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Guide

How to make a book

A guide by Naomi Huffman and MCD x FSG, with illustrations by Na Kim
Prelude

Anyone who has ever attempted to write a book knows that the job requires a lot of you—for instance, a cat, Diet Coke, an onion, an emotional crisis, avoiding all socialization for at least four weeks, or, better yet, disappearing into the Mariana Trench until further notice. Of course, you must know when to stop. Also, it’s best if you “don’t try.

There is a lot of writing advice out there, but I don’t find much of it especially helpful. I do not mean that it’s “inaccurate”; I only want to note that a lot of it suggests that there are only a few “correct” methods, and that can endanger the process, or at least make it a lot less fruitful. Writing a book is an individual endeavor, an expression of a writer’s unique and thoughtful approach to inspiration, process, and refinement. The way a book is written is part of what makes it so singular. This guide points to a few approaches that have worked for some writers.

Like writing a book, there are many ways to publish one. For the sake of this guide, I’ll be referring to books sold through the trade marketplace—that is, books that are edited, designed, and printed by a publishing house like MCD x FSG, where I work, and distributed to bookstores and online retailers. This guide provides some practical advice from writers on how to find an agent, working with an editor, and engaging with your audience—crucial parts of trade publishing.

To demystify the process of writing and publishing books, I sought advice from some of the authors of MCD x FSG—Jace Clayton, Araminta Hall, Bruce Holbert, Liska Jacobs, Catherine Lacey, A.G. Lombardo, Tamara Shopsin, Robin Sloan, Héctor Tobar, Jeff VanderMeer, and Joshua Wheeler—to compile this guide. It’s honest, self-deprecating, contradictory, and a bit long-winded. We call it “How to make a book.”

— Naomi Huffman

Sections
Guide

Getting started

A book can be inspired by nearly anything: a seemingly stray thought you can’t shake, a lyric, an overheard conversation, another book. Whatever it is, turn it over again and again and again in your mind. Watch it. Listen to it. Be skeptical of it. Let it bother you. Most importantly, take notes.

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I get a lot of inspiration from my dreams, but this is in part because of conscious prompts to my subconscious. For example, I kept telling my brain I wanted to write about Florida. Two years after I started thinking about it before sleeping, I wrote Annihilation. If you reward your subconscious by acting on what it gives you, it’ll keep giving you gifts.

But it’s not as simple as “I had a dream and I wrote a novel.” I had a dream about giant space aardvarks coming down in rocket ships and blasting huge holes into my lawn. That dream did not become a novel. Why not? Because nothing else occurred to me in the morning (also, because that’s a pretty stupid dream). With Annihilation, I had a weird dream, went back to sleep, and in the morning, I wrote the first 10 pages of the novel.

The process doesn’t usually happen that fast. Sometimes something just lodges in your mind and you think about it for a very long time before anything comes from it—which is why I recommend you write down any inspiration that comes to you. Then, before you plunge into something—unless you’ve got the story complete in your head—think about it deeply for as long as you need. You need time and space to live in the novel or story, to contemplate the implications of parts of it. I find it is more important for the story to be alive in your head every day than to get words on paper every day. And while not advocating procrastination, I’ve never plucked a story too late in terms of beginning to write. But I have ruined one by starting to write before I was ready.

— Jeff VanderMeer

All good writing begins as lingering suspicion.

— Joshua Wheeler

As a novelist, I often work as a journalist does: I observe and study the world around me. I look up song lyrics, I listen to bird songs; I walk on the street and make mental notes on the faces I see; I scribble down things my kids say. I research and I daydream, all in the hope of finding language that will make an imaginary world feel lifelike to my readers. In other words, when I sit down to write fiction, or nonfiction, I’m driven by the desire to lose myself completely inside a world that I’m creating on the page. And when I begin to think about writing a book, it’s because I’ve been presented with an idea that I know can become many worlds, or a kind of universe unto itself.

— Héctor Tobar

Making an outline

Some writers find creating an outline useful—like a map, an outline can nudge a writer in the right direction. Other writers find an outline disrupts the most rewarding aspects of the writing process: discovery.

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An outline might just be mental scaffolding the writer needs for thematic and character reasons. One outline I used was a list of all seven days that comprised the timeline of the novel. Beneath each day was a list of scenes and what characters would be included. The structure for my novel Acceptance was a four-pointed star, with one character’s point of view at the center. This wasn’t the actual structure of the novel, but it reminded me that that one character suffused the text even when she wasn’t present.

On other novels, I won’t do any outlining—I will just write the book on the fly, so to speak, and then I will reverse outline when I finish. After I finish the rough draft, I outline what’s on the page, scene by scene. It helps me to realize what might be missing and what might not be needed.

The main thing to realize is that you don’t have to have a set way you outline—if you use an outline at all. Let each work of fiction determine how much scaffolding it needs to come into existence, and what form that scaffolding will take.

— Jeff VanderMeer

While outlines are essential for crafting works of nonfiction, I believe them to be the enemy of good fiction. When one can see around every narrative corner, all tension and sense of discovery is lost. No matter what other proficiency the writer has, the work is stale. Sometimes you may make an outline; please burn it. I can tell when a work of fiction was outlined and executed according to that outline. The difference is like a carrot that has been winnowed by a machine into a “baby carrot” and a carrot that has grown from the ground. Personally, I do not care for baby carrots.

— Catherine Lacey

Remember that the writing/investigation is not the creation of plot, but the uncovering of plot. You’re sticking pushpins in evidence on a corkboard. You’re going wild making connections with webs of string. So, outlining in the traditional sense is not all that useful. You need to drum up evidence in order to have things to connect. This means research (read, prowl the archives, live experiences, know people, love some, etc.). This means writing. Writing drums up so much evidence. Write automatically, because you are smarter than you think. Use a typewriter, or a weaponized word processor like Flowstate. Do not yet worry about where it fits. Produce mounds of evidence.

— Joshua Wheeler

There’s a corkboard above my desk that I turn into a sort of mood board. I cast all the main characters using faces torn from hair magazines, or sometimes *Town and Country or Vogue. It’s important that they aren’t recognizable so that I can project personalities onto them.*

Rothko thought if he could wrap you in a color you’d feel the emotion contained within it. I use paint samples to choose colors that represent the city or town the novel is going to take place in; I tape them together so they overlap. If I blur my eyes, ‘Red Rye’ and ‘Morning Light’ and ‘Felt Green’ and ‘Roman Yellow’ transport me to Rome, the setting of my next novel.

— Liska Jacobs

William Gibson recently said that he doesn’t worry about outlines. I agree. Write your chapters, tell your story, keep your blood and passion up. Outlining and forms and edits can come later.

— A.G. Lombardo

The writing process

There are some really excellent books on writing and creative output—such as Jeff VanderMeer’s colorful and practical Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction, Anne Lamott’s irreverent Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, and Truffaut’s iconic Hitchcock, to name just a few. There was a year in my life when my process meant writing first thing in the morning, every single day, before doing anything else. That time is definitively over, but I have other ways of getting writing done now that better suit my life and ongoing projects.

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Fiction should be the side effect of your life. One must have a consistent practice, a nearly psychotic desire to create a book, and a deep investment in one’s own life. If you have those three things, books will come. Be patient. Make space. Realize that your life is happening.

— Catherine Lacey

The book is like a big, old building. Each day I sit down to write, I enter a room in that building and live in it. The first room might contain a scene from my protagonist’s love affair; the next one his journey on a ship across a tropical ocean; and then a door might open to a tense family dinner with his mother, with mashed potatoes steaming on the table. The greater the variety of emotions, ideas and physical places inside the “building” of the book, the more interesting the journey through the book will be, for both me and my readers.

When I start a book, I stand at the front door of a building I haven’t yet entered. But I can sense the beauty of what’s inside.

— Héctor Tobar

You have to read the kind of books you like. If you think you are a genius, and you’re going to write the Great American Novel without cracking open many, many, many examples of G.A.N.’s, you are wrong. You have to try to write something every day, even if it is shit. Writer’s block? Then journal about your day and feelings. Don’t know what to write about? Wing it. As I write this, for example, it is raining in LA and I’m looking out my window. There is a telephone pole down the street. In a pinch, I could write a page about lightning striking the pole, the pole smashing down into a car with a mother and baby inside. Neighbors run outside: a live wire arcs against the car’s roof and people shout at the mother not to touch anything, but the mother only speaks Spanish… you get the idea.

— A.G. Lombardo

Finding and working with an agent

Finding an agent is a bit like finding the love of your life online: not impossible, but it’s unlikely that you’ll get it right the first time. Begin by researching the writers whose work feels close to yours. Find out who their agents are, and get in touch (most agency websites provide instructions for how they prefer to be contacted). Be specific in your pitch: Why will your book be successful? Where does it fit in the larger publishing market? Why should an agent want to work with you?

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Do not begin your letter, “Dear Sirs,” and tell them they’d better be quick because you’ve got lots of other people reading. If they do take you on, they will become your best bet at getting published; they know the market, they know the publishers, and they know words. The best agents are also great editors, great listeners (for all those times you’re convinced you’re never going to write a good word again), great advocates of your work, and great at knowing where your manuscript will find the best home.

Never believe a writer who says they don’t need an agent because it saves them money; agents earn their commission a hundred times over, and without them most of us wouldn’t earn a penny.

— Araminta Hall

A good agent will help you edit your book, or will connect you to your editor. You will edit and rewrite over and over again, until you’re thinking of buying a VW bus and following Abba’s European Tour. Finally, one day, that novel you thought you’d completed long ago is actually finished. Then you get to start the insane process all over again with that second great idea buzzing in your brain.

— A.G. Lombardo

Your agent is your emissary and coat of armor, your sanity-check and your partner in all the madness of writing a book. They’re not only there to broker a publication deal, but, ideally, to defend you at every point in the process — from brainstorming ideas before you begin writing to strategizing post-publication opportunities. So you to have to be right for each other. Cold-emailing agents should be a last resort. Do you know anybody who might know anybody who knows some agents? Check in with them. Googling your favorite emerging writer’s agent might offer some leads, but so much of the actual, actionable information that’ll help you determine whether or not you and a particular agent will click is effectively unGoogleable. So that’s my main bit of advice: you should find an agent by consulting your people – any supportive bunch of fellow writers, editors, dreamers, what-have-you, calling on their collective wisdom to steer you in the right direction.

— Jace Clayton

Working with an editor

You and your editor have the same goal: to make your book as whole as you can. Remember this—it’s easy to forget, particularly when your editor asks you to implement changes that seem unfamiliar to you.

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You must respect the work that your editor does, the other books she has published, the insights he has on your book and other books. You will not always agree, but you must have respect for their way of thinking. You must also know where your own terms differ from their terms. An editor brings the perspective of the publishing market to your work, but a great editor also knows how to protect your art from the necessary crudeness of the market.

— Catherine Lacey

Remember these two things: You’re very lucky to have found someone that loves your work enough to tell you when it sucks. And if your editor tells you something is boring, it is.

— Tamara Shopsin

Self-promotion (on your own terms)

It’s okay if you don’t have 100,000+ followers on Twitter, don’t understand how to employ a hashtag, or start nervous sweating at the very idea of being interviewed. You’re most effective when you’re comfortable and confident while telling other people about your book. Of course, it helps to be open to trying new things, but trust your instincts.

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First of all, there must be a firewall between your public book life and your private book life, or creativity. For example, I try to be offline while writing the rough draft of a novel. And when I am in the midst of promoting one novel, I try not to work on another piece of fiction. You need to protect your creativity and then fit promotion into your life.

If at all possible there should be little or no separation between the kinds of things you do for promotion and who you are as a person. In other words, at the end of the day, it’s not a good idea to contort yourself into someone else just to promote a book.

Finally, be creative in promotion. I tend to feature fan art online. I playfully create mini-stories with readers on Facebook. I sometimes commission little art pieces to use on social media as well. The main thing is to find some sense of play in what you do, so that the process first of all isn’t a drag and then also you might actually learn something from it creatively if you provide a space in which your readers can exercise their own imaginations.

— Jeff VanderMeer

No one needs another advertisement. Ask yourself whether you’re giving yourself as a gift to others or whether you’re just asking for their money. When you have published a book, tell people you have published a book over email or whatever platform you feel comfortable using, but do not tell them every day, and do not frame your work as something to be purchased. It is merely something that is available—one of the many available books and no more or less important than most of them.

— Catherine Lacey

Of all the followings you can accrue—on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and platforms yet to be invented—one is more important than the rest by an order of magnitude. It’s the group of people who have given you their old-fashioned email addresses and agreed that they would, from time to time, like to hear from you. Even if no one quite loves their inbox, everyone has one. Across generations and geography, through digital fads and fascinations, email is the common denominator, the magic key.

Email lists grow slowly, but their growth is sturdier than social networks. It’s exciting to see the sharp little bursts of attention on the social networks when something you write takes off. But it’s easy come, easy go; as quickly as attention finds you, it moves on, eager for the next thing. Email lists are sturdier and stickier. There is a real sense, you’ll find, of building them one person at a time. It can feel less than inspiring to prepare a message for an audience of seventeen people, but seventeen people is a waystation on the road to fifty-three, and fifty-three gets you to a hundred and forty-one, and if you keep at it—if you are patient and persistent—you will have a list of a thousand, or two, or more. It might take a couple of years. But then: you will have those people. They will be your fans forever, or until the whole internet comes crashing down, at which point you’ll have bigger problems anyway.

If my digital house was burning down, it’s my email list I would save. I wouldn’t think twice. As a person who makes a living writing books, it’s the most important piece of data I possess, and it’s brought me more value—commercial, emotional, everything in between—than I can articulate. Email lists grow slowly, so the best thing you can do for your future self is to just start one immediately. Do it today.

— Robin Sloan

In summary…

So: Pay attention to your subconscious. Take careful notes. Sit down to write with a plan in mind, but leave room for discovery. Find collaborators who understand you and your work, and who make you want to do better. Listen to—and learn from—your editor and agent. Use resources with which you’re comfortable for letting people know about your book.

And, have fun.

About the Author

Naomi Huffman

Editor, publisher, writer

Naomi Huffman spent five years working in independent publishing in Chicago, where she ran the small press Curbside Splendor. She also edited for featherproof books, and organized numerous reading series and book fairs. In 2014, she established Book Fort, a non-profit that advocates for community among small presses and collaborates with the annual Pitchfork Music Festival. After many years crusading for publishing communities outside of New York, she in fact moved to Brooklyn (and, admittedly, likes it a lot). Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Bookslut, Newcity, and elsewhere.