Thursday, August 19, 2010

How Do You Write A Book?

I was asked this question the other day and for a moment, I didn’t know how to answer. Sure I know how to write a book, I’ve completed five of them so far, but when you actually have to explain the process, it can be daunting. While at the beauty salon on Saturday, I was editing my current manuscript. The girl doing my hair was young and thought I was a teacher (I get that a lot when I'm marking my manuscript with a red pen—once I was asked if I was an actor going over a script-lol).

I told her it was a novel. It’s funny, people who have no clue about writing automatically say, so when is it being published? They have no idea how many steps it goes through before it hits the shelves. Anyway, this girl asked about writing. Her exact question was:

“How do you write a book? I mean, how do you fill up 200 pages telling a story, because when I tell a story it takes about five minutes so how can that fill up a whole book?”

Well, I sat for a moment, because I’d actually never thought about it like that. Yes, when you're telling a story to a person, it should only take a few minutes to regale them with a specific event during your day. If it takes 200 pages to tell someone about the screaming match you had with your boss, no one’s going to be listening when you’re done, and they might brain you with a hammer.

My answer to her was this:

“Well, when you tell a story to a friend it’s usually like, ‘He said this, and then I said that, and then he said this, and then I slapped him.’ The end. So yeah, that should only take a few minutes because really, when you’re talking to a friend and telling a story, no one wants to hear all about the interior of the room, (except if that’s what the story's about) unless a piece of furniture is going to get thrown. But when you’re writing you have to describe everything—or most everything.” (Here I gave her an example as the other beautician entered our area).

“You wouldn’t write, Charlene said, ‘how do you want your hair?’ and the patron said, ‘curly.’

You’d write…Charlene led Mrs. Peterson to the styling area and gestured for the older woman to have a seat. She ran her fingers through Mrs. Peterson’s hair, checking its moisture, looking for damage and signs of a dry scalp. She swiveled the chair slightly, so Mrs. Peterson could look at herself in the ornate mirror mounted above the station. ‘Did you have a style in mind?’ Charlene asked. Mrs. Peterson pressed her lips together, tilted her head from one side to the other and said, ‘I was thinking of something with a lot of curls. It’s getting cooler out, and the curls should last.’”

I explained to the girl doing my hair that a five minute conversation could take up five pages in a book when you add in scenery, expression, dialogue and emotion.

Truthfully, I always thought this was common sense, but I see that I was wrong. It’s common sense because I’m a writer and most of my friends are writers so we just know the basics of writing. There are so many people out there who don’t have a clue so I guess it’s our job to educate-God help them-lol.

I find the deeper I go into this world of writing, the more I’m called upon to answer question. I like it, because I want to explain what I do. Nothing frustrates me more than people who don’t have a clue about what I do, but want to give me advice because they knew someone who published thier book of poems. So all those people out there who have question, if I’m able to answer, I will every time. Sometimes, though, no matter how clear I am, they still walk away scratching their heads.

Do you all find it easy to explain what you do—the basics of writing and how you string together words to make a sentence, sentences to make a paragraph, paragraphs to make a page and pages to create a novel? I thought it would be easy, but I was actually kinda stumped. If you have a better explanation/example by all means, leave it in the comments!


Amanda Borenstadt said...

Good answer. I would get stumped. Nobody has asked me that question... thank goodness! Gee, maybe I'm not approachable.

Even my kids haven't asked me that question. They write stories which we bind into books. But they never asked me how to do compose a story. Maybe that's because we're a very reading/story-telling family.

Karen Denise said...

That sounds like the answer Amanda. It may just be something that comes natural to your children so they may not need you to explain it. The girl who was going my hair didn't read much, so I'm sure that was part of the reason she was so confused.

Jemi Fraser said...

Terrific post!

You described it very well to the hair dresser! I think that's a great description :)

Jennifer Hillier said...

Wow! Great explanation. I'm glad nobody's ever asked me this question, because I'd have no idea how to answer it (I'd have to steal your answer).

Karen Denise said...

Thanks Jemi and Jennifer. I really felt like I'd stumbled through that explanation. It's a hard question, right? Feel free to use it, lol.

Jai Joshi said...

Honestly, I don't bother to answer most questions like that. I just give them a flip and answer and change the subject. My reason why I do this is because most people only ask those questions as a way of filling the silence. Not because they want to know.
However, if someone is truly curious and wants to understand writing then I make an effort, like you did, to explain how it all works.

The interesting thing is that despite the fact that we're writers, it's still hard to explain things.


Karen Denise said...

Well, I don't get asked that question too often, Jai. That's why I wasn't sure if I'd answered it correctly. Most people usually say, "I don't know how you write a book." Those people aren't generally looking for an explanation. And yeah, it really is hard to explain-lol.