Writing a book is not easy, but it is one of the most rewarding feelings to finish a book you’ve been working on consistently for a while. You also get that confidence boost from doing what you said you were going to do… a project you’ve had in the back of your head for years.
There isn’t one answer that can tell you exactly how to write a book. We are all unique, which means some people might need more time than others to write, or they might not be the best at being creative but are extremely consistent and disciplined.
Either way, here are the steps you need to take if you plan to write a book.
1. Identify Your “Why” for Writing a Book
Take a deep breath and be really honest with yourself.
Why do you want to write this novel?
If you’ve never written one before, why do you want to put yourself through the process? What’s driving you forward?
If you’ve already written other novels, why are you writing this particular book?
It’s not easy to write a novel. Many people say they want to write one, but few of them finish a first draft. Even fewer will hold their finished book in their hands, and even fewer will find success, however they define it.
There’s a lot to learn and you will have to overcome challenges, both practical and emotional, to finish your book, so you need a driving reason to see you through the difficult times ahead.
Here are some possible reasons:
- There’s a story burning in my heart that I have to tell
- This character keeps nudging me or talking to me and I need to get them out of my head
- I’ve always been a reader, and now I want to be a writer
- I have this inner need to write something
- I love reading but I can’t find the book I really want to read, so I might as well write it myself
- I want validation that I can write something good
- It’s one of my life goals — I’ve always wanted to write a book and now I’m determined to achieve it
- I want to win a literary prize
- I want to change the world, and stories are the best way to shift people’s mindset
- I want to make money with my stories, hopefully, lots of money!
- Writing my story as fiction will help me heal, and hopefully help others too
- I want to see my story on the screen as a film or a TV show
- I have so many ideas and I need to turn those into books
Whatever your reasons, identify them now. You might need to dig down a layer or two because sometimes our desires go deeper than we think.
“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.” —Stephen King, On Writing
2. Get Over The Barriers Keeping You From Finishing Your Book
How long have you been thinking about writing a novel? For many writers, it’s been years, perhaps even as long as they can remember. Why haven’t you written your novel yet?
Or, if you started once, why didn’t you finish? What stopped you before — and how can you break through that barrier now? Here are some common reasons writers quit:
- I’m overwhelmed with too much information. It’s too complicated.
- I don’t know enough. I don’t know where to start.
- I don’t have enough time. There are always more important things to do.
- I’m worried that I might not be good enough. What if my writing is terrible?
- What if I fail? I’m going to look really stupid and I’ll be embarrassed.
- It might be a waste of time.
- I don’t have any ideas.
- I have too many ideas.
- I want to write something but I don’t know what.
- I got lost in the plot, and couldn’t turn my thoughts into words.
- I have a terrible draft, but I don’t know how to finish. Someone told me my writing was terrible (a teacher, an editor, a friend, a loved one) and I can’t get past that.
- I keep starting and then running out of steam, so I never finish.
Whatever you’re feeling, you’re the only one who can work through the obstacles and shift your mindset. You have to want to write your novel. You have to be determined to finish it. It’s time to overcome those issues and make it happen.
3. Schedule Writing Time
William Faulkner once said, “I write when the spirit moves me, and the spirit moves me every day.” If your ultimate goal is to become a professional novelist, then eventually you’ll reach the point where you write every day. But very few writers start out on that kind of schedule.
When you’re just starting out, you probably can’t write every day because you have other commitments. But you want to be writing every week — probably at least a couple of times per week. Why? Because you need this time to focus on learning the tools of the craft and improving your writing skills.
In our experience, your best bet is to start small and steadily work up to longer periods of writing time each week. By starting out small, you’ll be able to celebrate smaller and near-term victories on your path to becoming a fiction author.
You may start with, say, half an hour or an hour a week. Later, your goal may be to carve out three hours per week of honest writing time or to write five pages of text or 700 words a day. Make sure that whatever goal you choose, it’s both measurable and attainable.
A number of tools are available to make time management a snap, including the following:
- Personal organizers and day planners: These paper-based time management systems — which go by names such as Filofax, Day-Timer, and the FranklinCovey Day Planner — are essentially daily calendars on steroids. They’re portable, easy to use and update, and they don’t need batteries.
- Portable electronic organizers: Many mobile telephones and personal digital assistants (PDAs) incorporate time management utilities within them. For example, Apple’s iPhone offers a variety of time management apps, with such titles as To-Do’s, iProcrastinate Mobile, and Toodledo.
- Computer software: Microsoft and Apple include simple to-do lists in many of their software offerings (such as Outlook), and you can Google time management software to find all sorts of other options. Remember to keep it simple — few writers need the capabilities in a full-blown project management software package. Ideally, whatever software solution you choose will boot up along with your computer each morning and display your list of to-dos without you having to go out of your way to get it going. Find a simple system that does what you need it to do and — perhaps most importantly — that you’ll use.
4. Set Up Your Ideal Writing Space
Why do you need a creative space for your writing? Can’t you just go to a coffee shop and plunk down your laptop? Yes, of course you can.
In that case, the coffee shop is part of your writing space. But another part is that laptop. Every writing space has three basic parts:
- A desk (or table or other flat surface)
- A chair
- A computer (or pad of paper and pen or pencil)
If you mooch off the coffee shop for the table and chair, that’s perfectly okay, as long as the owners don’t mind. (Good luck at mooching a computer off them, though.) Whoever provides the space, make sure that it’s dedicated to your writing.
All people are creatures of habit. Being creative is easier when you have a special space where you habitually get creative.
If space is really at a premium for you — maybe you live in a studio apartment or you share space with several other people — then a wide variety of specialized writing surfaces are available.
Consider buying and installing a fold-down desk that you can mount on the wall. These items are designed to be ready at a moment’s notice when you need them but to stay out of the way when you don’t. Alternatively, consider getting a laptop writing table — also known as a lap desk. These writing surfaces are easy to handle, and you can take them anywhere.
Before you dive into the writing process, get your writing space set up to write. If you’re trying to write on a desk that’s cluttered with dirty clothes or piles of old newspapers or other debris, you won’t be at your best as a writer.
Clear off anything that doesn’t have something to do with achieving your writing goals. Put your computer front and center, with the keyboard and monitor in a comfortable place — not hanging off the edge of the desk.
Locate your printer nearby (so you don’t have to get up every time you print a document), and have a little cup to hold pencils and pens within easy reach.
Although many writers now use online dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other references, you may find it useful to have a dictionary and other reference books on your desk.
5. Find Your Book Ideas
When authors are interviewed, one question comes up over and over again: “Where do you get your ideas?” Once you have trained the idea muscle, ideas are abundant — you will have thousands of them.
The problem is deciding which to pay attention to since you don’t have the time to turn all of them into stories. But I still remember when I started out as a writer and this question was one I fixated on, too.
Here are some tips if this is something you struggle with, too.
Recognize your curiosity and lean into it
If you can’t identify what you’re curious about right away, don’t worry. It takes practice to recognize it and allow it to emerge, especially if you’ve spent years as an adult pursuing more ‘appropriate’ interests. We learn to repress our curiosity as we grow up, so think back before real life stopped you doing things for the fun of it.
What were you curious about when you were younger? What do you like helping your kids or grandkids or other children in your life with? What are your standout memories? What topics won’t let you go?
Idea generation is like a muscle. When you visit a gym for the first time, you have to start with tiny weights. Over time, you work up to heavier ones. Start small by noticing what you’re interested in and lean into those preferences. You will find the practice compounds until, one day, you’ll be struggling with the number of ideas you have!
Go on an Artist’s Date
The idea of the Artist’s Date comes from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and it’s a staple of my creative practice. I need to consume in order to produce.
Book time out for your creative self and go somewhere that will open your mind and challenge you in a new way. An art gallery, a museum, a seminar, or just time away from the usual routine to read a book or watch a film or whatever your inner artist wants to do.
Go alone so you can tune into your thoughts and preferences rather than what others think. Notice how you feel and consider questions that arise.
Notice interesting objects and artifacts
In thrillers, action adventure, and some mysteries, there is often a particular object that the characters search for — nicknamed the MacGuffin — and it’s intriguing enough to become the center of the story.
The Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant are two MacGuffins that endure in stories through countless re-tellings.
Consider ‘What if?’ ideas
“What if” questions are often the basis for books.
The Martian by Andy Weir: What if you were stuck alone on Mars?
Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James: What if you met a sexy billionaire who offered you everything you ever wanted in exchange for something unexpected in the bedroom?
The Stand by Stephen King: What if a plague wiped out 99 percent of the population and you were one of the few left?
Consider the ‘what if’ questions behind the books you love. You could answer the same question in a different way in your own story.
Tap into themes and issues you care about
Different societal issues drive authors to write, depending on their worldview. Is there an issue or cause you feel passionate about? You must decide what’s important enough for you to write a story about, or if you want to keep your stories for entertainment or escape.
Whatever cause you are passionate about, you’re writing a story, not a nonfiction book on the topic or an essay preaching your point of view. Don’t bash the reader over the head with your stance.
Tell a story and use your theme to underpin the characters and the plot. But remember, you do not have to write an important story. You can just write for fun. Readers need that, too. Perhaps now more than ever.
Use ideas from other books, stories, and myths
Many writers use the classics for inspiration. For example, Madeline Miller has written fictional accounts of Circe, Achilles, and other characters from Greek myth. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins was inspired by the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, in which tributes were offered to the monster every year.
If you take notes from other books, don’t copy out entire passages word-for-word because you may end up accidentally plagiarizing. But certainly you can get ideas from other books, then spin off and write your own version.
6. Write A Book Outline
“Outlining is the most efficient way to structure a novel to achieve the greatest emotional impact… Outlining lets you create a framework that compels your audience to keep reading from the first page to the last.” —Jeffery Deaver
Writers who outline or plot spend more time up front considering aspects of the novel and know how the story will progress before they start writing the manuscript. It’s a spectrum, with some outlines consisting of a page or so and others stretching to thousands of words of preparation.
While discovery writers jump into writing and spend more time later cleaning up their drafts, outliners or plotters spend time beforehand so they can write faster in the first draft.
When it’s time to write, outliners focus on writing words on the page to fulfil their vision rather than figuring out what’s going on. Outlining can result in more intricate plots and twists, deeper characters, less time rewriting, and faster production time.
There is no single way to outline, but options include a text document, a spreadsheet, mind maps, and/or Scrivener or other software. Outlines can also vary in length and complexity.
Shawn Coyne describes the Foolscap Method in The Story Grid, where an entire book can be outlined on one A4 page with just a few lines describing the beginning, middle, and end of the story.
You could expand this brief outline into a document of a few pages by describing the main action points and characters of each scene in a couple of lines or a paragraph. This is often what agents and publishers mean by an outline.
At the more extreme end of the plotting spectrum, thriller author Jeffery Deaver creates a lengthy outline for his thrillers. As he said in a Wall Street Journal interview in 2012, “The finished outline runs about 150 pages, single spaced, though with very wide right margins, so I can jot references to the research material relevant to the plot.”
7. Do Your Research
Most fiction writers do some research, but the extent will differ depending on the book you’re writing, and your personal preference.
For example, a sprawling historical mystery set in 1800s London will require more research than a literary coming of age novel set in one house in the present day. A hard sci-fi epic series based on specific scientific discoveries will take more research than a stand-alone horror novel set in an underground bunker.
You can go into the research phase with no concrete agenda, as I often do, and find a story there somewhere. Or, if you have ideas already, research allows you to develop them further.
Readers of certain genres have expectations for research and accuracy. The reader wants to sink into your fictional world. If you introduce something that jolts them or rings untrue, you might get scathing reviews about errors in specific time periods, or the type of weapon or language a character uses. You can avoid these issues through research, but only you can decide how much you want to do.
8. Write Your First Draft
You must take this step, or you will never finish your novel. Remember the iceberg. You don’t need to know everything before you start. Just get going and figure the rest out later.
Your first draft won’t be perfect, and you certainly don’t need to show it to anyone, but at least you will have something to work with.
Of course, things will change in the editing process, but there’s a tremendous feeling of satisfaction when the first draft is done. That feeling is your goal.
The myth of writing is that an author sits down and creates a perfect, fully formed sentence on the page, followed by another and another, until they have finished a superb story in one attempt.
But that’s not how writing works. You will never see the first draft of your favorite book and, as a new writer, you can only compare someone else’s finished novel to your first draft. That’s not a fair comparison, so try not to do it!
If you get your butt in the chair, or stand and dictate, for consistent periods of time, you will finish a draft.
It doesn’t matter if the words aren’t great. You can clean them up in the editing process, but you need to get black on white and finish that first draft in order to edit it into something useful later. Don’t do anything else during that time block. No email, no social media, no messaging. Just get words on the page.
If your goal is to finish your novel, set a deadline and schedule your writing time accordingly, otherwise you could spend years, decades, or even the rest of your life working on it.
If you write 1,000 words per session, and you’re aiming for a 70,000 word novel, that will be 70 writing sessions of first-draft material.
9. Edit Your Writing
There are several stages in the editing process. As you progress in your craft, you won’t need every stage every time, so assess with each book what kind of editing you need along the way.
The self-editing stage is your chance to improve your manuscript before anyone else sees it. For some authors, this stage might mean rewriting the entire draft. For others, it involves restructuring, adding or deleting scenes, doing line edits, and more.
Developmental or structural edit
An editor reads your manuscript and gives feedback on specific aspects, character, plot, story structure, and anything else pertinent to improving the novel.
It is sometimes described as a manuscript critique. You will receive a report, usually ten to fifteen pages, with notes on your novel, which you can then use in another round of self-editing.
While this is not always necessary, it can be a valuable step and something I appreciated particularly for my first novel when I had so much to learn.
Copyediting and line editing
This is the classic ‘red pen’ edit where you can expect comments and changes all over your manuscript. This edit focuses on anything that enhances the writing quality, including word choice and phrasing issues, as well as grammar, and more.
Some editors split this edit into two, and there are differences between what this edit is called between countries.
For some editors, a copyedit includes only attention to grammar and correctness, while a line edit focuses on improving and elevating sentences. Be clear about your expectations and that of your editor upfront.
You will usually receive an MS Word document with Track Changes on as well as a style guide or style sheet and other notes, which you can then use to make revisions during another self-edit.
This is the most expensive part of the process, as editors usually charge per 1,000 words based on the type of edit you want. If you need to cut your story down by 20K, then do it before you send your manuscript for a line edit!
Proofreading is the final check of the manuscript pre-publication for any typos or issues that might have been introduced in the editorial process.
For print books, this can include a review of the print proof with formatting. You should only fix the last tiny changes at this point. Don’t make any major changes this close to publication or you may introduce entirely new errors.
11. Come Up With A Title
Some authors start with the title, others find the title later, and that may change from book to book. If you publish independently, the title is your choice, but if you choose a traditional publishing deal, the title might be out of your hands, depending on the situation.
Many books take their titles from Shakespeare. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is from The Tempest, and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is from Julius Caesar.
Be careful with this approach. While titles themselves cannot be copyrighted (in English), you can’t use brands or character names or other potentially protected intellectual property.
During the editing process, you might find a line of text that works well as a title. Keep a note of it and see if it resonates as a title later.
The Harry Potter series uses his name in every book title, and The Girl on the Train spawned a glut of thrillers with ‘girl’ in the title, proving this option can also be overdone.
You don’t have to decide on your final title right away. Sometimes it’s best just to give your project a working title so you have something to call it, and then finalize it later on.
12. Format Your Book Properly
This is a fairly easy step to do if you know how to do it. If not, you can watch tutorials on Youtube as there are plenty and they can explain it to you 10 times better than I ever could through a book. Basically all you’ll need is Word and basic knowledge on how to use it, everything else you can learn from a tutorial.
Personally I prefer to hire a freelancer to format my books as it’s faster and very cheap. Freelancers shouldn’t charge you more than $5 for a 100 page book unless you have too many illustrations. If you’d like to hire a freelancer I suggest you look for one in Fiverr as they offer many amazing and useful services.
This is pretty much everything you need to check and do before publishing. If you have a set date to publish your book I suggest you take into consideration that this whole process of proofreading and editing might take you around a week.
13. Get A Good Cover
Order a cover or make a cover yourself that looks professional. If you’re unsure about a particular freelancer or what you would like to include in your cover, you can order a few different ones from different freelancers to make sure you get exactly what you want. Make sure the title and subtitle are easy to read and that the cover catches the eyes of potential customers.
Remember that your cover is the first contact with the client and it can either work wonders or end up being ignored…resulting in no sales. If you’d like to make the cover yourself, there are some beautiful stock images on unsplash.com which you can download and use for free.
14. Publish Your Book
When you’ve finished your final draft, it’s time to publish. Nowadays, self-publishing is easier than ever due to online marketplaces and electronic readers like the Kindle.
However, we believe that a novelist’s best deal is usually to work with a traditional royalty-paying publisher who’ll take the risk and will do the hard work of marketing your novel.
Almost every novel by a traditional publisher will sell thousands to tens of thousands of copies. Almost every self-published novel will sell dozens to hundreds of copies. You don’t need a calculator to do the math on which one is a better deal.
If you decide to work with a traditional publisher, you need to find one willing to work with you. We strongly recommend that you get an agent to help you sell your work to a publisher. It is still possible these days to sell a novel without an agent, but it’s much harder than it used to be.
Most novels sold these days to traditional publishers are represented by an agent. To get an agent, you usually need to write a query letter in order to make first contact.