How to Approach Your Book by Dellani Oakes



No one can dictate to you how to write your book. The way the story presents itself to the author is all important. How-To authors will tell you what you must avoid, shouldn’t do, how you have to approach something. The fact is, they don’t know anymore than anyone else, they just sat down and wrote a book about it. Don’t let them bully you and dictate to you how you write. Chances are good that they have broken their own edicts at one time or another.

The best advice I have ever heard came from actor, director, author, screenwriter and producer, Ken Farmer. “Just write the damn story.”

I couldn’t have said it better. There is no set in stone way to approach your story. Anyone who says differently is lying to you. I read an article many years ago, when I was a mere novice. I had one book, Indian Summer, under my belt. I was beginning my Lone Wolf sci-fi series. I came across this article by a famous sci-fi author, whose name I can’t remember now. He said that an author must outline everything carefully before beginning to write. An author must know the ending before beginning to write. An author must spend more time on the outlining and planning stage than on the writing itself. It was, in this author’s opinion, essential to follow a carefully crafted plan.

That one article spun me into a panic of momentous proportions. I don’t do any of that. I tried writing an outline once, only to find myself writing the story instead. I scrapped the outline and wrote. I don’t plot and plan before I begin. I never know the ending. I hop in and hope for the best. I dispense with the long, drawn out planning stage and go for the fun part—writing.

For certain styles of writing, outlining is important. For instance, if you’re writing a biography, non-fiction or a how-to book, you should probably know where you’re going. I’ve always been more of the opinion that the outline is something you write after they paper is done, but then I never have had a conventional approach to anything.

I have been a Blog Talk Radio host for six years. In that time, I have talked with dozens of authors and I ask them the same question every show, “Are you a plotter/ planner or do you jump  in and start writing?” Surprisingly, the plotter/ planners are in the minority, though how-to authors would have us believe that theirs is the only correct and perfect way to approach the story. This offers food for thought. Which approach is the correct one?

The answer is simple, no one can tell you that. What works for me doesn’t necessarily work for anyone else. I’ll describe my method (such as it is) and tell you some variations I’ve come across.

I get a starting idea—usually an opening sentence. Once in awhile, it’s dialogue. Whatever’s the case, it nags at me until I write it down. If I don’t, it’s gone and I may never get that story back. Frustrating but true.

Once I start to write, the words flow and I type as fast as I can in order to get them down. Sometimes, a story presents itself through pen and paper. I don’t argue, I just write. These are rare, but do happen. I’ve learned to live with it.

My stories, for the most part, come at me chronologically. I begin at the beginning and write until I reach the end. I rarely use flashbacks, though I do have them from time to time. I rarely skip from one scene to another. For me, that’s a lot more work. The only time I do that is if I get a scene that’s really compelling and wants to be written now. Then I pick up and continue where I left off, bringing the story to that place.

Once in awhile, I can’t remember exactly where I left off. If I’m away from home and intend to write while I’m gone, I’ll take a notebook with me. I might pick up a scene a bit further in the future and write it instead, then go back and bridge the gap.

I listen to music when I write. What I have playing varies, but usually it’s something that provides a background and doesn’t intrude. A lot of my author friends say they can’t have music with words, but that doesn’t usually bother me. I hear the melodies and am only marginally aware of the lyrics.

I continue typing until I finish the book, or the muse clams up. Since she’s a pesky wench, she does that fairly often—hence the fact that I have nearly as many unfinished novels as I do finished ones. If she closes her mouth on one, she often opens it on another. I write on that for awhile until she clams up again.

This is my method, if it can be called such.

There are variations, the most common of which are below. I am presenting these in First Person, though they are the ways and means of other authors:

I write each scene separately, whatever interests me the most. I write notes of each on a note card and lay them out on the floor, moving them around until I get the right sequence, then I string them together.

I write chronologically, but I write different scenes, the ones that speak to me the loudest, then I weave them together.

I have to have absolute quiet when I work. I can’t have music, TV, radio or any other distractions. If I do, I lose track of where I’m going with the story.

I don’t like music playing, but I have the TV on while I write. I don’t pay attention to it, I just like the background noise.

I listen to the radio when I write. It helps me block out other noise and concentrate on my writing.

I work on only one book at a time. If the words stop flowing, I give myself a break and do something else. When I feel the story again, I go back to it and keep writing. I can’t keep track of more than one plot at a time.

These variations are endless. I have only listed the ones that I’ve heard more than once from other authors. I’m surprised to find that there are a few of us who constantly juggle multiple projects. I don’t know if it speaks to our level of Attention Deficit or some other personality quirk. Most people I speak to work on one project at a time. There are some of us who are, apparently, gluttons for punishment and torture ourselves with more.

Write the way that feels comfortable. Allow your chaotic process to be productive and don’t worry about it. Accept that the first draft will probably be terrible and live with this fact. It takes years to write an acceptable first, second or hundredth draft. Don’t feel as if you need to control it all, because the fact is, you control nothing. The story chose you, not the other way around. It will control how you write, what you write and how it ends. Accept this and move on. It’s much more fun when you allow yourself to relax.


©2014 Dellani Oakes

Dellani Oakes is the author of nine published novels, 50 more which haven’t been finished yet and 75 which are finished, but not published. She’s a Blog Talk Radio host on the Red River Radio Network where she speaks to other authors. She’s also former A.P. English teacher and journalist.

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6 thoughts on “How to Approach Your Book by Dellani Oakes

  1. James L. Secor

    I follow the edicts of Natalie Goldberg and Ursula le Guin: there are no rules. I do however, more often than not, kinda follow Poe’s you have to know the end, that is, where you’re going, first. Where to begin? That’s the horror. . .and then I follow the “just write, damn it” teaching. What happens between then and the where I’m going area is up for grabs, kind of like improvising in the theatre. Keeps it exciting. Makes it, for me, feel and flow more organically. Oh, yeah! Here’s a good rule: that teacher on your shoulder who keeps whispering in your ear, knock her off your shoulder. I don’t have any muse, other than my cat. Black cat. Name of Hextor. Yay, though i walk every which way. . .

    1. Dellani Oakes

      James, thank you. I only hear a “teacher voice” when I edit. Actually, it’s my dad’s voice. He was an English professor/ editor for many years and taught me a lot about editing. His main comment was, “If you think it needs to be cut, it does.” I use that practice when I edit.

  2. Micki Peluso

    Well said, Dellani. I write short stories with the ending in mind, the beginning and then fill in the middle. However, I tried to do that with my first book and was overwhelmed. So now while I don’t do formal outlines, I do make notes as to what goes where, to avoid the past fiasco of chasing chapters around. I think everyone should have their own style or else we print out the same stories–as in a lot of genre writing. My first book was a memoir which broke every memoir rule made and was often mistaken as a novel–just the way I wanted it to. I am so sick of being told how to write, what to right and what words not to use. I like adverbs, know how to properly use them and I’m not giving them up. Thanks for a great post.

  3. Trish Jackson

    Excellent advice, Dellani. We are all unique and have our own special way of writing. Our stories come from what we have experienced in our lives, and that’s why we all see life a little differently from one another.


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