There’s an old writing joke that makes the rounds (I think I first heard it from an article about Margaret Atwood) about a writer and a brain surgeon chit-chatting over drinks at a cocktail party. The brain surgeon pipes up: “When I retire, I'm going to write a book.” And the writer, in a very wry and dry Peggy Atwood kind of tone, says: “How fascinating. When I retire, I'm going to take up brain surgery.”
I mean, it’s not ROFL funny; it’s a joke about writers after all.
The brain surgeon’s operating assumption (haha) being that of course anyone can write a book.
If only, my medical and non-medical friends…IF ONLY.
But then, who can write a book? Is it as easy as the Internet makes it sound?
One Internet guru promises you this:
So then the next dude has to promise this:
Hang in there, writers — we’re just weeks away from a book requiring no steps at all!
I don’t believe that writing a book is either Amazingly Simple or Ridiculously Simple. But I do believe that it’s possible.
Four Ways to Tell if You Can Really Write a Book
1. You have an idea.
Maybe it’s an idea for a character that appeared out of nowhere and has been following you around for a while now. Or perhaps most of the plot came to you in a flash (it happens!) and now you’ll need to write it down to see how it ends. You may even have several ideas and want to build a collection of stories, poems or essays. But everything starts with that initial flash of inspiration.
I keep an idea box. Just a pretty box into which I stuff sticky notes and index cards on which I’ve scrawled my latest ideas. Because you never know when an idea will sneak up on you and demand to become a book. (Some ideas are uppity like that!)
2. You like books.
If you don’t read books, I really don’t recommend you write them. There are easier ways to gain attention and/or earn an income, I promise you.
You’ll need to like books enough to use them as your guides and teachers. From one book you’ll learn how to write a romance sub-plot, and from another you’ll learn about scenes and pacing, from yet another how to structure the contemporary ghazal.
Or you might start each writing session with a bit of reading to inspire you — just one poem, or an entire story or chapter.
Books are in conversation with one another through time. Your book will have echoes that reach back and forward, and will reach out in contemporary time to connect with your Ideal Reader(s) as well.
For most writers, books are just a teensy bit magical and we write them because we love to read them. In fact, for some writers [raises hand], a book may have saved us at one time, soothed our broken hearts or sustained our bruised spirits…we write books to celebrate and honour all the books that came before.
If you like books, and you let them be your teachers, then you can figure out what it takes to get your particular book to work as well.
3. You have (or can make) some time.
I’m not at all a believer in the whole “real writers write every day” mantra. (Eff that ish. Whoever made that up has someone else doing their laundry.) But to finish your book, you’ll have to spend some time writing each week.
How much time you’ll need to finish your book really depends on you, your writing pace, and the book you have planned.
In my First Book Finish course, one of the first things my students do is to complete a Road Map to help them see where they’re going. Let’s think of a simple example: a book of 60,000 words would be approximately 240 pages long. If you can write 4 pages in an hour (a reasonable pace for drafting) then you’ll need 60 hours to complete your first draft.
And completing that first draft is a huge milestone, without which nothing else is possible.
In this example at an hour per week your book would take you about a year to write. If you can find more time, either in each week or in occasional spurts, then it will take less time. (I’m a big fan of weekend writing retreats to get you those occasional spurts and boost your page count.)
Often students come to me with a boxful of poems, or with a few stories or essays written. A book of poems is 45-50 individual poems. A short story or essay collection is in the range of 10-12 individual pieces. If you take a clear look at where you’re starting from, you’ll have clarity on where to go from there.
Writing a book can take less time than we think — but what it takes is consistent time, week after week, so you have to consider if that is something you have to give and are willing to give.
4. You really want it.
Writing a book is a process with several phases and you’ll have to commit to seeing it through to the end. And trust me, there’ll be times when you want to use your initial pages for fire-starters.
There’s a danger zone some writers fall into. They decide to write a book and get off to a great start…then at some point something about it starts to feel hard. Maybe there’s a technical question they can’t figure out, or maybe it’s just garden variety creative fear talking.
Either way, they stop — just for a while, just to “take a break” while doing other things. (Sometimes they tell themselves tiny white lies about this: “Cooking is also creative.” “Sewing Is just as rewarding for me as writing.”)
A wee little break to catch up with your soul because life has been a bit nutso (Hello COVID!) is one thing, but the danger zone is when you stop and never go back to your work-in-progress at all.
So many writers have a third, or half or three-quarters of a book just sitting in a drawer or box in the closet somewhere, abandoned. And that breaks my heart. It breaks my heart as a fellow creative, but also as a reader: I might have loved that book.
There’s a point early on in the life of a book when you have to commit to finishing it. And you’re going to think you’re committing so you can see the book come to fruition and be published so your Ideal Reader can find it on the shelf in a bookstore. That’s important — it’s certainly why I write books.
But also? You commit in order to become the writer who finishes.
Finishing one book makes it so much more possible to finish the next one, and the next. Because now youknow what it takes, the good times and the bad. It’s a rite of passage, finishing your book. And the first step is to commit.
I don’t know if the brain surgeon will ever write her book. (The last one I met made robots in her spare time…because she didn’t have a Netflix subscription, I guess.) But if you’ve read all the way down here, then guess what? You, my friend, really do want to write a book. And I hope you do.
So here’s my Amazing and Ridiculously Simple test for you:
- Do you have an idea?
- Do you like books?
- Do you have some time, or can you arrange your life to make some?
- Do you really want it and will you commit?
If you can say yes to all four of these questions, then the answer is a resounding YES: you can definitely write a book.
To help you on your way, if you haven’t yet grabbed a copy of my free guide Six Steps to Becoming a Consistent Writer, you can get it right here.