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How to Write a Book

Advice from a New York Times Bestselling

pick your title
This guest post was written by Victoria Twead, the New York Times bestselling author of Chickens, Mules and Two Old Fools and the ever-growing Old Fools series. Victoria also has her own small publishing company, Ant Press, which feeds her passion for helping authors reach bestseller status. Find her at victoriatwead.com and antpress.org

There has never been a better time to write and publish a book, thanks to the Indie revolution. We no longer need to depend on agents and traditional publishers to take on our books. We writers can do everything ourselves, and it isn’t difficult.

However, even if you’ve written and published a sensational book, it’s very easy for it to drown in the ocean of new books that are being published daily. The last time I looked, I saw that Amazon already offered about six million books for sale and 10,000 new ones were being published every month. I believe the figures are much higher now.

Scary.

Established authors will tell you that writing and publishing your book is the easy part. Getting it noticed is much harder. But there are tricks you can employ which will help you.

For instance, dozens of people have asked me whether they should write under a nom de plume. My advice is yes, unless you are some kind of celebrity, in which case your name will sell books.

If your book becomes a bestseller, do you really want your privacy compromised? Do you want to be accosted by well-meaning fans when you go grocery shopping? Do you want your family pestered? Signing autographs may seem glamorous at first, but how quickly will you tire of it?

How to Write a Book – Picking Your Author Name

So, what author name should you choose?

Try to pick both a first name and surname that begin with a letter near the beginning of the alphabet. If your books are ever displayed on bookstore shelves, having a name like Andrew Barnes will ensure yours will be one of the first books customers see as they scan the shelves looking for a good read. Likewise, with a name like Amy Atkins, you’ll be near the top of any list that is ordered alphabetically while few people ever reach poor Xavier Winters. It’s too late for me now, but I’d heed this advice if I were ever to change my name.

Choose a short name because it uses fewer characters, very handy if you create a Twitter account in your author name.

How to Write a Book – Picking Your Book Title

Just as important is picking a strong title for your memoir. Research shows that the shorter the title, the more memorable it is and the better it sells. Titles with three or four words are supposed to be the best.

I called my first book Chickens, Mules and Two Old Fools. Much too long, probably, but it quickly became an Amazon bestseller and has sold many thousands. So I guess you can break the rules. Readers have written to me telling me that it was the quirky title of Chickens that attracted them in the first place, so a long title worked for me although I wouldn’t recommend it.

Memoir writers are lucky because it’s quite acceptable, even expected, to have a subtitle. Subtitles clarify and expand the main title of a book. A good example is the bestseller Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. The main title is short and snappy, and the subtitle describes exactly what the book is about. This book has become so well known that most people now just refer to it as Eat, Pray, Love but the subtitle undoubtedly helped when it was first published.

When people use a search box on a book site, they will type in a few words to describe the book they are seeking. These are keywords. Include some memorable keywords in your subtitle, and your book will pop up.

By the time I was writing my third book, I had learned an enormous amount. I discovered that it’s helpful to squeeze some keywords into our title or subtitle if you can. For example, my third book, Two Old Fools on a Camel ~ from Spain to Bahrain and Back Again, often appears when anyone types in the keyword “Bahrain”. I believe that keywords have been a huge help in getting my books found although I understand that it is not so easy with fiction titles that have no subtitle. With my own new fiction series, I tried to think of a unique series title, and Sixpenny Cross seems to be working for me as memorable keywords. 

Another thing worth mentioning. Before finalizing your author name and book title, Google them and also type them into the Amazon search box. Check that no other authors have the same name. Do any other published books already have that title, or something similar? If so, let it go, and think again.

Be as original as you can, and that will not only get you noticed but remembered.

 

How to Write a Book – Getting Started Writing Your Book

Starting to write a book is pretty daunting, but I’ve learned ways to simplify the whole process.

My first piece of advice works for me every time. Get yourself a big, blank sheet of paper, the bigger the better. Use it in ‘landscape’ position and draw a horizontal line straight across the middle. This is your timeline.

Every book, whether a memoir, fiction, or children’s story book, needs a shape, with a beginning, middle, and end. Decide where your story is going to start. This means you will create a setting, introduce some characters, and maybe deliver some backstory. Start jotting this down on your timeline, not in detail, just odd words that will remind you.

 

 

Next, comes the rising action, the events that lead up to the climax, the point where the action or conflict or problem reaches its highest point. Then the action falls way as the characters begin to solve the situation.

Decide on your ending, the resolution. Perhaps your story continues, but that’s fine because you’ll have enough material for a sequel. If readers liked your first book, they’ll eagerly await your second.

Make notes all along the line, just a few words that’ll remind you of the particular event you want to describe. Try to do it in chronological order, using boxes, dates, arrows, or whatever will help.

Jotting down all these ideas down on a timeline will organize your thoughts. Your sheet of paper may end up looking messy and jumbled, but you will understand it perfectly. Now you have that all-important skeleton of your book.

Your timeline is invaluable. Keep adding to it as ideas occur to you, or as you recall stuff you may want to include. I find mine is never quite finished, and I still add little-scribbled notes to myself throughout the writing process. You may not use everything you’ve jotted down, but your notes are now ordered and organized, and you are ready to begin your opening chapter.

How to Write a Book – The Most Important Chapters

The two most important chapters of your book are the first and last chapters and your first page should be written as carefully as a blurb.

Amazon readers or any online retailer will judge your book by that first ‘Look Inside’ or preview. On the strength of those first few paragraphs, your potential customer will either buy your book or move on to something more compelling.

In a bookstore, readers will thumb through your book, and they will probably read the first page. If they aren’t hooked, they’ll put your book down and pick up another.

This means that your first chapter and opening paragraphs need to be honed to perfection. They need to hook your readers, draw them in, and leave them wanting more.

Your last chapter is equally important. This is the chapter where your readers will decide whether they want to leave a good review or a dreadful one. It is also the point where they talk to other people about the book they’ve just finished. After the last chapter, if they enjoyed it, they will look for more books by the same author.

How to Write a Book – Chapter Lengths

Chapters were invented for a reason: they give the reader a breathing space. Chapters allow readers to put the book down for a while, to think about what they’ve just read, or to go off and finish the washing the car, or whatever.

Chapter lengths can vary from author to author, book to book, and there are no rules. You can include chapters of varying length in your book if you wish. Creating a very short chapter unexpectedly can create drama. I try to keep my chapters to around 2,500 words, give or take a couple of hundred, and that works for me.

There are many tricks of the trade to keep your readers interested. You, as a writer, will have a unique ‘voice’, but that isn’t enough. You must become an expert in pace, manipulating how the reader will read your work.

Here’s a simple, probably obvious tip. If you are writing descriptive passages, use longer sentences. If you are writing a harrowing scene or trying to create tension, use short, sharp sentences.

How to Write a Book – Maintaining your pace

The best piece of writing advice I ever picked up was ‘make every word count’. Apply this to every sentence you write and avoid ‘cottonwool’ words that add nothing. For instance, consider this sentence:

I was looking at him intently.

Now hone it down, and the rewritten version becomes:

I stared at him.

It’s shorter, sharper and, I think you’ll agree, has much more impact. Here’s another example:

Jane ran as quickly as she could to the edge of the green field.

Jane sprinted to the edge of the field.

Be sparing with those adverbs; you rarely need them because our language is so rich. There is invariably a much better word that you can choose instead. Adjectives and adverbs tend to slow the pace and may annoy the reader.

Don’t allow your paragraphs to become impossibly long. Most of your readers will be reading on an e-reading device, like a Kindle, or even a smartphone. An overly long paragraph will fill the screen and is not a pleasant reading experience.

Isn’t it wonderful to get a review that says, “I couldn’t put this book down”? Creating a page-turner is actually easier than you think.

When writing, it is tempting to relate events and round them off at the end of the chapter. For instance, when describing a fishing trip where Grandpa fell into the ocean and was nearly eaten by a great white shark, you will probably finish the chapter by explaining how you fished Grandpa out just in time and went home.

Instead, consider finishing your chapter at the point where Grandpa fell overboard and readers will feel compelled to turn the page to the next chapter to find out what happens next.

You don’t need to use this device every time, but it will add excitement to your book.

Make sure that you recap a little in your following chapter to refresh the memories of readers who may have set the book aside briefly at the end of the last chapter. This does not need to be labored, just serve as a reminder. For example, you could start the new chapter like this.

We stared at the water, mouths open. Grandpa’s head bobbed with the waves.

“Quick! Grab that boat hook!” said somebody.

“Help!” shouted Grandpa, but his voice sounded weaker this time, as he drifted away.

How to Write a Book – Build up tension

To keep the pages turning, reading must be an easy experience. Thumb through any copy of Harry Potter and you will discover that 70% of it is dialogue. This is no accident. Dialogue is easy to read and increases the pace. I wouldn’t suggest such a heavy percentage for every book, but do ensure you include plenty of dialogue. It will inject life into your writing.

Good dialogue is the perfect tool to build characters and develop them. Allow character traits to show through your characters’ spoken words. Think how characters choose their words and how this choice makes them unique, different from any other person in the world.

We have one particular friend who is posh, and when I write about her, I make her use words like ‘spiffing’ and ‘awfully’. Even without adding a tagline, readers know exactly who is speaking.

Taglines, or who says what and how they say it, are my pet hate. Take a look at these appalling examples:

“B-b-but why not?” he stuttered.

It’s very clear that he is stuttering from the dialogue. The tagline he stuttered is totally unnecessary.

“HURRY UP!” she shouted impatiently.

We can see at a glance that the speaker is shouting because the words are written in upper case. The upper case, combined with the exclamation mark, show us that she is impatient. Therefore, there is no need for she shouted impatiently.  Delete it. Two words are all you need.

“HURRY UP!”

Don’t be tempted to write dialogue in a dialect that is difficult to understand. If it is too hard to decipher, the reader will become frustrated.

As you write your dialogue, read it back to yourself, ALOUD. Ask yourself, does this sound natural? If not, rewrite.

How to Write a Book – Punctuating the dialogue

Finally, should one use double or single quotation marks to denote speech? Both are right, so you decide. I like the old-fashioned double, but others don’t.

Some writers find it difficult to punctuate dialogue correctly. Use the following models as examples of correctly punctuated dialogue. (British English)

Note that the punctuation always falls inside speech marks.

“There’s a fly in my soup.”

or

“There’s a fly in my soup,” said Joe. “I believe it’s doing the breast-stroke.”

or

“There’s a fly in my soup,” said Joe, “and it’s floating on its back.”

or

Joe asked, “Is there a fly in my soup?”

In case you need reminding, make sure you start a new paragraph for each new speaker.

When you are writing, keeping your vocabulary rich and varied is essential, and a thesaurus should be your best friend.

Just to illustrate this point, I looked up the simple word ‘walk’, and my online thesaurus offered me the following alternatives:

advance, amble, ambulate, canter, escort, exercise, file, foot, go, go on foot, hike, hit the road, hoof it, knock about, lead, leg it, locomote, lumber, march, meander, pace, pad, parade, patrol, perambulate, plod, prance, promenade, race, roam, rove, run, saunter, scuff, shamble, shuffle, slog, stalk, step, stride, stroll, strut, stump, take a walk, toddle, tour, traipse, tramp, travel on foot, traverse, tread, trek, troop, trudge, wander, wend one’s way

Of course, don’t overdo it, or you’ll appear as though you’ve swallowed a dictionary. Never try to be too clever by using unfamiliar words. If readers don’t understand the words you choose, however correct your choice may be, they’ll be irritated.

How to Write a Book – Repetition

Even the best, most experienced writers may be unaware that they have favourite phrases that they often repeat. For instance, I can’t help noticing how often Lee Child uses the phrase “in a beat”. Happily, there is a quick cure.

Simply copy your chapters and paste them into an online phrase frequency counter like this one.

http://www.writewords.org.uk/phrase_count.asp

It will tell you instantly if you tend to repeat phrases. If you are guilty of the crime, you can then go back and edit the overused phrases.

I do this with all my books and am always horrified at the result. In the first draft of Chickens, Mules and Two Old Fools, I had written ‘half an hour’ twenty-three times…

When your first draft is complete proofreading is essential. Proofreading means searching for errors in grammar, spelling, spacing, punctuation, word choice, tense and organisation.

How to Write a Book – Proofreading

Of course you must proofread your own work, but that isn’t enough. As the author, you will be blind to some mistakes because you will read what you expect to read, not what is actually written.

A helpful trick is to temporarily change your font style and size to give it a different look while you proofread.

It also helps enormously to print out your work, as you’ll see it with slightly different eyes. Borrow the professional proofreader trick of using a ruler and checking line by line. The ruler forces you to focus on that line and doesn’t allow your eye to stray.

Use your online proofreader and spellchecker, but bear in mind they won’t find every typo. They won’t pick out errors like writing ‘loose’ instead of ‘lose’. Or missing the ‘t’ out of ‘the’. Only human eyes can spot that.

Friends and family can really help out at this stage. Get as many different people to proofread your manuscript (MS) as possible. This will help eliminate any errors that have slipped through.

I always pay to have my own books independently proofread. I am often horrified by the number of typos that are found by the professional when I thought I’d checked every word meticulously.

How to Write a Book – Editing

Editing is not the same as proofreading. Editing is the ironing out of errors in the plot, character development, pace, structure, storyline, and tone.

When you have finished your final chapter, set the MS aside. Leave it for several days, longer if possible. Then read it again with fresh eyes. You’ll be astonished at how many errors you’ll pick out, and how much you’ll change. Once this is done, the most useful exercise you can do is to have a friend or family member read your work aloud to you. If there is nobody available, even reading it aloud to yourself is better than nothing. Listening to your story read to you will help you pick out character inconsistencies or weaknesses in the plot.

Also, does the reader stumble at all? If so, rewrite that section so it flows better.

Once you have done all you can do yourself, pass your MS to a professional editor.  Friends and family will tell you that you are a wonderful writer, which does wonders for one’s ego but is simply not good enough.

If you can’t afford an editor, I highly recommend joining a writers’ circle, whether online or in your locality. Strangers, more brutally honest than your friends and family, will critique your work and give you valuable feedback. In exchange, you will read chapters of their work and voice your opinion on their writing efforts.

YouWriteOn.com is an excellent online writing community whose members come from all over the world. It’s sponsored by the British Arts Council and highly respected. It’s free to join and incredibly useful. Fellow members will award you stars for different aspects of your writing, like characterisation, plot, pace, structure, and your use of language.

If you score high and reach the top five, you will win a free professional critique from a big publishing house or literary agent, who may even sign you up, if a traditional publisher is what you seek.

Victoria Twead is the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of Chickens, Mules and Two Old Fools.

Living in a remote mountain village in Spain, and owning probably the most dangerous cockerel in Europe, inspired Victoria to write a memoir describing life amongst their colorful neighbors. Chickens immediately shot to bestseller status and the Old Fools series was born. The writing bug had bitten and Victoria began penning the Sixpenny Cross fiction series, a children’s comedy play script, and non-fiction works.

Victoria and Joe retired to Australia to drool over grandchildren and run Ant Press, where they indulge their passion for writing and publishing. Another joyous life-chapter has begun.

Contact Victoria at victoriatwead.com or antpress.org.

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