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  • Will Shingleton

How to Write a Book

I woke up this morning, opened up my Google drive, and there were three manuscripts staring back at me. That's three completed book concepts that I've somehow managed to get from the "hey that might be a cool thing to write about" phase to actually being able to call it a novel. When I tell people that that's the case (or, more accurately, when my wife tells them because talking to people is hard), I have a tough time explaining how it all came together. It's not all that impressive in my head; I just sort of did it. Then did it again, and again, and am trying to do it another time. Simple as that. But deep down, I know that it's not actually that simple. Creative work is hard, especially at that scale. My three manuscripts, combined with the one I'm working on now, add up to well over 200,000 words (for reference, that's roughly the length of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Books are all over the place when it comes to word count.) If you've ever written a 2,000 word paper for a class, you know how much effort that can take. It's not an easy thing to do.

And when I talk to people about it, that's mostly what I hear. "I could never do that. I could never write a book." But there I am, having done it multiple times, like "why not?" If I can power through a learning disability and all the self-doubt that comes with writing, surely everyone else can. And I honestly believe that. If you'll allow me, I'd like to illuminate the process a little bit for those out there who may be writing-curious. When I started writing my first book in 2019, it seemed to me like an uphill, possibly unwinnable battle, and I can only assume that it's the same for you. Here are a few reasons why it's not, and how you can hopefully dodge some of the early hurdles that trip a lot of people up.

The first and best piece of advice I can give to someone who wants to write a book is to be confident in your idea. The cliche is that you need to "write what you know", but I don't necessarily agree with that. It's definitely a good starting point; all of my books have some sort of tie-in to sports, and there's a reason for that. I like sports. But I also think that you can write what you learn, too. Both cases have in common what I believe to be the most important core attribute of a good story, and that is the belief in what you're writing, whether you were already well-versed in the subject matter or not. My first manuscript, for instance, was written as a response to something Tim Tebow said on TV one time. That's another story for another time, but I believed in how I felt about it enough to have that carry me through the harder parts of writing. It was a story that I believed needed to be told, and one that I would have benefitted from hearing at its protagonist's age. Your story needs to be important to you. It will be better at every phase of the process if that is the case.

Now, about those "harder parts of writing". Joyce Carol Oates says that "the only thing that's bad for writing is being interrupted", and she is absolutely right. As a person whose brain is extremely prone to interruption, I can say with authority that that can get very frustrating. When people tell me that they could never write a book, that's really what they mean: they couldn't go uninterrupted long enough to make it happen. The first key to writing a book is accepting interruption as part of the process. There are jobs to go to, groceries to pick up, and dogs to walk. Those things are, almost unquestionably, more important than writing (unless writing is the job, which is, of course, the dream). Interruption is not a thing to be feared; it is an inevitability. The only reason I've been able to actually finish the stories that I've started is that I've stayed patient. Unless you're Stephen King, writing a book takes a while. The earlier you accept that, the less painful the process will be.

I agree with Joyce Carol Oates that interruptions are the worst thing for a writer, especially at the beginning, but once you get started, you'll find that interruptions can come from many different areas. It's actually relatively easy to get into a rhythm around the external interruptors: work, family, etc. It's possible, anyway. You may have to stretch your schedule out a little, but if you can carve out 30 minutes of your day to write on average, unimpeded, you're going to be in fine shape. To me, it's not the external stressors that are the biggest threat to your writing; it's the internal ones. Self-doubt is the biggest interruptor to the writing process out there. "I could never write a book" is already doubting yourself before you'd even start, and like I said earlier, I hear that kind of thing all the time. Once you start actually getting words on the page, though, it becomes very easy to start questioning every single one of them, and with the volume of words we're talking about here, that becomes very exhausting very quickly. You're essentially climbing a mountain with a weight tied to your waist, but you're the one who tied it, and you can't figure out how to get it off so you can just go forward. This, I find, is when it's important to remember that every writer, from Mark Twain to Ta-Nehisi Coates, was, at one time, absolutely awful. John Green is one of my favorite writers, and I've heard him talk several times about the first few drafts of his first novel, Looking for Alaska. I'd love to see those, because even though I think he's a pretty great writer, I'm pretty sure they were kinda rough. That's everyone's reality; we all suck at writing until we don't. Don't let your own doubt about how good you are keep you from getting good (he said, to himself).

In hindsight, the title of this post is a little disingenuous; you were probably expecting a neat little list of tips to follow on your journey towards authorhood, and that's not what this is. I am not sorry for that, though; writing a book is both messy and almost never what you expect it to be, and that's a good thing. These are my genuine and honest observations from my (admittedly limited) experience so far, and even if you have no interest in ever writing a book, I hope they were helpful to you. I am fairly certain that writing is not so unique that these observations don't apply to other disciplines.

If writing is a goal of yours, however, and you do finish your book, I'd love to read it. After that, though, you have to figure out how to publish it, and that's a whole other thing; one that we'll get into more at a later date.

Until then, happy writing.

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