I regularly get emails from survivors asking for advice on how to start writing their memoir about abuse, or they’d like to take what they went through and transform it into a novel, replacing themselves with a character they’re dreaming up. Some have already written their book and just need it to find a home in a bookstore. They want to know how to get from A to B.
However, I’m not sure I have any secrets to reveal. I’ve spent my career thus far as a writer and I’ve written many books. The problem is, they mostly live in my head. A few have gotten their starts on this computer. None have ever been printed and bound. I’m still on A, far from B.
The process of writing a book can be daunting, but certainly not impossible as evidenced by the more than 4 million new books published in 2019 alone (both commercial and self-published titles). If 4 million people can do it, so can we.
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My first [and possibly only] piece of non-author advice—don’t let that 4 million-number dissuade you. Sure, your book will have a bit of competition. But everyone has a story to tell. Especially you. And the world wants to hear it. So, let’s start writing. I asked actual experts in the field to dish on their best how-do-I-write-a-book advice.
Tip #1: Don’t Rush It
For survivors of abuse, it can be incredibly triggering to walk back down memory lane. Before you begin, make sure you’ve spent enough time processing what happened before you relive your story.
Leslie Morgan Steiner, author of Crazy Love, a DomesticShelters.org Book Club selection, told us in 2018 that the first thing she had to do after escaping an abuser was to admit to herself what happened. After that, it was a long process to write it all down.
“I didn’t get divorced [from the abuser] until I was 27. It took me five years before I could even talk about [the abuse]. It took 10 years to write and edit the book, and two years to publish it. It wasn’t until I was home from maternity leave with my second child [from a second marriage] that I felt safe enough and far away enough that I could look back on it.”
Monique Faison Ross was 31 when her abusive ex-husband tried to murder her. She was in her 50s when she was able to write about it, but four years in, she wanted to give up.
“It was too emotional, and I’m not a professional author,” she says. Luckily, she was introduced to a co-author who helped to get her experience on paper and Playing Dead, another DomesticShelters.org Book Club selection, was published in 2019.
Writing can be triggering, and practicing self-care is important. It may be helpful to have a good friend, a therapist or an advocate that you can call on as you walk back through your memories.
Tip #2: Be Brave
Donna F. Brown is, as she says, “a 70-year-young author,” She’s also a musician and certified yoga teacher from the small town of Pearce, Arizona. She wrote her autobiography over the course of six years. For her, writing took bravery.
“The more truthful you are, the more readers are going to be drawn to your story. I had an abusive childhood and despite the fact that it was difficult to write about, I felt compelled to share my story with other abuse survivors, as they are the most understanding.”
She says the process didn’t actually feel like she was writing a book. “It felt more like I was writing an extended journal,” she says.
If it’s easier, think about it like this, says Daniel J. Tortora, PhD, nonfiction author coach, editor and historian: “Write as if you're talking with your friend. You can even have someone interview you and dictate the answers (using otter.ai) or just record yourself on your phone and then type the highlights afterward, building from that.”
Tip #3: Organize Your Thoughts
Some authors outline and others don’t. There are no defined rules about it, but if you’re not sure where to begin, an outline can be a helpful roadmap to where the plot of your book is going to go.
There are several ways you can outline, but I find index cards work well. Write down a few words to identify key scenes in your book. On the back, jot down bullet points of who is in that chapter and what their main goal or purpose is. For example, “The Fire” might be that story of the time you made dinner and started a casserole on fire in the oven and how that predicated your decision to never cook again. You can then look at all the scenes you want to write and organize them in the order you think they should go in. Then, you simply write one scene at a time.
Brown suggests writing down your answers to the following questions to help shape the idea of your book before outlining:
- What is your storyline (aka, the plot)?
- What is the main reason for telling your story?
- Who is your target audience (the people most likely to be interested in your story and to buy your book)? If you know your target audiences, this will help in the writing style or language you use to tell your story.
- Who are your main characters and what are their personalities and goals?
- What are the challenges and adversities they are faced with?
- How are the challenges overcome?
Tip #4: Write and Don’t Look Back
“Everyone has a good idea for a book, especially a compelling story of survival of domestic abuse. The best thing to do is to make a first draft where you write your story without thinking about a result. Just get it out,” says publisher Ja-Ne of JMFdeA Press.
One of the best ways I found to get a book to go from my head to on paper is through a yearly November challenge called NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. During the month, aspiring authors are challenged to write a certain number of words – typically 50,000, though you can choose your goal – in order to “win.” Your prize is the satisfaction of writing the first draft of a book.
You can keep track of your word count online and brag about your progress. Just nix one thing—editing. Don’t touch what you’ve written until after you’ve hit your goal. Whatever spills out of your mind one day, resist the urge to go back and rewrite it the next. With this process, you’re more likely to keep going and not waste time second-guessing yourself.
Getting stuck? Talia Carner, author of The Third Daughter, says writing workshops and conferences, as well as local writing groups, can help hone one’s writing skills.
“It's the same effort as if you'd set your mind on being a concert pianist. There is a lot to learn about the craft of writing.” Her personal recommendation: The International Women’s Writing Guild (IWWG), which offers courses, events and an overall supportive environment.
Tip #5: Edit, Then Pitch Away
Your first draft will hardly be your last.
“Be prepared to revise and edit for months, if not years, until your memoir shines,” says Carner.
NaNoWriMo.org offers a 7-step process to editing your book. Or, you can think about hiring a professional editor to help you not just with word choice and spelling, but also plot holes, confusing characters, the pace of the story and so much more.
Next up is publishing. “Trying to get your book published is definitely one of the most difficult parts of the book-writing process,” Brown says. It’s going to take some self-promotion and a lot of perseverance.
“If you decide to go the route of traditional publishing, you will need to find a literary agent to represent you and promote you to a publisher. In my experience, literary agents have their own agendas and criteria for what stories they are looking for and will accept.”
“To improve your chances of finding an agent, be ready to discuss, in detail, a few other books with similar themes that readers have raved about,” advises Tortora. “Look at what those books do and how they do it and try to be similar but with a slight twist.”
Tortora offers up these helpful tips to find an agent:
Tips for finding a literary agent:
- Look for mentions in the acknowledgments section of books
- Ask other authors for word-of-mouth recommendations
- Consult Agentquery.com: a searchable vast database of literary agents
- Utilize MS WishList: Real agents post when they’re looking for manuscripts (and what they’re looking for), and it’s free
- Search the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc.
- Pick up Writer’s Market 100th Edition: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published by Robert Lee Brewer
When you find an agent who’s interested, make sure you know what to ask before signing a contract.
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Self-Publishing Is an Option, Too
For her second novel, Brown says she was “tired of trying to get literary agents interested” and went the self-publishing route.
“Self-publishing is also a fairly difficult process in and of itself, yet it gives you more freedom and a great sense of accomplishment when you see and hold the finished product,” says Brown. Services like lulu.com (if you want paperback or hardcover books) or Kindle Direct Publishing on Amazon can walk you through the process.
Need some inspiration? Check out our book club book selections.
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