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You've Got a Book in You

A Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams

You've Got a Book in You by Elizabeth Sims
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chapter 1
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chapter 1

by Elizabeth Sims

©Elizabeth Sims 2013

Writing a Book is Easy and Fun

Writing a book is easy and fun.

Since that sentence probably has never been put into print, I'll repeat it:

Writing a book is easy and fun.

You want to write one? Write it. This book will help you. If you've written part of a book already, stick with me and we'll get it to completion, and we'll have a good time doing it. By the end, you will be a different person.

How so? Because writing a book brings you to completion as a thinking, feeling person. It's sort of a paradox: only by writing a book will you know you can write a book. Moreover, writing a book, from the first scratchings of an idea on the back of a bus ticket or a grocery list, to writing THE END on page 100 or 200 or 400 is a flat-out transformative process. Just ask anybody who's done it. It takes commitment, sure. And to do a good job, it will take all the brains and heart you've got.

The magic is this: You will end up with more brains and heart than you started with. Writing a book develops you as a whole person, it makes you realize you're stronger than you ever thought you were. You dig deep for honesty, you open your creative spirit to ideas and inspiration, and you refine your sense of direction and problem-solving.

That's just for starters.

Beyond that, your book will be a part of you that reaches out to other people. It will carry your voice and your message into the vast, beautiful world. Whenever someone reads your book, a part of you becomes part of them. They might be greatly entertained by your book, they might be amused, turned on, educated, terrified, helped. And they might just say thank you. Getting thanks from a reader is a deep, smooth thrill that can't be compared with anything.

If you publish your book and people like it, money and fame might come to you.

Terrific as money and fame are, they will pale in comparison to what you've already earned: the knowledge and confidence that you're an author, by God. A real writer.

I will reveal how the professionals do it. I've been there, having written numerous popular books, some of them published in hardcover by a big New York publishing house (St. Martin's Minotaur, in the Macmillan Publishing Group), some published by a smaller publisher, and some I've self-published. Currently my two series are the Rita Farmer Mysteries and the Lillian Byrd Crime Novels. One of the latter won a Lambda Literary Award, that novel being Damn Straight. I'm also a Contributing Editor at the leading writing magazine in the world, Writer's Digest, specializing in the art and craft of fiction. If that's not enough, I have two degrees in English, one in literature and one in composition. I have experience as a newspaper reporter, photographer, and editor, and I won the Tompkins Award for Graduate Fiction at Wayne State University, way back in 19-cough-cough. I'm a member of several literary societies as well as American Mensa.

As I say to everybody who asks me about writing, I wasn't born knowing how to write well enough for publication; I learned it. And I'm going to help you learn how to do it too.

I've never been able to relate to how-to formulas for writing a book. Rigid structures just don't work, especially for fiction: Rulebooks that say you need to have three acts, and so many story points, and you need to have dramatic moments every so many pages, and you need to put in so many twists and reversals, and then you need your ending to be big. Well, you know, duh, yeah. A book needs to be interesting.

Writing rules short-circuit my brain. I just can't seem to make the jump between a formula and lively writing. That's why I'm sharing with you what works for me: tools and ideas you can mess around with and use on your own, just like my author friends and I do. When you close this book, you won't need a teacher to help you through the writing process; you'll be your own teacher. You'll have the capacity to use any number of writing techniques your own way. What's more, you'll adapt them and discover new ones.

The beauty of writing is that there is no governing body that will check to see if you've done things 'right' or 'wrong'. No penalty for inventing something new!

I invite you to skip around in this book. Reading it all the way through is fine, but if you get antsy to write and you want to blast forward, do it. Read, browse, skim over the stuff that's not for you right now, slow down and savor the stuff that grabs you, close the book and do some writing. Let serendipity happen.

Saying Nay to the Naysayers

Too many people think it's hard to write a book. Why? Mainly because writing was hard when we were kids. Rules, penmanship, rules, spelling, rules, grammar, rules, rules. If you were a typical kid like me, you heaved that loglike pencil to your shoulder, squeezed your fingers around it tight, and anxiously scraped out your letters and numbers trying to break as few rules as possible.

Another reason writing seemed hard to so many of us back then is that we expected ourselves to get it right the first time, ignoring the plain obvious fact that there are a thousand ways to write anything, be it a story or a factual account or an essay. The thinking was: Better bear down real hard mentally, better question every word before I write it, because I don't want to screw up.


Beginners often feel that to write is to present something—to have a finished product, something finished in their mind's eye before they begin. This is false. Such a thought leads only to anxiety. The truth is that a simple little idea, if set free to run around on the page, will lead to more and better and more.

Then you got older and in high school or even college you had to write papers. Oh, gosh! At this point there were so many rules that by the time you got them figured out, you forgot what you wanted to say.

Or maybe you took a creative writing class because you had a spark inside you that drove to you to write. I took one in high school. The only thing I remember was the teacher telling us that Ray Bradbury wrote a thousand words a day for ten years before he got somewhat good at writing. This was supposed to be inspiring.

I left school with an uneasy relationship with writing. (Big surprise.) I could do it, but it was hard. It made me worried. Yet I wrote, and I wanted to write well. I stayed away from creative writing classes and tried listening to authors directly. They all seemed to feel that writing is hard.

Red Smith, the most famous sportswriter of the twentieth century, said, "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."

He was just the beginning. Tons of really famous, successful writers say things like that all the time. I won't repeat them here because we don't need the stress. If you listen to practically any professional writer talk about what they do, you'll hear it, over and over. Lots of how-to-write books say stuff like that as well. The problem is, these people are believable because they're accomplished.

How could they not know what they're talking about?

So we believe them, and we try to write, and we struggle and bleed, believing that's the process. When we have a breakthrough and the writing comes as easy as breathing, we consider it a temporary gift from the gods, soon to be snatched away again.

After all, that's what they tell us will happen.

They're sincere.

But they're wrong.

Why? Because they're stuck on all those rules, which are really details that have nothing to do with the core act of writing. And because of their belief in rules, they're stuck with the conviction that what they do is almost impossible.

The other thing is, and we must be honest, we must be unflinchingly honest here: it's an ego trip for lots of authors to tell how hard it was to write their books, how tough, how they almost committed suicide nineteen times during those long, long months of lonely struggle. Lonely, lonely. Struggle, struggle.

Ordeals lend writers legitimacy and charisma. Moreover, ordeals make us feel special. Ordeals give us excuses for taking five years to write a book. While drinking too much. The truth is, ordeals in writing are totally self-inflicted. Nobody's standing over you making you struggle, forcing you to suffer. Struggle and suffering in writing are matters of personal choice. We don't like to admit it, but we know it's true.

I realized that most successful writers are successful in spite of their belief that writing is hard. If they could relax and get the hell out of their own way, imagine what they could accomplish!

If you want to write a book, you can struggle and suffer too—or you can choose to write with patience, and receptiveness, and a heart filled with zest. You can have fun. By the way, isn't zest a wonderful word? In our careful world, 'feeling just OK' seems to be the new normal. I want zest, dammit. Zest, joy, and ferocious awareness.

You know, I don't feel particularly scared of writing. I don't feel that writing is hard; I love it.

You are an exemplar. I encourage you to share your attitude and experiences with others. Keep hold of that positive 'tude.

But writing being fun? I'm not sure about that.

If it's not fun, it's not worth doing. Boy, chisel that one on any spare piece of granite you've got lying around the house:



Which raises the thrilling corollary, also chisel-worthy:



What's fun got to do with it? After all, this is serious business, writing a book.

The thing is, readers can always tell whether an author had fun while writing. They might not know what's wrong with a book they find boring; they simply don't like it. The book doesn't resonate with them, it doesn't sing. And that's because the author labored over it. The author didn't have fun.

It's true: No matter how serious the subject, you can only do justice to it—fullhearted justice—if you have fun with it.

I don't mean you have to make jokes or write comedy, unless that's really your aim. You can have fun with the most serious—even tragic or horrifying—of subjects. By fun I mean a sense of play, an attitude of willingness to try anything, to make a fool of yourself by making mistakes, to slam down something outrageous.

If you're having fun, you can't be afraid. So don't think you need to vanquish fear; just focus on having fun.

Let's take my claim to the extreme and see if it holds up.

A man who's been thrown to the lions knows he's got a high likelihood of getting his neck snapped and his belly devoured before he's dead. But he also knows that he's got a chance. A slim chance, but a chance! If he can figure out how to outsmart the lions and escape, somehow he'll live.

What if he goes in with fear as his chiefest emotion? He'll be tight and rigid, both mentally and physically. He might survive, but he has a better chance of not only surviving but decisively winning if he can relinquish fear and rigidity and bring a flexible plan to the fight.

He'll benefit by not seeing the fight as a fight at all, but as a situation that is not threatening. The greatest warriors, in fact, tell us that they approach war as an art—flexible, receptive, smart. The ultimate warrior brings an aliveness and a sense of joy to the battle, and a fearless immediacy.

You could call it fun.

By contrast, suffering is rooted in worry.

Worry is rooted in ingrained, life-force-sapping rules and expectations. Therefore, the only thing standing between you and your book right now is worry—and those damned rules. That's it. I'm here to help you find your way past all that nonsense.

Which brings us to:



Wise people from the dawn of time have said this. Shakespeare put it in his play King Lear: "Striving to better, oft we mar what's well." Your grandma said, "Let well enough alone."

It's true: Perfectionism stops us in our tracks far too often in writing and in life, holding us back from accomplishing important stuff we want to do, especially long-held dreams.

I learned this for myself, gradually, while writing my novels, nonfiction (including this book), and countless articles, essays, stories and poems. It came to me while counseling aspiring writers, teaching workshops, and talking with other authors. Writing, I realized, was really not the problem. The problem was worry itself. Anxiety is the evil conjoined twin of rigidity. Plus throw in fear of failure, which is maybe the incestuous offspring of anxiety and perfectionism, and you get a family tree from hell.

Once I learned to relinquish worry, my writing flowed freely. I had stopped being my own stumbling block. With what I've learned I've helped lots of writers. When I sit down to write, I feel like an otter slipping into the water. I love it so much. That's how I want you to feel.

Instinctively, you know it takes guts to write a book. You need courage to keep going through the process, and fortitude to shrug off negativity. That's OK. You've got guts. And the fact is, your guts are going to work a whole lot better when you're rid of worry.

The Great Open Secret

The real challenge is that writing requires patience. Patience for yourself, patience for your work, patience for other people's response to your work. The way to cultivate patience is to persist. And the way to succeed as a writer, by whatever standards you set for yourself, is to persist. That is the great open secret, right there in plain sight. Inborn talent is lovely to have. Good fortune is a fine thing. But over those things you have no control. You do have control over your persistence. Every day you choose what you will do. You choose what is important to be done, and you do it.

Writing also requires humility. It takes deep humility to put yourself out into the world as you are, to offer your work, to accept what comes to you. And humility begins with courage. You're being courageous doing what you're doing right now, reading this book. You have control over whether you behave bravely or cowardly.

You have control over being persistent, and you have control over being patient. Raise your hand if this makes you think of Siddhartha ("I can think, wait, and fast.")

You have control over acceptance. You can choose to accept all the wonderful and terrible things in the world that you cannot control.

If perfect is the enemy of good, then are you saying I should write without caring whether my work is any good?

Yes! Only by giving yourself permission to write poorly will you write anything at all. Once you've got something down on the page, you'll find it easier to keep going, to find the groove, the flow.

When you give yourself permission to write poorly, you are implicitly saying, "I've got the skills to make this better later if I decide it's no good." You're reinforcing your own inner strength.

To write the book of your dreams, all you really need are a few tools, starting with the calm knowledge that you can do it. Not the belief that you can do it. The knowledge that you can. That's where real gumption comes in. You're going to use your courage not in a big fight against yourself and your language and the world, but in acceptance and receptivity. You're going to allow yourself to write your book. It does take deep courage to do that, but the expending of courage breeds courage.

You're going to write your book the way you want to write it. And it'll be pretty decent, maybe even great, if you stay out of your own way. Developing flow in your writing is the thread that runs through this book.


Gen. George S. Patton said: "A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week."

I love that 'violently executed.' Give it your all! Don't hesitate! Accept the outcome and go forward!

If your idea for a book is still so vague that you don't have a title, think of one now. What few words describe your book? They can be as simple as My Story or as descriptive as Sewer Worker from the Bronx sets out to Solve Daughter's Murder in Peace Corps in Peru. You can change it later if you want to, but right now you need a working title.

That's a great term right there: working title. Because when it comes out in conversation that you're writing a book, somebody will ask, "What's the title?" or "What's it about?" Instead of answering, "Um, it's too early to have a real title," you'll simply say, "The working title is _________" and give them a calm smile.

But I don't always feel calm.

You don't have to. You can write scared. But know that confidence calms the nerves. Confidence banishes worry, and how do you gain confidence? By trusting the skills you have. You know you can write.

I get what you're saying, but I think you're overrating confidence. For instance, I could have all the confidence in the world, but unless I've studied and trained to do brain surgery, I can't simply walk into an operating room and cut a tumor out of somebody's head.

Well, you could, but the results would be really poor. No, to do brain surgery you'd have to study, and you'd have to practice, and you'd have to believe when you tie on that gown and put on your gloves that you've got what it takes to do the job. Because all the knowledge in the world doesn't help a surgeon who's hyperventilating at the door to the operating room because she's afraid of making a mistake.

It's also true that no beginning tennis player will ever win the final at Wimbledon, no matter how much confidence he brings to the court. No, he must learn his sport and practice it.

Is writing that much different?

Yes! Because while you weren't born with a scalpel or tennis racquet in your hand, you were born to words. Your whole life long, you've been thinking thoughts and telling stories, describing things, telling jokes, making puns, making up rhymes and little songs, repeating stories you heard and remembered, making up stories of your own, telling fibs, white lies, outright lies, writing thank-you notes, forging school excuses and permission slips, getting into arguments, defending your opinions, apologizing, writing papers, writing emails, memos for work, blogs, texting, letters of complaint, recommendations, sympathy cards, and, gosh, what else?

And you've been reading your whole life long, from ads on the sides of buses to online news, from comics to thick books, maybe even Shakespeare—maybe just a little Shakespeare?

A tennis player who's made it to Wimbledon has worked diligently to develop his skills, and he knows he can win only if he trusts those skills. He has also learned by experience that matches are not necessarily won by the bigger player, the stronger player, or the player whose parents have spent the most money on elite tennis camps.

They are won by the player who best puts aside doubt and fear, and who plays with relaxed focus: the player who lets his body and mind flow the freest.

Speaking of tennis, author Tim Gallwey explored and developed techniques for superior tennis performance in The Inner Game of Tennis. He also wrote The Inner Game of Golf, which as a golfer I've read and found wonderfully useful. I feel that my ideas about writing resonate with his in sport.

You can build your talent, but the fact is, talent is the thing you have least control over. By contrast, you have total control over the amount of patience, guts, and persistence you bring to your writing. And that's beautiful.

But isn't writing lonely and sad? Isn't the suicide rate for writers really high?

The suicide rate for people who are easily discouraged is high. If you are a writer, there is no need for you to ever be discouraged—at least not for long. A disappointment can sting, a sluggish day can put you in a funk, but you'll shrug it off quickly if you keep this in mind: If you can talk, you can write, and if you can write, you can tell the stories you were born to share.

Maybe it's fiction you want to write, or maybe you're feeling moved to write about your life. What's the one thing you wish you'd known earlier in life? Think about it. There's a book there! You can tell the world. If you could change one thing about your job or your workplace, what would it be and why? There's a book there, too. You can tell the world.


"You've got to jump off cliffs and build your wings on the way down." - Ray Bradbury.

I'm grateful to Bradbury for this. He wrote a lot, and he lived a lot!

The best writers are the ones who have learned to believe in and trust their natural skills. That's why sometimes a first-time author wins a major prize or gets on the best-seller list.

It does happen.


  • What's the name of your book? Do you have a title yet? If so, write it down now. Go ahead. Print it carefully on an index card or something. How does it look? Beautiful! Put it in your pocket. That's your book in embryo.

  • Find books like the one you're going to write. Of course there is no book exactly like the one you're going to write; I mean go to the library or bookstore and find books in your category: fiction, memoir, how-to, history. Even reading only two—a new one and an old one that's been through at least a few decades' worth of printings—will give you tremendous perspective.

  • If you were to start writing your book right now, what would the first word be? The first sentence? If you can't think of the first sentence, write the second sentence. Just for the hell of it, go ahead.


    Read on!


      The Rita Farmer Mysteries

    1. The Actress
    2. The Extra
    3. On Location

      The Lillian Byrd Crime Series

    1. Holy Hell
    2. Damn Straight
    3. Lucky Stiff
    4. Easy Street
    5. Left Field

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