Writing Books - what I wished I’d known
March 8, 2009
A few days ago I got an email from a guy writing a book and looking for advice and being a new author I thought I’d blog about the things I wished I’d know from the start.
So here are a list of random thoughts - hopefully, they may help any authors out there.
Writing is not a talent - it’s a skill, and can be learnt by practice and reading the writing of others.
Try and create your own style of writing. For me, I always strive to use as few words as possible, which I find fun, with most new writers over describing everything.
For example take the common sentence: “The cold white snow fell from the sky”. Well I know it’s cold because it’s snowing. We know snow comes from the sky and therefore it falls down not up. How about you just say “It snowed”?
Of course, this comes down to your own style, and some people are great a description, but I find that by adjusting the focus of the reader from a kind of blurred sweep of what’s going on, and saving the sharp focus for important parts of the story, for example: “they climbed for a mile, stopping at peg hanging with faded red tat” allows the story to have more pace.
I also try and write to pictures in my head (maybe you’d called it cinematic), probably due to watching more TV and reading more comics than books.
If you want to write a book start by writing for magazines, the more words the better. This will hone your skills. I wrote about 4000 words a month on climbing gear, meaning I learnt the art of being a writer and a journalist; namely being able to write about anything.
Writing for deadlines also makes you see writing as a job. If you’re an artist take up painting. If you’re a craftsman build a chest of drawers. Writing is about writing, banging words out. Don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking it’s easy crafting 100, 000 words into a story that will stick together. It’s like building a house on your own, requiring the skills of an architect and builder - plus once built you’ll need to live in it forever!
On getting published
Get published is more about luck and contacts than talent, unfortunately. An agent is a good idea but is probably as hard to find as a publisher. Also, this is the worst time you could ever wish to get one published, with international publishers in dire straights.
In my case, I got the name of Simon Yates publisher at Random House, who I knew was a climber and rang him up. Because he was a climber he already had an idea of who I was, and so I sent him a bunch of stuff that I’d written along with a copy of my mini book Solid Air. He was keen to meet up, but still unsure I was ready to write my book I never met him, until four years later I got on the Banff mountain literature program, were as luck would have it he was my editor. Spending a month with one of the leader editors of climbing literature in the world is a dream come true - well as long as he doesn’t think your stuff stinks. After that, a deal was on the table, but I didn’t have an agent.
I wasn’t sure about getting an agent, because it can seen costly - and to be honest there isn’t a great deal of money in writing anyway. But then another writer told me that an agent helps keep your relationship healthy between you and your editor and more importantly stops you from getting screwed. On the subject of getting screwed remember this is a hard business and publishers do seem to see writers, especially new ones like Boy Bands, with the fine print robbing you of what should be your rightful share. This has happened to one writer I know, who signed with a small publisher has had a pitiful return, even after a number of print runs and several thousand books sold. And so having a canny agent may cost you a percentage of your earnings, they should make that percentage more than worthwhile.
Having got an agent, and even though there was an offer on the table, she took my proposal and chapters and sent it out to other publishers, resulting in better offers. In this case, the original offer was from the best editor I could imagine, with a publisher with a great track record of climbing writing, and so in the end I signed up with Random House.
The advance I got was enough to not worry about work for about six months and was split into parts: first lump on signing contract, second on submission of the manuscript, third on publication and the final lump on publication of paperback. The problem for me was being self-employed it’s not easy to down tools because I knew once I was finished I may not have any work. It’s also a good idea not to imagine the riches pouring in. Unless you’re a premier league footballer, actor or politician you’ll probably see little cash beyond your advance for many years to come.
Your proposal is by far the most important part of getting your book deal. It should be structured the following way and needs as much care and attention as your book.
About the author
Set out exactly who you are, what you’ve done, and what background or qualification you have to write this book.
About the book
This is a general overview of the book and needs to condense what it’s about in a paragraph or two. This probably makes or break your proposal.
Other books on the market
What books have covered this ground, and what genre your book will sit in. Try and find something successful to compare your book to.
Marketing opportunities for the book
The publisher has to be able to promote your book in order to sell it, and so it’s vital that they know if you have a following as a writer, or if you have a great story that the media will love.
Publishers make money out of serial writers and are more likely to go for you if you have lots of book ideas. I sold Psychovertical as the first of three books.
Lastly flesh out the book by first giving the chapter names, followed by a fuller description of each chapter, so they understand the structure of the book.
Once you have a cast-iron proposal then send it off with a few chapters of your book to everyone you can.
Producing your book
The act of writing a whole book is not to be underestimated, and neither is the work. Start by building a cast-iron structure, then build a story framework within it. Without this, the book may run away from you. At all times you need to have an idea of where your heading, and how each part fits the parts around it. It’s here that your proposal’s outline chapters come in handy.
Try and get into a writing routine, and don’t get into the habit of micro editing every line as you write. Try and bash out the chapter in one go if you can. Leave it for 24 hours, then go back and do your weeding. Leave it a week and come back and polish it. By micro editing, you can spend weeks on chapters.
Also if something isn’t working - then bin it and start again.
For most writers it takes time to get into the writing space, being about half an hour for me. Once there it’ll become a sacred place, where your thoughts and words run fast. Trying to achieve this state while doing anything else but writing is impossible. So go out of the house, away from people you know, and the internet and find a place without distraction.
Also giving your mind time to think without writing is also crucial, so long walks, runs and bikes are vital, in fact often the art of writing is not writing.
Lastly writing is one of the simplest and most creative things we can do as human beings. It requires nothing more than a blank space and something to mark your thoughts. It can move and affect others more than any other medium. Best of all words are free, the only cost being the time of the reader.
What I’m trying to say is don’t get too hung up on writing books, or disheartened by rejection. Books are about making money, so don’t judge what you have to say by someone else’s commercial consideration.
There are many other ways to pass on your thoughts.
This being one of them.