How to Write the Book you’ve Always Wanted to Write
If you want to write a book, there are six things you need to find. You don’t have to look far. They’re inside you!
- Find a critically acclaimed book that you admire. Read it once, making a list of events in each chapter. Then make another list, this time arranging the events in chronological order. Then compare the two lists. This will show you how the writer broke the story up, kept things back, and arranged events to create excitement and surprises. By accident, you’ll learn how to plot. Next, look at how the author handled descriptions of character and place. Then examine dialogue (look at the use or avoidance of adverbs). Same thing for passages of exposition and action and thought. Throughout, keep coming back to the story and how the author broke it up, seeing how description and dialogue and other components only ever moved the story forward. Now, find another, contrasting book that you admire. Do the same things all over again. Then find a third book, again contrasting. Three books, three styles, three journeys into writing. Don’t rush this work. Don’t force anything. Do it for fun and then rest. Come back when you’re ready. Deep in your unconscious, you are nurturing what will become your own approach. You’ll end up with a solid grasp of the basics of writing and you won’t know where it came from. You’ll be itching to do it yourself—in your own way. You’re already over halfway there. All you need now is a story.
- Find your story idea. All writers start with empty hands. So you have to find something that makes your imagination shiver with excitement. It could be a theme, a character, a scene, a conversation—it doesn’t matter. First off, find this one small seed. It will grow into something you can barely handle. Imagination is rarely enough. Scour newspapers, family memories, or take an issue of public interest. For the Discourtesy of Death, I began with a woman, removed all that was good in her life, and then asked if her life was worth living. Note that this last sentence contains a character and a theme, and that the character will illustrate the theme. And so …
- Find two characters with opposing goals. This is a New York policeman who’s scared of the water against a shark. Sherlock against Moriarty. (Clinton v. Trump or is it Trump v. Clinton?) Look for extremes, remembering that sophistication will come later. Torque up the differences. Something must be at stake. Make it truly serious. An image that might help: place a stone in water and it sinks; place sodium in water and it blows up. This is what you want. So find two characters who represent the extremes of your story idea and bring them together to create an unholy mess. The collision will generate events. It will produce a host of other characters. They’ll tell you what happened and you’ll hear them shouting at each other. At some point, you’ll find yourself listening rather than inventing, and at that moment, a book is conceived (not born).
- Find the plot hidden in the story. If you’ve followed 1 and 2 above, this otherwise difficult step happens instinctively. You will already be breaking up the story into pieces and placing them in an intriguing order. In fact, the story might come in pieces, already partially plotted. Think Act I, II, and III. Think complications, surprises, and, ultimately, resolution. Once you’ve got a loose idea of the story, a sense of its direction, and characters throwing bricks at each other, you’re ready to consider writing. I say consider because some people need to plan more; some need less structure. This is a very personal thing and unfortunately, it can only be learned from experience, as you find out how you best write a story.
- Find a space to write. I don’t mean so much a slot during the day or week as much as a block of time when you will do nothing else, when there will be no distractions. Some writers go abroad and write in a highly structured way (two hours on, two hours off, or some other pattern), returning home after a month with a first draft in the bag. Then, after a break, they start the slower process of restructuring, rewriting, and choosing every work with care. Unable to vanish like that, I often rent a room for a few days. I put myself under pressure because I’ve paid for the place. My wife has to do things I would otherwise have done. When I return, I’ve got something that’s on the move. It’s ceased to be simply an idea.
- Find some real determination. Most people want to write a book. A lot of people start. Some finish. And when they finish, if the manuscript is rejected, they give up. Sometimes, the only difference between those who are published and those who are not (or, given the growth of self-publishing, those who find or don’t find a readership) is sheer determination. I don’t mean pigheadedness, though that might help. I mean, they really want to write, and they really want to learn. So banish any discouragement and quietly continue putting one word in front of the other.
William Brodrick was a Franciscan friar before leaving the order to become a lawyer. He won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award in 2009, and is the author of four novels featuring Father Anselm, in addition to The Discourtesy of Death.