Monday, June 10, 2013

So You Want to Write a Book...Before You Start

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Ever since I chose to make a go of it as a writer, I've had a number of people ask "How do you do it?"

"What? Write a book? I dunno...you just sit in a chair and keep writing until, ta da! Book complete!"

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. It's a pet peeve of mine: someone gets asked a question in an interview to the tune of, "So tell me about your big break?" And then the interviewee replies with, "Well, I was out in L.A., trying to make a go of it as an actor, and then I auditioned for Big Network Sex-Crime Procedural and got the lead!"

Oftentimes, this is a gross oversimplification, much like my hypothetical answer above.

The topic has come up enough that I think it's worthwhile to get some of this stuff out into the open, out of the dank basement of the indie author...uh...co-ed fraternity-sorority type group ("Now with extra ramen!") and into the sunlight.

Originally, I tried to sit down and put this all in one gigantic mega-post, which would've easily set a record for this site (a record that I think currently stands at 7,500 words for one of the Power Rankings posts...yikes!).

So instead, I'm going to break this up into a bunch of posts over the coming weeks and months in the hopes that I might just inspire someone else with a book inside of them to spend the (little) money and the (outrageous amounts of) time to make their dream a reality.

The first installment will focus on things you should consider before you even sit down to write the book. This is largely advice that I wish I would have heard before starting down the path of becoming an indie author, not because of any want of looking (more on that later), but rather because some lessons can only be taught through experience. All of the pontificating in the world won't necessarily help a lick until you get out there and actually try to sell something that you've poured a good amount of time, energy, and emotion into.

If this doesn't interest you, by all means, feel free to come back when the usual ridiculousness is back—I assure you, you won't have to wait too long. But if you're even a little bit curious about getting your book into print (or pixels), if it's something that's always gnawed at the back of your mind, trying to break free, even as you soak your brain in booze and God-knows what all else, by all means, take the red pill that I'm offering you and read on.

(Not, you know, literally. If someone is there in front of you, offering you a red pill right now, that's most assuredly not me, and it's probably not too safe to take. Of course, as we indie writers are fond of saying, Your Mileage May Vary (YMMV)).

Before You Start
So you want to write a book? Good! Congratulations! That's an important first step there. Go ahead and say it out loud, scream it from the rooftops, "I WANT TO WRITE A NOVEL!"

Now that your spouse/sibling/friend has bailed you out of jail for disturbing the peace, it's time to get down to business.

Writing a book, either fiction or non-fiction, is a lot of work. I'm not talking "build the pyramids" or "dig the Panama Canal"-levels of work; after all, plenty of people do it every year, but it's still a big investment of time and effort.

Every little bit of streamlining you can do ahead of time can help when you're in the thick of the story, desperately trying to remember if the storekeeper's name is "Kirk" or "Kurt," and desperately wanting to use that as an excuse to check out the internet to "do some research."

Before you even get that far, you'll have to make some decisions about what exactly you want to accomplish. Here are some questions that you should ask yourself and think about at length before sitting down to write.

1) Why are you writing? Quick hint: It's okay to say "money." Heck, if you even have a vague notion of quitting your day job "someday" to pursue writing full-time, you're going to need money one way or another. Better to be up-front about it.

To be fair, there are plenty of other reasons to write. Maybe you want to write a memoir that can be a cherished keepsake for generations to come; with Createspace, you absolutely have this option, and it shouldn't cost you more than $100. Maybe you just want to share your writing with others; on some level, that's why all of us do this, too.

Just be honest and clear with yourself about your goals ahead of time. From here on, I'm going to assume that "making money" is at least a tiny fraction of your set of goals (even if it's just coffee or booze money, though one of those items is a lot larger number on the old expense sheet for me than the other, but I digress), so I'm going to focus on that route over the rest of this series.

2) What kind of a budget do you have? Do you have thousands of dollars? Hundreds? Or less? Knowing this ahead of time will better inform your decision of whether to go indie or the more traditional route.

3) How much work do you want to put in outside of writing? I've always had a bit of an entrepreneurial streak, so the various ancillary duties of indie publishing (cover design, editing, formatting, even [ugh] marketing) appealed to me.

That's not to say that they're easy things to do; those are the tasks that I frequently find most taxing and just downright hard, but it's incredibly rewarding to hold a finished product in your hand when all is said and done, knowing that it's the result of a lot of your own sweat equity.

Keep in mind, even if you submit to and are selected by a traditional publisher, they might not do as much promotion and other ancillary activities for you as you might think, but that's material for a different post.

4) How fast can you write? This is a big, often underrated, facet of writing a book. When I started out as a full-time, professional writer, I'd often peter out after 1,000 or so words per day. Though admirable for a lot of people, if you're writing full time, you should eventually get into the 3,000-6,000 words per day range, and be quite comfortable writing like that at least six days a week. If you decide to go indie, that's in addition to all of the covers, editing, and promotion that you'll have to do.

No one said it's easy, folks.

I also understand that most folks keep a day job, so 1,000 words a day in the morning or evening is actually a pretty good pace for them. After a hundred days of that, you should have a manuscript.

Try keeping a blog for a few weeks just to gauge your own speed. Do the math and be honest with yourself as to how long writing a book could take.

5) Are you ready for other people to read your work? In hindsight, this is perhaps the greatest stumbling block for a lot of aspiring writers. "What if people think my stuff is crap?" How will you know unless you put it out there? Why not use a pen name, keep your real identity secret (this is perhaps the only way writing is even remotely like being a superhero), and then publicize who really wrote those books if you come out with a hit? 

People are terrified of the consequences of releasing "a bad book," and I do think folks with a book or two (or a dozen) under their belts too often pay short shrift to this high psychological hurdle in the minds of newbies. Just know that it wasn't so long ago that even the most prolific and proficient writers harbored these same fears. Sometimes, you just have to stand at the top of the diving board and jump.

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Mull these over for a while. Maybe even (GASP!) write them out; a structured outline with honest answers or a free-association exercise alike can help you to sort out your thoughts.

Then, by the time you've figured out if you're ready to make a go of it, the next post in the series will be up.

Thanks for reading.

D.J. Gelner is a fiction and freelance writer from St. Louis, Missouri. Check out his books, available at his Amazon Author Page and on Nook, iBooks, and Kobo. Follow him on twitter (@djgelner) or facebook (here). E-mail him at djgelbooks@gmail.com.

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