So You Wanna Write a Book

Because I’ve had 16 (soon to be 17) novels published, people believe I’m an expert on getting published. Sadly, I’m only a semi-expert–and only on the topic of getting ME published. But I get emails, and I’m asked to teach, or lecture on the topic, and I rarely go to a cocktail party without having somebody pull me aside and whisper (I’ve got this great idea for a book…).

So I thought I’d put my thoughts on the topic in a post, and maybe kind readers will forward it to their book writing buddies, instead of asking me to read their book writing buddies’ manuscripts. And for the record–1.No. I don’t read other people’s manuscripts. Ever. I barely have time to write my own books, let alone read other people’s. I’m not an editor or an agent. My tastes are my own, and not reflective of the book publishing industry. 2. No. I’m not a book doctor. See above. 3.Yes. A person can make a living writing books. However, I have no idea whether you or your friend can make a living as an author.

So…You have an idea for a book. Is it a book? Is your idea fiction or non-fiction? That’s the first question to ask yourself. If it’s non-fiction, why would a publisher buy such a book? What makes it such a great idea? Has anybody else written on this topic? If so, can you do it better, fresher, smarter? What are your credentials for writing about this non-fiction topic? These are the questions you ask yourself, and which any editor or agent would ask you before ever considering taking a look at your idea. Do your market research. Go to the library, bookstore, internet, to find out what’s been written on the topic, and how recently. Read the competiton, so you’ll understand how your book can be different. You’ll also want to know if that book was considered a success. You can check its Amazon sales ranking, as one measure of success, or ask others who are experts in the field if the competition books did well. Don’t assume an editor or agent will do this. This is YOUR job.

If your idea is for a novel, figure out what kind of novel you want to write, or have written. Is it literary fiction?–i.e. the kind of book Oprah picks for her book club? Is it genre–meaning, is it an identifiable category like mystery, romance, thriller, sci-fi, fanstasy, action-adventure, ect. If you are writing for children, you’ll want to educate yourself about how children’s books are published and sold.

Again, market research. What kind of books do you like, and want to publish? Read those. Figure out how they are structured, who publishes them, and who writes them. Make yourself an expert on the kind of book you want to write. How long are those novels? Hint: NOBODY wants to read your 800-page romance/fantasy/thriller. Unless you happen to be the next J.K. Rowling. Educate yourself about the conventions of genres by reading books on the topic. Libraries usually have great books about writing. You can also usually join genre writer’s groups, like Romance Writers of America, Sisters in Crime (mystery), ect., many of which have helpful publications or meetings with published authors as speakers.

Write the damned book. Give yourself a deadline. I was working fulltime as a reporter for The Atlanta Constitution, and raising two young children when I wrote my first two mysteries. If you want to write badly enough, you’ll find the time. I gave up watching television on weeknights. I gave myself a year to write that first book, and when I was approaching the year deadline, I took my last two weeks of vacation to stay home and finish the book. Try to come up with a workable writing schedule. Mine was to write a chapter a week. I still give myself page and chapter quotas when I’m working on a book. Study plot and structure. Beginning, middle, end. If your mind works that way, outline your novel. Or at least try to write a synopsis of what happens. You don’t have to have an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop to figure out how modern fiction is written. You just have to figure out how story works. Story, by Robert McKee, is helpful for this–if very detailed and overly analytical. I took McKee’s Story workshop in New York years ago, hoping it would help me write a screenplay. I never did write the screenplay, but it was very helpful in thinking about structure. Get help if you need it. Join a writer’s group, either online or in your community. Start your own if one doesn’t exist. Attend a writer’s workshop, or take a writing class through an evening adult ed program. Local colleges offer these, as do organizations throughout the country. You’ll want a workshop or writing class that features published authors as teachers/lecturers. If it’s a workshop offering manuscript consultations, you’ll want one with New York editors and agents as presenters or lecturers. I attended the Antioch Writer’s Workshop nearly twenty years ago when Sue Grafton was teaching mystery writing, solely because the workshop advertised manuscript conferences with Sue Grafton. My experience was priceless. Three months later, I had my first book contract. That doesn’t mean you’ll have the same experience, but it does happen.

Yes, writing is hard work. Have you ever done anything worthwhile that wasn’t hard? No whining! If the writing isn’t going well, keep going anyway. The object is to finish the damned book. You can always go back and polish and edit. But you can’t polish what you ain’t written. So push through the pain and get to the finish-line. Read Ann LaMott’s invaluable book BIRD BY BIRD. Keep it on your nightstand, or by your computer. I do.

When you have finished your book–and not before you are convinced it is the best book you could possibly write– then you are ready to try to sell it. Unless you truly are the next J.K. Rowling, or Candace Bushnell (SEX AND THE CITY), nobody in New York gives a rat’s ass about your IDEA or FRAGMENT. Yes, dears, you do have to write the WHOLE book before you sell it. Usually. Unless you’re the exception to the rule. Maybe you are, but I doubt it. Now you go back and do more market research. Who is publishing books like yours? Are they currently buying? What agents represent authors like you? Check the acknowledgement page on novels you like, lots of times they thank their agent and or editor. Check The Writer’s Market, which should be available at your local library for listings of agents and editors, but make sure you’re reading the most current market guide available.

While you’re studying Writer’s Market, make sure you understand manuscript mechanics. By this, I mean formatting, ect. Once your manuscript is clean and properly formatted, you’re ready to start submitting. Again, go back to the library to check out reference books about marketing a book to find out how to write query letters. Good luck!

4 thoughts on “So You Wanna Write a Book”

  1. Sisters in Crime has a great chapter for new mystery writers, called THE GUPPIES, short for the great unpublished–except that now LOTS of us are: former Guppies include Judy Clemens, Susan McBride, Denise Swanson; current Guppies and published include Sandra Parshall, winner of the 2006 Agatha for Best First novel (Heat of the Moon); Hank Phillippi Ryan (2007 Agatha winner for best first novel (Prime Time), and lots of others . . . Sarah Atwell, Sheila Connolly, Liz Zelvin, Jeri Westerson, Meredith Cole, Krista Davis, and others including me!

    Check out their website:

  2. Hi Paul. I’d love to write a book about Charleston, if I knew it better. I guess I write about Savannah because we’ve lived there twice, and I feel I know it intimately. Who knows–maybe Weezie will go on a junking trip to Charleston one day.

  3. Thanks MK…for responding to my comment. I love your books even though I am an 18 year old boy. You make southern living sound like the only way to live.

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