MY EXPERIENCE WRITING A BOOK
March 15, 2021 - 10:41 PM
I own several books that promise to make their readers capable of doing that which many people dream of doing but never successfully do. I've seen twelve-step processes and how-to videos and plot wheels. There's no shortage of people promising not only to help you write a book but to help you achieve any goal you desire.
Writing a book, like almost every other goal, is a feat that cannot be accomplished except by simply doing it. There is no magic formula, nor are there any keys or secrets to producing a book. No course will prepare you for it. The only way to write a book is to sit down and write one word at a time. Using a plot wheel or some YouTuber's twelve-step process may help you to plan or set daily writing goals, but you'll only achieve your goal of writing a full-length book if you're willing to write each and every word down and put them in the right order.
It is far from easy.
The Gatherers and the Illness of the Isle is the second novel I've written in my life, and I feel that it's a vast improvement over the first one. The Lovely and Lonely Blue was my first book, and I put a great amount of effort into writing it. I had set out to write 75,000 words, which was just the right amount for the genre I was hoping my first book would fit snugly into. The book ended up being a bit over 100,000 words, and I was happy with its length. From that book, I learned many lessons. For one thing, I learned that the word count of a book is not the sole indicator of its completeness; the completeness of its story is a separate thing, and it's the most important thing. I added another 25,000 words to that book because I felt there was that much more of a story to tell.
The most important lesson I learned was that it's possible to write a selfish book. That's what The Lovely and Lonely Blue was; it was my way of working through the questions I had about God and the constantly looming threat of death. There was a decent story there, but the book was largely bland, incredibly depressing, and made up of more rhetoric and rambling than any one person should ever be expected to stomach. In the end, I shelved it, and I have no plans to ever sell it.
It was solely for me.
The Gatherers and the Illness of the Isle is different. It's as much for me as it is for an audience. I've written a story that I expect others to enjoy. I want people to read this book (and the whole series) and grow attached to the characters, the way I've grown attached to so many beloved characters in other books.
I enjoy the occasional bout of philosophical rhetoric, but when I'm reading for pleasure, I don't often want to be bombarded with some self-proclaimed intellectual's existential questions. We've heard it all, seen it all, and thought it all, and so, in my opinion, there's little room for 100,000 word novels devoted to nothing but answering an unanswerable question. No, a good story is one that you can sink into like a hot bath. That's what I sought to craft when I started writing The Illness of the Isle.
What was my experience like writing this book, then? I started the first draft in March of 2020, right at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a time of great transition in my life (and everybody else's, too). In February, just one month before, I had left the company that I had worked at for six years. Not one month after getting settled in at my new role, our entire office was sent to work from home. For whatever reason, it felt like the perfect time to unearth the idea that I'd been kicking around in my head for the past five or six years.
My first significant job was at Signet Jewelers, and I worked in their distribution center, spending all day doing quality control. Bags filled with millions of dollars in jewelry were regularly delivered to my desk, and I spent all day counting and peering through a loupe. Diamonds and sapphires and rubies and opals and pearls. These were, for the most part, nothing more than rocks that held great value. On morning, lunch, and bathroom breaks alike, my mind kept returning to this vision of a world in which small pieces of jewelry were the lifeblood of some distorted society (of course, the intricacies of money were lost on me then; the United States already does use fiat money, which is as intrinsically valueless as jewelry, if not more so).
Not long after starting at Signet, I began my college career. After four and a half long years, I earned my bachelor's degree in business administration, and finance and economics had started to make a bit more sense to me (though one would think that such things would make a lot more sense after a college education). Equipped with some knowledge about the intricacies of commerce and money, I felt better prepared to tell the story of the Gatherers.
More than all that, I had a great desire to craft a story that enveloped people. I had been taken on journey after journey by great minds like Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, Masashi Kishimoto, and many more.
The opening scene of my book is one that I thought about for a long time. Much of it came to life quickly. I wrote the first big arc of the book in a matter of a few weeks. I wrote the rest of the first draft when my family went on a vacation to North Carolina. Because I was in a new position in my professional life, I did not have the vacation time necessary to go on a week-long trip, but my wife and daughters still wanted to visit our family in Sylva. I stayed home, did accounting all day, then wrote all evening and much of each night. One word at a time.
My goal was twenty-five chapters, each around 5,000 words. In the end, that's exactly what I ended up with. After all my major edits and cutting and clipping, some chapters are much shorter while others are much longer, but the book actually grew a little. I went from right around 125,000 words to right around 140,000 words. Stephen King would frown at this (one of the first lessons handed to him, he explained in his book/memoir On Writing, was that a final draft should be the first draft less 10%), but I had to write my way out of some remarkably large plot holes, and Stephen King (again, in On Writing) had told me that those would be there, too.
I learned many things this time around, and I would like to list a few of them here, in no significant order:
Every creative endeavor is a constant battle with yourself, and the two parts of you that compete for victory are your perfectionism and your desire to actually publish something. You can always, always, always find something to improve about your work, no matter how much you polish it. Fear of failure and doubt that your work is good enough for publication can paralyze you, and you may find yourself eternally editing, all the while telling yourself that you're making your work suitable for publication.
What unfortunately happens is that many people never feel satisfied with their work, and it remains in this purgatory of editing. At some point, you have to pull the trigger and release your work to the world. This desire to produce something that is very good is a blessing and a curse; you must scrutinize your work to some degree or else you will undoubtedly produce work that is of poor quality, but you must also make that terrifying leap and proclaim that your work is complete.
Family is the most important thing in your life, and this is perhaps never more evident than when you're trying to do something as mentally taxing as writing and publishing a book. While I was working on this book, my family provided me comfort during many trying times. My daughters showed interest in my work and my wife was supportive of it when I finally opened up and shared what I was doing with her at length.
She knew from the beginning that I was tinkering on another project, and after the way I wrote and then spectacularly abandoned my first book, I would not have blamed her if she had had doubts about my ability to follow through with this new one. I did not blame myself for being a bit more secretive about the project, either. I wanted to be sure I had something viable before I shared any details/hopes/dreams with my wife. When I finally shared the details about my book, my wife was nothing but supportive. When I wanted to invest money into the publication of this second book (something I had done with my first one, the one that was printed only four times and sold zero times), she, without hesitation, said that we would scrounge up the money.
Many people think that writers are lonely souls and that writing a book means locking yourself in a room and shutting out all other people. This is probably true for some writers, but I feel that the greatest among us understand the intricacies of interpersonal relationships. The greatest writers know what is the most meaningful to people, and they've experienced it in detail, firsthand. My family is not only a great support system for my writing, but they show me every day what is most important to capture in my writing: humanity and love. They are the reason I strive to succeed; I want to make them proud, and I want to show my children that one can pursue his or her dreams and achieve them.
There are so many distractions and obstacles, and recognizing and avoiding them is crucial. When I wrote my first draft, I had laser focus, but my second draft and all subsequent edits took even more energy than writing the book in the first place. I constantly found myself on YouTube, watching videos about how to edit, about how to design a book cover, about how to do this and that. If I wasn't getting distracted within my computer, it was all too easy to look over and watch whatever television show my wife was consuming.
The worst thing about these kinds of distractions is that they can masquerade as work. When you're goofing off watching YouTube videos... it's okay as long as they're about writing, right? If you're watching your spouse's television show, it's okay as long as you're paying close attention to the plot, the character composition, the setting, and/or the story, right? When you're on Reddit, on r/writing, and you're wasting time reading about everybody else's opinions about writing, it's okay, right? All of these things are good things to do, but if you've got a novel to finish, finish your novel.
Aside from these sneaky kinds of distractions, there are all kinds of other blatant ones. You might find yourself actively avoiding your work by needlessly undertaking another project. You might put off the hard work in front of you for the easy bout of relaxation. I often sat around and watched King of the Hill (which is a masterclass in characterization, and I dare you to explain to me why it's anything else), but I did so as a consumer, not as a writer. I just watched it, consuming it without actively learning from it.
In short, I wasted far too much time; it was all time that I could've spent finishing up my novel sooner. The lesson is to be wary of distractions, both blatant and hidden.
All things considered, I had a positive experience writing The Illness of the Isle. As taxing as it was, I am exceptionally proud of the book and am looking forward to writing its sequels. I know that the rest of this story is going to be worth all the effort I put into it, and I cannot wait to see what I am able to build with fans of the work.
Thank you so much for reading this and anything else of mine.