You want to write book but you have no plot, your characters are still shadowy figures and honestly you haven’t even settled on a genre. Sounds familiar? I write this with empathy, not judgment. Before my dad told me I was argumentative and should study Law, I always figured I would be an author. I still have this strong intuition that I will write a book someday and maybe an article titled How To Write a Book will follow. For now, here’s what I know about not writing a book.
Maybe you’ve heard of this quote “everyone has a book in them”. Well, I just looked it up to cite the Speaker (Hitchens) and discovered the lesser known ending “and that, in most cases, is where it should stay.” Personally, I think this is a baseless statement. Not every book can be a bestseller but that does not mean it’s not worth writing one. Just the act of writing a book, the hundreds of hours of work that goes into it, is an achievement worth celebrating.
I’ve started a few books already. The first chapter is always strong; I read it over a hundred times and think, yeah that’s pretty impressive. The second chapter, slightly weaker, already I have forgotten the who, the what, the why so I stay description heavy and ignore the plot holes already forming. Very rarely do I make it to chapter 3. Yet I don’t consider these neglected, embryonic novels a waste of time. In fact, every time I get the faint idea for a story I start writing immediately and continue as though this is the one. Because how do I know it isn’t?
When not writing a book, you should still be writing as often as possible. This blog itself could be considered the result of my failure to write a book. I’m convinced I have something to say but not a clue what that is. A blog could be ideal for you too if you have a million ideas but can never commit to them. Write 1000 words about one thing, post it and move on to the next. This outlet allows you to improve and play with your writing style, without having to restrict yourself to one narrative.
Another way to discover what genre or from which perspective you write best is to write short stories. If like me you can only nail chapter one and have some idea of an ending, just cut the middle out. A typical short story is 5,000 to 10,000 words but there is no real word count. If even that sounds too momentous, try your hand at flash fiction which can be anything under 1000 words. This can be a good exercise for realising what the most important elements are of your plot and distinguishing between what doesn’t add much value.
If you want to just go for it but need a confidence boost, enter some free writing competitions. There are a ton of cash-prize or writer’s retreat/ book deal writing competitions online. Find one that interests you, read the brief and just have a go at creating something different. Worst case is you don’t hear anything back but time spent making something is never time wasted. You might surprise yourself by being short listed or even winning. When you finally do write that book, your literary achievements could come to aid.
The first piece of advice always given on how to write a book is to read often. It is a key piece of advice for how not to write a book too. Collect ideas of what you like from every book you read. I don’t literally mean pick a sentence and word for word plagiarise it. Instead, make a note of openings and endings you like. Look at the structure, does it go back and forth in time or is it split into two (i.e before and after). Whose perspective is the book from, what person is it in. Does this change? When does this change? A few years ago I read a book by Tommy Wallach, called ‘We All Looked Up’. The first words are “It’s not the end of the world, so what if one teacher doesn’t like you”. The reason why I thought it was such a clever opening is that the plot is all about a potential approaching apocalypse. So it quite literally could be the end of the world but they don’t know that yet and you as a reader don’t either. I want to use a line with that effect, it foreshadows the rest of the book in the very first words.
A piece of writing advice I have always liked is to write the book you want to read. It makes me think about what genres I read the most (thriller, coming of age, self-help) and the endings I like most (the ones you never see coming). I usually struggle with the characters and draw inspiration from the traits of people I know. When it comes to writing what you know, I believe you can write things you haven’t experienced as long as they share an emotion that you do know and can write well. Maybe your character is going through a rough breakup, which you haven’t had. But you have lost a close friend so you know grief and anger and you can write it convincingly.
So it seems, not writing a book and writing a book are very similar. You need to read a lot, because reading widens your vocabulary as well as improving your style. Most importantly, you need to keep writing, even if it’s a bit of a mess and you aren’t too sure where it’s going. Have confidence that something you write will one day take on a life of its own.
I hope to one day read some of your books and maybe one day you can come and tell me you read mine!