"You know what you're good at?" A friend recently pointed out, "You set some wildly ambitious goal, then figure out how you're going to do it. Most people first try to figure out IF they can do it before starting."
Perhaps. This was certainly the case in writing my first book, A Thousand Sisters. The thought I want to write a book came way before I had any knowledge of publishing, or writing prose for that matter. I had to be honest: I knew next to nothing about the craft of writing. And craft is all we've got control over. My secret weapon? As a native Portlander, when in doubt, I ran straight to Powell's. Especially after I sold the book proposal, fear of public humiliation and failure sent me back to Powell's many times.
First, someone advised rather than get overwhelmed with drafting a full book, I should just focus first on writing a book proposal. So I ran out to Powell's to pick up some books on how to write a book proposal. I bought three, so I could cross reference them for what was standard. They were camped on my desk throughout the drafting of the book proposal. How To Write a Book Proposal 3rd Edition by Michael Larsen, Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write by Elizabeth Lyon, Bulletproof Book Proposals by Pam Brodowsky.
But even with great reference materials and a road map, motivation became an issue. I spent 6 months on the book proposal... not making progress... until I ran across an ass-kicking book I now recommend to everyone: The War of Art. A life changer. When my friends complain about creative blocks or feeling scared or lost or not-quite-ready to do what they want with their lives, this is my "take two pills and call me in the morning" recommendation. Bottom line: I read The War of Art. I sat my butt down in a chair. I wrote the book proposal. I sold the book proposal. I wrote the book. I "went pro."
Structure, Structure, Structure. Once I was on a deadline, I invested a lot of time in nailing story's structure before writing a full draft. I couldn't afford to the time to scrap a bunch of polished work because the basic bones of the story didn't work. Though I was writing a memoir, I turned to the only story structure I knew: the screenplay. It's amazing how real life echoes story structure. It became the perfect guide for what to include and what to leave out.
1. Cynthia Whitcomb. Writing Your Screenplay. A local screenwriting guru, she is a pro's pro. She's sold more than 70 scripts — and more than 30 have actually been produced. I took her intro class twice, master class, and pitching class. Her left brain/right brain writing approach was great — as in, learn when to turn off your inner critic, please! The technology of love stories, basic structure, less is more in dialogue... all of it. Fewer words, more emotion.
2. Blake Snyder's Save the Cat. I did multiple workshops with Blake Snyder, including hosting twice here in Portland... it turned out to be one of the best investments I've made. Golden material. Sadly, at 52 years old, Blake died suddenly in August, only a week after I turned in my manuscript to my publisher. Just the 15 beats alone are one of the best writing tools out there. And, of course, the board, which I used.
(I read Robert McKee and took his workshops, too. Classic, but if I may be honest, his "it must be brilliant" approach is the antithesis of how I work. Thinking from the outside in, measure results before writing just froze me up.)
Voice. I got a tip from one from an editor at Runner's World: "Just write it as though it is a letter to one of your best friends." A key guide for me in letting go, being raw and emotionally transparent, not allowing language to get to precious or fancy.
Also, a classic book by William Zinsser, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. He basically said confidence is essential — you just have to let go and let it flow. It helped me get over early criticism on my first few chapters, which had paralyzed me for weeks.
And finally, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose. This book was at my side through the entire drafting process. Brilliant and so practical. I read it, then wrote with several books camped on my desk through every draft. As Ms. Prose suggests, if I were ever stuck with a technical problem, I would check how books I loved handled the problem. Among my essential stack of books on my desk, either for love or as dictated by the market: Scribbling the Cat, Dispatches from the Edge, Into the Wild, Three Years, The House of the Dead, Night, The Year of Magical Thinking, Eat, Pray, Love, and Three Cups of Tea.
Genius can't be taught, or even thought about by a pro writer (The War of Art!). But as a brand-spanking-new writer with a public platform, I did invest time in learning the craft. These how-to tools were invaluable. If the real-world reviews and endorsements of A Thousand Sisters are any measure, it looks like that investment paid off.
What are some of your best recommendations on writing books?