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How to Write Your Best Book Now

This is part one in a 6-part, totally free master class on everything you need to know to write "your best book now," with apologies to Joel Osteen and Thomas Nelson.

Part 1: The manuscript

You have 6 jobs before your manuscript is ready for professional editing, and then submission to an editor. 

Job #1: Start by reading (preferably memorizing) The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. 

Next, pick up Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass and the accompanying workbook and work through the exercises there. If you're writing nonfiction, you still need narrative techniques, so consider reading Maass' book anyway, or Zinsser’s On Writing is a good one too.

Other greats include Stein On Writing, Stephen King's On Writing, and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. But my new favorite is Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit which details the macro and micro elements of getting the words and phrasing and style right, but it's for writers who have already gotten a good portion of their million crappy words out of the way already.

I also recommend fiction writers give Self-Editing for Fiction Writers a read for the basic elements to be aware of.

Also, anything by Orson Scott Card, James Scott Bell, Sol Stein, and Arthur Plotnik, feel free to supplement your reading with any or all of them. Card’s book on character development is excellent. Characters and ViewpointAnd there’s always the incomparable Max Perkins, generally regarded to be the greatest editor ever.

Writers must first read, read, read. Aspire to read above your comprehension level. And find the redeeming qualities of that beneath you. Read Books & Culture. Read PW. Read poetry. Follow what your favorite writers do and who they follow, watch their interviews on B&N and learn what they did. There's so much available now. Go to Ted.com and watch the videos that interest you. JK Rowling’s Harvard address on failure is excellent.

Immerse yourself in the writing world of working writers. Read their blogs, check out their advice and links.

#2: Here's a very important piece of advice I stole from Bernard Cornwell: read your top 3 books and study them. How simple is that? But I'd add, use a book like Susan Bell's and/or Maass' to focus on the important elements and break them down chapter by chapter. Use your favorite writing books as guides and you'll learn more than you ever would at a writers conference about the actual tools and skills of working writers.

Pay attention to the way the sentences sound, the way the chapters work, how you’re drawn in, what’s said and not said. Consider metaphor and symbolism. What elements are your favorite? What parts do you like least? Keep a writing journal and mark your progress, then go over it at the end of the week and synthesize what you've learned.

#3 Figure out your writing system. Try different things until you get it. No one is able to tell you how you work best and you may change, so stay at it. I write best starting at the end and working backwards. I often start with the final image and write that last sentence and work back from there. It's taken me an embarrassing amount of time and effort to realize (and accept) this. You will no doubt work differently. You might want to consider using organizing software. Scrivener is a great one for Mac users.

As Ray Bradbury said, you must write 1 million crappy words before you're any good. So don’t worry, be crappy.

#4 Figure out if you’re writing in the right area, targeting the right reader by asking those close to you what they see as your unique gifts, abilities, and bent. And objective friend can save you much time if they're willing to be honest. Buy them lunch or dinner.

#5 Figure out if you are able to devote the needed time to this. There’s a time of life issue. Much prayer and consideration is required before you set out to write, let alone publish (we'll get that that in a couple weeks). Myself, I can’t do much more than write an hour a day right now b/c I can’t take the time away from my life to travel & commit
to publicity work.

Know where you are and prepare accordingly. Exercise in the meantime and commit to the work.

#6 Finally, get hard, trustworthy critiques from qualified writers. This is so essential. You have no idea how you need this until you've received it, but take it from me, there's nothing more important than the insights of a seasoned writer or editor on your work. Nothing. 

This may be tough to find as you’re starting out, but strive for it and you will find people you can connect with through conferences and online groups like ACFW and CWG. You don't need people writing what you write necessarily, but you do need people as committed to the craft, and who are devoted to encouraging and shepherding your talent. 

My hope is that this will be that kind of group very soon, so if that's you, hang tight and leave a comment. We'll be hooking people up very shortly for you to grow with.

And tune in next time for Part 2: The Proposal.

4 Responses to “How to Write Your Best Book Now”

  1. Thank you for the challenge and “long-road” encouragement of this post. As a homeschool mom, I found “Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Writer Within” by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett full of practical reality-based advice for capitalizing on the snatches of time in a busy schedule.
    As an evangelical living in Rhode Island, I crave the company of like-minded writers and am seeking an on-line writing group for encouragement, challenge and critique. New England can feel like a desert which is suitable to writing in some ways but not to gathering a group of Christian writers!
    I lead a writer’s group at my Y and it’s lively and challenging but I’m the only Christian. That helps keep my work fresh and free from Christian-speak (very valuable) but I need the perspective of other Christians, too.

  2. What an affirmation that some of what I’ve stumbled upon all by myself has great merit. But to have these practical, doable, challenging steps makes my heart beat a little faster, and my pen be more purposed. You are building such a longing for an authentic writers community. How do we possibly thank you for taking the time to give us this kind of guidance? Just say “Thanks” I guess. It seems so paltry.

  3. Susan Hill says:

    Feels like you’ve laid out the way for a second college degree in writing. I’m all for it and taking notes already! The internet has opened so many possibilities to develop ourselves as writers, and Mick, these are great links.
    But I sense that there will be points of overload along the way. And, I hope I will remember to retreat, and wait, and listen and get into that place where I can still hear my own voice. I say this as a note to myself, but other can get in on it too, if it fits. I’ve experienced the danger of trying to be like other writers and even confusion with the conflicting voices of different teachers. I just need to strike a balance with what I’m learning from others, with what I really want to say on the page.

  4. excellent tips! thanks for sharing this informative post! this really inspire me to write books. congratulations and good luck!

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