HOW TO WRITE A BOOK
by Sharon Ervin
There is no one right way to write a book.
The idea for a book burned inside, but I didn’t know how to write a book, so I attended a three-day novel-writing short course. In sessions throughout, successful writers told how they wrote their books.
“Begin with a 20- to 30-page outline,” said one prolific woman.
I could do that.
“Follow a formula,” provided another. “It’s as easy as following a recipe.”
I cook. I could do that.
“I write by the seat of my pants,” said another.
Tony Hillerman elaborated. He said he wrote books like a man driving in a heavy fog, with fog lights. He could see only a short way down the road, and had to proceed very slowly, never knowing what was coming up next.
Mystery author Jean Hager was specific. “I start off with a corpse and my detective, of course, and four or five suspects.” Gradually her detective narrows the suspects to one, who is the killer. With that, Hager’s expression grew puzzled. “I’m the writer and I know who the killer is.” She shook her head as her puzzlement continued. “But sometimes I’m wrong.”
I learned the hard way that neither outlines nor formulas worked for me. Characters sometimes simply will not follow an outline. They go tromping off on their own, like children, following the beat of some other drummer.
Since so many successful writers disagree about how to write a book, I came up with my own method.
I write to a premise.
Each of my books has begun with a goal. A point. A premise.
The first manuscript I wrote––one which has not sold, yet––was about how decisions we make in our teens can affect the rest of our lives. The premise was a single word: “Choices.” I wrote that word on a piece of paper and taped it on the wall above my typewriter. It was long ago, and I composed on a typewriter back in those days. Any time I lost direction or forward thrust, I would look at that word and it set me right again. That word became the title of the book. CHOICES.
The second manuscript––also not sold, yet––was about American children growing up either pampered and overindulged, or expected to learn life’s lessons from their peers “on the streets.” I believe children need what I call “supervised adversity.” That was the premise on the sheet of paper taped above my typewriter as that manuscript rolled out. I call it UNTIL THE MEEK INHERIT. It’s a great manuscript. Since I’m the only living person who has read it all the way through, I should know. Once a well-known, well-published writer friend asked to read it to identify the flaws. He gave me a four-page, single-spaced critique that began and ended with the same sentence. “I cannot tell you why this manuscript has not sold. It is great.” He died. My manuscript was not responsible.
Unlike a lot of writers, I still think those first two unsold manuscripts are terrific. They need to be polished, of course, updated with what I know now, and they need an editor’s objective eye, but they are good.
When people ask me how to write a book, I tell them there is no one way. A person must write with the talent and tenacity God provides.
Eric Liddell, a Scot, was on his way to China as a missionary when he took time to compete in the 1924 Olympics. When his sister chastised him for the delay, Eric assured her he was not deterred. He said God had made him “for a purpose” and had directed him to China. But God, he said, had also made him fast; that when he ran he felt God’s pleasure.
What I consider a secondary purpose for me is probably why I was persisting, toiling away on manuscript #12 when #8 sold. My eighth manuscript was my first published novel. I write because it’s what I do. I recently completed Manuscript #21. Nine have been published.
Do I know how to write a book? Maybe so, maybe not. I do it anyway because, to paraphrase Eric Liddell, when I write, I feel God’s pleasure.
￼About SHARON ERVIN – Sooner born, Sharon Thetford Ervin has a degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma. Once a newspaper reporter, she now works in her husband and son’s law office half-days, gleaning experiences and characters for more novels. She is married to McAlester, Oklahoma attorney Bill Ervin and has four grown children
Website address: sharonervin.com
Blog address: sharonervin.wordpress.com
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