How to Write a Book

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In the ten years that Art of Storytelling has coached writing clients on novels, memoirs, and self-help books, we’ve noticed a certain process evolve organically for almost every writer. The process is one of commitment. Still, how many times have you heard someone say, “Commit to your writing”, but then you don’t know how or where to begin? What does commitment really mean? We’ll explore five practical manifestations of commitment in the life of a writer. If you’re serious about becoming a professional writer, or simply want to compose one book, these steps will lead you there. Art of Storytelling is a coaching service for writers and offers a free initial consultation. www.artofstorytellingonline.com.

1. Set a Discipline.

Setting a Writing Discipline means establishing the number of hours and days you’ll commit to writing each week. Be specific. “I will write Mondays, Thursdays and Sunday mornings for three hours each day.”  Be even more specific. “I will write from 8 to 11 p.m. after the kids are put to bed on Monday and Thursday evenings, and three hours from 2 to 5 on Sundays while my husband looks after the kids.” Write the dates in your day planner. Take the schedule as seriously as you would any therapy or dentist appointment. Your soul needs to feel and see your commitment. The commitment itself becomes a force, like a tailwind, that moves you along the writing path. Some might feel that any kind of discipline is restrictive to their creative process; but all of the writers we’ve seen succeed have a disciplined writing schedule.

At AofS, we have two types of writing clients, people who want to become professional full-time writers, and those who simply want to write one book, a life coach, for example, who wants to pen a self-help book about their work. We’ve noticed two different schedules for these two clients evolve organically.

For people who want to be full-time writers, we’ve seen real progress made with a discipline of three hours per day, five days per week. For those who simply want to write a book, three hours a day, three times a week should suffice. The process of writing is arduous, and requires time, lots of it.

Many of our clients are parents who work full time and have children, and we have found that many simply cannot fit in five days of writing a week. Many organically find their writing schedule evolves into three hours, three days a week. This makes progress on the book somewhat slow, but it’s still possible to finish a book this way.

There is a method of city planning that equates to this. Sometimes planners will finish an apartment building, for example, and not put in sidewalks. They wait to see how people organically move through the space as they walk to the building entrance. Then they put in sidewalks. Especially with clients with small children, this is the process AofS uses to help writers find their discipline.

Of course, it is best to set your writing time around your biorhythms, the best organic time of day for you, whether that’s dawn or dusk or anywhere in between, but it’s not always possible. If you’re serious about finishing a writing project, you may have to discipline yourself outside of your comfort zone.

The blessing of discipline is that after a year or two of sticking to your writing schedule, the discipline itself will be so ingrained it won’t feel forced. It may even feel joyous – even one time missing your regular writing time can feel like you’ve lost the very best part of your day. You’ll also see such progress on your book that you’ll never want to go back to a more casual approach to writing.

2. Create a sacred writing space.

You’ll spend hours writing, and you’ll need space, a desk, a chair, a bookshelf with your favorite books, objects of inspiration, plants, a bulletin board with inspirational literary quotes. What paintings inspire you? What music touches you? What poetry moves you? Hang posters of your favorite writers, Ishiguro,  Angelou, Chekov, Hemingway. Art of Storytelling Owner Caroline Allen has on her desk an Italian paperweight of the globe to represent her first novel Earth.

Writers use all sorts of means to do the actual writing, desktop computers, laptops, journals, yellow legal pads. AofS intern Acea Spades Black writes with a feather quill and a bottle of ink.

When you walk into the space, it should be full of the magic of your love for story, for language. If you build it, they will come. In other words, you create the space, and the muses will appear to help you along your writerly way. To paraphrase Virginia Woolf, “A person must have … a room of their own if they want to write fiction.”

You may have a home office already. Transform it. Make it glow. Add what you need to inspire you as a writer. Don’t make the writing process as laborious as paying your bills. Add to the space. Heart. Color. Texture.

Some new writers claim they don’t need space. They can write in the living room with the TV on with people milling around. The writers we’ve seen succeed are those who maintain strong physical boundaries around their writing. The soul feels the writer’s commitment when time and effort is put into creating space. Your urge to writer begins inside the psyche. Create an outer structure to mirror that desire and your actions confirm to the soul your intent. From that active level of creativity, all sorts of magic pours.

What if having a room of your own is nearly impossible? What if you’re poor, and you share space with many others? What if you’re married and the apartment only has one bedroom? Add children and forget about the notion of sacred space, especially if they’re little kids.

AofS has coached many parents through this process. What you are seeking is an envelope of space that allows you to focus, to penetrate deeply into the psyche. If the corner of a living room, cordoned off with a screen can provide that, then create such a space. Of course, a computer behind a screen won’t detract curious children. We’ve found most of our clients who are parents end up in the basement. They convert a dingy basement room into a glorious life-saving writing space, and do not allow the children access. I’m not talking about spending a lot of money here, a throw rug, a desk, art on the concrete walls…

Some people must go outside of the home to find sacred space. Coffee shops work if you can focus around other people and noise. What about more alternative spaces? A park bench in a remote part of a (safe) park. Your own chair on a beach. Caroline once sat on a rock every morning in the foothills of the Rockies overlooking a field. Writers need a lot of support. Novels can take years to write. The space itself can be such a support, a foundation to hold you steady while your writing rocks your world. Such a space provides consistency when the writing becomes emotionally challenging and can hold the energy while you evolve as a writer. Your relationship with that space can become nearly as strong as a relationship with a lover. It’ll see you through good times and bad, and like a house that you’ve lived in for years, its walls will hold the memories of your stories.

After you set up a space, find what inspires you the most about the setting. For Caroline, the room has to have a view. Over the past 20 years, she has written her novels overlooking London rooftops with sooty chimney pots, staring down at a once regal Budapest city street, looking out at the side of a dilapidated red barn, gazing at sweeping views of the massive Merrimack River, and sitting at eye level with hummingbirds congregating in a flavorful bush.

Where’s your magic? Create it in brick and mortar. Nurture it. Be inside it.

3. Write.

So, you have a writing schedule, and you’re showing up at your sacred space at the appointed times. Now it’s time to write. But what do you write? Where do you begin? Some come to the table with a strong story idea, others with only vague ideas of half thought out scenes.

When Art of Storytelling teaches writing workshops, we use an exercise for getting people started. Think of five events that happened to you before the age of 12, stories you cannot get out of your mind, tales you’ve told again and again. These stories make up your personal mythology. We recommend picking an event that happened over a few-hour period. For example, not a story about how you went every summer to your grandmother’s farm, but a story about the time you helped birth a calf on one of these visits. More specific events are easier to write than generalities.

Begin by writing a few paragraph summary of each event. Now start writing the first one. Write it out. Put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, and don’t stop until the story is written from the beginning, through the middle, to the end. Don’t be concerned with how literary the story sounds, or where it will “fit” in the novel. Just write.

Let me give you an example: one AofS student told the class about one of his childhood mythological stories. When he was 9, he went hunting for the first time with his father in the Cascade Mountains in Washington. All day they trudged through the snow, but neither sighted a deer.

They stopped for the night at a hunter’s cabin. In the middle of the night, the boy was awakened by a noise. His father stood at the window in his long-johns. His hunting rifle was aimed outside. A shot snapped in the bitter air. The boy got out of bed in the frigid cold cabin and looked out. A 12 point buck, shot between the eyes, lay a few feet away.

What stayed with the boy? His father’s socks. He had one knee on the bunk, and the bottom of his sock stood in harsh contrast in the dark cabin. He could not shake the feeling that his father had taken the easy way out, that there was something profoundly unfair about the deer’s death. It was dream time, wasn’t it? Time to sleep, for his father, for himself, and for the deer? Wasn’t a ceasefire implied? It changed the way the boy viewed his father forever.

Start out writing these personal mythologies. They draw up the soul and tell our deepest truths, the very reason we all want to be writers. These stories often lead us to themes of our novels; our deepest truths become the themes of our books. For a memoir, you can just keep writing these memories, then piece them together into a narrative. For a novel, you can fictionalize the stories as you go along.

Do not start with traumatic memories. This can cause severe writer’s block. You can write the more difficult stories when you get in the flow, just do not begin with them.

While you’re writing, you need to be learning the technicalities of professional writing. In the coaching process, we get writers started on their books, and then as we progress, we integrate lessons on characterization, setting, plot and theme. We recommend specific books the writer should read, to improve their dialogue, for example, or to help them understand plot.

Read how-to-write books, like Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction. Read lots of memoir and/or novels.  Note which books you love. Ascertain why. Look for similar ways to write your own book. At AofS, the writers who succeed don’t just do the coaching process, but seek out short weekend writing workshops or enroll in longer 8-week courses. They read a lot. They go to writing conferences. They learn from many sources. They commit to finding and integrating the literary knowledge that exists all over the world.

Sow a thought and you reap an act, Sow an act and you reap a habit, Sow a habit and you reap a character, Sow a character and you reap a destiny.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

4. Tackling Writer’s Block.

No matter how far along you are, or how long you’ve been writing, you will experience writer’s block. You may have been flowing in your writing for months and even years, and suddenly nothing. You show up on time at your writing space, and no matter what you do, you can’t seem to proceed. In 10 years of working with clients, Art of Storytelling has seen a recurring theme around blocks.

A. You can’t get started at all. You know deeply you want to be a writer, but you can’t even begin the process. It may be deep creative wounds from childhood. Many creative types have low self-esteem because of high sensitivity and a lack of creative nurturing when they were growing up. At AofS, we often coach writers to help them believe in themselves and their creativity, and to help them see their story is worth telling.  Many AofS clients, as well as our intern Acea Spades Black, have found help in reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.

“The Artist’s Way morning pages have helped me become witness to my own censors; the voices that belonged to the nay-sayers; father; teacher; jealous friends. I see that these censors have prevented me from really living the life I want to live/and do the things I want to do,” Acea says.

B. Something you’ve written is painful. If you are writing, but then hit a wall, it may be you’ve touched upon a sensitive subject and it’s opening old wounds. Stop. Look at the subject of your most recent writing session. Journal on it. Take it into therapy. We’ve found that it may take a while to even understand what is bothering you. Once you know, it’s important to go back in and keep writing. Write through the pain. If you’ve suffered a lot of trauma, you will need to have a therapist or other healer to discuss issues as they come up. Many AofS clients tell us in the beginning that they won’t have any emotional issues with the writing of a painful past (especially memoir writers), but then end up hitting an unexpected wall when the writing leads them deeper than they’ve ever gone before. Coaches and counselors can help you through the difficulties.

C. One block may not even really be a block. Let’s call it downtime. When you’re in the flow of writing and hit a wall, it may mean something needs time to percolate. You’ve come to a crucial point in the development of a character, or with the twists and turns of the plot, and the next move requires gestation. Unfortunately, you may not know consciously what’s going on. Gestation may take a week or even a couple of months. Still show up at your writing space. Read. Brainstorm. Doodle. This too shall pass, but you still must show up. After the gestation is over, the writing will nearly explode out of you.

D. Lack of trust in teachers or mentors. Some of us have been so wounded by teachers, we refuse to seek help. At AofS, the clients who succeed are the ones who are humble enough to seek out help. Still, use your judgment. Any workshop, teacher or mentor should focus on helping you align with your own truth and creativity, not require you to be like some other writer. If a teacher seems to be crushing, not aiding, your spirit, leave them immediately.

E. Overall, we find with our writing clients that the biggest block is getting halfway through the novel or memoir and losing faith. Feel the fear, worry about the book’s worth, but go forward anyway. Keep writing. You’re a success if you finish the book. The only real failure is in giving up.

5. Writing the Rough Draft.

Most new writers have to be introduced to the concept of the rough draft. First, many new writers don’t understand that the process of writing a book involves stages, from rough draft to a lengthy revision process. Many fledgling writers don’t really even understand what a rough draft is, and how to write one.

One of the key lessons AofS teaches is the art of the rough draft. We’re all taught in school how to write essays, a formulaic process that requires a certain perfection in grammar and spelling. Because of this essay mentality, new writers will try to edit their memoir or novels as they go, a process that blocks flow and ultimately can completely block the writer.

To write a novel or memoir, “you must unlearn what you have learned.” -Yoda.

Writing a school essay is a very different beast from writing a several hundred page book. To write a rough draft, you have to let go of control and flow freely with your creativity. For weeks, months, and sometimes years, you must let the story come out of you in any messy way it wants. We’re all so steeped in the essay mentality, that to let go of control can seem impossible. We want to go back and worry a word, or a paragraph. New writers can spend hours revising a paragraph in the rough draft phase, when that paragraph ends up being cut in the final revision process anyway. You can waste years doing ths. The rough draft mentality is a learned art form. AofS works for months with individual clients on how to get into this flow.

When they finally learn the art of the rough draft, some AofS clients even allow themselves to eschew punctuation, grammar, capital letters. We call this the “slap it down” approach. Using such an approach in the rough draft phase isn’t just about getting the novel done sooner. It can help bypass our internal critics, help us excavate our authentic, raw voices and turn the novel or memoir into a dynamic piece of art.

In writing a rough draft, a writer must be a student of their own story. You are not forming the story, the story is forming you. You need to be learning as you write what your story is about, what its themes are; you need to be listening to what your characters want to say and do; you need to be allowing the thought and structure to form itself as you go. You can’t control it. We find, on average, a writer takes about a year to write a rough draft. Only after the entire story is on the page should you start revising.

Follow the above five suggestions, and you’ll be well on your way to writing a successful book. Meanwhile, Art of Storytelling is here to help you along your way. Contact us at www.artofstorytellingonline.com for a free initial consultation. Good luck with the writing!

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