Writing Your First Book

Debra Shively Welch nails this story

I have had so many people say to me, “I don’t know where to start! How do you do it?’  How do you manage to write a book?”   It may not be as difficult as you fear.  The “doing” simply is in the knowing how.

Let’s start with the basics.  Just as you prepared for doing your homework as a child and young adult, you must prepare for writing your manuscript.  This isn’t something you can just jump into without preparation.

First of all, most publishers want your work written in Microsoft Word.  Documents must be single spaced, in Times New Roman, 12 point, with no spaces between paragraphs; each paragraph with a five space indent, except for the first paragraph of every new chapter and the first chapter of a new scene. Those should be flush with the left margin.

No hard tabs! You do have to use the tab button for your first paragraph of the chapter. Write your second chapter without using the tab; you simply hit <enter> and it will automatically indent five spaces. Now remove the indent from your first paragraph and finish your chapter.

If you start a new scene within your paragraph, simply begin the scene after hitting enter, write your first and second paragraph in that scene, then go back to your first paragraph in the new scene, remove the tab by hitting the backspace key, and enter twice to separate the new scene from the former.

Hard returns

Hard returns are as bad as hard tabs. Only use your <enter> key at the end of a paragraph. You’re not using a typewriter; the words will wrap on their own.

Get an editor on board!

Find a writing/editing partner to work with, whose strengths do not mirror your own. For instance, let’s say that you are very good with dialog, and they are weak – but they are very good with punctuation, grammar and verb tense agreement.  You can help each other a lot.  In the end, however, a professional editor can be invaluable.  The publishing world is not what it used to be.  An editor will most probably not be provided, and many works are rejected on bad-editing alone.

Invest in a good writing guide such as Harbrace College Handbook or Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.  They will be invaluable to you as you edit your work.

Start out with a good outline

Eternal beauties have “good bones.”  Your book has to have “good bones” to be a good book.  That is, good organization, a good outline…a good “skeleton.”  Create an outline for your book to keep you on track.  It doesn’t mean that the outline can’t change. Sure, you can take detours, but if you write out a “road map” for your work, you won’t get lost before you reach your destination:  the end of your book.

Join a writing group

Many writing groups are set up so that, in order to be critiqued, you must reciprocate.  So if you are active with other writers, you will get feedback on your work.  This is all done with respect and a desire to help each member become a better writer.  This is also an excellent place to find your writing/editing partner.

Learn to take criticism

It’s nice to hear someone say, “Oh, I just love your work!” But does this help you?  Maybe a little, but honest, constructive criticism is your best tool for improving your writing skills.  However, sometimes, the people around you, friends and relatives, for instance, are the worst ones to listen to.  They will either tell you that you are brilliant, when you are not, or not talented – when you are!  Some may even tell you to give up.  Only you can decide if you want to go on, and if the need within you to write is great, go for it.

Write, write and then write

Write every day.  If you are blocked on your current project, write a practice exercise.  Keep the juices flowing and your creativity active.  Writing is not like riding a bike….if you get lazy and don’t practice, you will lose a lot of your skills.  The more you practice, the better you will get, but if you don’t use it, you will lose it.

Practice – indulge yourself in writing exercises.

For instance, pick up a piece of fruit.  Smell it, feel it, taste it.  Now write about it. Make your reader smell, feel and taste that piece of fruit.

Step outside.  What do you see, hear?  Describe it so that a reader will feel like they are there.


Summer Harvest

Ripe, red and round, I bite deeply. Juice runs down my chin and within the core of this plump, luscious orb, I taste sunshine. Mawmaw is waiting for the green beans I am to pick for lunch, but she knows that my duties in the garden will take a little longer than expected. I am a forager, a nibbler, a taster of bounty. I bite again and my mouth is filled with glorious, sweet, warm fruit. “Youngin’ you eat more ‘an you pick!” she cries, smiling and shaking her head.

I choose a few extras and place them in my basket. They are warm and bursting, fat and juicy. Mawmaw will slice them and put them on a platter, and we will feast upon large, meaty Beefsteak, sweet golden streaked German Stripe, beautiful, delicious, creamy Golden Yellow: slices so large, they fill a plate.

We sit and join hands. Pawpaw says the blessing, gives me a wink, and passes a plate filled with golden fried circles. I question with raised eyebrows and dig in. Fried green tomatoes, prepared as a surprise. I crunch into warm juice-filled ambrosia. They fill my mouth with the taste of green, of red, of fresh air. They are a little bitter at first bite, but sweetness comes through, as tongue and palate work in harmony to wrest from each morsel every nuance of taste: corn meal, salt, pepper, un-ripened tomato, bacon fat. I close my eyes and eat more slowly – savoring.

And, you’re off!

Now you are prepared to begin your first book.  Word is loaded on to your computer, you have your writing manuals, you have a writing/editing partner, and your keyboard is dusted off and ready to go.  Now what do you do?

Well, we will talk about:

Writing about what you know
Getting your reader’s attention
Setting the Scene
Fleshing out your characters
Dialog – It can make or break your book

Write about what you know

If you write about what you know, places you’ve been, and draw on your own experiences, you will bring to your writing a unique quality and a reality that will truly speak to your audience.  Sci-fi and fantasy novels are fun to write and read, but even they must be based on some reality unique to the author.  Draw on your history, and your book will ring true to your readers.

Most of my books are set in my home town. I write about the places I know about. I use familiar dwellings and stores to tell my story:

Example – Excerpt from “Spirit Woman”:

The mid-July summer evening was warm and fragrant. Unusual for Ohio’s schizophrenic weather, the temperatures continued in the mid-70s, and the nightlife of Uptown Westerville was flourishing in spite of its being a Monday night.

Nickie passed Jimmy V’s, the Greek restaurant one block south of Cedar Woman’s, and noticed that the patio was filled to overflowing. She slowed her walk and surreptitiously took note of the scene.

A water wall of stone on the south side of the patio murmured gently. Servers wove in and out of the tables, sometimes circling one another in a practiced rhythm akin to a synchronized ballet.

Some of the guests were laughing and joking: a couple raised their glasses in a toast, yet another leaned into each other over a small table, deep in conversation. A middle-aged man and woman, hands entwined, gazed into each other’s eyes, clearly falling in love and nestled within their own world.

A family of four occupied a larger table near the west side of the water wall. A two year old, chubby finger pointing, exclaimed, “Wawer wah, Mama, wawer wah!” The parents looked at each other and smiled.

A couple in a secluded two top, however, appeared to be ending their relationship. The young man’s face was earnest and regretful, the young woman’s cheeks and nose red, her face turned away from him.

Every aspect of life is displayed here, Nickie thought. Well, almost. I don’t see anyone grieving for the loss of a loved one. It hit her then: of course grief was represented. The young woman, informed that her relationship with her partner was over, was grieving the loss of her love.

The knowledge almost doubled Nickie over. The loss of her love!

Get their attention

Any work, whether it is an article, an essay, a novel or a poem, must start with a first paragraph that is a “grabber.”  If you don’t get your reader’s attention immediately, you will more than likely lose them.  Be creative, think about your story, and give them all you’ve got with your opening.

Example – Excerpt from “Jesus Gandhi Oma Mae Adams”:

Mortified and with shoes in hand, Oma Mae paddled flatfooted to her office door, her burning feet, swelling and smacking heavily on the tiled hallway floor. “WOMEN DO NOT HAVE HOT FLASHES!  THEY HAVE POWER SURGES,” flashed across her brain, the words throbbing in her head like a strobe light on the set of Saturday Night Fever.  “What in the hell would Gail Sheehy know about hot flashes!  I’ll lay odds she was popping estrogen pills like they were M&M’s when she wrote that one,” Oma Mae blustered hotly, her breath so hot she quickly sipped it back in to keep it from scorching the tender insides of her feverish lips.

Set the Scene

Where does a particular scene happen?  Your reader must “see” what you “see,” “hear” what you “hear.”  Each scene should be carefully crafted so that your reader can follow the story with ease.

Example – Excerpt from “Circle of Time”:

Bridget Littleton raised her face to the darkening sky. Stars sparkled and shone, accentuating the soft feel of the salt-scented air. Leaning against the rail of her father’s luxurious yacht, she gave herself up to the gentle listing of the ship, enjoying the sound of the slap of the waves against the yacht’s steel hull. To her left, a seagull flew – just at eye level, so close that she could hear it pull the wind beneath its snowy wings. Intermittently, the maritime bird would glide and soundlessly ride the air currents, like a silent phantom above the blue-green waves of the sea. Flap, glide, dip and climb, her airborne companion followed the yacht for a short time, then soared off in the quest of an aquatic snack.

Flesh out your characters, but don’t go overboard

When you introduce your characters, flesh them out.  Describe them:  color of hair, eyes, height, attitude, perhaps a brief history.  Make them real – a living and breathing character, but don’t go on forever.  I once read a book where it took 20 pages to introduce a character.  By the time I got back to the plot, I’d lost interest. But your readers have to care about your characters, whether it is to love or hate them.  Ambivalence doesn’t work in successful writing.

Example – Excerpt from “Jesus Gandhi Oma Mae Adams”:

Sylvie Musser stood a mere five feet tall, her height diminished by a pronounced dowager’s hump, forcing her head and shoulders forward in a classic osteoporosis slump.  Hazel green eyes, sunk deeply in their sockets, peered beneath gray brows and above high cheekbones, her facial structure reminiscent of her Native American great grandmother.  Her hair, straight and iron gray, was worn in a simple bun nestling atop her curved spine.

The old woman was thin to the point of gauntness, her frail frame clothed in a simple summer dress of the kind Oma Mae had not seen since the early sixties, consisting of a simple sleeveless shift under a bibbed apron, tied at the waist and pinned at the shoulders.  She wore terry cloth carpet slippers, their outline stretched and molded by the arthritic toes encased inside them.

Dialog – It can make or break your book

Your dialog should make the reader feel that they are there, in the moment, eavesdropping, as it were.  Stilted dialog can make a book drag to the point where your reader will eventual put the book down, and possibly never pick it up again.

Listen to the following dialog…first without description and then with.

Example – Excerpt from “Jesus Gandhi Oma Mae Adams”:

“You know, evolution is impossible.”  Ray said.
“Impossible?” Oma Mae said.
“Yes.  Well, more accurately I guess, is that it is a miracle. I suppose nothing is impossible; it’s just that we haven’t come to fully understand evolution yet,” he said.  “It goes against natural law.”
“Yeah, it would be like reversing the flow of the tides of the ocean, if I’m understanding what you are saying,” Oma Mae said.  “Or the breeze kicking up now and swirling across the water,” she said.

Now, note the difference:

“You know, evolution is impossible.”  Ray scanned the horizon of the vast ocean with a slow contemplative sweep of his head and rested his gaze fully on Oma Mae.
“Impossible?” Oma Mae slanted a disbelieving look at his statement.
“Yes.  Well, more accurately I guess, is that it is a miracle.  I suppose nothing is impossible; it’s just that we haven’t come to fully understand evolution yet.”  He turned sideways toward Oma Mae and rested his elbow on the railing.  “It goes against natural law.”
“Yeah, it would be like reversing the flow of the tides of the ocean, if I’m understanding what you are saying,” Oma Mae contributed.  “Or the breeze kicking up now and swirling across the water.”  She raised her hands to her hair and smoothed the tendrils dancing in the wind across her face.


Ever watch a good movie where the transitions are so great, you can’t help but notice them?  Take for instance, Avalon.  Released in 1990 and directed by Barry Levinson, it is a story of three generations of Russian immigrants who try to make a better life for themselves in America.  The first scene ends with 4th of July fireworks.  There are the bright lights, the booming, and then the smoke…fade to black, with smoke drifting across the scene, fade in to the grandfather, blowing smoke from a cigar, and telling his grandchildren of when he came to America in 1914 on the 4th of July.  Now there is a transition.  Your viewers know that a scene has changed, but there is a connection.

The same holds true with a novel.  Each paragraph should lead into the next.  More importantly, each chapter should end with a transition which leads to the following one.  This keeps your reader interested, and keeps them turning the page: picking your book up again and again, until the finish.

Example – Excerpt from “Jesus Gandhi Oma Mae Adams”:

Chapter ends with:

I feel prepared to take this giant step away from the comfort and security of my mother’s loving arms, Patrick’s brotherly protection and Joy’s sisterly companionship.  Even Mother Mary Clare, as with the others, must be left to pursue, ‘her own soul development and growth.’  These wise and wonderful and loving people have honed me, and if I am to do anything of good or service at all, it will be to them the credit will be owed.  Therefore, it is those four most precious loved-ones to whom I devote my life, even as I say goodbye.

Next chapter:

The lonesome faraway echoes of a braying burro were the only sounds Oma Mae Adams heard as she disembarked the bus transporting her to the Terminal in the city of Cuenca, located in the southern highlands of the Andes Mountains in the south-central region of Ecuador.

Edit, edit and then edit

Clean up your work!  You wouldn’t send your child to a party with mud on his face and his clothes torn, would you?  So why would you send your book, your “child,” out into the world filled with errors in punctuation, grammar or spelling?  Take the time to edit and then edit again.  This is not the time to be lazy.

Check your spelling. Not just the words underlined in red in Word, but look for common mistakes like, typing it’s instead of its when its is not a contraction, here instead of hear or their instead of they’re.

Watch out for common grammatical mistakes such as: “Mike and me went to the store.” Take one noun out and see of “me” stands alone. Would you say, “Me went to the store?” No, of course not. The correct grammar is, “Mike and I went to the store.”

Make sure you use the correct word! This is one of the most common writing mistakes that I come across. Example: “He made a grand jester.” Jester? Huh? No, the term is gesture. If you’re not sure, look it up. You’ll be amazed at how you improve your writing, just by using the internet to help you with something as simple as word choice and spelling.

Don’t echo. Every time you repeat a word, your reader’s brain gets a little “jolt.” Example: “I decided to go to work, even though it was a work day. I really don’t like my work, but I decided that if I don’t go to work, I could fall far behind.” Not good! Change it up. Your program has a thesaurus built in. Simply right click on any given word and see if there is an alternative, or try to rephrase your sentence:

“I don’t enjoy my job, but I decided to go into the office today, even though it’s a Saturday, because if I don’t, I’ll fall far behind.”

I can’t stress enough the importance of a good editor. When shopping, interview them. Make them “audition” by sending five pages to see what they do with your manuscript. A good editor should not try to change your story or your voice, but edit it instead with possible good suggestions on rewording and paragraph arrangement, but they should never try to change your voice or your story line. It’s okay to suggest, but not to change. Also, did they actually do the job?

Many people I have worked for have sent me manuscripts for which they’ve paid as much as $1,500 to have edited. When I asked them, “Did they send you a galley with red marks to show you the corrections and comments in the margins with suggestions?” The answer is often, “Well, no.” Don’t fall for it! If they can’t show you the work they have done, the conclusion can only be that they haven’t done any work; they’ve simply taken your money and returned your manuscript in its original form. Many self-publishing houses do this. I know of one that has even changed its name because of its bad reputation in this area. Don’t be fooled by a sharp web site and glossy covers. If you don’t get an edited galley, your book was not edited!

Even if you believe they have, before you send your book out, double check! Look at your original manuscript and compare it to the final, edited version. Each edited version (I edit twice) should be renamed. I name mine as follows: yourmanuscript DSW edit and yourmanuscript DSW edit 2. Ask that your editor rename your document so that your original is not accidentally overwritten.

So, now you have written your book.  You’ve made an outline to help you stay on track, you’ve written a killer first paragraph to get your reader’s undivided attention, your scenes and characters are vivid and believable, and your dialog is visual and interesting.

You’ve edited and edited to make sure that your punctuation, spelling, word choice and grammar are absolutely correct, you’ve used a writing/editing partner to read your story and help you with every aspect of your work, you’ve hired a good editor who has done their job, and now you are ready to submit your “baby” to a publisher or agent.

A word about publishing

I can’t finish this without talking about publishers. First of all, today you do not get an advance. That is a thing of the past. (Not passed, because it’s related to time.) You won’t get 40 free copies and you won’t get any promotion from them. The market is flooded with books today, and publishers are taking advantage of that fact. You may want to consider the self-publishing route.

Remember me talking about hard tabs and the enter key? The best way to launch your book is in the eBook format. This will allow you to test the waters for your book and hopefully earn you enough royalties to publish a paperback. Hitting the tab and enter keys will mess up the formatting of your manuscript, and the end result will be a mess! So remember, you are using a computer and not a typewriter.

Download Calibre – it’s free and it’s fantastic. It easily turns your Word document into an ePub file which uploads beautifully into Amazon and all of the other online book stores. Don’t try using a pdf document. It will turn out a mess.

Finally, remember, there are so many authors out there, and the competition is daunting. Give your story a hand up with good editing, a good story line, vivid characters, engaging dialog, descriptive writing and believable scenes. Good luck!

Questions? Just ask. I’ll be happy to answer any and all of your inquiries.

Debra Shiveley Welch

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