So, you want to write a book…
Well, if you're here, I'm pleased to report you've won half the battle. When it comes to writing a book, or even getting it published, bad advice is everywhere. The same is true for completing a manuscript.
Yet while understanding writing and craft is essential, it won't be the focus of this guide because, in truth, being able to write doesn't guarantee you can finish a book. Neither will binging on those YouTube videos about what Stephen King advises. I can't tell you how many talented writers I've known who can't seem to type The End on a project—alternatively, writers who type those two words too soon.
To truly begin and complete the book the right way, whether you have the goal of self-publishing or getting your work picked up by a traditional publisher (as I was with HarperCollins), you don't need any special writing software or expensive writing tools. No, follow these five simple steps, and you will be on the path of finishing your story.
Photo credit: Danielle MacInnes
How to Write a Book
Note that for a nonfiction book, you need not submit the full manuscript if seeking traditional publication. Unless you are self-publishing, writing nonfiction requires a proposal. Be sure to do research accordingly.
1. Pick the Right Hook
What is a hook? Simply put, it's the big book idea driving your story. Later, once you've finished your manuscript, you will use this hook to pitch your novel to readers, agents, publishers, and whomever else you might be targeting. Here's an example from my manuscript…
For twelve-year-old Shad, family and baking are everything. But discovering he's the last of a line of Arab alchemists, he must learn to mix elixirs instead of batter and craft charms rather than baklava, or his family's tradition will be lost.
The hook includes the main character(s) and the conflict. These two elements will guide you, the writer, as you work through this story. Further, they will help when you look to market it to the general public. A hook can make or break your motivation. I still get goosebumps reading mine!
2. Decide What Type of Writer You Are: Plotter or Pantser
When learning how to write a book, every writer arrives at a crossroads. You will either be a pantser or a plotter. Before I dive into what those two words mean, know that a spectrum exists between the two. There is an in-between. In my experience with writers, folks tend to fall nearer to the extremes. Regardless, knowing yourself is critical to getting started and succeeding throughout this process.
Plotter: when it comes to writers, this will be the more common grouping. To be a plotter means what it sounds like―you enjoy plotting out your story. In simpler terms, you like to tackle your book with a plan in mind. Whether you write a couple of sentences describing the next few scenes or have a detailed ten-page outline that will tell you exactly what will happen in every chapter, planning will help you get to that endpoint.
Pantser: this means you ‘write by the seat of your pants.’ That phrase refers to the fact that you don’t do any planning before writing. Falling into this category says that you are comfortable with ambiguity. You are excited to discover your novel as you write, and do not fear hitting a wall, for you can creatively find ways around, over, and through it!
There is absolutely no right choice between the two. Both are valid, even if some of the books out there may lead you to believe otherwise. If you are a plotter, your next step will be to draft an outline that gives you the confidence to begin the novel. I recommend Story Genius by Lisa Cron, a fantastic guide to thinking through your story before diving in. However, if you are a pantser, do what is best for your soul and skip the outline altogether. Feel free to go on through to the next step of this process.
I am an extreme pantser—even the mere thought about outlining turns my stomach. Because of my work schedule, I pantsed my soon-to-be-published novel during bus, car, and plane rides, as well as in the quiet hours just before sleeping and right after waking up. I say this in hopes you will embrace the writer you are with pride!
3. Establish the Easiest Possible Routine
Arriving at the perfect routine is much easier said than done. Write too little, and you may feel discouraged about your progress (or lack thereof), but writing too much may lead to the worst of all possible outcomes―burnout.
Finding the right routine is a dance, and it might take some trial and error. The goal is always to keep writing fun. When it feels like work, you will begin to look for excuses not to write, and that's the beginning of the end. Instead, consider a word count goal that allows you to write every day. A plan that you can feasibly set aside time for, even in the hardest of times.
As a side note, you don't need a dedicated writing space or writing time. I did some of my best writing in noisy airports at midnight or while riding the bus to work first thing in the morning. Many successful authors write on their couches during the quiet hours when their kids are asleep. Forget the often romanticized idea of writing in a cabin in the woods, birds chirping outside your window. Writers write no matter where they are or what time it is. We are forces of nature.
Photo Credit: Thought Catalog
Writer friends of mine set daily word count goals. Some write 1,000 words a day, while others go for 100. Some even target a higher count (check out national novel writing month, a.k.a Nanowrimo, where the goal is to write an entire first draft in thirty days!).
My first book taught me that my optimal writing process involves finishing 500 words a day. It was a goal I stuck to and sometimes even exceeded. Given my manuscript was about 300 pages long, doing five hundred words a day meant I had a fully completed book within five months. This included days I didn’t write one word or missed my goal. As long as I generally stuck to my routine, I knew it was just a matter of time until I finished the book.
4. See the Story Through, Even if it Stinks!
You have a good hook and just the right routine. Now you write.
Some days are going to be clear skies and smooth sailing. Others, on the other hand, may feel like pulling teeth. But you're not thinking about writing a good book. No, your goal is getting through the draft. And, as long as you stay the course and trust the process, you will get through it.
Remember to be kind to yourself. If you miss a day or even go on hiatus due to an emergency or vacation, don't panic. If you're suffering in the name of writing the next great American novel or trying to get to the New York Times bestseller list, you will be miserable. Instead, schedule writing time, find an in-person or online writing community and start writing the book. Get one chapter done. Then another.
While we're here, let me address the elephant in the room…writer's block.
Long story short, it's all about you. A block almost always stems from either fear or disinterest. In terms of fear, you might be scared of writing the wrong story. Or, you're worried no one will want to read it. But the key to combating these sentiments is to enjoy what you're writing. Enjoyment, conveniently, happens to be the solution to the second reason you'd hit a wall, which is disinterest. If you're unable to find the words, ask yourself: am I enjoying where this story is taking me? Do I need to make a change? Usually, the answer is a resounding YES.
5. Revise, Revise, Revise
You did it! After typing The End, pat yourself on the back and take a break. You're in the 1% of writers who stuck it out.
Only finishing the first draft does not mean you’ve written a book. I’m sorry to say that now comes the more significant challenge. The part will separate good writing from the bad, and where many authors give up if they don’t have the discipline or will to succeed.
That’s right. I’m talking about revisions.
Photo Credit: Brad Neatherny
The trick at this stage is to have what is called a critique partner. These are other writers who are along for the ride with you, whether to comfort you through failure or celebrate your successes. You'll read their work, and they'll read yours. Together, you'll find plot holes and glaring mistakes that we, as writers, may be unable to spot in our stories. An outside opinion is vital.
With your critique partners, you'll enter a period of revising the manuscript and receiving feedback. Never take any of it personally or as a measure of self-worth. Thank the critique, and keep on the journey. Eventually, if you revisit the manuscript enough times, you should come out with a book you can be proud of.
When I finished the first draft of my novel, I was so sure it was ready. Only after sending it to all my trusted critique partners did I come to find out that there was more work to be done, and, pursuing that end goal of publication, I swallowed my pride and completed five rounds of revisions through my manuscript. That resulted in three agent offers and publishing houses competing to buy my book. It isn’t easy, but trust me, it’s well worth the effort.
Sharing With the World
You did it! You've followed the five-steps to write and revise a book.
Now we toast to victory. To the days spent agonizing over what to name your side characters and who to make the love interest. To the days spent laboring over feedback that may have crushed you but that you used to strengthen your story instead.
Read over that manuscript once more for typos and, once you're sure you didn't write here in the place of hear as I often do, breathe out a sigh of relief. This is a story you can now share with the world, but how you share will come down to your goals.
Self-publishing: begin looking into cover artists, formatting services, and which companies you can partner with for the best distribution. You're in this alone, so you'll have to master both the design side of things as well as marketing. Know that going this route is every bit as valid as traditional publishing. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!
Traditional publishing: begin researching literary agents. There are plenty of resources online for finding good agents, so I won’t go into detail there. I will say that nothing is worse than a wrong agent, so be sure to do your research! Once you know what agents to target, take your hook and turn it into a query letter (which I lay out how to do here). This is the pitch you will send out to agents via email, hoping it resonates and offers representation. It is the agent, after all, who will take your novel to the publishing houses in hopes of landing a contract.
I followed the traditional publishing route. After perusing online databases for agents who represented children's fantasy, I curated a list of agents and sent them my query letters. It took months, but three offers finally came in and, after doing additional revision with my agent, we went to the publishing houses. In September of 2020, after five years of writing, I was informed HarperCollins had won my novel in a purchasing battle (what we in the industry call an auction).
Whatever path you choose, be proud of your hard work. Celebrate whether you become a bestselling author or only convince your family to buy copies. After all, you now know the best way to write books through completion. Inspiration will strike once more, and soon, like me, you will be back in the trenches!