Monday, June 4, 2012

How Not To Write a Book

So, there's this book I've been writing over the course of the past two years. I wouldn't call it the Great American novel. More like the moderately decent Southeastern regional dime novel. I've wanted to write a book for the better part of my adult life, but I kept convincing myself such an unwieldy task was beyond my capabilities, like it was brain surgery.

One of the three things that challenged that outlook was this blog. After all, if I could find time to tap out these silly little posts, I certainly could find time to write a page or two here and there. The second thing was when I viewed the task as a puzzle. Ever since I was a kid I've enjoyed working on those large interlocking puzzles. Piecing together a novel shouldn't be all that different. Each page is just another piece that drops in to help create a larger picture. The third and final shift in my thinking on the matter came when I learned about online self-publishing. I had no more excuses. It was time to write a book.

It's a murder mystery of sorts, with characters shaped from bits of people I've known or heard of during my life. No one character is modeled directly after any one real person. [This is where I should write some cleverly structured sentence to use fancy words like "melange" and "gallimaufry," but I don't feel up to the mental challenge at the moment.] Suffice to say to those of you who know me, if you read the book and think a character is based entirely on you, you're wrong.

Some of the settings might seem familiar. For instance, the main character is a newspaper reporter. The office in which he works is very similar in layout to the one in which I worked many years ago. My coworkers from those days should have no trouble envisioning it if they read the book. Believe it or not, I worried about this for quite some time. Why was I doing it? Nostalgia? Laziness? Was I subconsciously trying to make a point about my first post-college job? No. As it turns out -- and this was a revelation -- I did it because I wanted to. Creating an environment similar to the one in which I worked back then, with its back-to-back cubicles and limited privacy, worked well for the kind of book I was trying to write. End of story.

In fact, much of the writing of the first draft involved time wasted worrying about what people might or might not recognize from real life, as though it were my authorly responsibility to utilize nothing from the real world and completely fabricate every aspect of the fictional environment. Looking back from where I am now, I'm amazed I didn't require some sort of anti-anxiety medication when writing the first draft.

I certainly needed it when I began work on the second draft. It was painfully clear upon reading what I had written I had no idea what I was doing in the first five-to-ten chapters. Utter crap. All of it. I made several half-hearted attempts to salvage it, but it was futile. After a couple months of delays, the rewrite began in earnest as just that, a complete rewrite. Every word, sentence, paragraph, page and chapter would need to be rewritten from scratch. Eventually, I thought, the quality of the material would level off and I could begin lifting large chunks and dropping them in. Not so. I'm almost exactly two-thirds of the way through the rewrite and have finally come to terms with the realization that not a single bit of the original warrants "ctrl-c/ctrl-v" inclusion in the second draft.

With every stage of the book, my initial assumptions about the process and schedule have been wrong. For instance, I thought:

  1. I could start off writing the scenes that seemed most clear in my mind, then come back later to string them together with connective scenes. Wrong.
  2. I didn't need an outline to keep the story clear in my head. Very wrong.
  3. Once I outlined the story, the structure wouldn't change. Even wronger.
  4. It would take 12 months to complete the first draft. Fairly wrong.
  5. It would take 3-4 months to complete the second draft. Unbelievably wrong.
When you take into consideration the number of books and articles I've read over the years on how to go about writing a book -- and given the fact my college major was Writing -- it truly is astounding how thick-headed I've been from the onset of this adventure and through every twist and turn along the way. But you know what? I wouldn't want it any other way. You can learn a lot from books and teachers, journals and professors, but the best way to truly understand anything is to jump in with both feet and figure it out for yourself.

Unless you plan to be a brain surgeon. You might want to stay in school for that one.

© 2012 Mark Feggeler


  1. Mark--This post is proof that you can get a part-time gig as a speaker. You can travel around and charge writing groups a fee to talk to them about your experience with getting "Damage" written and published. Obviously, it would be infused with some of the same dark humor that your post has, and I KNOW that other writers would be interested in and benefit from your advice.

    (I was waiting for "wronger-er." Very funny.)

  2. Thanks, Sioux!

    I don't think I could ever willingly subject others to the droning sound of my voice. I already feel guilty whenever I have to lead a webinar at work. Those poor, bored souls...