What does it take to write a book or three? Do you dream of writing multiple books but worry about being able to? And how do you even fit writing into your day to finish a novel-length project?
I recently came to the end of my third and final ghostwritten book (I won’t tell you what they are, so for all you know they could be monstrosities. But I am proud of them). Although I no longer ghostwrite for clients, I loved the experience and all I’ve learned. As a way to celebrate, I’m sharing some of these insights.
If you’re writing your first book, I hope there’s something helpful for you. If you’ve written multiple books, what would you add?
- Do enough research to start writing
- Digest and plan, and go off-piste
- Write first drafts that are allowed to be terrible
- Revise, self-edit, get feedback, repeat
- Do final checks with fresh eyes, enlist help
- Publishing includes marketing
- Ghostwriting isn’t a waste of words
How do you choose what to write? How do you research? And how do you know when to stop?
Although these were ghostwritten books, I chose them because I was drawn to topics I’m passionate about. My client had started writing, found it a lot harder than they expected, and wanted to hire help to finish their first book. The research was taking them more time than they had. I loved their idea, themes, and outline, and their vision for future books.
You’ll be spending a lot of time with your book idea. Choose something you’re excited to start and you feel has a lot of potential. There’ll be days when you like your book a lot less than at the beginning, but that will probably pass!
Researching for fiction and non-fiction fills me with joy. I’m not going to give much detail here because of top-secret confidentiality. I’ll post about my favourite research sources for mythology and folklore in a separate future post. (Email me or DM me on LinkedIn if you’re interested in this – it’ll make me write it sooner!)
Sometimes when I felt stuck, I just needed to read or research a bit more to get my ideas going again. Something would kindle my imagination, I’d have questions, and pieces would start to fit together in my mind. I took lots of handwritten notes, then highlighted my favourite things. I bookmarked a bazillion tabs.
One of the most valuable things I learned from researching was when to stop. Don’t wait until you’ve “finished” researching to write (that’s never, right?). Tell yourself you just need to have researched enough to start writing. Having a deadline helped with this. Do you find research irresistibly moreish too?
Choosing character names can be a lot of fun. Be kind to your readers and make names pronounceable. Try looking up baby names from different places and choosing something because of its sound or meaning.
Do you outline? Are you a planner or a discovery writer?
For me, getting ready to write ideally involves enough sleep, followed by coffee. I also need time for research to percolate through my brain and for ideas to take shape. Going for a thinking-walk outside is great for this.
Quite often, I’d tell my eldest son about something I’d read. Something about physically speaking made inconsistencies in character motivation that hadn’t occurred to me glaringly obvious. Once or twice I even said my scene idea out loud while on a walk – good job I live in a remote area! I tried dictation, but it was so inaccurate I gave up. I’ve since used Otter.ai for short pieces of writing quite successfully.
When I’d had time to think, I’d review my research notes and pencil my plans on plain paper, usually in a mind map or flowchart. I was flexible when it came to writing, though, and didn’t rigidly hold myself to my original structure. However detailed your plans are, you will discover more about your characters as you write them. Getting to know your characters will inform the rest of your story.
I had an outline from my client, but they gave me a lot of creative freedom, which was incredible. They had a strong intention for style and tone, which was helpful and fun guidance to have and great practice for my writing.
How do you even write that many thousands of words?
Create a writing habit. I learned a lot about my writing process during this time. Break it down into chapters, and break those down into scenes. Only got 500 words done in an hour? That’s great! It can take time to craft something beautiful, and that’s OK. Having said that, one of the main things I learned to appreciate even more was the value of a terrible first draft (it might not be terrible, but it is allowed to be).
Once something is on the page, you can edit it. You can’t edit a blank page. Get it out of your head. It’s almost always better than nothing and therefore worth it. It’s an achievement to create something out of nothing – don’t beat yourself up if your prose doesn’t sparkle immediately!
I’m a morning person, so I block time to write in the mornings (while my kids are at school or while they’re still asleep if I want to write at the weekend). I can read when the kids are in bed in the evenings, but it’s not usually an efficient time for me to write. I sometimes turn my Wi-Fi off to get started, make the most of the peace and quiet, and when I need a break I go for a walk instead of checking my phone.
A timer can be brilliant. Promise yourself you’ll write for 20 minutes. Often, once you’ve got over the hump of starting, you’ll find yourself in the zone. Then a timer can be a helpful reminder to take a break! Of course, not every day is an ideal day. Be kind to yourself when you can’t stick to your planned writing routine.
Unless I was completely exhausted, the scene I drafted was always better than nothing. Maybe twice I wrote a scene that I totally scrapped the following day. Once I even woke up, reread a scene I’d written when very tired and thought, Hey, this is better than my usual work. So, the extra effort of writing when I sometimes didn’t feel like it was worth it for me. Even if it was only 200 words. (My kids are still quite young, so never writing tired doesn’t exist for me yet.) Get some sentences down, even if you think they’re awful at the time. Future you will build on them.
Find your own balance of grit and determination while avoiding burnout and preserving your mental health.
Revising, editing, feedback
How do you self-edit? What do you do with feedback?
I’ve written about self-editing and getting feedback here: How to edit the first draft of your novel: a guide to rewriting, if you’d like to read in more detail. There are eleven steps in there, and the first one is my favourite. Take a break. Sleep on it. When you look at your work with fresh eyes, things will jump out at you. If you’re new to fiction writing, this process will probably take more work than you expected, but if you completed a first draft, you can do it.
My client wasn’t an editor, and I remember clearly the first piece of feedback they gave me that initially stung. It had all been positive up to then. “This bit doesn’t make sense.” I had less experience at that point, and my knee-jerk reaction was, “Then you must be an idiot.” I didn’t say that, of course! I didn’t even believe that. Feedback needs time to settle because it can sting at first. (Research shows feelings of social rejection register like physical pain in the brain, Kross et al. 2011. So I’m not a meanie – blame my anterior cingulate cortex.)
The next day I looked at the offending sentence. They had a point. What was in my head hadn’t come through clearly on the page. It was not helping the reader see what I was seeing, unless that reader was me! I made it much better. I also learned a valuable lesson about phrasing feedback. When editing, I never say, “This doesn’t make sense,” or, “I don’t understand this.” It’s more helpful to explain to the writer what you are missing, “Do you mean this, or this?” with examples.
I think I’m done; now what?
You’ve reread, revised and rewritten. You got sick of looking at it, put it away, and went back to it. You let other people read it, maybe some beta readers, and you weighed their feedback against the goals of your story. You self-edited some more. My client was eager to publish their first book. If it was my own, I would have invested more of my time here. The quality of your material is more important than rushing to a self-imposed schedule.
It’s hard to proofread your own work, but it’s not always the right time to hire a professional proofreader (and if you’re going to traditionally publish, you probably don’t need to). I’ve written advice about proofreading your own work in an earlier post. Reading your work aloud is my number one tip. My client was self-publishing, so they arranged a separate proofread. If you’re self-publishing your own writing, a quality copyedit of even part of your book can give you some great insights into your writing and things to look out for.
How do I self-publish? What do I need to do except format and upload my book?
This part of the process was out of my hands as a ghostwriter, but I followed along out of curiosity. It’s never too early to think about how you’ll market your book. This doesn’t mean you have to run salesy-looking ads on every social media platform. How will people looking for a book just like yours find it?
How will you ensure you get some early reviews of your book? There are ethical ways to do this. Will you give away advance reader copies (ARCs) in exchange for an honest review?
Marketing shouldn’t be an afterthought, or you might end up with not many people seeing your social media posts and spending a lot of money on Amazon ads to generate sales. (I think I’ll explore further into ethical book marketing in future.)
What was it like to not have your name on it? Wasn’t it a waste of time?
It was less scary to put my work out there and read what people said about it without anyone knowing it was me. Reading online reviews of my writing without having my name on it was actually liberating and built my confidence. You won’t agree with all reviewers, but it’s still interesting to see how different people react to your work.
Writing is a big investment of your time, energy, and effort. When I’m writing fiction, it’s a big emotional investment too. It occupied my thoughts when I wasn’t writing. Next time I write, it will have my name on it. But it certainly wasn’t a waste of time. I learned a lot about client communication – client emails can handle the odd exclamation mark to convey enthusiasm. You won’t look horrendously unprofessional; no one will die. Being open and honest about why I can’t ghostwrite even more books means we parted ways very amicably.
I have a better appreciation of the hours it takes to research, plan, write, and rewrite your book. And I know what feedback feels like from the other side of the table.
You will need creativity and determination to write a book or three. Be open to feedback and expect revising, rewriting, and self-editing to take time and commitment. I bet you’re already interested in reading about writing and improving your writing craft. Discover your writing process (it may look very different to mine). I hope you feel like me: you’re a writer because you write. Even without my name on the cover, these projects turned me into a writer.
And what I really want to know is, do you find research irresistibly moreish too?
*Wildlife update: this post was interrupted by a large black scorpion. Serves me right for working on the veranda!