family problems she realises that it is within the family that she will find the answers she needs.

And that’s enough about that for now.
So how do you write a book? Well the easy answer is that you sit in front of your computer and you type. There are a few wonderful quotes. I like, “Getting to the end of (writing) a novel is like wrestling an octopus into a mayonnaise jar.” ~ Patti Hill.
Then there is, “Writing is easy:  All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”  ~Gene Fowler
But the one that leads into what I want to say next is this, “I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter.”  ~James Michener
I loved James Michener’s epic novels when I was a teenager. They’re not great literature but they’re stories that have moved me and stayed with me through the years. It is incredibly encouraging to read that quote. There isn’t a single book for sale anywhere in which the author sat down and wrote a book, from the beginning to the end, wrote THE END, said, “I’m done,” and handed it over to a publisher who then printed it. It just does not happen. I’ll let you into a little known secret, not all books are written in a straight line. Some authors when they start writing their story have no idea what the plot is and whether the piece they start writing comes at the beginning, end or middle of the story. These writers find that if they write enough ‘pieces’ then eventually they line up and there is a coherent story there. It seems like a magic trick but it really does work out. Then all they have to do is fill in the gaps.
Other writers couldn’t possibly work in such a random fashion. They plot out the story, start writing at the beginning and keep going until they get to the end. Others do a variation of both. In Because of Harry, that’s pretty much what happened to me. It wasn’t intentional. I’d written 50,000 words of an unusual love story before I realised I actually had a murder mystery on my hands. That’s when I sat down and worked out a rough plot outline, simply so I wouldn’t miss any of the important bits out. Some things needed to be added to what I’d already written. No problem, I just went back and added what was needed. When you hold a finished book in your hands there is no way you can tell how the author wrote it, what they added, what they took away, when they themselves realised who the murderer was and which bits they’ve added in to the text to tease you or give you vital clues. Those pieces by the way are known as ‘landmines’ and when you get to the end of the book you’ll think, “oh, that’s right, I noticed that but I hadn’t seen it at the time.’
What all writers have in common is that once we get a full text we then have to rewrite.
Until a few years ago I hadn’t realised that. I’ve one or two times come close to finishing writing a novel but I’ve never actually written THE END before. I think a lot of it came down to subconsciously recognising that this book just wasn’t good enough and so I fizzled out. I had no idea just how much work went into turning that messy, not good enough draft, into something that hopefully is good enough to sell.
I’ve learnt a great deal of the craft of writing in the last four years and I need to apply all of that. I’m a much better writer now than I was when I started this, but that’s only a little bit of the process. I’ve already started the rewriting process – by leaving the whole thing well alone for a few weeks. It’s marinating.
In a while, with a bit of distance I’ll read right through it, from start to finish. This will be the first time I’ll ever have seen the story in this way. I’ll make any really obvious changes and fixes, but essentially I’ll be checking two important things: that I still like it, that‘s really important, and that it makes sense. Depending on how that reading goes (if I decide it doesn’t need any major reworking) I’ll be sending it out to a few trusted beta readers. They are a mix of people, some of whom are writing friends and have worked with me through the process and think they know the story, (I hope I’ve kept enough back to give them a surprise at the ending) and some people who aren’t writers but can be trusted to give me an honest appraisal of the work.
Provided these people think it’s worth me putting any more effort into all of this, I’ll then dive seriously into the rewrite process. I have recently done one of Barbara Rogan’s writing classes ‘One Good Scene’. I want to apply that level of scrutiny to all the scenes in the book, from character to setting to dialogue, there’s a lot to look at. I also need to do an overview of plot and subplots, character arcs and because I wrote in random chunks, make sure that the continuity makes sense.
I have 137,720 words. The average novel comes in between 80 to 90,000 words. Obviously something is going to have to go. All of the processes mentioned above should sort a lot of that out. I’m scared that my rewrites will actually add words. If I still have an over-abundance then I’ll have to do a real brutal slash and burn. I hate the thought of that, but it has to be done. I’ve learnt a lot more about my characters and their motivations since I started writing too. I owe it to them to get them and their story right.
Only when I’ve done all of this which could involve total rewriting of whole chapters, but I hope not, then I’ll nut down to proof reading, the SPAG (spelling and grammar) read through. That bit I’m not looking forward to.
I think you can see why most authors don’t churn out a book a year and why it will be at least a year before I even think of approaching a publisher and/or agent. I’m still not sure what route I’m going to take to publication. That is another story.


  1. Another place to say, "Yay! Jill, you rock!"
    The process is daunting, isn't it? I've not gotten to THE END with any of mine yet, but I can't wait to read yours. ; )

    1. You're an enthusiastic replier Zan Marie. I really appreciate it.
      (You'll be a beta reader I hope?)

  2. I agree with Zan Marie, here's another way to say congratulations!
    Love the idea of Jack, Harry and Emily marinating together [g]
    And I just realised, I still don't know whodunnit. How neat that you've kept that secret from us all this time!