How to Write a Book in 12 Simple Steps
Writing a book doesn’t have to be hard. The process is simple and repeatable.
You don’t have to spend years agonizing over the words, editing 20 drafts, producing this century’s greatest masterpiece.
You DO have to sit down and work at it. Every week.
You can dispel any romantic ideas you have about living the writer’s lifestyle. The fame, the relaxation, just write for an hour a day and then go sit on your hammock.
Writing is a grind, and you have to keep coming back to it, no matter how shitty you feel. Pages don’t write themselves.
That being said, writing is one of the great joys in my life. I’ve learned to accept the amount of grit and discipline required to make it part of my life (to make it my new job, with the help of my ten avid readers).
Since I adopted the right mindset and practices, my book writing career has become all but inevitable.
This article was largely informed by one of the premiere authorities on book-writing and publishing, Michael Hyatt. Without first seeing his recommendations last year, I might never have known that writing a book was within my reach. It turned from a someday dream to a now dream. I realized I can dream bigger than a few blog posts. Forever grateful.
The steps not from Michael Hyatt are from my other writing mentor, whose courses I am taking and recommend — Jeff Goins. This guy has dedicated his career to teaching people how to make a living from their writing. Finding him was a game-changer as well.
Now that I think of it, Jon Morrow is a great virtual mentor as well. His blog is as professional as they come. He’s the one that inspired me to get serious, to fix my writing mindset. Since reading one of his guides, I set a daily word count goal and never miss it.
Want to be a great writer? You need exceptional mentors.
I’m still looking for my in-person mentor, but that will come.
WITHOUT FURTHER ADO, HERE ARE THE STEPS TO GETTING STARTED WITH YOUR BOOK:
1. Schedule your writing time
Schedule your writing time, and make it at the same time every day.
Consistency is great for creativity. It’s a waste of brain power to be thinking about when to write. Just show up at the right time to write.
Whether it’s every week on Tuesday nights after work, or every Saturday afternoon, or every weekday before work.
Make it a routine, and DO NOT MISS IT.
Pro tip: For serious writers looking to “go pro,” go to bed three hours earlier and wake up three hours earlier. Write in the mornings when distractions are minimal. Doing this has exploded my production.
If you think you’re too busy to fit something new into your schedule, you may be right.
How many hours a week are you spending on social media, Netflix, watching TV? Cut something out and get serious about your book.
When you are scheduling your writing (and when you really get in the zone and forget to look at the time), please remember to take breaks.
Set timers for no more than 60 minutes. Do not sit and write for 6 hours straight!
Stand up, stretch, do some yoga or push-ups, drink some water, go to the bathroom. Your body and mind need at least a few minutes every hour.
The shot of energy you get from moving your body is a godsend to your writing.
Because I write at the same time every day, it’s very easy to stay on track with my Google calendar event notifications. At 6:30am it reminds me to “Write 1,000 words” and at 7:15am it reminds to me “Breathe.” Then at 7:30am it reminds me to write again.
I don’t have to think, I just have to do what I’m told, which is to write.
>> ACTION: When are you going to write? Schedule your first 4 sessions on your calendar. Better yet, schedule something recurring.
2. Set up your writing space
Just like we want to write at the same time consistently, we want to always write in the same place.
Kitchen table, coffee shop, home office — doesn’t matter. Just be consistent. When you sit down in your place, your brain knows that it’s time to write. Consistency is good for creativity,
If you don’t have that place ready yet, you’re looking for solitude. People trying to talk to you while you write is a no-go. You want to eliminate distractions and interruptions (that’s why some writers get up as early as 3:00am to work).
Some people work well at the cafe. I don’t. I just end up people-watching. So I have to maintain my apartment and desk area, keep it tidy and ready to use.
You should be comfortable. Cool, not too warm.
You should have water next to you at all times, and you should not be hungry.
If that means preparing a snack to put next to you, or eating a small meal before you sit down to write, do that. Do not over-eat before writing — a full stomach will divert blood to your digestion and make you sleepy. Also avoid high carb snacks. Your body needs nutrients to focus at a high level, and a sugar rush will lead to a crash — not good for writing.
My morning sessions are always accompanied by a mug of green tea, a bowl of special oatmeal, and two glasses of water.
>>ACTION: Decide where to write. Get it ready for your butt in a chair.
3. Use the right tools
For the writing, I tried Scrivener for a while. For setting up every section of a novel, it can be amazing. There is a 30 day free trial that counts down for each day you use it, not each calendar day. My trial is still active, 9 months after starting it.
It loads up with a novel template, including a tab for front matter, chapter templates, events, characters, market, research. It’s very rigorous, and it’s easy to organize your chapters at a glance. It has a composition mode that makes your writing full-screen — a fantastic feature.
That being said, I am loving Novlr. It’s more simple than Scrivener. There are fewer features to distract you from writing. It has everything you need to get your writing done, and nothing you don’t need.
There are writing stats, which I love to see. Since I’m trying to write 2,000 words a day in October, it’s helpful and fun to have it automatically track and notify me when I reach my goal.
I found Novlr initially because I was looking for a good writing tool that will run on a Chromebook (Scrivener has to be jimmy-rigged to work properly. I was not interested in trying to mess with that).
Novlr runs out of your regular web browser @ app.novlr.org. It saves every few seconds to their servers, and in the case of working offline, it saves to your local cache. Leave the window up, and it’ll auto-save as soon as you get a connection.
Novlr also has focus mode, which blurs out the screen to make only your writing visible.
Again, this is a freakin’ fantastic feature.
I always press F11 while I’m working — it makes the web browser go full screen, so the only thing I see is my writing. I can’t recommend that technique enough, as it is distracting to write when you can see all your other tabs open. This way, it’s easy to forget it runs in a browser.
I do all my writing in Novlr — blog articles, novels, and even my personal journal. It’s my new favorite toy.
I highly recommend Novlr (or Scrivener).
They are both far superior to writing out of a blank Word document, and they both have free trials. Scrivener is [$40] and Novlr is $10 a month, or $90 for an annual subscription. I pay that monthly fee with great enthusiasm. It’s worth even more than that for me.
Also when you get to editing, hemingwayapp.com is solid. What can I say? Paste your work in there and let it tell you what to fix.
>> ACTION: Get your writing tools game up to par. Of course, I recommend Novlr.
If you are using new tools, get comfortable with how they work before sitting down to write. Don’t fiddle with tools during your writing sessions — those times are for writing only.
4. Plan your book
The goal here is clarity.
Michael Hyatt recommends creating a formal book proposal, which serves as your book’s blueprint. He does this even for self-published work.
If you write a proposal, you should be thinking about market, content, value, promotion, and credentials.
Who is your book for? Who will be interested in reading this book? Be specific.
“This book is for all women” is not going to sell. Sorry, but you won’t sell 3.5 billion copies to every woman on Earth.
You have to know that your book is for women aged 30–45 with kids and full-time jobs that want to find more time for themselves.
Outline the content of your book. You should have a story arc prepared long before you sit down to write. The best, most prolific fiction authors are meticulous planners. Be like them, and plan your stories!
Start with an idea. Good books are always about something compelling.
Write your book’s main argument in one sentence. Stretch it out into a paragraph, then an outline.
I personally start with a mind-map. I love mind-maps for getting the process started. My argument goes in the middle and all my related ideas branch out until I have enough to build an outline.
After we have an outline, we can build a table of contents. Split the book into roughly equal chapters.
Keep it simple as you’re starting out. Think about beginning, middle, and end.
What value does your book bring to your target market? Does it solve a problem? Is it an original work of fiction, unlike anything else?
How will you promote your book? Some say writing a book is the first 10% of the work, and marketing it to get it in peoples’ hands is the other 90%.
I haven’t gone through it yet, but I will absolutely pay for Chandler Bolt’s Self Publishing School early next year. Earlier this year I read his book Book Launch and was inspired. (Note: these are affiliate links. I love and follow Chandler Bolt’s work)
Most writers think they need to put all their work into the writing, then they are done — especially if they are published through a major publishing house. But that is not true.
You need to promote your book yourself.
Why launch a book with sub-par planning, no guidance, and no pre-sales? The Book Launch way is to generate a lot of buzz for your book, which I damn well intend to do.
Don’t short-change the success your book is capable of by leaving your launch to chance.
Why are you qualified to write on this subject?
After writing a proposal designed to convince another person to contract you for publishing, perhaps you can convince yourself that you have a good idea and a good plan, as well!
>> ACTION: Write your outline. Then write your proposal.
5. Establish your writing goals
Having a goal helps make a plan and a timeline. When you know your approximate words per hour, and when you stick to a consistent writing schedule, you can pretty much guarantee when the writing will be finished.
Editing and publishing is a different story, but the writing, we can control.
Without your goal, we are shooting in the dark.
“Maybe I will finish my book in 2019.”
“I think my book will be 150,000 words. Is that good for a young adult novel?” (No.)
Typical Manuscript Lengths
2,000–20,000 words : eBook opt-ins, business white papers
40,000–60,000 words : typical novella
60,000–75,000 words : nonfiction books
75,000–120,000 words : long nonfiction book, fiction books
100,000+ words : epic-length novel, “saga”
Note: Science fiction books can comfortably be 110–120,000 because of the words required for world building. Typical fiction books are better in the 80–90,000 word range.
My next project is science fiction, and my goal is 120,000 words. I will participate in NaNoWriMoto bang out 50,000 words, then I will aim for 25,000 words for three more months.
I’m confident I can complete this project in four months because I’ve made a plan for the book, I know my words per hour, and I have a consistent writing schedule.
>> ACTION: Set your writing goal (your manuscript length). If you haven’t yet, calculate your words per hour and let that guide your deadline.
6. Set weekly deadlines
The next incredible tool in our arsenal? Setting a deadline. And we can be very specific! Use word counts because it is the easiest to track.
We know how fast we write, and how many words we need to write, so our deadline practically produces itself.
Deadlines give us urgency and give us a better chance of actually finishing. Nobody cares if you’ve started a book — they care if you’ve published one.
Real deadlines are incredibly powerful motivators. Use them.
Never start a serious project without a deadline.
>> ACTION: After you have a full project deadline, divide it into weeks. Set a weekly deadline and push to complete every one.
7. Gather your research
If you need to do any research for your book, you will want to do as much as possible before you write.
For research and saving articles, even writing notes to self, Evernote is fantastic. There’s a web browser extension that makes it super easy to pin a website, article, or bit of text to your Evernote collection. It’s a breeze to save every website or snippet of text you run across. Organizing your work requires some planning, but if your system is good it will be easy to find everything.
One of the most compelling stories I’ve ever read was The Martian. It had the right mixture of humor and plot drivers. For every life-endangering scenario, the main character had to solve it with math and science.
What an incredible achievement, for a writer to basically walk you through a math problem, and make you eager to see its solution!
This story was intensively researched over three years of writing and releasing chapters on a free site as serials. Real industry experts read the chapters and commented when the math was not right. The author was able to fix each chapter to the highest standards of realism, so the finished product is a science nerd’s dream.
I illustrate that story not to suggest that we should spend three years crunching math problems before we publish our books, but to show that a little bit of the right research can give great depth to our stories. Not every idea needs to (or even should) come from our own heads.
The best writers in the world tell us that we must read a lot if we want to succeed as writers. Let’s head their call. Let your research and reading guide your next project.
>> ACTION: Get your research done. Get on Evernote if you aren’t.
8. Write the easiest chapter first
Who says the introduction or the first chapter needs to be written first? You’ve got a plan for the book, you’ve separated each section into chapters. Cherry-pick the chapters you have on the tip of your tongue, and get them written first.
The effect of a small win is powerful for your psychology. You’ll gain confidence that you can finish the book after you see you can write one full chapter. And then two… and another… until it’s done!
Leave the hardest chapters for the end, when you have seen how the whole thing comes together. The introduction is a great chapter to leave until the end.
>> ACTION: Write that easy chapter!
9. Separate the writing from the editing
“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”
— Stephen King
Both steps are important but it’s crucial that you try not to do them both at the same time.
As I discuss here, you can think of your first draft as a “vomit draft.” You really just want to get every idea on a page. Write everything, hold nothing back, and let nothing distract you.
Since I started making first drafts that look like shit, my end products have actually grown in quality quite noticeably. The system works.
The first draft is throwing food at the wall. You’re just looking at the bucket of food, seeing what you’ve got left to throw.
You don’t look at the wall until the second draft, where you start to look at story arcs.
Finally in the third draft, you have a working manuscript and you can go back and tweak.
Jeff Goins says writing a book happens in five drafts. Seems about right to me.
Regardless, you want to brain dump first before you go back to edit anything. Editing as you go kills your mojo.
11. Get early feedback
Give your work to some people you trust. Let them tell you whether you’ve got an idea worth continuing. You just want a chance to right the ship if you’re going astray.
I’m a big advocate for bouncing ideas off people. They’ll say something you hadn’t considered, or you yourself will say something you hadn’t considered, just because you’re talking openly and honestly to someone who is interested in your ideas.
12. Commit to ship
At some point, you have to make the decision that this book is getting finished. No matter what. No matter what, this book is getting done.
If I have to drag this manuscript to hell and back, I will do what needs to be done to finish it.
Set yourself that deadline — or have it set for you — and get that shit done.
You’re doing the world a favor by telling your story. Let it be heard!
>> ACTION: Commit to finishing your book.
13. Know your enemy
There will be a lot of negative emotions involved in your writing journey. Recognize the resistance you’ll face, and prepare to conquer it. Resistance is part of the process for every writer.
Make peace with it.
Fear will get the better of a weak writer.
“Will I run out of ideas?”
“Everyone will laugh at my book, how can I subject myself to that embarrassment?”
Fears will run rampant in your darkest days, but you know how to fight back.
You beat fear by getting started.
We don’t know how the book is going to turn out, if anyone will read it or care.
“I don’t know how to publish.”
“Will this book be any good?”
“I have no idea how to edit a book.”
“What does self-publishing mean?”
The answer to all your questions lies at the end of a search for the right material. Follow the right roadmap with the best writing mentors, and the process will illuminate itself to you. Trust in their experience, and trust in your own ability to follow their advice.
You beat uncertainty by focusing.
Doubts will always creep in. You will doubt your ability to finish, to write a compelling story. You’ll doubt that anyone will buy or care. You’ll doubt that you are even qualified to write this story.
You beat doubt by finishing.
Do not let the process overwhelm you. The world needs to hear what you have to say!
A few extra tips:
- Don’t know how to spell something? What word to use here? What should this character say, exactly?
- SKIP IT! Mark the spot in bold, add an asterisk, put it in brackets, whatever. And keep writing. This is the idea of the “vomit draft” — first drafts are allowed to look like shit. They are for your eyes only.
- Don’t try to do anything else in your writing time. Designate your hour or two a day, and do NOTHING ELSE. Just produce words.
Schedule separate times for editing.
- Did I mention mind-mapping? I love mind-mapping! I use it to start every outline, every chapter, everything. I recommend it. It’s a highly visual way to dump all your ideas on a page, which makes your brain work more efficiently and more ideas come out. Take the good ones, sort them into groups, and build an outline based on them.
- Better with your voice than your keyboard? Record your voice and submit it for transcription. Mind-map your chapter, write an outline with as much or little detail as you need, and turn on your microphone. Some people absolutely swear by this technique. I am better at the keyboard, but voice-to-text transcription services are not expensive and they are an excellent option.
- Get your sleep! Lack of sleep messes with your cognition and creativity. Want to be on your game? Don’t drink too much alcohol and get your sleep!
- [from South Park writers]
Use the words “but, therefore.”
A boring story is a sequence of events. This, then that, then this, and then this! Snooze. Compelling storytelling has the characters trying to do something, BUT, there’s a problem. THEREFORE, they have to change course.
Build your story arcs with “but” and “therefore” statements.
- Don’t be afraid to cut. Pixar throws away their first two screenplay drafts and starts over from scratch. Only the best, most memorable material makes it into the next draft. I’ve never used this technique on a long project, but I’ve thrown away a number of 2,000 word drafts. It really friggin’ works.
Every time I use this technique, the second draft benefits. I’m always glad I did it.
This really illustrates how useless our first drafts can be. Pixar is also well-known for fantastic storytelling, so I really believe in the potential of this technique.
Do you feel more confident now? I sure hope so. When I found book-writing and blogging roadmaps, my life was changed. What seemed to be massive and complicated projects suddenly became easy.
Ready to commit to writing that book?
Let me challenge you and hold you accountable!