How to write a book: secrets of my style

How to write a novel, writer, typing away.“How do you do write so many books?” I’m often asked, over the tip of a wine glass at a high-grade business event. Or “How do you write so fast?” Whatever my answer, the response is usually “Oh I wish I could write a book,” without much care for what I actually say. So my usual response is “I don’t know. It just happens.” But that’s actually a carefully engineered lie to avoid an extensive explanation that people at high-grade business events don’t really want to hear. In fact, I do know how to write a book. It’s a delicate and complicated process that I make look easy. Because I did the hard work a long, long time ago.

Why we write

The crucial step in finding the stamina to write a whole book is finding the passion to do it.

Most children invent stories, even if it’s just in an everyday game running around the neighbourhood, but at some point most children stop playing make-belief. I never stopped toying with my imagination to create new worlds and adventures and all that nonsense – because I put value in the joy it brings me. Even when I was tiny, I knew that writing down the stories of our childish games meant they could be enjoyed again and again. And I could share that feeling with others.

The key to writing prolifically, for me, is nothing to do with planning or having ideas. It’s all about recreating that feeling of wonder and excitement that every one of us experienced inventing games as a child. Writing a whole book comes easily when you enjoy the feeling of writing, and of rereading what you have written. So the first step, whatever your chosen field or genre, is to write about something that inspires that feeling in you.

Getting good at writing

When you’re truly passionate about what you’re writing, and find the task itself enjoyable, practice is easy. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers points out that 10,000 hours of practice is the rough amount needed to become an expert at a skill. I couldn’t possibly quantify how much time I’ve spent writing books, but it’s been about 20 years of fairly consistent practice, so I’ve probably hit that target by now. And that skill has been developed not just by writing, but by reading, and spending countless hours editing. To give you an idea of how I feel about the amount of time I’ve spent perfecting my writing skills, check out this article on my copy blog.

It’s important, because implicit in the question of how to write a book is the question of how to write a book well. If you’re not pleased with what you write, you’ll find it difficult to finish. And of course the best way to ensure what you write is good, when you come to write a book, is through general writing practice. Writing about your passion should be easy. Do it regularly and you’ll get better. The better you get, the easier it is to write. Then the question is never how to write, because it will seem perfectly natural.

How to plan a book

Modern writing parlance has thrown up the quaint term ‘plotter vs. pantser’. It’s worthy of its own post, but very briefly it defines whether you plan your book or write it off the cuff. Personally, I give the outward impression of a pantser (“I don’t know. It just happens.”). I usually know where my story is ultimately heading but I seldom know exactly how. And it gives the impression that I’m making it up as I go along.

But that’s as much of a lie as saying I don’t know how to write a book, because it doesn’t flow as freely as it seems. I plan by experiencing the book in my head, the same way I might have written stories as a child by writing about games I had been playing, or by immersing myself, in my mind, in my favourite films or TV shows. The initial inspiration has to come from somewhere, of course, like a piece of music or a particularly vivid dream, but the story comes through playing it out in my mind. Daydreaming, effectively. I imagine the story whilst out walking, or doing some other mindless activity (Crude Bastards, for instance, was jointly conceived whilst working in a warehouse).

So here’s the thing: I’ll tell people it takes me 4 weeks to write a novel, and that’s true in terms of the writing. It takes me 3 – 5 days to write a feature length movie script. It flows because I am ready for it to do so, the ideas have batted around my mind for weeks, months, even years before I start writing. Gun City Bohemian, for example, was written in about 4 weeks. But half of that was in 2006, the other half in 2010.

Design your story and language to reach a specific target and it will feel unnatural, both to the reader and to you writing it. This is why the question of how to write a novel is not easy to answer: there is no formula. You can’t plan your way through it mechanically – if you could, it wouldn’t be your story. My novels emerge through allowing myself to become absorbed in the stories in my mind for a long time beforehand. When you’re passionate about something, and enjoy thinking about it, that part’s easy. When you’re used to transferring that feeling into writing, through decades of practice doing so, writing a book seems easy, too.

How to write a book

Practice all your life at turning your passions and daydreams into re-liveable stories, and writing a whole book will be easy.

That’s how I do it.

2 thoughts on “How to write a book: secrets of my style

  1. I came across your site after Googling “Kurt Vonnegut Um” and stayed awhile.
    I am a nascent writer myself and I wanted to express how refreshing your advice, or rather your take on writing.

    Most of what I read aimed at aspiring authors, I find near useless with obsession over word count per day, etc. As if writing is the same as working out, just show up and do it.
    While writing is key to writing, that approach has left me with more damage to my manuscript and useless fat which breaks the spell.

    You hit upon dreaming and play, which are the reasons I started this endeavor in the first place.


    • Thanks for the comment, Michael – I appreciate it, and that you like what you’ve read. True, I think advice on writing can be superficial – relying on word counts to get yourself writing is like setting yourself an egg timer and hoping that’ll force you to act. I think it’s important for a writer to write in the way that they feel is most productive – which may be different for everyone. It has to be enjoyable, above all else.

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