Advice for Book Writing and National Novel Writing Month – A Poetic Mess
Music Credit: Rose (Prod. by Lukrembo)
Hi Pen Pals, I’m Jyn Arro and you’re listening to A Poetic Mess, the podcast where we turn the beautiful and ugly messes of our lives into poetry.
Happy November, I hope you had a lovely October because from here on out the rest of the year is going to go by real fast. But before then I am going to enjoy the cooling temperatures in my desert city and finally wear some of the jackets and boots that otherwise stay buried in my closet most of the year.
I only just barely started being able to drink my coffee hot instead of iced.
Along with sweater weather, November also brings with it National Novel Writing Month! As many of you know, I recently published my first book which was a collection of poetry not a novel, but writing a book, no matter the subject matter or genre is no small feat.
But in the spirit of National Novel Writing Month, I wanted to share some advice for those of you hoping to write and publish your own book one day, or maybe you’re working on it right now and need some encouragement. It really is such a mammoth undertaking that takes so much out of you creatively, mentally, emotionally, and even more so if you are self-publishing and doing just about everything by yourself.
How I Wrote A Book On A Budget
For Book of Mirrors I was the writer, editor, illustrator, graphic designer; every single part of that book was done by me from the book cover to the copyright to the formatting. And that of course included the parts of the publishing process that I was totally unequipped for and had zero knowledge of going into it. But as a graduate fresh out of college when I started working on this book in the summer and fall of 2020, I had little money to be able to invest in my work beyond ordering proofs of the physical copy.
If you do have the means to be able to hire an editor for your book, though, I do strongly suggest then that you do so because it is one of the most important steps in the process and will save you the headache of having to catch mistakes in your own work. Something that becomes very, very tricky to do after you’ve essentially become numb to the words you’ve been writing, workshopping, and re-reading to the point that your eyes just gloss over most of it and you fill in the blanks by heart.
I gave myself a heart attack once or twice when I found font size mistakes and a wording error that, had I had an editor, probably would have been caught a lot sooner and I wouldn’t have been so anxious as my publishing day got closer.
So whether you’re in a similar situation as me or simply have a lot of anxiety around your finances, the first thing I want to say is that creating a book with little to no budget is very difficult and laborious, there’s no way around that, and you will probably find that it requires you to take on more than you are prepared for – but it is not impossible. And that’s all we need so long as we have the will, the drive, and the grit to bring our creations to life – we don’t need it to be easy (sure would be nice but) we just need it to be possible.
What Are You Waiting For?
Which leads me to my next point, start writing that book right now. When I was younger and even still when I was in college, I always thought of becoming an author as something that would happen in the near but distant future, think: in the next five to ten years post-graduating. And then 2020 ransacked my immediate plans and prospects like it did for so many others, and I was left kind of floating and lost at sea with way too much time to panic and over-think.
I was overwhelmed and confused but amidst that came the question of: okay, well what do I want to do right now? And publishing a book wasn’t the first thing to come to mind actually but after stumbling and fumbling for a bit I eventually arrived back at this dream that I had had since I was ten-years-old: becoming a published author. Then I asked myself: what am I waiting for?
And the answer to that was I was waiting for an agent or publisher to give me a “yes” one day. I was waiting for a source of external validation to make this book happen and give me a deadline by which to complete it. Not to say that that couldn’t have happened one day or that I’ll never sign on with a publisher, but realizing that these institutional practices and systematic norms of publishing were the only reasons why I was holding off on writing my book – made me stop waiting.
That was how I found my resolve to make this dream of mine come true, but on the practical side of things it did help me immensely that I had a lot of random works and lines, and old poetry sitting in notebooks and notes on my phone. Though far from everything I’ve ever written made it into my first book, on one hand because some things I wanted to keep private and on the other hand because a collection of poetry is and should be mindfully curated. Still, everything I had written over the years served as my starting point from which to decide on a theme, potential title and categories, and the direction that newly written poems would end up going in.
Write, Write, Write!
If your goal is to write a book, specifically a collection of poetry, prose, or short stories, then I would first suggest that you have a handful of things that you’ve already written. That way you can sift through them, re-read old works, see if there are common concepts or ideas that come up, and, ideally, get inspired for the layout of your book, what it’s going to be about, and what new things you want to write for it.
Once you have a good place and small pool of material to start from, the next couple of steps forward are a lot easier because you will have answered a few of the basic questions around what your book’s rough concept will be. Immediately after that, the next, very important thing to understand is that not everything you write will be good and even if it is, then not everything you write needs and or should be in this one book – let alone your first.
This is a doozy for our egos, especially as artists and creatives we take a lot of pride in what we do and make, so having to admit when a poem just isn’t turning out the way that we want or when a piece we’re partial to does not fit with the collection – is really hard! Believe me, there are poems that had more than half of their original lines cut out or entire works that I chose not to include in my book at all because I ultimately had to admit when I was overdoing it or when a poem was not worthy of having its own page next to poems that I knew, deep down, were far better or relevant to the theme. And if I could tell that something I wrote was not up to par with my other writings, then readers will also much more honestly and brutally be able to tell, as well.
Mind you, admitting that you fell short in some places or wrote a bad poem doesn’t mean you are a bad writer or that you somehow become less of a poet. As a human being seeking to fulfill personal endeavors, creative or otherwise, you will make mistakes and have failures – it only means that you’re normal. In spite of what certain toxic academics who believe their opinions on what constitutes good versus bad writing are entirely legitimate points of view based in objectivity.
My thoughts align with those of writer Janet Hulstrand who perfectly said, “Bad writing precedes good writing. This is an infallible rule, so don’t waste time trying to avoid bad writing. (That just slows down the process.) Anything committed to paper can be changed. The idea is to start, and then go from there.”
Write Your Heart Out
Also, I know that for me, long before I became serious about publishing a book, writing was the best outlet I had for processing my emotions. So, I want you to literally write out your feelings and, who knows, a masterpiece may just come out of that, or at the very least this exercise will give you some relief and maybe also a poem you’re happier with.
There is a simple, eight line poem in the Water Reflections part of Book of Mirrors, it’s titled Her Heart On A Plate and I workshopped it after watching an episode of a Nova PBS documentary series on the history of writing called A to Z. Which is an interesting show and I really recommend it if you’re a logophile, lover of words. It’s fascinating and I learned some unique things about the way different people made paper and writing instruments, amongst other things.
But back to the poem, this is Her Heart On A Plate:
From her wounds She pulled a pen From her veins She drew fresh ink From shed skin She made paper From spilled tears She brewed poetry
Behind this poem I drew an illustration of a bright red ink splatter and all together it is one of several of the poems in my book that demonstrates how I use this medium to communicate and make art out of my pains and discomforts. I share this because while poetry is an art and also something engaged in if writing is your career or something you hope to one day make your career, it will come much more naturally to you if it is also an ordinary extension of your life and how you express yourself.
Writing about the negative parts of our lives can be as creatively fruitful as writing about the positives, my little intro to the podcast always reminds you that we’re here to make poetry out of both the beautiful and ugly messes of our lives.
In the words of American writer, Joan Didion, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
Writing with such intent and purpose isn’t always necessary to make money off of your writing, and sometimes it is even near impossible if you are suffering from the inevitable rut that is burnout. But writing a book will be a task with higher odds of successful completion if you have a personal affinity for the act of writing itself and if it can become a habitual part of your life.
Curating Your Collection Into A Book
So, after you’ve written your heart out and poured all these words onto pages and notes, how do you curate and narrow down what belongs in a poetry collection and what doesn’t? This is going to be a tedious part of the journey, there’s no way to carve a shortcut because you’re going to have to read and reread everything you’ve prepared to recognize patterns and similar or overlapping themes. It’s the only way you’ll be able to group your works together and notice when you have outliers that just don’t make sense with the rest.
My own book was organized into four parts and I called them by different names at different points of the editing process, but they ended up as Broken Reflections which is about pain and sorrow, Water Reflections is about change and healing, Prism Reflections is about love and sensuality, and Sword Reflections is about resilience and power. So, you don’t have to pigeon-hole your writing into a single ultra-specific category but you do still want the progression of your book to make sense as readers turn the pages.
For example, if I had titled my book “Broken” and thrown all of my dark and sad poems in with my corny, fluffy love poems, people would have been reasonably confused. Whereas, calling my book something broader like Book of Mirrors and splitting the contents into sections that progress from poems that are painful, to healing, to loving, and finally empowering – is a much easier progression to follow and understand from a storytelling perspective.
A tactic that I did not use but which I know can be useful to others is printing out all of your poetry and physically grouping them into piles. Maybe at first there will be a “maybes” pile or an “unknown” pile while others fall more seamlessly into groups like love poems or sad poems. Play around with different groupings to sort out what common themes you want to highlight, and this will also help you find potential title ideas for the book as a whole.
The Final Step: Publishing
The final question as the book approaches its final stage is: to traditionally publish or to self-publish? And that is a question I answered for myself in the form of the latter, but that I cannot answer for you without my own bias seeping through.
I told you in the beginning that I decided to say yes to myself instead of waiting for an editor, agent, or publisher to offer me an affirming deal. But going through a traditional book publisher might be the more enticing or beneficial path for you. I’ll put up a list of links to resources and articles I used to research traditional publishing versus self-publishing on jynarro.com in my blog post for this episode. Hopefully, you can feel more confident in your decision or at the very least have a starting point that will make your options clearer and have a better understanding of them.
Whatever you decide, all I know for sure is that “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,” as attested by the brilliant Maya Angelou. And the means you find most plausible and reasonable for being able to fully realize your book as a published work, will be the right decision for you.
Thank you for listening [or reading] and I cannot wait to continue to write with you, my fellow poetry lovers and pen wielders. My first poetry book, Book of Mirrors, is out now on Amazon. You can stay in touch, share your poems with me, or read my poetry and other works @ JynArro across all social media platforms and jynarro.com.
You can support the podcast and my work at paypal.me/ByJynArro.
Till next time, this has been A Poetic Mess.
Publishing Research Sources:
- How to Self Publish a Poetry Book: A Step-By-Step Guide
- How To Self Publish A Book Of Poetry
- How to Assess the Costs of Self Publishing a Book
- The 17 BEST Self-Publishing Companies of 2021
- Pros And Cons Of Traditional Publishing vs Self-Publishing
- Is It Better to Self-Publish or Get a Publisher? An Author’s Guide
- Traditional Publishing vs. Self Publishing: Pros and Cons
- Pros and Cons of Self-Publishing Your Book