How do you write a book?

This was a question a reader asked me in an e-mail a couple weeks ago. And yes, it really did take me two weeks to get back to her. I read fan mail when it comes, but I answer it in the order in which it was received. This question has haunted me since I read it….because this is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately. How DO I write a book???

Of course, everybody does it differently. But I always thought the way I write a book is I start at the beginning. I know what the inciting incident is. I have a general idea of where the book is going to end. And then I just start writing.

I don’t outline. I WANT to outline, but it doesn’t seem to work for me. So I just start writing. I write a couple of chapters and then I TRY outlining (because, like I said, I WANT to outline). I go back and outline what I’ve just written and then I outline the next few sections. Maybe I’ll even throw in some random events that I know are going to happen sometime, but I don’t know how to connect those events to what I already have on my outline. This is about the time I run out of steam. So I put the outline aside and go back to writing. (I think I outline to make myself feel like I’m doing something when I’m stuck…and I guess it usually does “unstick” me enough that I can write the next scene.)

While I’m writing I go back and reread what I’ve written and revise often. VERY often. Some days (most days?) I don’t make a lot of forward progress because I’m working so hard on what I’ve already written.

But NaNoWriMo has changed all that. I now have a very messy first draft of T.J.’s Story (a messy first draft without an ending). And do you know what? I kind of like having this messy first draft…because NOW I’m outlining it and…a shape is emerging! A good friend of mine always talks about “the shape” of her novels (or MY novels, if she’s critiquing one of mine)…she likes to print the novel out in a really tiny font and then lay the pages out on the floor. She says that helps her “see the shape” of a novel. I started to understand what she meant by that when I wrote this other novel that I read to a classroom of sixth graders as I was writing it a couple years ago. That was my first experience having a true “first draft.” (Though that was a lot cleaner of a draft than this one is.) I don’t know that printing a manuscript out in a tiny font would do much for me…and I know I can’t outline when I’m starting a new story…but I CAN outline when I have a messy first draft. This outline (which isn’t done yet) not only helps me see what I’ve done…it helps me see what I have yet to do.

So…how will I write my next novel? Will I pretend it’s November and just plow through the first draft again, refusing to allow myself to go back and reread and edit or will I go back to my old way? I suppose it’ll depend on how well the revision goes these next couple of months. Right now I’m still in the honeymoon phase of my revision…everything seems possible once again.


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