This morning my son asked, “Mom, how do you write a book all the way to the end?”
Keep in mind, this child lives in my home and watches me through every step of writing a book. He hears me belly-aching to my husband when I’ve had a tough writing day. He sees me typing on the computer like a woman possessed. He watches me slave over drafts with the Red Pen O’ Doom. Yet, somehow, the process still seems mystical and mysterious to him.
He’s not alone. “I don’t know how you do it,” people say to me all the time. They always look vaguely suspicious, as if they suspect dark arts are involved. Or they say something like, “I’d like to write a book some day.”
I always want to respond with a smile and, “Today is a day.”
The answer to my son’s question is this: You type a bunch of words until the story’s done.
But the real question is: “How do you write a good book all the way to the end?”
Now that, my friend, is a different answer altogether.
For a long time, I believed that becoming a writer was a lot like when priests claimed they were called to devote their lives to God. To my thinking, one just knew they were meant to be a writer. Sure, there was probably some work involved, but the knowledge that it was your calling made everything easier. It meant you knew the rules and had an innate understanding of how to craft a story.
Then I woke up.
The year I turned 30, I decided to finally stop nattering on about how I wanted to write a book and finally do the damned thing. I signed up for a writing class at the local community college and showed up with sweaty palms and a spiral notebook. Finally, I thought, I’ll find out the secret.
The only secret the teacher revealed was that writing a book is hard work. And that, if it feels hard, you’re probably doing something right.
It turns out this knowledge was incredibly freeing because it allowed me to finally give myself permission to be a novice.
With that in mind, when I wrote my first book, my goal was to just finish something. I didn’t worry so much about whether it would be the Great American Novel or if it was a very good novel at all. I just wanted to prove I could tell a complete story from beginning to end.
When I wrote “The End” on that book, I bawled. It was a watershed moment in the history of Jaye. I’d proven to myself that I had the stamina to stick to one thing long enough to finish. I’d also done something lots of people say they want to do but will never do.
Once I’d crossed that hurdle, I added new ones. With my next book, my goal was to finish a story that didn’t suck as much as the previous one. I managed that by taking more classes, reading every blog I could find about writing, I actively pursued critique. In short, I started collecting new tools for my tool box. Learning how to write novels became my job.
Every book since then, I have tried to push myself a little more. I still take writing classes all the time. I have a critique partner. I read everything I can get my hands on about the craft. Because even though I am a multi-published novelist, I am now and will forever remain a student of the craft.
Every bestseller was a novice at some point, too. Sure, maybe they were born with certain wiring that gave them skills with words and an ability to tell stories. But those are just a foundation. Building stories is a craft and all crafts demand dedication and commitment to acquiring the tools and materials required to get the job done.
Tiger Woods has an unmistakably innate talent for golf, but he still had to practice and learn the rules. He wasn’t born knowing what a bogey was or how to chip a ball out of the sand pit.
Stephen King wasn’t born knowing how to spell or create suspense using sentence structure or how to plot a novel. Those tools were acquired through work and education. Although I suspect in King’s case there really are some elements of dark magic at play, the truth is he’s a journeyman writer. He’s honed his craft, but there is always more to learn. Always. He was born with talent, absolutely. However, he still has to work at it, and I suspect, he’s also always striving to improve. Because …
Without craft, talent is as useful as a car without an engine or tires. It won’t go anywhere.
Don’t think once you reach the level of journeyman, writing will suddenly get easier, though. Its like plate spinning. When you start out, you’re struggling to keep one little saucer spinning. But with each new plate you acquire, the more difficult it is to keep them all spinning. Patience and experience will improve your coordination, but it’s still a lot of work.
Now, I’m not saying every writer, if they work hard enough, will eventually become Stephen King– just like every golfer can’t be Tiger Woods. But anyone can dedicate themselves to learning the rules and tools of the craft. They just have to be willing to do the work.
Anyone can sit down, open a Word file and start typing. Anyone can show up the next day and do it again, over and over until they have something resembling a complete story draft. Anyone can print out that book and try to make it better using the tools at their disposal. Anyone can decide they want to improve and go about acquiring new tools by taking classes, reading writing books, or joining a critique group.
Mileage varies, of course. Some people will be naturally more adept at using some tools. Some will struggle with prose but catch on to the rhythm of the three act structure. Others will struggle with writing a cohesive narrative, but can write a sentence that will make angels weep. Some won’t be very good at any of it, but they’ll keep trying because they just love the challenge.
You want to know how to write a good book all the way to the end? You become a student of the craft. You experiment and make mistakes and learn from them. You constantly seek out ways to improve. But most of all, you write and you write and you write.
Most people will never become writers because they believe they have to be good at it before they’ve even tried. Perfectionism has killed more writing dreams than any editor or agent.
You want my advice? Give yourself permission to be a novice. But also understand that if you want to write a good book, it takes time, dedication and a tireless drive to always be improving.
But don’t begin by believing you have to know everything. You don’t and, frankly, you never will. No one has ever written the perfect novel. Instead, work with what you’ve got, or you’ll never start at all. And you certainly will never understand the thrill of getting all the way to the end.