How to Write a Book

Most of us feel like we have a novel or a memoir inside of us, and now is as good a time as any to find out.

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I've been a magazine writer for most of my adult life (I predate email at Southern Living), but it wasn't until 2018 that my first novel, Missing Isaac, was published. I started writing it in 2009. You can do the math on that journey, which was long, with all kinds of twists and turns, ups and downs. I learned a thing or two, which I'm happy to share if you're thinking about taking the plunge.

Start with what you know and what you love.

I will never set a novel in 18th century France because my knowledge of French culture is limited, and I'm not especially interested in 18th century history. If you aspire to fiction writing, you will be spending a LOT of time wherever you set your story. You need to be completely fascinated with that place and time, or you'll get bored before you finish and you'll struggle with authenticity. For me, the South is the most interesting place on earth, so that's where I set my stories. I find the past more fascinating than the present, so I tend toward periods from World War II through the 1960s. And I think some of the most interesting stories I've ever heard were told to me by my parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles—our family's oral history. I've brought those stories into my books more than once.

Let time and place lead character and plot.

Once you know when and where your story takes place, you know a lot about the characters—real or fictional—and what they might do. When and where we live shapes everything from what we wear and what we eat to what we value.

Realize that everybody's exotic to somebody.

Whether you're writing fiction or memoir, know that what's familiar and everyday to you can be intriguing to readers from someplace else. If you're from the South, you can just open your mouth and attract a crowd anyplace outside our region. It's the same with storytelling. You bring your own experience and culture to a book, and the more aware you are of what makes it unique, the more effectively you can put it to work.

Be aware that a big part of writing is listening.

The best writers are great listeners. They hear not just what people say but how they say it. For example, my Alabama mama doesn't say, "I'm exhausted." Mama says, "I am just give out." Hear the difference?

Know that writing a book and marketing it are two different things.

My own feeling is that you should sit down to write with only one thing in mind: Telling a great story. Everything else—who will publish it, who will read it—those are things you can't control, at least not in the beginning. But you CAN control the quality of your story. That's where you should focus. Write, rewrite, repeat. When you feel like you can't improve on it any more, show your manuscript to a few friends whom you trust to be objective and honest. Be open to what they say but not controlled by it. This is your story. Also, ignore any website that guarantees you a bestseller—for a price—and those that have spelling and grammatical errors on their home pages.

Fear not.

At conferences and other events, I've talked with readers who said they really wanted to write a book but were afraid it wouldn't be any good. Here's the thing: It won't be. Not on the first draft anyway. But you can write as many drafts as you want to. And here's the other thing: Nobody gets to see it until you say so. You will never be more in control of anything in your life than a story you haven't let anyone else see. So there's nothing to be afraid of. Just enjoy the freedom and the ownership you have during the creative process.

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