Writing a book – how to get started and keep going, by Dave Lordan

Writing a book seminar with Dave Lordan Sat May 23rd in The Big Smoke Writing Factory. One to one mentoring also available for writers anywhere in the world. dlordan@hotmail.com for enquiries.

Anyone who can read and write has the potential to write a book. However, having the potential to do something is obviously a long way from actually doing it. Writing any kind of book is intellectually challenging, emotionally demanding, incredibly time-consuming, and difficult to fit in with all the other demands that life places on us. In the past ten years I have written five books, edited two others, and worked as a creative-writing teacher/mentor/colleague with some other writers who went on to write a book or books – as well as many potential writers who didn’t go on to write a book, despite genuinely wanting to write a book. Below are a few of the most important things I have learned throughout this time about book writing – the essentials.

Motivation – Do I really want to write a book? Why?

Out of all the factors involved in writing a book, motivation is the most important. You need a good, strong reason to write a book, one you believe in, one that will last you until the book is finished. There are many possible reasons for writing a book. John Milton wrote Paradise Lost to “justify the ways of God to men“. A big ask, right? It took five years of constant labour for Milton to write Paradise Lost, and he was blind for most of it. Your reason-to-write-a-book doesn’t have to be spiritual or ethical like Milton’s but it does have to be strong and lasting and a fundamental need and/or conviction of yours.

One note of caution – Most writers don’t make much money from their books, so getting into writing to make a heap of money doesn’t make sense, and those who start with that motivation are, in my experience, among the first to quit. A passionate interest in a subject, no matter how obscure, or an irrepressible need to tell your own or another’s untold story, no matter how few others will be interested, will see most people through much better than the idea of getting rich quick.

Theme – what is my book about?

Each successfully completed book has a clear what as well as a clear why. The shorter it takes you to state your theme clearly, the better. Milton’s theme was Man’s First Disobedience. Out of this initial clarity flowed the ten thousand near-perfect lines of Paradise Lost. A clear theme is a principal necessity for clarity of expression throughout your book. If you don’t really know what you are writing about you will end up starting and stopping without really getting anywhere. Try writing out in about 100 words what your book is about. Then narrow it down to a maximum of 20 words. Then 5….Then, if you can, just 1. (Narrowing Paradise Lost’s theme down to 1 word, we could say it’s about Consequences). As well as anchoring your writing process, being clear and succinct about your theme will make it easier for you to explain your book to potential publishers.

Audience – who is my book for?

Keep in mind that books are written by writers, but for readers.It can help during your book-writing process to have at least a general idea of the type of people who are going to end up reading your book.  Who you are writing for obviously has a profound effect on how you should write. Those writing children’s books , for example, need to put some time and thought into the precise age group – and reading level – they are writing for. Is your survivor’s memoir too full of medical vocabulary to appeal to the general reader you want to reach? If your audience is very specific – e.g those interested in 17th century falconry competitions in Co Carlow – and therefore unlikely to interest bookshops, publishers, the book media, how are you going to get the book into the hands of your audience?  Writing for certain audiences it might make more sense to publish an e-book, or even an audio book, than it is to do a print run. No matter who your audience is or how you plan to reach them you need to think about it – what size is it, how and where do they access books, what have they been reading lately etc

Peers and antecedents

What has already been done in my field of interest and how can I learn from it without entirely repeating it?What are other writers in my field up to?

I had a student last year, call him John. He worked very hard, was prepared to take advice on board and act on it, and was well in to his first draft of his children’s book when he went to see a new hollywood film with his kid. The film happened to have a very similar plot-line and central characters to the book John was in the middle of writing. Unfortunately, as a result, he had to ditch the book and start another one.

To avoid experiences like John’s, you need to do several things as part of your preparation for and ongoing background work for your book. These are

* Read the relevant classic texts on your field of interest.
* Find out what others in your field are writing now, and in the last ten years or so.
* Read a couple of ‘how-to’ books from authors within your chosen field.
* Subscribe to any relevant associations, newsletters etc.

The Writers toolkit.

As well as classics and contemporaries in your chosen genre here are some essential works you need to study or at least have handy.

Good Dictionary (I recommend the 2 volume shorter OED, digital version)

The Complete Plain Words by Ernest Gower
The Elements of Style by William Grunk
The Penguin Dictionary of English Grammar.

Studying the above three will save you a lot of time and hassle. They are more vital to a good writing practice then any ‘How-to’ guide.

If you consider yourself a literary writer then you need to immerse yourself in literature. In The Western Canon Harold Bloom sets out his vision of the greatest writers of all time and why he considers them so great. The greatest one book cure for literary ignorance in existence.

The best creative writing Guide I’ve read is Stephen King’s On Writing.

Time and Space – Making room for a book in your already busy life.

A book is like a baby – it will take up much more time and space (and labour) then you ever imagined it would before you had it.

Let’s deal with time first. How long do you think it will take you to write your book? (it will usually take 2 to 3 times longer than you initially think). Most beginner writers I work with answer something like 6 months or a year. No chance. First books might take at least three years to write – taking into account much of that time is re-drafting – and another two or three years after that to get published.

How will you schedule that time? You need to make `at least 8-10 hours a week for writing purposes. This will require sacrifice, of social or family time, of other interests, of your favourite TV show…of whatever you can move out of the way. Many writers I know – including myself – find morning and early morning – before the first baba awakes and while the cats are still hunting – the best time to write. Evening time or late night works for others, especially for slower work like editing, mapping, proofing – I can edit best at night, for example.

As well as 8-10 hours writing you need another 8 to 10 hrs minimum reading. Take a book from your personal book list wherever you go.

As you have already gathered perhaps, writing a book is not something you can do with a half or a quarter of your being. Your book will have to dominate your thoughts to the point of obsession if it is going to be the best you can do.

Solitude and retreats

Solitude, handling it, seeking it, are key elements in book-writing. At certain stages of writing a book you will need to get away altogether so you can focus exclusively upon it. Writers retreats are an option, though you may have to jump through tiresome bureaucratic hoops to get into them. They can also be quite expensive. Neither are they for you if you aren’t a great socialite or if you don’t relish the thought of being surrounded by other writers and artists, each as eager to talk about their projects as you are about yours. To be honest, it can all get a bit Big Brother in writers retreats. I’d advise instead booking an off-season self-catering unit for yourself in some desolate western village. You’ll be lonelier and subject to ghostly visitations and all that, but get a hell of a lot more work done, and save money (and probably liver) too.


You need to make a writing space in your home which is exclusively for writing. A whole room is best – the quietest in the house. But corner of a bedsit will do if you are serious about it.

Neuropsychology tells us that if we sit in the same place at the same time often enough with the same general intentions our brains will adapt and be ready to go when we are. Regular place and time for your writing will make the flow come easier.

What to do when you are stuck

One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever got was from the straight-talking poet Brendan Kennelly. I asked him how do you write your poems Brendan? I go for a walk was his reply. Walking is the human activity most natural to us in an unstressed environment, and one in which the creative juices start to flow due to a slow and gentle increase in blood-oxygen and serotonin as we traipse along, our troubles sinking into the back-ground. I have solved many of my writing difficulties over the years while out on a  walk in the fresh air. Bring a notebook.

Dave Lordan