So you want to write a book. I know the feeling I’ve been writing books for many years now. There’s a lot of people out there on the internet and elsewhere, that will try to tell you that writing a book is easy, you can do it fast, they’ve got five steps to writing a best-seller.
I do have 13 foundational steps that you’re going to need to follow if you’re going to write a book. Speed is not the point. Quality is the point.
The first thing you’re going to want to do is establish your writing space. You should never say that you don’t have a place to write, you can write anywhere, but you want to establish what you need. If you need solitude, make sure you find a place in your house where you can shut the door, turn off media and you can have privacy and silence or whatever you need to write. The more you can afford, the better you’ll do as far as equipment and space.
A second important step is to assemble your writing tools. All you need is a notebook and a pencil or your laptop and a comfortable chair. Learn what works for you: if you are out somewhere do you need to take cushion from home so you can sit up straight your back? Your neck are important to your writing too. You’re going to be spending a lot of hours with that notebook or in front of that computer, so don’t scrimp on your computer. When you’re home don’t scrimp on your chair. Make a list of all the things you’re going to need while you’re especially at home. If you need paper clips or a stapler or whatever make sure you have all those within arm’s length so you don’t get distracted by having to look for things.
A third important thing you want to do is to break the project into small pieces. The reason that writing a book seems so colossal is because it is writing a book. Break the task into as many small pieces as you can. Your manuscript in the end is made up of sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. Just doing one thing at a time, that’s the way to get a handle on it.
Number four is to settle on your big idea. It needs to be a big idea if it’s book worthy. It’s going to be big concept. We don’t have any room in the marketplace anymore for small concept book ideas. If it’s small, use it for a blog or an article. If you tryed to write a book before and you ran into a roadblock at the 20 or 30 day mark or maybe the 20 or 30 page mark, it could be because your idea wasn’t big enough. How do you know if your idea is big enough? If it has legs, it stays with you. If you tell your friend what your book is about and every time you tell them it gets bigger, that’s a book that’s going to last in the marketplace.
Step 5 is to construct your outline. Even if it is on one side of one sheet of paper, give yourself some direction of where you’re going. Now some people especially if you’re a beginning writer, your editor or your agent may need to see an entire synopsis of your novel idea so you’ll have to do more of an outline than you might have done later. Agents and editors demand outlines for nonfiction. There’s no writing a nonfiction book without an outline. They want to know what you’re going to say, how you’re going to say it, where you’re getting your information, and what your points are going to be. Now we often talk in fiction about the marathon of the middle and how that stops everybody. That’s one of the places that you might begin to wonder, why did I ever think I could do this? That’s the marathon of the middle. You can’t just survive it or endure it, you have to thrive in it because the reader is right with you. If it seems boring to you, your reader is asleep. This happens to be true of nonfiction as well. Now you’ll take care of that with your outline, and for nonfiction you’ll know that your middle has enough good stuff in it. In fiction be sure you’re saving a lot of big setups and payoffs for that marathon in the middle. You can do the same in nonfiction. In fiction you don’t have the same number of elements as far as tension and conflict and dialogue. You still need to set up in the payoff for your non-fiction book. Say you’re writing a nonfiction book about how to build a model ship. You need to set it up so that it looks impossible until your specific solution comes through, that’s your setup and payoff. Don’t be intimidated by an outline, your outline serves you not the other way around. If you’ve got an outline and you find yourself drifting from it or you think the book is working in a different, better direction, make your outline work for you.
Number six and that is: to set a firm reading schedule that includes a firm deadline. That hangs up too many beginning writers if they don’t have a publishers deadline. Set your own and notice if you we to fudge on our own deadlines. Make sure you don’t do that. Keep your deadline firm. The way you do that is to figure out roughly how many pages you’re going be writing for your book. 300, 400, 500 and divide that into the number of days you’re allotting yourself to write. This may change once you get started and realize how many or how few pages you can write per day. If you schedule yourself for 10 pages a day and you’re really not comfortable with more than four or five, change your schedule, change your deadline. Once you get it locked in, keep it firm. As a publisher I found that only about 1 in 100 writers literally meet their deadlines. If you just do that, you set yourself apart from ninety nine out of a hundred writers. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re going find the time to write. You need to schedule the time you need to get your writing finished. Schedule your days right on your calendar and keep those appointments.
Seven is to conduct your research. A lot of people miss the fact that research is just as important for fiction as well as nonfiction. If you miss a small detail of history or aircraft or weaponry, you can be sure readers are going to point this out specificity. Having the details correct lends credibility to fiction and fiction needs to be believable. Once you’ve done your research, you might be tempted to show that off to the reader. You want to resist that urge. Your research is not your main course, the story is the main course. Research is the seasoning that adds that specificity that gives you credibility and believability.
Number eight is to write a compelling reader first opener. Give it the time it deserves because if you can pull off an important compelling first line, it will set the tone for your entire book. You probably won’t write a more important line than that first one. Most first lines fall into one of these categories: surprising, dramatic statement, philosophical, or poetic. By making your reader first, every decision you make in your manuscript goes through that filter. Reader first not you first, not editor first, not agent first, not reviewer first, not critic first, reader first. You want that first sentence to be the best, most compelling, most moving, most emotional experience they’ve ever had. It will keep your reader reading more.
Number nine is to fill your story with conflict and tension, readers crave tension and yes, this applies to nonfiction as well. Almost every time a writer shows me their manuscript and says, “I don’t know where to go from here”, it’s because they got to a point where the people on the page are agreeing with each other too much. We like that in real life. It’s nice to have pleasant conversations, talk with your spouse or friends over a meal. There’s nothing more boring in fiction than that, so what you want to do is inject that. Have one of those characters say something totally off-the-wall, maybe once this isn’t it a beautiful day and the other one says “oh sure, you would say that”. All of a sudden the reader and that character are going, “what was that about? Where did that come from?” That’s conflict. What’s the problem in their relationship, what’s the underlying tension that caused that conflict? That will keep people turning the pages and you want to do that on every page even if it’s just a matter of someone setting up an appointment. They need to see the doctor tomorrow. There’s an implication there that something’s coming up otherwise why would the author put it in there? Now in nonfiction, how do you do that? You don’t want unpleasantness. It doesn’t have to be something negative. It doesn’t have to be a battle or a war or a fight. Conflict and tension come up in nonfiction simply by promising and then delivering, setting up and paying off. Some of the best nonfiction writers and ones who have spent the first several chapters promising you what you’re going to get when you finish reading this book and then they deliver.
Step number ten is to turn off your internal editor while you’re writing your first draft. Most writers I know are perfectionists. When you have that inner critic sitting on our shoulder telling you what’s wrong with every word you write, that inner critic just needs to be told to shut up. Now is not the time to be criticizing your own work. Always save your editing until the next day at least and the longer you can wait between when you write it and when you edited it the better for the end product. Turn off that internal editor, get your story down, and then tell yourself that the next day you can put your perfectionist cap back on and have at it.
Remember in point number five when I mentioned the marathon in the middle? I want to make that point eleven and hit that again because if there’s any place you’re gonna quit, it’s going to be during the marathon in the middle. This is the toughest spot for everyone. When you hit the marathon in the middle you begin to wonder why did I get into this business? The problem with the marathon of the middle is we’ve all got great ideas to start and we can’t wait to get to that big finish, but now we’ve got a couple hundred pages in the middle to fill. If you just start padding it in fiction with extra scenes or nonfiction with extra points your reader is going to drop off the page. This is where you don’t just survive, you thrive.
Number 12 is to write a resounding ending. You want your book to end the way a Broadway play ends when that curtain comes down with a satisfying thud. You make sure your ending doesn’t fizzle, you give it the time it deserves. Don’t settle for second best if it takes longer to write your ending than the rest of the book so what? Do whatever it takes to make it work. If you’ve got several ideas for how what might be best, go for the one that is the most emotional because readers remember what moves them.
Last and most important point step 13 is that you need to become a ferocious self. What does it mean to be ferocious? You know what it means, it means to be aggressive. Everything else is for naught if you don’t polish your manuscript to the point where you’re happy with every word. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be perfect or that you don’t need an editor or if you should place it with a publisher. You need to polish that thing until it sings. Why, because agents and editors can tell within two minutes whether your manuscript is going to be worth reading or rejecting. That doesn’t sound fair and maybe it isn’t fair, but they have so many things to read, the competition is so vast, they’ve learned to be able to tell within a page or two whether this has potential or not. That puts all the onus on you to self-edit. If you pay an editor, what is the publisher buying? Your work or someone else’s? Learn to edit yourself.