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13 Practical Things You Need To Know Before You Start Writing a Book

Last week I wrote an article on 11 things I wish I knew before I started writing a book. This week I’m adding 13 more. There are simply too many things I wish I knew and want you to know to make writing easier. This time I’m focusing on more practical elements like grammar, writing programs, research, and editing. Practical might not be as appealing as plotting, characters and world building, but it's useful information for the new writer. Lists like this helped me when I first started writing, they gave good advice and helped me feel less like an idiot wandering around alone in the dark, so I hope my contribution helps other aspiring authors.

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1. Give Yourself the Proper Tools of the Trade Early in the Process

Save yourself some time and get the right tools to enable your writing. I started my book on Microsoft word, and it was fine until it wasn't. Worse still, I established a pattern. Routine is a big part of getting into the writing groove, and changing programs mid-book can throw you for a loop. So start off right.

The first few chapters will likely go great in a program like Word, but by the time you get to chapter 15 or 20, it will be a trial. Seldom is writing a linear process. You will need to skip back to chapter 1 and then to chapters 3 and 4. Maneuvering around a massive Word document is confusing. It involves a lot of scrolling back and forth, even when you know exactly what you are looking for, which most of the time you won't.

An author recommended Scrivener to me. I did some research and sussed out that it's a program used by many writers. It's massively flawed, but it has folders for chapters, and that's what I wanted most of all. Everything else was a bonus. It's also not very expensive, and most of all, you can purchase it with a one-off payment rather than a subscription plan.

"Authors must spend months, and years making fantasy believable in a single work while reality runs rampant and complete chaos elsewhere." Quote by Don Roff on pink background with pink text

2. Establish A Versioning System ASAP

There is going to be more than one version of your manuscript. Dozens, maybe hundreds. So, a good versioning system is a must-have, there is nothing more annoying than working away on a section of your book only to discover it's last week's version, and it doesn't have all those wonderful—dare I say inspired—changes you made on Monday. You also might change your mind about that chapter you deleted in a fit of fury. When you want it back, you'll need to be able to find it.

"Writers aren't people exactly. Or, if they're any good, they're a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person." — Quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald. illustration. lilac. pink. purple

3. A Professional Editor Makes You Writing Shine

You will have to edit your book and then edit again and again until you beg for mercy. It sucks. Working with a professional editor (in my experience) does not. I don't think editors get enough credit for their amazing work. Every chapter is better. I can't express this enough; editors are as close as writers get to magic. It's also fantastic to have someone to bounce ideas off of. Someone who doesn't look at me with glazed eyes and vacant expression when I fret over the use of one word vs. another. Editors get it. Or at least mine does.

"I suspect that most authors don't really want criticism, not even constructive criticism. They want straight-out, unabashed, unashamed, fulsome, informed, naked praise, arriving by the shipload every fifteen minutes or so."—Neil Gaiman. Illustration. Picture

4. Find and Replace Doesn’t Work Properly

This might seem like a nitpick, but when I started writing, it was with a cavalier trust in Microsoft Word's find and replace. Only after finishing my first draft and launching into editing did I discover that Find and Replace DOES NOT WORK PROPERLY. And the Scrivener find and replace is no better.

You change a character's name from Jane to Susan, only to find that Jane keeps cropping up all over the pages. The only workaround I've found is to type the beginning of the word and manually go through the document. So, search Jane, then Jan, and then Ja. It's annoying, but finding stray Janes littering your pages is more annoying.


5. Writing Takes Longer Than You Think

Wring is not easy; it takes forever and a day. It takes longer than you think, and there is nothing wrong with that, so don't get disheartened by your lack of progress.

This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard, and you put one word after another until it's done. It's that easy, and that hard." —Quote from Neil Gaiman. Illustration. black. white. yellow

6. Editing Takes Even Longer Than Writing

This might comfort the writer who dreads finishing their book because they fear putting it out into the world. Finishing your book is an achievement, but you have much more work ahead of you. Editing takes twice as long as writing.

"The only kind of writing is rewriting." ― Quote by Ernest Hemingway. Image. Illustration. Picture. Pink. Yellow

7. It’s Really Hard to Keep Track of Changes and Edits

There are index cards, excel spreadsheets, and all sorts of tips to help you deal with this problem. None of them really helped, or they help with the broader elements of the story but not the tiny details. The tiny details are what get you. Ever read a professionally published book where the main character's hair color changes in the middle of the book? Yeah, I have. This is a problem across the board. It's not just you. One of my main characters had at least three different eye colors. Characters spontaneously changed names—these aren't even particularly small details, but I still got caught in the web.

I told my protagonist something, forgot I told her, and then told her again three chapters later. And that's not even broaching the scenes that you'll write, delete out, and then forget that you deleted it.

It's easy enough to say, wait to make changes until you start editing, but sometimes these small changes have a ripple effect, and you want to avoid getting caught in it later. The best approach is to just embrace the chaos. It's going to happen. Even the best writers have inconsistencies. Sometimes a change made in chapter two will affect a line in chapter ten. It's part of it.

I suggest keeping one master document or place where you track changes and information. Early on, I made the mistake of using Scrivener templates and jotting down notes on my iPad. The often contrary duplication was more confusing than making no notes at all. Every writer is different, but I don't find the Scrivener templates very useful. They are more geared towards the plotting phase than the writing phase. The excess of files is annoying, as I can't see what's happening at a glance. Instead, I use an excel document with key plot points, information, character names, and basic description. I keep it open whenever I'm working on my book. It's working relatively well. I'm still on the hunt for a corkboard where I can pin character descriptions on my wall.


8. It's All About POV

Understanding point of view is vital to any story. It's the backbone of your writing; everything will be easier if you understand it. POV determines how the story is written, what the reader knows, and what they don't know. What the characters know and what they need to discover. With a good grasp on point of view, your characters will flow smoothly.

"Places are never just places in a piece of writing. If they are, the author has failed. Setting is not inert. It is activated by point of view." ― Quote by Carmen Maria Machado.

Brush up on POVS:

9. Formatting And Grammar Will Get You Far

New writers waste a lot of their time trying to make scenes make sense through writing instead of through formatting. You don't have to say that the speaker's words trailed off; you can use ellipses... An em dash— indicates an interruption. Using a new paragraph lets the reader know there is a new idea, a new speaker, or a change. A lot of the little nuances of writing come down to formatting and grammar.

"People who think that grammar is just a collection of rules and restrictions are wrong. If you get to like it, grammar reveals the hidden meaning of history, hides disorder and abandonment, links things and brings opposites together. Grammar is a wonderful way of organising the world how you'd like it to be." — Quote by Delphine de Vigan. illustration

Read my review of Grammarly, and Hemingway Editor

10. There Is a Whole World of People on the Internet Trying to Help You Finish Your Book

I must have been about 5000 words in when I got stuck in a quagmire of writing and took to the internet in search of a helping hand. I wasn't even aware that this whole world of help was out there. A universe of authors, editors, and even publishers with a wealth of information, ready and willing. I wasted so much time trying to write a book on my own. Worse I refused the hand. At first, things were going well, so why bother? Many thousands of words later, I got stuck, I got really stuck. I needed help. I can't actually remember what my pinch point was. Likely I deleted it from my brain as to horrifying to remember. Remember that there is a whole world of information, and you don't have to write all on your own.

"To say that a writer's hold on reality is tenuous is an understatement – it's like saying the Titanic had a rough crossing. Writers build their own realities, move into them and occasionally send letters home. The only difference between a writer and a crazy person is that a writer gets paid for it." Quote by David Gerrold. Illustration.

11. Research Can Be Overwhelming

The internet is a useful place filled with great advice and ideas for managing the various challenges of writing. All that information pulled me out of the black writing hole I had created for myself and my book.

Then it turned around and pushed me into a deeper, darker pit. I researched myself into a state of confusion and horror. The long lists of don't and do's, the rules and the laws of writing had me in a self-imposed straight jacket. A rule written by one author would be contradicted by another. Everyone disagreed with each other. I couldn't make the characters do anything because everything was against The Rules.

Finally, I turned to the best sources, actual books. Whenever an author commanded, 'thou shalt slay all adverbs,' I opened a book by an author I liked to sense check the hatred against adverbs. If it's good enough for my favorite authors, it's good enough for me. Do lots of research on writing, POVs, adverbs, crutch words, writers vocab, head hopping—everything. It's helpful information to know and will help you in the long run. Just don't get overwhelmed, or at least try not to. Easier said than done, I know.

"Three rules of work: Out of clutter find simplicity; From discord fine harmony; In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity" Quote by Albert Einstein. Illustration

12. Sometimes A writing Day Just Plain Sucks and That's Okay

I'm experiencing this right now. Every word I type feels stilted and strange. I couldn't tell you why. It's not writing block, I know what I want to say, but the words won't come out properly. Sigh.

"Writing is supposed to be difficult, agonizing, a dreadful exercise, a terrible occupation." — Quote from Ray Bradbury. illustration

13. Save Everything You Write. You Never Know if You Are Going to Need It

When you write, your rewrite. You discard thousands of words, whole chapters, character descriptions, and backstories, hard-won victories. A sentence that took twenty minutes to get right can vanish in a click. It's depressing. It's even more depressing when you realize you want that scene you deleted last week back, and you can't find it. I don't know why this didn't occur to me when I started writing, but it didn't. It was a suggestion from my editor that opened my eyes to what an idiot I had been. Keep everything. Everything!

Hyperaware that a lack of words is not my problem, I was ruthless with the delete key. There are so many scenes I remember writing, but when I search for them, I can't find them. I deleted them, and I want them back!

Now I follow my editor's advice and keep everything I write. I keep it even if I don't use it. It's like my own personal encyclopedia of my book's world, characters, and backstories. You can use the writing as a reference, include it in the narrative later, or let it wither unseen. It's up to you.

“Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible.” Even those pages you remove somehow remain. There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don't see them." Quote from Elie Wiesel. illustration


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