How to Write a Book: A Complete Guide for New Authors
Climbing a mountain, seeing the pyramids, learning to cook, writing a book – these are but a few life goals that many of us share. In the minds of many, the book writing process is the most daunting of all.
Having the ability to write fiction and master the editing process can be one of the most rewarding things a person does in his or her entire life, but it can also be one of the most challenging, trying, frustrating, and often thankless endeavors.
Simply put, it’s not for everyone. But just about anyone who really wants to write a book can do so. In fact, in many ways, it’s easier than ever, thanks to book writing software that can take dictation, catch errors, and help keep things moving, and of course thanks to the great ease of researching allowed by the internet.
On the other hand, all the challenges writers have faced for untold generations still exist: finding the time to work, creating characters and a setting readers will believe, finding the right words to get your ideas into a shape others will receive, and, of course, the hardest part of all: sticking with the actual writing until the book is done.
We’ll never know how many novels, memoirs, or plays were abandoned and uncompleted, but it’s a safe bet that they outnumber all the published works!
If you think you want to write a book despite all the challenges, then let’s stop right there: don’t think it, know it. Now, if you know you want to write a book, then let’s roll.
Before the writing process: The why
The most important thing you need to ask yourself, before you take any further steps, is why you want to write a book. Because while there are many good reasons to want to write a book, there are a few good reasons why writing a book may not be the best idea.
To begin here, let’s consider a few arguments in favor of you taking the plunge (AKA the often-heroic time and effort needed) and writing a book.
Do you want a writing career?
First, if you simply really, deeply want to write a book, you have your book idea, and you know you just won’t be fulfilled unless you do this thing, then do it. Go for it, no other reason needed than your own “I want to write a book!” Self-publishing is always an option, so there’s nothing at all to stop you.
Second, even if you’re not consumed by the desire to have written a book but you happen to have a good book (or books) within you, based on an idea you had, a life experience or the life story of someone you know of, or perhaps your expertise in a field that just begs for you to pen a nonfiction book, then you may want to go ahead. In this case, it’s the book demanding you write it, not you simply wanting to have a finished book to your credit.
Third, writing a book can be a source of income. Don’t quit your job and bank on your new career as a professional writer (and definitely don’t quit your day job or buy a new car or anything of the sort until you are well established), as writing can be a hard way to make a living at all and an even harder one at which to enjoy a stable, steady career.
But if you can add writing into your existing life balance, it may just add in some revenue if it turns out you’re a decent hand at writing. And in fact, you can even make decent money via self-publishing, provided you’re also rather good at self-promoting.
Why you shouldn’t write a book
Before you begin writing, we do need to talk about a few reasons why perhaps you should not write a book.
If trying to write a book is going to add undue stress to your life, if you are already spread thin in terms of time and emotional stamina as it is, then don’t try to write a book, at least not right now.
Life changes over the years, and it will quite likely be a better time to start writing later. That said, short stories, poems, nonfiction essays, and the like? You can always write such shorter form work now, no grand commitment needed.
If you are considering writing a book at the behest of someone else but your heart’s not in it, then find a polite way to say no and to redirect the person elsewhere – your aunt with the “amazing” life story can always hire a paid professional writer as a ghost writer.
And finally, if you want to write a book just because you want to have written a book, then it’s probably in your best interest to let the notion go. Writing an entire book just to check that box, as it were, is almost surely going to yield a book most people would just as soon not read. Even if it took you less than a year, save yourself the time and effort until you get an idea for the book, not a book, and know that it’s OK to live a perfectly happy life having never written a book at all.
None of this is to discourage you from writing fiction, a memoir, a children’s story, a YA novel, or anything else, it’s just to get you thinking about the why of it all, because after all, it’s a lot of work, whether you’re writing nonfiction or a fantastical story that takes place in a world you create yourself. That way, when you finally write those first words, you’ll know you are committed to sticking with the writing habit and writing routine until you get to the last words, even if it’s a long slog.
The first step: Reading books. Lots of books
For your own book, you know your story, your characters, your setting, all that. So why would you need to do a good deal of reading before you get to writing? Well, if you’re a regular reader already, maybe you don’t. But if it has been a while since you read much, then it’s time to crack some books open. And it’s not just my opinion. It’s good practice that is espoused by many of the greatest writers out there.
This is especially important if you are writing in a genre, such as crime fiction, fantasy, or romance, or so on. Read other works in the same genre for inspiration, to see what readers are enjoying (and what’s selling), and to make sure you actually enjoy the genre as much as you think you do.
Read to learn new words, to see new writing styles. Read to gain a better appreciation of what makes dialogue work in a particular story (and when it doesn’t – almost every book ever published has its problem points!). Read to find out how many words are in the most popular books written by a New York Times bestselling author. Information is power!
Reading other books isn’t the only way to prime your mind for writing, but it is a great start. And also to make sure what you’re writing ends up as original a work as possible as you hone your writing style, sometimes also called the writing voice.
The two kinds of writers: The gardener and the architect
Granted, lumping all writers ever into but two categories is a messy business. One could come up with dozens of more specific subcategories and fit writers into them, and also of course many writers cross the lines, working via one approach for one novel, another in the next, and even blurring the process during the course of working on one project in some cases.
But for our purposes, we’re drawing a single line down the middle and demarking two types of writer: the gardener and the architect. You can switch sides as you please, but as you start a given project, you have to be in one camp or the other if you expect success.
Let’s talk about the architect first. An architect can’t leave anything to chance: do so, and the pipes and wires will be installed all wrong, the windows and doors at rakish angles, the walls askew, and the very foundation of building unsound, the whole structure likely to collapse.
The writer who follows the architect’s approach knows where her book is going to end before she even starts it. She knows how to focus, she makes plans, she makes notes, maybe even outlines. She writes character sketches, location descriptions, and on it goes.
In short, she has a roadmap for the whole story right from the start. If this sounds like it saps creativity, it doesn’t; rather it provides a framework into which you can pour your best prose, your most pointed dialogue and poetic phrasing.
The problems for the architect is that if a great new idea comes along, it may not be able to fit in, and if a pre-planned plot point falls flat or a character just isn’t working, it can be hard to fix the story without going too far astray from the plans.
The gardener takes a markedly different approach to writing. For them, the work done beforehand isn’t specific, it isn’t planning, per say, but daydreaming. It’s wondering. It’s picturing and imagining but it’s not committing to any given story arc or character trait or any of it.
The gardener wonders and ponders for a long time, and this is the planting of the seeds. Then they get to work, and this is the watering and feeding and tending; it is the growing of the garden, in other words. And when they finish writing and the entire manuscript is done, that is the harvest.
The gardener knows what is planted and has an idea of what will grow, but is ready to be as pleasantly surprised by the exact shape the book takes as it grows. The gardener approach can unleash creativity to its fullest bounds, because you’re never tied to any one plan. But it can also allow you to write yourself into a hole in ways that the architect will seldom if ever experience, given the plans drawn up from the start.
Exactly what type of writer are you?
Is one approach better than the other? Well, in some cases, yes. If you are going to write nonfiction books, it’s probably better to plan it out pretty well. There will likely be chronology to consider, quotes to include, facts to factor in, and of course lots of citation and attribution to keep track of.
On the other hand, if you are writing fiction, all those plans may well trap you and end up feeling limited. So do consider a hybrid approach in both cases: planning out, perhaps, the beginning and the denouement of your novel well and then letting things wind their way a bit in between, or using detailed outlines for the chapters of that nonfiction book but letting yourself enjoy the prose writing within each section.
Setting up your writing space and establishing writing habits
The first thing to keep in mind when considering how you will establish a dedicated writing space and writing habits is to tell yourself not to be too rigid about them.
Yes, when writing books it’s a great idea to have a dedicated space in which and time at which you write, but if you anchor to these too fully, you’ll begin giving yourself excuses to skip writing when everything is not in place.
For most people, writing is a quiet, solitary activity and as such the ideal writing space is one in which you can be alone and with relatively little sound. A private writing cabin by the lake is ideal, but likely not an option. So instead this space can be a desk in an office, the dining room table if the house is calm, your garage, the deck, a library alcove, or anywhere else that’s readily accessible and does not usually warrant interruption.
On the other hand, some people thrive on working in busy spaces, inspired by the sights and sounds and action around them. Thus the common (and accurate) trope of the writer working in a coffee shop or a bench on a busy city street.
Not only can these environments work well for some writers, but in other cases you may simply need to get out of your living space to get into a writing headspace and to truly capture the reader’s interest, so take what you can get and make it work, be it a quiet park or bustling diner.
Don’t sweat the word count, just put in the time. It’s better to write a paragraph you love than a chapter you hate. But better still? Write a page you’re pretty happy with, and that you can edit into something great later on. Because often it’s in the editing where the book truly comes into its own.
Writer’s block is not real… but it can feel that way
Again, writer’s block is not a real thing, not in the way that a tonsil infection or broken laptop or other tangible things that can interrupt your flow are.
But getting stuck wondering how to end a chapter, difficulty making a new character feel real, trouble with dialogue or scenery description, uncertainty how to weave an interviewee’s quotes into your nonfiction piece – these are all real difficulties you can and will face if you write enough.
For the sake of argument, we’ll just call all those and more “writer’s block” anyway, as we’re talking about how to move past it and get on with your writing process. And indeed one of the best ways to overcome writer’s block is through a process, is through disciplined writing habits.
If you sit down at the same time in the same writing space ready to do the work every day (or most days), your mind will become primed to shift into writing gear, build on fresh ideas, and you may never even hit a snag. Just make sure you stay with it for at least 20 to 30 minutes of writing time during each writing session. Almost overwhelmingly, you’ll find that successful writers are disciplined writers that follow the same structure during their routine. (And hey, the same goes for lawyers, explorers, painters, boxers, detectives, and on it goes.)
Keep things fresh
Next, you can avoid getting stuck on one project by keeping things fresh through variety. If you are stuck working on a chapter in your novel, write out that poem you thought of while stuck in traffic. Or dash out a journal entry about your day. Or write a short story about a subject and characters entirely unlike the project at which you’re stumbling.
Not only can switching gears refresh and recharge you to keep on with your primary book ideas, but you may actually end up with a great piece of writing from the secondary work you did. (You know Robert Frost’s arguably most famous poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” right? Well, had the poet not been working all night long on a different piece. He dashed off “Stopping” in a matter of minutes in the morning in the year 1922.)
And finally, if you’re stuck hard and fast and you’re starting to get frustrated, stop writing. Not entirely, of course, just for the moment. Take a break; take a day off, even.
Worse than not being productive during one or two writing sessions is developing a larger frustration with writing in general; that may see you lose interest and give up instead of just giving it a rest. Take a walk, call a friend, watch a show, read a book, just take a break, then get back to it.
Okay, you wrote an entire book! What now?
Done with your book? Amazing, congratulations are well due! Take a breath, relax, feel some pride. Now back to work! After giving yourself a few days away from the book, or maybe even a couple of weeks, go through the whole thing and make any and all edits you think will improve it.
Now get that book into the hands of someone you trust – someone who isn’t looking to hurt your feelings, of course, but won’t be afraid to do so if honesty leads to such. Get a few people to read the book and give you notes if you can, and cross-reference their input, weighing your own feelings, too.
Once the book is in a form you feel you and your crew can’t make better, it’s time to consider whether you will self-publish or try to go big and get a publisher to take your book on. This is true for nonfiction writers and poets alike. Get yourself an agent. Which will not be easy, by the way.
To find an agent, do the research. Look in acknowledgement sections of books similar to yours and see who the author thanked, then read up on what that agent likes and go through the steps. Prepare to be met usually with silence, occasionally with rejections. But keep at it, because once you get someone in your corner, you are much closer to getting a book on shelves.
It’s never too late
William Wordsworth (aptly named, right?) is one of the most famous poets of one of the most famous groups of poets, the English Romantics. He was born in the year 1770 and died in 1850 and, while prolific throughout much of his life, many of the poet’s most famous and enduring poems were written when he was over the age of 50.
Raymond Chandler, an icon of the noir writing of the first half of the 20th century, didn’t start writing until he was 44. And Toni Morrison didn’t have a single novel published until she was 40 – a couple decades later, she was a Nobel prize winner. The same thing could be true for you!
If that’s not inspiration enough, then read some quotes about writing from successful writers or, better yet, read some books about writing written by masters of the craft, like Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, to name one.
And as mentioned earlier, as you work, don’t sweat the daily word count goal – Flaubert often obsessed over single sentences for entire days before they fit a style he felt suitable for their novel. And don’t stress if you get stuck – first drafts are meant to be just that, drafts. Switch gears and write something else for a bit, or charge ahead even if you know a sentence or two aren’t great and then edit the hell out of them later.
It’s never too late to write a book… until it is. But you won’t be around to know about it then, so do it now. Read, plan, ponder, get excited, then start writing. And don’t stop until the book is done. If you enjoy yourself in the process, you can go ahead and write another one. And another.