Saturday, September 20, 2008

Oye, how do you write your books?

It's a question that I'm often asked: How do you write a book? Where do I get started?
There's no magic formula, no easy short-cut. You just gotta sit down and do it. Below is an entry I wrote two years ago explaining how I wrote Boston Boys Club. The same process applied to Miami Manhunt and Beantown Cubans, which I just finished writing.
Every writer has a different way of structuring their novels and writing time so mine may differ from other authors you've read. For me, writing is like running. The more you do it, the faster you grow, the farther you go. I prefer to take the long route, a literary cross-country race, writing in bits and pieces. At least one author that I know can write a book in a few days. I think I would pull out all my curly hair and eyebrows if I did that. Anyway, here's how I do it.

The novel in you
I've always enjoyed writing. It was like breathing for me, something I needed to do but it was also something that seemed part of who I was. From high school and throughout college, I always scribbled down poems, penned short stories, wrote letters to my godmother or journal entries about something I saw, imagined, or experienced. Writing was an outlet from my every day assignments. I dreamed of being a writer one day and I realized early enough that I could do this for a living as a journalist and still do the creative writing on the side.I just never thought I could write a book. That always seemed out of reach, something for the big name writers, the elite scribes. Writing a novel seemed intimidating, like tackling a mountain. How do I get started? How do I write it? How do I do this? How long would it take? Am I good enough?

So I stuck to writing what I felt comfortable with - a short story. One wintery New England Friday night, I wrote about something I knew, something that provided much inspiration here in Boston as well as Miami. Looking for an outlet from my city articles at The Globe, I sat down and began writing about a fictional night out with three different guys. I took on the voice of one of the guys. The words just came to me, flowing onto the screen. I wrote it for me, as a creative exercise, not thinking this could be something more.

When I was done, I filed the 3,000 word story away. But as the weekend passed and I began my work week again, the story kept calling me. I felt I could continue, telling the story from the point of view of one of the other guys. Later that week, I plopped myself in front of the computer again and I channeled that other character, how he would see the night. The words sprung onto the screen and the scenes came to life. Inspired, I followed up with another story from the point of a view of the third character. After three stories, it hit me: these stories are chapters. This could be a book. Could I really do this?

I began outlining the characters. I told myself that if I could keep a steady pace, of a chapter a week of about 2,000 words, I could get somewhere. But instead of focusing on a deadline, I wrote from my heart. It was a fun experience, an exercise in channeling different characters and imagining how they would speak and react in various situations.

It wasn't always easy. Sometimes, I couldn't maintain my self-inflicted chapter-a-week deadline because I felt creatively drained from producing my news articles. Other times, I hit a block. I found myself staring at the screen, the ceiling, the carpeting, my nails, anything that I hoped would inspire me. I wanted to throw my laptop out the window into the snow and give up. Whenever that happened, I walked away from the computer and let it be. I went hiking or cycling and waited for the universe to send me something that would inspire me to write again. I couldn't force it. It had to come naturally. Before I knew it in a matter of months, I had a rough draft finished. I surprised myself. Did I really do this?

I think we all have a story to tell and there's a novel in everyone. It just takes dedication, self-discipline, and focus.

You can't learn to run a marathon overnight but you train mile by mile or in this case, story by story. It also takes finding a unique story to tell, something different from what you see out there on the shelves but that people might relate to universally. If you write about what you know and from your heart with a little patience, you'll have something written before you know it. You just have to let the writing guide you.


  1. I've heard this question asked to hundreds of authors over the years; perhaps because I'm in the middle of reading David Sedaris, the perfect response has finally come to me: in boxers or briefs, or if while writing in South Florida, possibly commando...

    I don't think I myself am snarky enough to be able to carry off that kind of response in public, though...

  2. Thanks Circuitmouse! For the record, I write in Fruit of the Loom briefs.