What It Takes to Write a (Good) Book

When you tell someone you’re writing a book, the next question is often some variation of “So when is it coming out?”

We writers sometimes get in our cozy little circles and laugh hysterically at how quickly many people think you can go from first draft to on the bookstore shelves. But really, how does one know these things? I sure didn’t when I got started. I had no idea what it takes to write a book–much less a good book.

And that’s probably a good thing. Because it’s a bit like parenting. How many would have really embarked on such a chaotic disruption to our lives if we’d known all there was to know about having children beforehand? But once you jump in, you pull up your sleeves, get dirty (all the up to your elbows), and discover both the tough challenges and the genuine joy of the process.

And now that I just put the final polish on a novel I started three years — yes, three years — ago, I thought I’d break down a bit of what it really takes to write a (good) book.

Write Something1. Commit to writing it. There are a lot of people walking around saying, “I have a great idea for a book” or “Someday I’m going to write a book.” All well and good, but if there’s one constant across genres and approaches, it’s that writers write.

For years, I wanted to write fiction. But I didn’t. It wasn’t until I committed to writing an hour a day, five days a week, that I began to experience the reality that I actually could draft a novel and saw the story unfolding before me. Some writers plunge into writing full-time and others have little time to devote at first, but regardless you have to commit through action to writing one word after another on a page.

2. Learn about the craft. Yes, yes, you took high school and even college English — and you were good at it. Or you crafted beautiful stories in a journal hidden under your mattress. Maybe you posted fan-fiction on a website and shared stories with friends. That is the spark that ignites your desire. But sparks aren’t fires. If you want to write a good book, you’d better fan those flames. That means figuring out what you’re doing and how to do it well. I recall my realization that, while I’d read a lot and knew I could write, I didn’t know enough yet to write a great book and needed to learn a lot more.

I understand writing is not rocket science or brain surgery, but it does require skill. And the best writers have very well-developed skills. They get those skills through reading, but also by learning about the craft of writing through classes, books, conferences, articles, conversations with fellow writers, workshops, mentors, beta readers, critique partners, writing organizations, etc.

3. Finish the book. For as many finished books as there are in the world, I’m convinced there are at least triple that number in unfinished manuscripts. Now undoubtedly, some of our stories should remain untended, buried, locked away perhaps. But if you want to write a good book, you have to actually write a whole book. Ten beautiful chapters that leave off in the middle do not constitute success.

Finished first drafts matter a lot, because while the book still isn’t complete, you’ve made a huge step toward the endgame. The most important step, some might contend. When I finished that first manuscript, I wanted to climb my roof and shout “The End!” to the universe. Because yeah, it’s a huge deal to write an entire book, beginning to end, first page to last, prologue to denouement. So however you can motivate yourself, keep plugging through and finish the dang book.

4. Edit, edit, edit — and edit some more. See, this is where it all goes haywire in our heads. Sure, some authors have only three drafts, two drafts, or even publish their first draft. But for the rest of us non-superheroes, there will be a lot of editing. This is even more true for novices.

Those early on in this journey should expect to write and rewrite and revise and polish the manuscript several times over. If you’re in the middle of this journey, you’re probably still churning out more drafts than you wish you could. Little by little, we do hone our process, and the number of drafts needed to reach our best decreases. But the amount of editing great authors do is still likely more than the average reader realizes. Even if they don’t do that much editing before turning in a manuscript, the publishing house editor or hired editor (for indies) will request changes.

5. Get content editing, line edits, and proofreading. Speaking of which, when the author’s finished with the book, it’s time for some kind of editing — by someone else. This can be content or developmental editing, line or copy editing, or proofreading. And these suggested changes can come from paid professionals or from beta readers and critique partners.

When writing the story, you’re wading through the thick forest of your plot, characters, and prose. Of course you know the saying: “I can’t see the forest for the trees.” Yep, after a while, you know your story so well — even things the characters think and feel that you never actually put on the page — that you can’t see it in the same way a potential reader would. So you must get other eyeballs to review your work and see if it makes sense — plot-wise, character-wise, grammar-wise, etc. If you want that great book, you simply cannot skip this crucial step.

6. Begin the long path to publication. Here’s where the road diverges for traditional and self-published authors, but it’s still a long road. Traditional authors must query or submit their manuscripts, wait for revision requests, communicate with editors and cover art departments, and do some other things I don’t yet know about because I haven’t done it. But I do know that it’s not atypical for a year or more to pass from manuscript submission to book release.

Self-published authors make their own deadlines and release dates, but they have to create or (better yet, in my opinion) hire out the cover art and format the book. If they want their book sold in several places (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, etc.), they have to format to each accordingly. As you might expect, this takes time. Some people are quicker than others, but more often, it can be months from manuscript completion to release date.

So this is why my book will not be available on bookshelves next week. I’d like my novel to be out there as soon as possible, but since I want to give readers the best story experience I can, I’m willing to take my time.

What do you believe it takes to write a good book? What part of the process has surprised you?

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2 thoughts on “What It Takes to Write a (Good) Book

  1. Great tips, Julie! I love the whole list.

    One thing that surprised me was how important it is to trust our instincts. Especially when we’re new to the game, I think it’s easy to assume we should trust others’ opinions over our own.

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