Monday, November 3, 2008

How I Write Books

From time to time, I have emails from readers wondering what kind of techniques I use to write my books, and I thought I'd post my answer to one young author, Katie S., in case you would find it helpful. (Thanks Katie, for allowing me to post it!)

1. How long does it take you to write the general rough draft for a book. What comes after that?

Anywhere from a month to a year to ten years. It depends on how strongly I feel about the story and how much time I have. :) When I am working on a book continuously for several hours a day, about a month. After that, the REAL work of writing begins. I start reading the story, and as soon as I come to something that's confusing, boring, or doesn't fit, I start rewriting it. When I do this, I save the story as a new file with a date attached (ie: The Midnight Dancers 10-9-08) so if I change something and decide I don't like it, I can just revert to an earlier saved version and start over. I read and rewrite, read and rewrite, read and rewrite at least ten times.

When I can read the book without desiring to rewrite anything, I give it to someone else to read, usually my husband. If he likes the book, (and I trust his judgment so much: he is so skilled as a reader and editor and he is also hard to please) then I know it's pretty darn good. I had to search for a long time to find someone as good as him to be a reader/editor. If you are lucky, maybe someone in your family can do that for you. If not, you might just have to keep searching for a friend who is willing to do that and can give you advice that actually will make you a better writer. Writer's groups can help. But good editing is a rare skill that is difficult and time-consuming: I always say that when I finally met a really really good editor, I married him!

2. How do you organize a book before you write it? Do you simply let it take you where it pleases (this is what I tend to do) or do you make and outline for it almost as you would for a paper.

I have done it both ways, but in my experience it is much easier if you use an outline. Because otherwise, when your writing runs out of steam, you don't know where to go, and tend to just put the story aside. But if you have an outline, you can say to yourself, "Okay, I have to write the part where she convinces her friend to believe her." You might not want to write it, or when you write it, it might not be very good, but at least you wrote it. Real writing is in the rewriting, like I said above. An outline is a very useful tool. Plus you can revise your outline as you write, and that's easier than revising what you've already written.

3. What about your ideas for your books? Does this come from hours of planning and thinking things out or does it "just come to you"?

Both. Mysteries take a lot of planning on my part, because I'm not naturally gifted in that area. I am blessed to have a small circle of creative friends I can call on: when I get stuck or need to solve a problem or create a clue, I usually go and talk it out with them. They've come up with lots of ideas for me. So yes, hours of planning. But planning with a group of friends is really really fun for me (it's part of what started the John Paul 2 High books - see I'm not like JK Rowling, who needs to go off by herself and think and plan.

4. Also, could you explain a little on how you base your books on fairy tales. Once again, how do you sort it all out?

I start with a fairy tale I love, and think hard and for a long time about what the story actually means, what it's about on the deepest level. When I know what it's about on the deepest level, then I take that deep level and translate it into modern life. For instance, I think that on the deepest level, "Snow White and Rose Red" is about complementarity: about two very different siblings joining their gifts to help one another and others. You notice it's not just Rose and Blanche who help one another, but Bear and Fish as well. I had to make sure that translated. I also take key elements that we associate with the fairy tale -- for instance, the dark woods of "Snow White and Rose Red," the colors of black, red, and white in "Snow White," and ensure they appear in the story in some form, somehow.

I don't really try to be clever in finding new ways to tell the story: I'm more concerned that the story feel like the original fairy tale. For instance, at one point, a large amout of Black As Night took place in an office. I just could not make that office feel like anything that was in the original tale, so I got rid of the office building, and used Elaine's twisting house full of stained glass and mirrors instead as the setting for the climax (it slightly echoes the witch/queen's palace in the original tale). It's a lot of trial and error, and a lot of writing! But the end product makes it fun.

Thanks for writing, and please pray for me!
Peace and good


Kat said...

Wow. That was really interesting. :) Sounds like alot of hard work/fun! Thanks for posting it!!!

Anonymous said...

I've started writing a book, and need all the advice I can get, so thanks for posting that. It helped me a lot!

RealMom4Life said...

Any suggestions on how to search for someone/someplace to publish a book? My daughter is nearly done with one of her books and is interesting in publishing it. She's written the first book of a Catholic Trilogy so she was thinking a Catholic publisher would appropriate. Should she just start sending pieces of her work in as requested on their websites or should she have a more definite plan of attack. Any suggestions you have would be most helpful. Thank you.

regina doman said...

For a Catholic novel, I'd recommend submitting to publishers according to their guidelines.
She should be forewarned that publishing is a slow, torturous, slow, frustrating, slow, exasperating, slow business. (Did I mention it was slow?) The key thing (besides paying careful attention to guidelines) is patience and persistence. She needs to just keep coming back to it, rejection after rejection, if need be, improving her craft all the time. If she gets detailed negative feedback from any publisher, she should consider herself lucky: most publishers will just send a form letter of rejection.

And if she wants to submit to Sophia Institute Press where I work, she should read the submission guidelines for fiction found at

I hope this helps! God bless her work!