Write a book! These students did

How do you write a book? In an attempt to answer this question, I interviewed three Carnegie Mellon students who know a bit about the subject.

I talked to Colin Liotta, a junior English major, who wrote a children’s novel called Boy Werewolf last year, and is currently working on the next book in the series. I spoke with Andy Butler, a senior and the CA of Global Studies and Forbes Houses, who raised some eyebrows last year when he wrote New House 5, a fictionalized account of a year in CMU’s newest dorm. I also interviewed Kristan Hoffman, a junior creative writing major. Though Liotta and Butler are both published authors, neither of them has taken many creative writing classes. From these interviews, I’ve created a guide for you, the aspiring author. Here’s what to do:

Be inspired

Liotta let his favorite collection of books, the Harry Potter series, drive him to create a similar body of work. That’s a good start, but eventually every writer must develop a distinct style. Imitation may be flattery at its best, but it’s not favored in the literary world. Liotta admitted that some publishers have worried that the premise of his new series is too much like a story J.K. Rowling might write. Liotta said you have to “separate yourself” from the authors you admire.

Real events can also serve as inspiration. When Butler applied to be an RA for the fifth floor of New House, he didn’t expect that the experiences he would share with his floormates would inspire him to write a book. When he did decide to write about the friendships and drama of his sophomore year, he realized that the goal of his book would be to prepare high school students and their parents for the phenomenon that is dorm life. Butler kept this mission in mind while writing New House 5, and it helped to motivate him along the way.

In addition, all CMU students share a common source of inspiration: our classes. I’m not talking about the professional or creative writing courses meant to train writers, but rather the ones that may seem irrelevant in the world of prose: Matter and Interaction, Concepts of Math, Organic Chemistry.

“I think that the other classes I take stimulate my brain,” said Hoffman. She recalled a past semester when almost all of her classes were English-oriented — it was unchallenging and, as a result, uninspiring. Hoffman added, “You have to have something to write about.” Some of the most moving works of art have scientific premises, but even if science is not relevant to your work of fiction, learning about it keeps your mind open.

Finding what works

Liotta has already written two books out of a planned six, but when I asked him if he knew how book number six would end, he shrugged his shoulders. He said he likes to avoid planning; otherwise his series would, in his words, feel “like a homework assignment.” In fact, part of what Liotta loves about writing is watching the plot of his story continue to grow and change with the addition of new characters and events.

Liotta makes a case for unstructured writing, but it doesn’t work for everyone. In fact, one of the first things that Butler did when he decided to write New House 5 was to make an outline for the entire book. He said that it helped to “break it down” into chapters and occurrences, to make the project seem a little less overwhelming.

By the time I got to ask Hoffman how she prefers to write, I was more than a little confused. Apparently when it comes to prose there are no easy answers. She said that “personality types” play a huge role in how people write. Friends with both Liotta and Butler, Hoffman laughed when I told her how each of them write. She explained that knowing their personalities, my findings were hardly surprising. “There is no correct way,” Hoffman added, and told me that her methods are somewhere in between Liotta’s spontaneity and Butler’s meticulous preparation.

Every writer is different, but there are a few tips that seem to be universal. Liotta told me it is important to pick an idea you won’t get sick of writing about, and then devote yourself to it. Liotta sacrificed many a college weekend while writing Boy Werewolf, and had to learn to ignore the skepticism of his friends. As he put it, writing should be something “separate from your social life.”

Be confident

“You can’t be intimidated,” said Butler; you must believe that what you are working on is worth the time and effort. Butler told me that he made himself work on New House 5 for an hour every night. Sometimes that hour would only yield two or three pages of text, but he refused to be discouraged. Another interesting tip I learned from Butler is that it is helpful to allow at least a week between writing and revising. If you wait, you are more likely to spot passages that don’t make sense.

Hoffman also stressed the importance of revision. Even four lines of a poem can be worked and reworked to perfection. Writing is rewarding and enjoyable, but on top of that, as Hoffman said frankly: “It’s work.” She also recommended taking classes in all of the branches of creative writing, even the ones that aren’t suited to you. Hoffman doesn’t plan on writing a lot of poetry in her future, but taking a class on it helped her learn a lot about imagery and symbolism.

The practical: the publisher

After you’ve managed to write the Great American Novel, you’ll need to know how to get it published. Upon finishing Boy Werewolf, Liotta looked for a publishing company the same way most of us would have done it: he used Google. He found Publish America, the same publisher that Butler wound up using for New House 5.

Butler said, “If you want to get published, you can.” There are three categories of publishing companies:

Subsidy publishers will publish your book for a fee, but they won’t edit or market it. There are also the big publishing companies such as Random House that will pay for the books they want. With this comes prestige and a professional level of editing and marketing, but in order to get their attention you will have to hire an agent. For his new series of books, Liotta is working with an agent to sell his fiction to such a company.

Finally, there are free publishers such as Publish America. These companies are eager to pick up new novelists, but they have their pitfalls. Publish America released Liotta’s Boy Werewolf before all of its errors had been corrected, and not many people outside of Carnegie Mellon have heard of Butler’s New House 5 because of the limited marketing it received.

Hoffman suggested some other options. In CMU creative writing classes, teachers encourage their students to begin by submitting works of short fiction to magazines like The New Yorker. “Supposedly that’s how you start out,” Hoffman said. It has worked for a lot of authors, such as J.D. Salinger and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Another possibility is to take a fellowship, in which an academic institution pays you for a set amount of time (usually around two years) to write a book.

Last pages

And while you are working to write and publish best-selling book, I urge you to appreciate the moments that will happen along the way. I asked both Liotta and Butler, “When did it feel real?” For both of them, one such moment was when they saw their books on Amazon.com. Liotta also said he realized that real people (as opposed to friends and family members) were actually buying his book when he heard he had two sales in the UK. Butler told me that reality first hit him when he saw the cover design for New House 5. As soon as he saw it, he thought, “This is a real book.”