NOTE: This is a lightly edited (for formatting) version of a post on my Medium profile which I'm migrating over here.
I recently self-published my first novella, Unearthly Whispers, on Amazon — it's a story about a futuristic historian who tries to uncover the long-lost story of the origins of humanity.
A few people asked how they could get started writing on the side while maintaining full-time jobs on the side, and I thought I'd share some tips in case it helps.
In the interest of full disclosure, while it was just 5 easy steps, it did take me roughly 5 years to finish.
First, some background.
As a kid, I grew up reading a lot of books. Like, a lot. My parents would chide me for having to spend so much on books because I'd often finish them the day I got them.
This manifested into a passion for creative writing, because I wanted to experience more stories than I could get my hands on. In school, my teachers knew me as that weird kid who wrote way-out stories. I heard this from my mom:
Your English teacher would ask where you get your ideas from — there was an assignment where all the kids had to write about what they wanted to be when they grow up — they wrote about becoming doctors, or engineers — and you wrote about becoming a Rickshaw driver. Where did that come from?
All that creativity, however, went out the door as I began my teens and grew older. As is the case with a traditional Desi upbringing, I went towards studying science and engineering — staying away from the artistic, creative professions like any respectable Pakistani adult should (that is a longer story, perhaps for another time).
All that culminated in me losing my talent and getting rusty over time. As a bored, unemployed college graduate, lamenting the loss of his creativity and wondering where it all went wrong, I decided to start writing. I poured my heart and soul into writing something — anything — to try and show myself that I still had my skills.
And that resulted in the (mostly unchanged to this day) prologue to what would eventually become Unearthly Whispers. Read on to see how I managed to complete the story over time, in short bursts of passion, while balancing a full-time job and other responsibilities.
If there was one word to summarize the writing process, it would be fragmented. There were 3–4 massive spurts where I wrote a lot of the book, with breaks of over a year at a time.
I think these five tips helped me finish:
- Write. Just Write.
- Make your job easier
- Always Be Writing
- Edit, Edit, Edit
- Know when to cut your losses
Let's go into a bit more detail for each of these.
Write. Just Write.
When I started writing the story, I didn't know where to begin, or where it would end. I just wanted to write something. And that's what I did. I imagined a fictional version of myself, becoming an astronaut (yes, I wanted to become that too, being a Rickshaw driver wasn't my only passion). Words flowed out, and after reading them, I found more motivation to continue.
It doesn't have to be perfect. Just get the material and core of the plot out. Nine times out of ten, the text you write at this stage will get rewritten — multiple times — by the time you publish, anyway. Don't worry about connecting the dots, or even having a coherent story. Just. Get. Words. On. The. Page.
I didn't know where to take it from there, however. This brings me to my next point on how I made it easier for me to write more.
Make your job easier
Let's face it — writing is hard work. There's a reason writer's block is an expression all of us have heard way too many times. And it becomes even harder when you're trying to balance writing with the other responsibilities in life. There were too many random days I'd come home in the evening, feel like writing, but it took me too long to recall where I was was and where the story was going, and I'd end up doing nothing.
At some point, I decided enough was enough. I spent a full weekend just thinking about the story, and mapping out one sentence descriptions of each chapter, to get a story arc going. That lead me to about eight chapters worth of material to fill out. I had enough notes, and enough of a starting point, that I could either finish a chapter or start a new one and have seed material.
This made it much easier, because every time I wanted to write, I could just pick up where I left off.
It's important to figure out what your roadblock is, and then work intently to removing that so you can get more writing done over time. Dedicate a weekend or something to push yourself over that block so that you can make more progress.
Always Be Writing
Shamelessly stealing a theme from sales here, always be writing. It can be rephrased towards keeping the end goal in mind.
Have a five minute break during the day? Commuting? Think about what you want to write. Imagine that next chapter in your head. Jot down some notes next time you get a chance.
Have thirty minutes free during a weekend? Write a few sentences. Write a paragraph, even. You don't have to do much, but it adds up over time to a full coherent story.
Edit, Edit, Edit
I deleted and rewrote more words than actually made it into the final book. This might have been more a circumstance of the fact that it took multiple years to write and each chapter had wildly inconsistent styles, but, editing was still paramount.
I probably spent more time editing the book than I did writing it.
Editing is great: you can do it in short bursts. It doesn't take long to go over a half page once a day and try to pick it apart. And there will always be things you can improve. From finding typos, to paragraphs that can be made clearer, to whole chapters that can be simplified, your reader will thank you for every additional minute you spend editing.
I'd even go as far to say that editing is easier when you're doing it part time — you get back to it with a fresh mind each time and you're less prone to skipping over mistakes in your head because you've seen the text too many times.
Know when to cut your losses
This was the most important one for me. One thing I've often heard at work — amongst an audience of software engineers — is to avoid turd polishing. It's very easy to get into the trap of wanting to make a story perfect. It is your baby, after all, you've poured your heart and soul into it.
By spending too much time chasing the perfect story, however — you deprive your readers of the opportunity to read your work, give you feedback, and you deprive them of the chance to read your second story because you never finished your first one.
I nearly did this with Unearthly Whispers — after writing the story and having trouble publishing it due to being too long for certain venues, and too short for others — I thought I'd expand it by going really deep on a few parts of the novel. I almost started writing that before realizing that would triple the length of the book, and then I really would never finish it.
There is one thing, which likely helped more than anything else, but isn't an individual thing— so it might be harder for you to do.
I would not have been able to get this done without constant help and support from friends and family. Once I wrote the prologue, I had a friend consistently hound me, every few months, asking for more. Once I showed it to my wife, she joined the act and gently nudged me to write.
Having constant excitement is a strong feedback loop: you get to share your wins and updates as you write, and get tips and reviews as you go — and that gets you more excited to write. This certainly helped me.
I highly recommend having friends (in general, not just as writing buddies).
I hope this gives you, dear reader, some confidence that you can also write something of your own. It doesn't have to be a perfect story (mine certainly wasn't!), or a long one. Anyone can do it — you don't need to be the world's best author, and you don't need any special training. Just some passion and hard work.
If you liked this, please let me know! I'm happy to elaborate more about the process (specifically on how I submitted it, edited it, and published it on the store) and answer specific questions. And please give the book description a read in case it sounds interesting!