So You Want to Write a Book

I can hear you now, reviled dear reader: “I went to John Hodgman’s book signing in Washington DC last month and heard him gently mock a listener who insisted that he wanted to write a novel… so that he could say he had written a novel. What am I supposed to write about?”

Ah. That grand question. As I recall, it was even the topic of a Terry Pratchet book a while back, in which a character sold his soul kingdom pot of treacle for a single fragment of the last original idea. The question which bedevils writers would be, upcoming, and bestselling of all epochs and ages.

Well, the truth is that you have to work for it. You have to look into yourself and find all of the ideas you have for a story worth telling.

The Start: Truth or the Alternative

Begin by thinking of what you might want to write about. Are you writing fiction (AKA, “filthy lies”), nonfiction (“truths for the ages”), or journalism (“fake news”)? That matters, mainly because if you want to write journalism or nonfiction I need to direct you to some better resources right now, which I am too terrible a journalist to bother looking up. If any of my readers genuinely want write a nonfiction book (Hi George!), send me a message and I’ll try to work out a method that could be helpful to you. If you want to write some fiction, though, I might have some help for you.

As a semi-professional purveyor of alternative truths (fiction), I can tell you that writing fiction ultimately consists of telling the truth about a pack of lies for approximately 400 pages.

What’s that mean?

Here’s where we start getting into the process.

Step the Second: Genre

Fiction is generally broken up into a few major genres. These include, but are far from limited to: Realistic, historical, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, military, romance, and literary. I can already hear a dozen fans of realistic alternative histories which plumb the mysteries of romantic entanglements between vampires and robots rolling up their sleeves to pen me an angry missive on their aether powered vitriol presses, but I’m making generalizations here. Genres are fickle beasts, which are best used as living springboards to help writers jump their intended market without landing face first in the cow pen of “blahhh” writing.

So, take a moment and consider what you like to read, watch, or play, then temper that realization with your own experience.

Temper? That’s both what any good writer will likely develop whenever somebody attempts to pull them away from the keyboard, and an old sword-smithing term for making a blade hard so it will keep an edge. It’s a metaphor for a “reality cheque”, which is a misspelling of “reality check”.

Let’s say that you like reading seven-inch thick Tom Clancy novels during the loading screens for the latest iteration of Splinter Cell while streaming The Hurt Locker on your television. Those are all fine life choices, but unless you have some experience in the military or have spent your life perusing issues of Jane’s Weekly while field stripping your AR-15 blindfolded, chances are you should not try to write a military thriller. I mean, you could do it, especially if you’ve instead spent your life watching (insert-event-here)Truther videos on YouTube with private browsing turned on to keep the internet gremlins way, but it’ll be hard.

That said, nobody has ever hefted a demon-possessed sword from the altar of a fallen god-king and been transformed into the Chosen One, destined to Save the World from the Great Evil which infects the Lord of the Fancy Necklace, so if you feel passionate about writing a story don’t let experience stop you. I’ve only been outside the United States once in my life and I turned the extensive experience of one week in France into a series of five novels about a photographer who explores weird places all over the world. Just realize that if you dive into writing something in a genre where you have little experience, you might need to do some heavy research to give your book the feeling of verisimilitude (Latin for “a small attitude of very truthiness” or something like that, you filthy lair fellow brilliant writer of fiction).

A word here about “literary” or “realistic” fiction.

There’s nothing wrong with it.

Really, you’re welcome to write literary fiction all you want. The world needs more stories about middle class white dudes growing up in an average suburban home, attending church only on holidays and… do you get my point? If not, chances are you are one of those dudes.

Listen, everyone has a story to tell, and I’m not here to discount your story, but unless you have the wisdom of age or a seriously interesting take on life (or your middle-class borough was gassed by flat-earthers during the reptilian uprising of 2075, or something like that.), or you’re not an average dude, I’d recommend starting with genre fiction.

Are you angry now?

Good.

Use that anger. Dig in. Search your heart. Find that hidden cache of uniqueness that makes you… you. Find those stories from summer camp that molded you into the person you are. Find that day you walked through a wheat field on the property of a doomsday cult. Dig in an remember that time you were trapped in a barn by a swarm of scorpions.

And if you can actually find something unique about yourself, go ahead and start thinking about writing “realistic literary fiction.”

Now, I do have similar advice about genre fiction, because this post is all isn’t about crushing your dreams.

So, as a part-time writer who actually makes my living as an English teacher, here’s your homework to tide you over until my next post in this series:

Homework (because writing is work)

Answer the following questions in as much detail as possible.

  1. What genre do you enjoy consuming?
  2. What genre do you think you might want to write?
  3. What extra research do you think you would need to do to write in this genre?
  4. What unique experiences or training do you have which might help you write better?
  5. What unique twist, combination, or change could you bring to this genre?