STEPS TO A COMPLETE BOOK

(Originally featured in Arizona City Independent Edition, June 5, 2002)

When I tell people how much I love to write books, they usually say that sounds too much like work. Most say they would stick with small pieces, articles and short stories. That's fine, if that's what their muse leads them to write and they learn to do them well. The fact is, a book is no more difficult to write than any other literary form.

Each has its own rules, and each is as demanding as the other. In fact, I find short stories much more difficult to write than novels, perhaps because my ideas tend to be expansive and complicated. It's the same with articles and nonfiction books. Believe me, no form of writing is simple, nor can it be done on a professional level without learning some "tricks of the trade."

For most people, the greatest stumbling block to writing a book is the size of the project. When asked, I like to explain that you write a book the same way you eat an elephant: one bite at a time. You write a book one word at a time, one sentence, one paragraph, page, chapter, etc.

What dictates the type of project is the depth of the idea and the scope of the writer's imagination. For those of us who feel compelled to grapple with the "elephant," the project can be broken down into a series of simple and logical steps.

IDEA--Every story begins with an idea--a sentence, a character, a scene. If you're persistent, you can turn that idea into an article, a short story, or a book. Experience will tell you where in the literary universe your ideas will most comfortably fit.

NOTES--Write down every idea that comes to you. File them any way you want to, but make sure they're in a place where you can find them when you need them. Save that odd sentence or interesting character name. Next week, or ten years from now, you very well could turn that bit of trivia into a bestseller.

ORGANIZE AN IDEA--When an idea is so strong in your mind that you must try to develop it, write basic character and plot details on index cards. Shuffle the cards around until your story begins to unfold in a clear and logical fashion.

CHARACTER CHARTS--as your understanding of the characters grows, record details about each character on cards or in a character reference chart, for easy reference. If your story contains a lot of characters, construct a block chart listing all your characters with important details about each one.

SYNOPSIS--A book synopsis is like a short story, but usually without dialogue. It can be two pages or twenty, depending on the size and depth of the book. The synopsis is often the first thing you show to agents or editors to introduce them to your story idea.

OUTLINE--Like a synopsis, this chapter-by-chapter telling of the story has few rules. The outline is a guide to help you write the book, and you might also use it to sell the book, so it should have some form or logical order to it. When you get into actually writing the book, outline details will probably change. An outline tells you where you're going and most of the roads you'll take to get there, but you shouldn't consider it to be carved in granite. The first half of my books usually follow the outlines pretty closely, but once I get into the second half, plot circumstances and characters take more control and even I can be surprised by the denouements.

CHAPTERS--Begin writing chapters when characters and scenes are pretty clear in your mind. It's not necessary to have outline or characters completely worked out before you start writing chapters. Jumping between outline and chapters at first can help you stir the creative juices. You will take different steps to get into each different book. And don't let fears about making the opening chapter, paragraph, or sentence a real grabber stop you from going on. Just keep on writing. Once you get several pages or even a few chapters into the book, that must-read opening will jump out at you. That's when you can go back and rewrite that crucial opening scene.

QUERY--A query letter will often be your first contact with an agent or editor. If you're a novice, have a proposal (see below) written and ready to send before you query, and continue to work on the rest of the book while you wait for a response. A query letter includes a paragraph that is a teaser about your project, a paragraph detailing your credentials, especially as they apply to your subject, and a paragraph asking editors or agents if they want to see more. Be respectful and businesslike. Humor in context works only when it's natural and not forced.

PROPOSAL--Agents or editors who want to see more of your project might ask for a proposal. For a novel, the proposal consists of a synopsis and/or outline and usually three sample chapters. A nonfiction book proposal is more complicated, especially for novice writers, because it includes the project idea, writer's credentials, marketing plans, and possibly more, plus three chapters. You'll find excellent books on the subject through the Writer's Digest Book Club, which can be accessed on the Writer's Digest Magazine web site: www.writersdigest.com.

COMPLETING THE BOOK--Some agents or editors want a complete manuscript, especially from a novice writer. Try to have a good early draft ready by the time you receive a response to a query. A few agents and editors like to see a project step by step: query, synopsis, proposal, then complete book. If you hope to write for a particular publisher, especially a genre publisher (romance, mystery, science fiction, etc.), send a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) for writers' guidelines, then use them to fashion a product for them. If they like your project, listen to every suggestion for change with respect. If you have a good reason to reject it, fight for it in a logical and respectful manner. Do NOT let your opinion of your creativity prevent you from sculpting your work into a marketable product, unless you’re wealthy enough to self-publish the project.

REWRITING THE BOOK--Ninety-five percent of writing is rewriting. Of course, computers make this part of an author's labors far less daunting than it was in the days of typewriters and chisels, but it remains a vital, and delicate, part of producing any literary project. At this point it might be wise to seek input from a reliable source, such as a writers critique group. For goodness' sake, don't ask your mother or brother-in-law for their opinions, unless they're writers too, or at least avid readers of the genre you're working in. They will likely be either too gentle or too harsh, so you might not benefit from what either has to say about your work.

REJECTION--Don't let these stop you. Some might help you improve your work, but most are not that detailed. They can often mean your project doesn't fit that particular editorial niche. If you're persistent, you'll earn "positive rejections," those that tell you what you're doing well and give you hope. Cherish them, and learn from them.

CONTRACT--One day, if you hang in there and keep working at your craft, you will get an offer. If you don't have an agent, talk to one, or to a lawyer who's familiar with literary contracts, before you sign a publishing contract. Don't sign without learning what it means for you, now and in the future.

Remember: A WRITER WRITES!

Good fortune and good writing!

 


Debbie Jordan