This year, my focus has changed. I’m not curious about how to write a book, but how to market one. As I attempt to figure that out, allow me to share the lessons I HAVE learned in finishing the first draft of Bless the Skies:
1. Write first. Share later.
I’ve listened to writer friends expound in detail on every twist of an epic plotline, every square foot of the world and its cultures, every scandalous secret in characters’ backstories, every thematic influence.
It’s interesting—and it’s fun—but too many people get stuck in this overexcited, unproductive haze.
When we seek to write, our motivations usually boil down to:
- wanting to tell a story
- wanting to share it
When you encapsulate the entirety of your story in a rambling, one-sided conversation, you completely sap your motivation to actually write the story. Your brain releases chemicals that reward you for telling the story, for sharing it, for likely receiving positive feedback and encouragement.
Except, your notes are not your story.
Don’t tell your friends your story—let them read it.
(Besides, they’ll be more useful as beta readers if they go in without knowing every aspect of your intentions!)
Before I finished my first solid draft of Bless the Skies, I discussed the scope of the story once, with one friend, as part of a pact meant to encourage us that our stories were worth telling. I discussed the forward motion of the plot, filled in the immediately important components of backstory, and let her read the first half of the book—because it was already drafted. I was already invested.
After I’d finished the draft, and after my betas finished reading it, I discussed the story endlessly as part of the revision process. Revision feeds on slightly different energies than writing, and their feedback was a true reward for having completed an actual product!
2. Steal time.
No one can have you every time they ask.
(Children, maybe, seeing as they can’t exactly turn elsewhere for their needs… I, personally, have never liked the idea of anything relying on me for sustaining its life. It’s why I felt relief when my first fish died and when my laundry room cats ran away. But this is an obnoxious tangent.)
The world will fill up your time if you let it. The world will develop new television series, schedule new concerts, open new restaurants, introduce new friends, charge you for new bills.
Lin-Manuel Miranda told students at Bronx Theater High School that he first conceived Aaron Burr’s song “Wait for It” (one of my favorites!) on the subway to a friend’s birthday party. Miranda told the students:
“I go into my friend’s party. I go, ‘Hey, what’s up man—happy birthday! …I gotta go!’” He wrote the rest of the song on the subway ride back home. “You have to do that sometimes. You have to say no to your friends to say yes to your work. Because what are you going to do? Lose that idea?”
Sometimes, your book will ask for you—and most times, you should give yourself to your book.
But give yourself to your book even when it isn’t asking for you. Give yourself to your book every day that you possibly can. Don’t “make time” for your book. That implies scheduling it around other things, always prioritizing other obligations. It implies you can somehow stretch the finite number of seconds in a day.
If you’re a writer—write. Steal time for writing.
(I’m trying to relearn this, while drafting Beware the Sun. As much as I’ve been enjoying The West Wing, it’ll have to wait for me.)
3. Go for a walk. Or a drive. Or a swim.
We have our best thoughts in the shower, because there’s nothing to look at, usually. Our bodies are occupied with mindless, routine tasks, and our brains aren’t occupied with any stimulant besides the white-noise of the water.
Your brain will provide entertainment if you cut off other sources.
You’ll have your best, most exciting, most surprising ideas when your brain just travels there. By accident. Boredom is better than any inspiration board.
I’m lucky enough to drive a long way back and forth to work over a 20-mile bridge with no turns, no lights, and little but the sky to observe. Before I landed a job as a reporter, I worked as a somewhat redundant secretary. Before that, as a full-time, temporary worker without much work to do. Before that, various receptionist/customer service-type jobs with long stretches of inactivity.
My mind languished.
So it thrived.
Now, when I’m in the heat of writing, I’ve learned to go for a walk around the block or the office building every hour, when possible—to isolate my mind and allow it to expand and be creative.
4. Make quick decisions—give yourself problems to fix.
Your first draft is not your book.
Your first draft is not a commitment.
Your first draft is a problem you can fix later.
Trust me—it’s incomparably easier to approach 60,000 words strung into mostly complete sentences and ask, “Now, how do I turn this into a book…?” than to ask that question of a blank screen or a database of notes.
If you’re starting with a blank screen, write a sentence. Any sentence! Make it up! That’s the point! Go stream-of-consciousness on that empty page!
Because what you write doesn’t have to be the beginning of your book. It doesn’t even have to survive the first round of cuts and tweaks.
Does a line of dialogue feel clunky? Write it now, fix it later. Are you unsure why your character has a sudden urge to lick the wall? Write it now, question it later.
You can’t improve a sentence you never wrote.
Miller Williams’s translation of Nicanor Parra’s poem “Cartas del poeta que duerme en una silla” says: “You have to improve the blank page.”
(This line doesn’t appear in the original Spanish at all, but poetic translation usually involves more poetic license than direct conversion. Either way, Parra never said it. But Williams is the translator, not the writer. So, I’m a little dizzy considering how to properly attribute the quote.)
But the words, “You have to improve the blank page”—which someone wrote—they pop up everywhere.
It’s not possible. The blank page is an aphrodisiac of unlimited potential energy that will always surpass any single human creation.
So, don’t try to improve on the blank page. Try to blot it out.
5. Finish the scene.
So, you start researching Greco-Roman fashion sensibilities, the history of textile manufacturing, the plant life that typically flourishes in an arid climate, and lose yourself for hours to Wikipedia spirals, Google Image searches, and feverish note-taking.
Or: make something up and finish the scene. Choose the first reasonably possible item of clothing the Internet suggests and finish the scene. Leave it blank for now and finish the scene.
Make quick decisions—and finish the scene.
You’re tired. Finish the scene.
You’re hungry. Finish the scene.
It’s terrible writing. Finish the scene.
You are so excited about this turtle-bomb you’ve invented and you cannot wait to share it with your best friend who has a concerning relationship with turtles. (We talked about not talking about this!)
Finish the scene—even if you’ll only edit it out later.
6. Finish the draft.
“How do you keep going? How do I […] write?”
The answer, almost invariably:
“You do it.”
You aren’t a writer until you’ve written. You aren’t an author until you’ve authored—and here, finished first drafts most certainly do count.
The chief step to finishing the first draft of your fantasy novel—of anything—is to finish. If you’re able to seek my advice, you’re able to string words together.
So start stringing. And don’t stop. Don’t let the ideas die. Don’t silence the characters. Don’t trap them in your mind.
Finish the draft. Because then, you can show someone. You can talk about it without leeching off your own energy and drive. You can fix all the problems you noted along the way. You can ask whether it’s good, whether it works, whether you’ve done alright.
Finish the scene.
Then finish the draft.