How not to write a book.
Take a deep dive into my foolproof method for not finishing your work. You might be surprised what you learn along the way.
What you won’t have any trouble finding on Medium (or anywhere for that matter) is the massive universe that is advice on writing and publishing. I’ve spent many hours in that universe consuming plenty of that wisdom. I’m not sure if any of it has helped me all that much. So, one day I sat down and decided to try a more unconventional approach. Maybe the guy who hasn’t written a book knows a thing or two about writing one? And maybe some advice on how not to write a book is exactly what every aspiring author needs.
A little background. Recently I accidentally found a novel I had started around 2008. I ended up with an odd reason to login to what had been my permanently shelved hotmail account from the 20th century. When I did I clicked through some of the old files I have saved.
Within that ancient hot-cloud, I still have the original emails my wife and I exchanged nearly 20 years ago after we first started dating (and that I will NEVER delete). There were some ancient work receipts that were also taking up several kilobytes of Microsoft server. There’s an article on pregnancy and how much fish one can safely consume. And there, totally forgotten, was “book.doc.” Or, what at one time had been, “My Novel.”
I’m not sure if this was the first fiction novel I had started in my adult life, it may be the second. Regardless, it was an original idea and it had some legs. I printed it up and it came out at 27 pages, or just a shade under 17,000 words. I told myself I might read it again just to see just who I was as a writer all those years ago.
I believe this was my second or third earnest attempt at a crafting a novel, and I’m sure it likely took me several months before that second child in 2008 came along and finished the book for me — unsatisfactorily, early, and like all of works to date, incomplete. I put a lot of time into it at the time and even today I’m proud of that effort. Yet by comparison to the likes of James Patterson or Nora Roberts, it might equal a slow Sunday afternoon’s worth of words. Of note, I don’t often compare myself to James or Nora, and I’d recommend you don’t either.
Nonetheless, stumbling upon that effort was a good find. I sent it to the printer because I like to feel the weight of paper in my hand. And feeling my words in the physical form does make them feel real; like I actually did something at some point. I sat those pages on my nightstand along with my pile of current reads, my plans being to pick it up at a later time just to see how good, or bad, it was.
I had hoped since it’s been so long since I had written those words, that it might be fresh. Perhaps I might have forgotten any spoilers, if there were any. And I hope I can judge myself a bit less harshly than Steve Barthelme in my fiction writing classes in college, even though I will be forever grateful for his guidance at the time when I was a young writer who knew next to nothing about anything but still had the desire to create something out of nothing.
Now, over 25 years later, I’m still apparently doing a good half-ass job trying to get there anyway, while wholly succeeding in not succeeding with the end goal of finishing a book. What I have learned over all those years is that it’s not the ideas that are hard to come by. It’s not that the characters don’t exist in my head. It’s simply that writing is hard. Writing well, even more so. I’d speak on editing as well, but I haven’t gotten there yet.
Over the years I’ve found that to get something good out of, or into my writing, I have reach deep within myself and pull at it like I’m trying to yank up an anchor buried deep in the mud. And not to be outdone, I’m usually yanking it out with nothing stronger than a piece of dental floss. It’s as if I have to get in this zone where creation flows, where words find themselves and join hands. And if I’m really doing it right, the words sing amongst themselves, in harmony with one another, while riding a mutual rhythm that pushes the words along as they head to that place where they are meant to belong and in that realm where they somehow make sense.
Even when that starts to flow, sometimes it is all for drivel, sometimes just for a mere smear of soul on the page that does very little to move the narrative alone. Other times its pure magic. Over these many years I’ve learned quite well how to tell the difference. But one thing is certain for me, it’s as if it’s really hard to write. I’m already getting tired here, pulling this out of my head. And that’s just the rough draft. From there I’ve got to revise and polish. It would seem that there is no end to the journey that is writing. Writing anything worth publishing requires a dedication to near-perfection. Perfection is dangerous of course, a fool’s errand, yet totally necessary from a grammatical standpoint alone, not to mention everything else that must transcend all those words on the page to give them meaning. To make the words worth reading. It is exhausting.
Yet even though I have now mastered ensuring it doesn’t happen, the finishing part, it still doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
Case in point: Not quite three years ago I finally began the whole novel that I was going to write. Emphasis on “whole.” I finally knew what kind of novel I was going to write. This was beyond my half baked ideas of the past. I was super excited. I even had chalked up a good 45 years of life experience in the meantime. Could it be that I was finally poised to finish writing an entire book? Good question.
I reflected back to “book.doc,” my sci-fi idea that was still alive in my hotmail. Even now I think the story idea is ripe for development. It’s a good idea if I may say, and being sci-fi and all, there’s a lot of leeway for imagination and writing things that don’t exist yet doesn’t always require experience to get there. In short, no writer has ever travelled to the future to write about it, so clearly it is possible to write without experience.
But although my idea seemed good, I had no idea where it was going after the initial idea. I didn’t know who my characters really were. I hadn’t been a scientist so I didn’t really know how to write a scientist, although I wasn’t afraid to perhaps unknowingly flatter Michael Chricton along my way by writing a scientist who he had already written, several times by my count.
As I finally read through those pages, I found that my effort was a decent start. I even got to a second reveal, but then that book and my ability to write got usurped by fatherhood and husbandry. During that time I found myself with two extra sets of living, breathing, crying, and poopy diaper distractions to get in my way.
So clearly one bullet point worth sharing is that one sure fire way not get a book written was to allow for distractions. I do LOVE a good distraction, and am fully capable of being distracted from writing by damn near anything. Heck, even this piece right here that you are reading is a distraction from my current novel. I could be writing my book, but here I am, showing you how not to write a book. At my worst, I do lead by sincere example.
But it was all of this that came before that eventually made what was attempt number 3 or 4 so special. This time I knew my characters. I flushed out the setting. I had the tone. I found my voice. I even had my ending! That loving and formerly elusive ending! And I got off to a bang up start, had my routine of going to my local cafe where I would setup shop (I am a writer, watch me write!) where I would drink 3–4 cups of house black while I pounded away like the amateur, soon-to-be published author I was always destined to be.
The kids were older, I had made a few bucks, I could actually carve out time to write. It was revolutionary. I even had a routine! Game changer. Or so I though.
Then Covid-19 came through. This was the young kids I needed to parent and care for, or the girlfriend I needed to spend time with, or the band I needed to form, or the business I needed to build, or the next business I needed to build, or the work I had to do, or the home improvements I needed to make, or the party I was invited to. It was as if Obi Wan himself and said, “This is the distraction you were looking for.”
I am the king of great distractions so when I saw this new “pandistraction,” I knew it would be love at first sight. My routine was broken and my progress nearly died out altogether. As my routine was replaced by worry and loneliness, not to mention several other real-time and warranted distractions, I found myself once again right where I had always been: not finishing my book. I was apparently a master at this.
Despite all the difficulties that I clearly like to heap on top of the past-time (future career?) that is writing, I do love to write. And I think I’ve gotten much better at it since I began that work in 2008, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve gotten better. I think it’s part of the process. And I, like all writers, have spent plenty of time camping out on the mountain top of self-doubt. The weather there is uncertain and uncomfortable, yet almost all writers who find themselves there are never alone.
I will never forget when I first met my wife and we were exploring one another’s hobbies and habits.
“So what kinds of things do you like to do?” I asked her.
“…and I love to read. At least every night before bed,” she had said.
“Read? You mean…like books? I love to read too! Although I rarely do for some reason,” I replied. That reason had mostly been living life, playing in a rock band, having male roommates, partying — heck, doing almost anything but reading.
Thanks to my eventual wife’s love of books, I’ve read almost every night since then. It’s become our routine and neither one of us can grab a wink without at least flipping one page and onto the next. We also read religiously to our kids every. single. night. At least until they were too old, by their own admission, and subsequent refusal to take part in such an un-teenagerish activity like reading with their parents. That said, this was one area of parenthood where we definitely did something right.
Just as Stephen King had told me before I even met my wife, when I was but a “writer who had written nothing,” I had now come full circle, taking King’s advice to read anything and everything, constantly, and in the moment, rather unknowingly. I only realized I had taken his advice when I read his book ‘On Writing’ for a second time, now 20+ years later. I was quite please when I realized I had taken his advice, for a full 20 years, and all that reading was starting to show in my own writing. I was still writing and I was better. Yay!
Yet here I am still, now writing a piece on how not to write a book. What the hell? Perhaps for me, and maybe you, it’s just a long process.
Which reminds me to get back on topic. So allow me to offer another tip that worked so well for me: buy a bunch of books on writing, and spend a lot of time reading about writing, instead of actually writing. I still have the books I bought in college even, including “Becoming a Writer,” by Dorothea Brande. This is a wonderful book. And, if you are like me, you’ll gobble it up while rarely, if ever, actually putting into practice the work and those habits that Dorothea swears will work towards making nearly anyone a successful writer.
Full disclosure: I still haven’t given up. And for that I’ll also give myself credit. And it you are reading this, I’d say it’s clear you haven’t given up yet either. There may be hope for us!
As for my current WIP, I am getting there. I will get there. I’m still not sure how to easily get over the mental shackles that I’ve allowed this pandemic to cast over my creativity but I’ve succeeded time and again not at just sitting down and pounding away. Sometimes I’ll knock out 2000 words in one morning, other times it will take me a week just to get 100 words. It all goes in the word bank though, and it’s all treasured once it doe.
I haven’t been able to make it back to the coffee shop (yet) but I’ll be fully vaccinated in a week. And I’d dare say I may be 20 mugs or less of fresh black coffee from finishing my novel (anyone reading this article should know this estimate cannot be trusted, but I don’t cuss towards optimism of any kind).
And that’s for one simple reason: in spite of everything over the entire course of my entire life, I have always continued to write. And I will continue to write, because it’s starting to be something that I do. And I do it better and better and I’m getting closer and closer to actually reaching that impossible goal of finishing something. But I can tell you right here and now, just that thought alone is enough to block me from going further. I know this, because it has. Because now that I’m getting close to finishing something, I’m not sure I know what I’ll do afterwards. I will celebrate. I will dance in the streets. I will write again. But in the meantime, you can bet somehow I’ll let the sight of the finish line alone run me off course for a bit. It’s what I do. And for better or for worse, it’s how I write.
When I do get there, to the end of what has been a marathon, it will have taken me much longer than it should have. But I do have to admit, had I written this same book 12 years ago, I wouldn’t know these characters. I wouldn’t have my own tough experiences to draw upon to evoke emotion and feeling in my characters. I wouldn’t have examined the world in the same way I do now as I did back then. I know a lot more now, beyond that of where the book should go.
With plenty of big screen, feature-length hinsight, I have now come to appreciate this labored process. And I do really only want to find the way for my characters by digging deep into who they are and letting my subconscious guide me, and them, along their way. That I have had no choice but to dig deep as I injected little bits of myself into each of them seems to make for diamonds below the surface that are worth finding, and I sincerely hope, worth reading to anyone who might find themselves reading my finished novel one day.
While it feels often like I’m making something out of nothing, that’s not entirely true. The experiences of my own life are real, and those experiences, if I am successful, will come through in my writing as sincere experiences for my characters. From the thin air of memory to the blank page of prose, the process may be hard, but it is very rewarding. And I think it’s even more rewarding because it’s legitimate. I may not have been gifted with the genius of F. Scott Fitzgerald or the prolificness of Danielle Steele, but I’m forging ahead anyway.
So if I never get there, or you never get there, maybe there’s an honorable mention ribbon for those who try and don’t quite get there. But there is a blue ribbon awaiting for anyone who struggles and overcomes. For what is a victory that is easy? It is a hard fought victory that is never forgotten. If I finish my book and it never goes anywhere, that matters least. No matter what happens, when I finish that book I’ll label myself as an Author for life. Because that will be who I am.
Yesterday I was able to overcome a writer’s block that had been troubling me for some time. It was a tough scene to write, full of emotion, and because of that I avoided it. But of course the only way I was going to be able to write it was to go there myself. I needed to open up that door of vulnerability and it was just much easier to let the many distractions of the day, any day, get in the way.
But I finally managed to get it done. And you bet I felt great when I finished. Once again I have proven that I am capable of doing it when it’s hard. When I finished the day, I had popped my head above the water line that is 65,000 words. Finally, after all this time, I continue to feel like this will be the one, and now, after several runs at finally finishing this piece, I’ve crested the 75,000 word mark. Anyone who has ever written anything of any length will know I am getting close. Closer than I’ve ever been, and truly, I know I will finish.
It will have taken me much longer than I had planned, and of course when I am done I must begin the tooth-pulling that is editing revision. And I’m sure before then I’ll let the distractions of life get in the way. But I will never give up. I hope by examining my overall habits here, I can learn from them and continue to grow as a writer as work towards minimizing the bad habits while allowing the good ones to grow.
I may not be a published author. Yet. But damn it, I am a writer. I have written when it was easy and I have written when it is hard. I have read voraciously and studied what I have read along the way. I have overcome the distractions of life time and again. Over 20+ years now I have never given up.
Although life has gotten in the way, time and again, I’ve chosen to take those life experiences and to use them in my work. And I do believe I’m a better writer because of that. And that feels good.
By examining all those things that I have allowed to get in my way, I hope you can begin to realize all those things that perhaps you have allowed to get in your way. I truly believe that if I can do it, then it can be done. The road will be different for all who try, but everyone will have distractions, and life will fight you and win if you let it.
But if the life you want includes being a writer, you must overcome. And if you can overcome again and again, and never give up, perhaps you will finally finish that book.
And just like me, when you do, it will be all the more enjoyable, rewarding, and amazing because you had to fight through distractions, life, even a pandemic to get there.
I hope to see you at the finish line.