The Skills You Need to Write a Book
Why do you write? It's the essential first question that every writer must ask themselves. While the act of writing makes a writer, a book is a whole other creature.
What does it take to write a book? An inherent passion and urge to write forms the beginning path of many writers, as does a love for reading and storytelling as a whole. That thirst and need to write leads you to learn more about the skills you require to write a book. Here's a primer on what you should know to get started on your writer's journey.
Character Development and Other Elements of Writing a Book
In fiction, character development is one of the essential elements you need when you write a book.
Most modern novels are character-driven these days. That means the story follows the growth and choices of the main character or characters. If your character narrates their story from an unreliable point-of-view, what's the reason?
What makes a character likable or not? You can still like a villain in a "love to hate them" way, especially if you can understand how their motives got twisted over time and they have good qualities like wit — think Crowley in "Supernatural."
Consider your favorite characters and how they grow as the story develops. What challenges do they face internally and externally? Think about the "characters" in your own life, the people you know. How do people grow and change? How have you grown or remained stagnant in your life?
Did you know that place can also be a character? In speculative fiction and magical realism, many authors use mood and tone to make place feel alive, which adds to the atmosphere of the novel. This strategy can help create tension and suspension of time as the plot unfolds. Each element of writing interconnects, but people relate to people first and foremost, no matter the genre.
Point of View
As an element of writing, point of view refers to who tells the story.
Think of the equivalent German word gesichtspunkt, translated as "face point," or the direction your face is pointed. What your characters do and say and where they go all inform the story.
The narrative in the "I" point of view is also known as the first person. You can't "head jump" in the first person unless the character is dead, and that's challenging in the first person since the character becomes more god-like than human.
What about the second or third person? The second person refers to using the "you" point-of-view, and the third person refers to the "he," "she" and "they" perspectives. In the third person, you also can keep the point-of-view (PoV) limited to one character or omniscient, covering all characters. When you have a third person multiple PoV, you provide your readers with varying points of view, to enrich your plotline and familiarize readers with what’s happening in your characters’ heads and hearts.
Showing vs. Telling
As a writer, you bring the reader into the scene with an active voice, using language that shows the reader instead of telling them what's happening.
Active language avoids the passive "to be" forms of verbs. You eliminate excess words to get to the meat of the story. Aim to explore each scene through the representation of three senses, such as sight, smell and sound, to make a scene feel full experientially.
An implicit contract exists between readers and writers: Readers reasonably expect that if you raise the stakes, you follow through and deliver on those stakes. The character must triumph or fail, and the reader must be surprised in a way that makes sense given the unfolding plot. You must follow the general rules of your genre, and if you write science fiction, the science must prove sound.
Do you know the difference between your voice as a writer and those of your characters? Voice refers to the style of the author that makes the writing unique, conveying attitude, character and personality, but when you write a book, your characters have their own voices.
The choice of content, words and punctuation use make up a writer's voice. It's what you shine a light on and the way you do it. Perhaps you tend to make place a character, while your characters each take a turn with their perspectives. That's an example of balancing the author's voice with character voice. You can find out more about your characters by developing profiles about their physical lives but also interviewing them like real people.
A writer's voice may take time to develop. The key is to keep writing, looking for what's unique in your style and honing what works for you. Look to other authors for examples, but never plagiarize.
The Importance of Authority and Research
Bob Woodward released "FEAR: Trump in the White House" in 2018 on the anniversary of 9/11.
Woodward is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, associated editor of The Washington Post and known for breaking the Watergate Scandal. He's a highly regarded political journalist, and his authority on these topics makes him the perfect person to write about them. Readers trust that Woodward has done his research, another element of the reader-writer contract.
Woodward's research approach is famous, and for this latest book, he spent 19 months researching in real-time the current presidential style of decision-making and life in the White House. Woodward aims to "uncover the best possible version of the truth," which goes back to the question: Why do you write? Woodward is both influential and impartial, and his works allow readers to understand the current issues of the time in a relatable and real way — especially how modern leaders shape the country.
A good writer never stops reading. Include more than your Twitter and Facebook feeds in your reading. How often do you read your local newspaper? Do you read outside of your genre? Read for enjoyment, but also read to develop your craft, which can come from other genres too.
Write about what you read, and take notes. What worked for you? What didn't work? How can you apply techniques you read about to your own book?
Grammar and Editing
You don't need to be a professional editor, but strive to learn more about the mechanics of grammar on a daily basis. Also, did you know that no matter how good at writing and grammar you are, you will always need a professional editor to help you with your book?
When you know the rules, you can break them effectively. Most publishers of novels work with the Chicago Manual of Style, but your book may require knowledge of APA if it's related to psychology and has sources you need to cite. For a few basics in grammar, check out these resources:
- Grammar Girl: This tool is an online resource that provides quick and dirty tips for when you get confused about whether to use "beckon call" or "beck and call" or where and when to place a comma. Writer's Digest consistently lists Grammar Girl as an essential resource for writers.
- The Elements of Style: Written by William Strunk, Jr. in 1918, this book is still recommended for all types of writers to know the classic rules of writing so that they can then learn to properly break those rules.
You need to make friends with routine no matter how fabulously eccentric you think you are.
Without routine, you'll take a lifetime to write a book. Your routine belongs uniquely to you, and it may shift over the course of days, months or years, just as you do in preference.
What do you like to have around you while writing? Is it a quiet corner in your home by a window or a bustling coffee shop with a quippy barista? Do you prefer to write before sunrise or after sunset? Get to know your quirks and preferences in your routine, and keep what works. Start developing a healthier writing routine by setting small goals for yourself, such as journaling for 10 minutes a day.
On Getting It Down: Plotting vs. Pantsing
There's a spectrum of writing approaches to conquering the novel that you commonly hear about during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November.
For NaNoWriMo, you write 50,000 words in 30 days. It's a great way to get by your inner editor and perfectionist and get the work down on paper. It's said that writers come in two camps: You're either a plotter or a pantser.
A plotter has an eye for organization and forming an outline of the book and, in the extreme, they may spend more time researching than writing. A pantser writes by the seat of their pants and prefers to let the book unfold. A pantser risks letting whim guide their writing and may end up with a disjointed mess without a plot.
All writers fall somewhere on the spectrum of plotting and pantsing. A healthy relationship with both is necessary to successfully write a book, and to do so, you must first get it all down on paper, which means getting out of your own way.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Learn how to set yourself effective personal goals and find the motivation you need to achieve them. This is the essence of personal development, a set of skills designed to help you reach your full potential, at work, in study and in your personal life.
The second edition of or bestselling eBook is ideal for anyone who wants to improve their skills and learning potential, and it is full of easy-to-follow, practical information.
About the Author
Kayla Matthews is a productivity writer and self-improvement blogger. You can find her work on The Huffington Post, MakeUseOf, Tiny Buddha and The Muse.