I have had so many people say to me, “I don’t know where to start! How do you do it?’ How do you manage to write a book?” Well, it may not be as difficult as you fear. The doing simply is in the knowing how.
Many elements go into any written work, but let’s start with the basics. Just as you prepared for doing your homework as a child and young adult, you must also prepare for writing your manuscript. This isn’t something you can just jump into and succeed in giving it your best.
First of all, most publishers want your work written in Microsoft Word. Documents must be single spaced, with no spaces between paragraphs. Each paragraph with a five space indent.
This may vary from publisher to publisher, so do your homework. Go to their website and read their guidelines for submission.
Today’s publishers want submissions to be in pristine condition with:
If you’re trying for traditional publishing, most houses have their word count limits set between 65 and 100,000 words.
Get an editor on board!
Find a writing/editing partner to work with, whose strengths do not mirror your own.
For instance, let’s say that you are very good with dialogue, and they are weak – but they are very good with punctuation, grammar and verb tense agreement. You can help each other tremendously. In the end, however, a professional editor can be invaluable. The publishing world is not what it used to be. An editor probably will not be provided, and many works are rejected on bad-editing alone.
Invest in a good writing guide such as Hodges’ Harbrace College Handbook or Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. They will be invaluable to you throughout your literary career.
Start out with a good outline
Eternal beauties have “good bones.” Your book has to have “good bones” to be a good book – that is, good organization, a good outline… a good “skeleton.” Create an outline for your book to keep you on track. This doesn’t mean that the outline can’t change, but if you write out a “road map” for your work, you won’t get lost before you reach your destination: the end of your book.
Join a writing group
Many writing groups are set up so that, in order to be critiqued, you must reciprocate. So if you are active with other writers, you will get feedback on your work. This is all done with respect and a desire to help each member become a better writer. An active writing group is also an excellent place to find your writing/editing partner.
Learn to take criticism
It’s nice to hear someone say, “Oh, I just love your work!” But does this help you? Maybe a little, but honest constructive criticism is your best tool for improving your writing skills. Sometimes, the people closest to you, are the worst ones to listen to about your work. They will either tell you that you are brilliant, when you are not, or not talented – when you are! Some may even tell you to give up. Only you can decide if you want to go on, and if the need within you to write is great, then go for it.
Write, write and then write
Write every day. If you are blocked on your current project, write a practice exercise. Keep the juices flowing and your creativity active. Writing is not like riding a bike….if you get lazy and don’t practice, you will lose a lot of your skills. The more you practice, the better you will get, but if you don’t use it, you will lose it.
Practice – indulge yourself in writing exercises.
For instance, pick up a piece of fruit. Smell it, feel it, taste it. Now write about it. Make your reader smell, feel and taste that piece of fruit.
Step outside. What do you see, hear? Describe what you see, hear and smell, so that a reader will feel like they are there.
And, you’re off!
Now you are prepared to begin your first book. Microsoft Word is loaded on to your computer. You have your writing manuals. You also have a writing/editing partner, and your keyboard is dusted off and ready to go. Now what do you do?
Let us address:
Writing about what you know
Getting your reader’s attention
Setting the Scene
Fleshing out your characters
Dialogue – It can make or break your book
Following are some examples from Jesus Gandhi Oma Mae Adams.
Write about what you know
If you write about what you know, places you’ve been, and draw from your own experiences, you will bring to your writing a unique quality and a reality that will truly speak to your audience. Sci-fi and fantasy novels are fun to write and read, but even they must be based on some reality unique to the author. Draw on your history, and your book will ring true to your readers.
Get their attention
Any work, whether it is an article, an essay, a novel or a poem, must start with a first paragraph that is a “grabber.” If you don’t get your reader’s attention immediately, you will more than likely lose them. Be creative, think about your story, and give them all you’ve got with your opening scene:
“Mortified and with shoes in hand, Oma Mae paddled flatfooted to her office door, her burning feet, swelling and smacking heavily on the tiled hallway floor. “WOMEN DO NOT HAVE HOT FLASHES! THEY HAVE POWER SURGES,” flashed across her brain, the words throbbing in her head like a strobe light on the set of Saturday Night Fever. What in the hell would Gail Sheehy know about hot flashes! I’ll lay odds she was popping estrogen pills like they were M&M’s when she wrote that one, Oma Mae blustered hotly, her breath so hot she quickly sipped it back in to keep it from scorching the tender insides of her feverish lips.”
Set the Scene
Where does a particular scene happen? Your reader must “see” what you “see,” “hear” what you “hear.” Each scene should be carefully crafted so that your reader can follow the story with ease:
“Later that evening, Oma Mae went topside after the rest of the party had settled in their berths for the night. She made herself comfortable, lying down on a deck chair and placing her hands behind her head. She laid there watching the stars and enjoying the soft listing of the ship and the slap, slap, slap of the waves against the schooner’s wooden hull. The evening was a little cool, pleasantly so, and there was a slight wind carrying the scent of salt, a briny perfume she found enticing; delightful for someone who was used to the green smell of land-locked Ohio.”
Flesh out your characters, but don’t go overboard
When you introduce your characters, flesh them out. Describe them: color of hair, eyes, height, attitude, perhaps a brief history. Make them real – a living and breathing character, but don’t go on forever. I once read a book where it took 20 pages to introduce a character. By the time I got back to the plot, I’d lost interest. But your readers have to care about your characters, whether it is to love or hate them. Ambivalence doesn’t work in successful writing:
“Sylvie Musser stood a mere five feet tall, her height diminished by a pronounced dowager’s hump, forcing her head and shoulders forward in a classic osteoporosis slump. Hazel green eyes, sunk deeply in their sockets, peered beneath gray brows and above high cheekbones, her facial structure reminiscent of her Native American great-grandmother. Her hair, straight and iron gray, was worn in a simple bun nestling atop her curved spine.
The old woman was thin to the point of gauntness, her frail frame clothed in a simple summer dress of the kind Oma Mae had not seen since the early sixties, consisting of a simple sleeveless shift under a bibbed apron, tied at the waist and pinned at the shoulders. She wore terry cloth carpet slippers, their outline stretched and molded by the arthritic toes encased inside them.”
Dialogue – It can make or break your book
Your dialogue should make the reader feel that they are there, in the moment, eavesdropping, as it were. Stilted dialogue can make a book drag to the point where your reader will eventually put the book down, and possibly never pick it up again.
Listen to the following dialogue…first without description and then with:
“You know, evolution is impossible.” Ray said.
“Impossible?” Oma Mae said.
“Yes. Well, more accurately I guess, is that it is a miracle. I suppose nothing is impossible; it’s just that we haven’t come to fully understand evolution yet.” he said. “It goes against natural law.”
“Yeah, it would be like reversing the flow of the tides of the ocean, if I’m understanding what you are saying,” Oma Mae said. “Or the breeze kicking up now and swirling across the water,” she said.
Now, note the difference:
“You know, evolution is impossible.” Ray scanned the horizon of the vast ocean with a slow contemplative sweep of his head and rested his gaze fully on Oma Mae.
“Impossible?” Oma Mae slanted a disbelieving look at his statement.
“Yes. Well, more accurately I guess, is that it is a miracle. I suppose nothing is impossible; it’s just that we haven’t come to fully understand evolution yet.” He turned sideways toward Oma Mae and rested his elbow on the railing. “It goes against natural law.”
“Yeah, it would be like reversing the flow of the tides of the ocean, if I’m understanding what you are saying,” Oma Mae contributed. “Or the breeze kicking up now and swirling across the water.” She raised her hands to her hair and smoothed the tendrils dancing in the wind across her face.
Ever watch a good movie where the transitions are so great, you can’t help but notice them? Take for instance, Avalon. Released in 1990 and directed by Barry Levinson, it is a story of three generations of immigrants who try to make a better life for themselves in America. The first scene ends with 4th of July fireworks. There are the bright lights, the booming, and then the smoke…fade to black, with smoke drifting across the scene, fade in to the grandfather, blowing smoke from a cigar, and telling his grandchildren of when he came to America in 1914 on the 4th of July. Now there is a transition. Your viewers know that a scene has changed, but there is a connection.
The same holds true with a novel. Each paragraph should lead into the next. More importantly, each chapter should end with a transition which leads to the following one. This keeps your reader interested, and keeps them turning the page: picking your book up again and again, until they finish.
Chapter ends with:
“I feel prepared to take this giant step away from the comfort and security of my mother’s loving arms, and Patrick’s brotherly protection, and Joy’s sisterly companionship. Even Mother Mary Clare, as with the others, must be left to pursue, ‘her own soul development and growth.’ These wise and wonderful and loving people have honed me and if I am to do anything of good or service at all, it will be to them the credit will be owed. Therefore, it is those four most precious loved-ones to whom I devote my life, even as I say goodbye.”
“The lonesome faraway echoes of a braying burro were the only sounds Oma Mae Adams heard as she disembarked the bus transporting her to the Terminal in the city of Cuenca, located in the southern highlands of the Andes Mountains in the south-central region of Ecuador.”
Edit, edit and then edit
Clean up your work! You wouldn’t send your son or daughter to a party with mud on his or her face and dirty and torn clothes, would you? So why would you send your book, your “child,” out into the world filled with errors in punctuation, grammar or spelling? Take the time to edit and then edit again. This is not the time to be lazy.
So, now you have written your book. You’ve made an outline to help you stay on track, you’ve written a killer first paragraph to get your reader’s undivided attention, your scenes and characters are vivid and believable, and your dialogue is visual and interesting.
You’ve edited and edited to make sure that your punctuation, spelling and grammar are absolutely correct. You’ve used a writing/editing partner to read your story and help you with every aspect of your work, and now you are ready to submit your “baby” to a publisher or agent.
Your work will receive a great deal more positive attention because of your apparent effort in creating a quality product. Good luck in your literary career, and I wish you every success.
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