One of my friends reached out to me last week because they know someone who wants to write a book but doesn’t have any idea where to start. And I realized I didn’t have a good single resource to share with them that covers all the basics. So here we are! Consider it sorted.
If you want to write a book but have absolutely no idea where to start, this is the post for you. It draws upon years of content from my blog and my experience as a former literary agent and the author of a traditionally published children’s book trilogy and self-published guides to writing and publishing.
Have a question I didn’t cover? Let me know in the comments! And if you’d like personalized assistance, you can book a consultation. You can also check out my guide to writing a novel and guide to publishing a book, which obviously go into much more detail than I can cover in a single article.
In this post we’ll cover:
- How to get in tune with your goals
- Starting with the basics
- How to get going writing
- How to stay on track
- Getting feedback and revising
- Charting your course
Step 1: Get in tune with your goals
Okay, so you want to write a book. Quick question for you… why???
(I hope it’s not to make money. Is it to make money? If so, good luck, my friend. Goooooood luck.)
Writing a book is extremely difficult stuff, particularly if you intend to do it well. Yes, sure, you have a command of the English language and a laptop, but that scalpel in your medicine cabinet isn’t going to magically turn you into a brain surgeon either. If you’re going to climb this mountain, you’re going to need to be very serious about it and, as everyone knows from TV’s The Bachelor, you need to be in it for the right reasons.
In order to ensure you’re putting the best foot forward, get in tune with why you want to write a book in the first place, which will help shape what you write and whether you eventually pursue traditional publishing or self-publishing.
Is it just pure self-expression and you don’t care a whit who reads it? Does the challenge of trying to find the validation of a traditional publisher appeal to you? Is this to help build your brand to facilitate your business or personal growth?
Gut check your writing goals. Pause for a sec and think through the different factors that appeal to you about being an author. This will help determine your path forward and how much you choose to pay attention to the business side of writing.
Step 2: Learn the basics
If you engaged in self-reflection about your goals and decided you don’t care about anything other than pure, unmediated self-expression, more power to you. You don’t need to worry about this section and can skip ahead to Step 3.
If, however, you have even an inkling that you’d like to eventually either find a traditional publisher or profitable self-publication, it’s important to start familiarizing yourself with what’s entailed. Because if you’re going to invite the business side in, treat your book like the business that it is. It has never been the case that a commercially successful author could be “just an author.”
You don’t need to wait until you’re the world’s foremost publishing expert in order to get started writing, but understanding some of the basics will save you from falling into some obvious potholes.
Here are some places to start:
- How the traditional publishing process works – This is the old fashioned way, where someone pays you for the right to publish your book and handles (nearly) every step of that process. Understand at a high level how it works.
- How self-publishing works – There are more opportunities for making your book available than ever before. If you strike out with traditional publishers or just want to handle the process yourself, you can have a book up on Amazon very quickly.
- Why it’s important to know your book’s genre – There are lots of reasons it pays to have a sense of what you’re trying to write before you start. For instance:
- You can start familiarizing yourself with the “competition” – Writers sometimes have a mistaken notion that they are going to be polluted or something by other voices or ideas. Maybe don’t read in your genre while you’re actively trying to develop your voice, but otherwise, the more you familiarize yourself with other books like yours, the more you understand who your potential readers are and what else they’re reading. (And no, your book is not a snowflake that is wholly unlike anything that’s ever been written).
- If you’re writing nonfiction, you don’t need to write the whole book prior to seeking publication – Nonfiction books are usually sold on proposal. But you probably will need a platform, meaning you’re one of the top people in the entire world to write and promote your book idea. Memoirs are a gray area here. Sometimes non-celebrity memoirs can be sold on proposal, but the “rules” for non-celebrity memoirs are usually more like novels.
- Genre affects your word count target – Particularly in an inflationary environment that affects everything from the cost of paper and ink to shipping, publishers have an eye on word counts like never before. There aren’t hard and fast rules here, but if traditional publication is your goal, you will incrementally decrease your odds every word you go over the target for your genre.
- All about book series – And a special word for budding novelists who have already constructed a nine book series in their heads. If you’re going to self-publish, have at it. If you’re going to pursue traditional publishing, the first installment in a potential series needs to stand alone (i.e. no cliffhangers). It’s not a series until the second book is published.
That should be enough to get started.
But as you write, there will be times when you will want and need to procrastinate (did I mention writing is hard?). I highly recommend engaging in productive procrastination, where you utilize your wandering eye to learn more about the writing and publishing process.
Step 3: Start writing
There’s only so much you can do to prepare yourself for writing a book. Definitely try to engage with the basics, but at some point you just have to get going. Trust that you will figure things out as you go along.
If you’re writing a novel or memoir, there are two things to focus on as you start: find your voice and the plot. Don’t try to hold the entire book in your head all at once, just write your way to the story and your own unique flavor.
For a nonfiction book proposal, you also want to find your voice as you work your way toward 50-75 sample pages. You may also want to keep refining your idea and keep building your platform, which is very important for traditional publishing.
While you’re at it, make sure you know how to properly format a manuscript to save yourself headaches down the line.
Step 4: Stay on track
The first fifty pages of a new book typically come out in a big burst of fun and excitement. Then things get difficult. At some point you will run out of that new book steam and the real work begins.
I tend not to be very mystical about the writing process. You will absolutely have magical days where the writing gods are in your favor and everything flows, and you will have days that feel like utter slogs where a merciless cursor ruthlessly mocks your lack of productivity with every blink. You’re going to have both days.
The only way to write a book is to sit in a chair for the amount of time it takes to write a book. In order to do that, you must treat your time as a crucial asset and block off enough of it to get the task finished.
I personally believe in extreme calendaring as a way to make sure you’re spending enough time on your book.
And if you’re really, truly stuck, remember the solution to every writing problem that has ever existed.
Step 5: Get feedback and revise
No one–and I mean no one–writes a perfect first draft.
In fact, your first draft will probably suck. It’s just how it works! Don’t get caught up in the rush of having a finished draft, because you’re just past the first hurdle.
But at some point you’re going to need feedback from an objective third party. If you have the funds, blow off that ski trip and spend it on a paid edit from an experienced publishing professional, who can help you elevate your craft and evaluate your project with a commercial lens.
If you can’t afford that or just really need that hot cocoa in Aspen, good feedback comes in many forms and it doesn’t have to be from a paid editor. Absolutely don’t spend any money on a book project that you can’t afford to lose. The precarious ROI in book publishing is far too murky for that.
Once you’ve gotten feedback, do the work to incorporate it to make your book stronger. Then, if you can, opt for one more round of feedback, then revise again.
When you find yourself out of major changes and are just fiddling with tiny micro-nuances that aren’t going to make much of a difference, you’re probably ready for the next step.
Step 6: Chart your publishing path
Whew! You have a finished novel, memoir, or book proposal! Look at you, hot shot!
Now you’ll have some decisions to make. If you’re pursuing traditional publishing, it’s probably time to find a literary agent or go directly to small presses. If you’re self-publishing, you’ll start tackling those steps to have a project you can upload to Amazon and others, and start thinking about how you can market it.
And if you’re unsure about pursuing traditional publishing or self-publishing (or hybrid), this post can help you decide which path to take.
I hope that gives you a sense of how this whole process works.
Writing is one of the most meaningful endeavors anyone can undertake, and I don’t know a single person who has regretted writing a book. So congrats on considering this journey, and if you ever need any help along the way, please consider me a resource!
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes, my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
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Art: Regentesses of the St. Elisabeth Gasthuis by Frans Decker