According to Joseph Epstein, 81 percent of Americans feel they have a book in them. Think about that for a moment. That’s eight in every 10 people. That isn’t to say, however, all of those people succeed in completing their books. Many (if not most) don’t.
Epstein in a New York Times article discourages would-be novel writers from even picking up their pens (or opening their computers) in his opinion piece:
Before I had first done so, writing a book seemed a fine, even grand thing. And so it still seems—except, truth to tell, it is a lot better to have written a book than to actually be writing one. Without attempting to overdo the drama of the difficulty of writing, to be in the middle of composing a book is almost always to feel oneself in a state of confusion, doubt and mental imprisonment, with an accompanying intense wish that one worked instead at bricklaying.
Let’s be honest: writing a book is hard. Really hard. It’s hours of grueling work, second guessing yourself, and purposefully choosing not to do other activities (such as hanging with friends or family) in order to complete this task you’ve set before yourself. It’s hours of sleep lost, time with the kids shortened, letting Netflix go unused all to set that story bubbling within you onto a page.
So… Is Writing a Book For You?
Before I start on the how to write a book, consider carefully if this journey is for you. One of the best pieces of advice I got from a modeling coach many years ago was this: “If someone can tell you that you shouldn’t do something and you believe them, then it isn’t for you.”
At the time, the advice was given with regards to a modeling/acting career, but the same thing applies for novel writers: If someone can tell you that you don’t have what it takes to become an author (to persist in those long hours to write the book and then to push through countless rejections when you start submitting it) and you believe them, then perhaps this isn’t for you. But if instead you hear the opinions of others—recognize them as unwarranted—and know in your heart that you can (and will) write this book, then, my friend, you are a writer. And you got guts. I like you.
Writing a Book: Where to Start
Everyone’s process to write a book is going to be pretty different. All of our creative juices flow in their own unique, wibbly wobbly way. But there tend to be certain steps that all writers have to follow.
1. Research your genre and age group.
Read what’s been done before in your genre, whether that’s fantasy, thriller, science fiction, contemporary, and so on. Each genre has its own stylistic preferences, overdone tropes, and readerly expectations. So, my friend, read, read, read, and read some more. It’s the best way to learn the trends (and to find your place as an author within them).
Furthermore, you want to research the word count, what’s been selling (what books are currently being published), what topics are popular (perhaps too popular?), and consider how your story fits into this whole scheme.
Vampires, for example, are considered to be overdone by most literary agents. Many of these agents won’t even consider books about vampires—even if they are actively seeking new authors in the fantasy genre. Therefore, don’t only research books that are published in your intended genre and/or age group, but also research what agents are asking for (and what they say they don’t want to see). You don’t want to limit what agents will consider your book before you even start writing it—not if you can avoid it anyway. Though, keep in mind, trends are constantly changing. So, what agents say they want (or don’t want) now can easily change in the coming months or years.
2. Outline your book.
Not necessarily the whole thing—unless, of course, you’re an architect (vs. a gardener). But outline the important stuff, particularly the big plot points so that you have a pretty arc and know where the story begins, peaks, and ends.
In my previous blog, “5 Things to Consider When Starting Your Novel,” I explain not only the difference between an architect and a gardener but also the three-act structure. In short, this is a guiding structure with a beginning, middle, and an end, which has a setup, rising action and stakes, and a resolution. All stories have to have these pieces and an arc to the plot; and the three-act structure is just one way to ensure your story peaks at the proper places.
3. Outline your characters.
Wait… I did all this work outlining the story and now you want me to outline the characters, too?
Like your plot, you want to know your characters intimately. You need to know not only their desires, greatest fears, goals, but also things as seemingly simple as their favorite color, what they like to wear, pet peeves, and so on. The more you know your characters, the more three-dimensional they will come across to readers.
Therefore, I recommend putting together a brief list/chart that details a few of the defining characteristics of each of your characters as well as a description of what they look like. Because, let’s be honest, how awkward would it be if in one scene your character had blue eyes and loved sour cream and the next he/she had brown eyes and was vegan?
4. Set a daily word count goal.
All right, now that the tedious outlining has been tended to, let’s move onto the daily motivational stuff. (The book isn’t going to finish itself, right?)
As a writer, you should write every day. Even if you delete every single word you wrote the previous day. Even if you don’t feel as though your creative juices are flowing. You won’t always feel like writing—just like you won’t always feel like going to the gym. But just because you don’t feel those warm fuzzies in your gut doesn’t mean that’s reason not to write. The difference between the people who finish a book and those who don’t is simple: those who finish their book write even when they don’t feel like it.
But whether you set your daily word count goal at 500 words or 5,000, stick to it. Start low to start (especially as you get a rhythm) and bump the word count goal up as you go along. Trust me, my friend, once you get going, crafting a story is pretty addicting.
5. Write in the same place.
You may also want to find a nook to write and write in the same spot every day. For me, I love writing at the same coffee shop (at my favorite table) or at home in my office. But for you, that spot could be the library or at the kitchen table. Whatever place it may be, many writers claim that (once they’ve formed the habit of writing every day), their creative juices start flowing the minute they arrive at the location they write at every day—simply on account of association/having written there so many times before.
6. Set a total word count goal for your book.
In my blog “How Genre & Category Impact Your Ability to Get Published,” I go through the various word count expectations for genres and age groups. (Keep in mind, these are two entirely separate things.) For each genre—whether it’s fantasy, contemporary, or anything in between—readers have an expectation for not only the story itself but the length of the story (as do literary agents and publishers). Therefore, consider carefully how long you want to make your book before you start writing it.
I know this may sound counterintuitive (and a bit disheartening) if you’re at the place where you’re mustering up the courage to even write a book. But hear me out.
Aside from my activities as a literary intern for the Corvisiero Literary Agency and as an editor of a magazine, I’ve also written several fantasy manuscripts. When I first sat down and wrote a manuscript (and even when I wrote my second one), I wrote blindly and out of sheer passion. Several years and 200,000 words later, I was (at first) surprised to receive so many automated rejections from literary agents on a project I had spent hundreds of hours on (and considered to be well-written and edited thoroughly).
The problem? Length.
Most literary agents aren’t interested in debut authors with a manuscript exceeding 100,000 words. Had I known this, I would have outlined my book very differently from the beginning.
7. Give yourself (weekly) deadlines.
Keep yourself accountable. Give yourself not only daily word count goals but a weekly goal as well. These goals are going to be different for every writer. But whether you write picture books or adult historical fiction, give yourself a deadline—start small with something achievable. Once you get the hang of things and are able to hit that goal repeatedly, change it (and bump it up) as you see fit.
8. Make friends with fellow writers and get feedback.
Find critique groups in your area. It doesn’t matter how good of an editor you are, outside opinions are a must if you’re to succeed as an author.
As I said in my blog “10 Tips on Beta Reader Etiquette”:
Whether you are a seasoned writer with published works or are only now starting your journey as a wordsmith, there is one thing you will always need: feedback on your writing.
Consider checking out your local library or see if there are Meetup groups in your area and get feedback sooner rather than later.
9. Edit. Edit. Edit.
The first draft of your book is not (or shouldn’t be) your final draft. As an example, I’ve drafted probably five different versions of a single manuscript—and, in my mind, it’s still not done. Keep editing, writer friends!
As Terry Pratchett said: “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”
Other tips to write your novel:
- Eliminate all possible distractions (yes, that includes social media).
- Consider starting a blog or column in order to start getting your name out there and get published. You want to be viewed as an experienced/credible writer, and getting smaller pieces published is one way to do that.
- Consider writing a few short stories and submitting those to literary journals—that will also help to get your name out there. And make you feel accomplished, of course.
- Remember that writing a novel is a marathon and not a sprint. You’re in it for the long haul, and it is a long journey that takes a lot of time (years and years). Don’t get discouraged when you don’t see tangible success right away. Find ways to encourage yourself in the meantime.
- Do something other than write to get those creative juices flowing. Many experts recommend exercising, talking a walk in nature, etc. in order to prevent writer’s block.
- Turn off your inner editor when you’re writing. There’s a time for writing and a time for editing. The editor often hinders the creativity of the writer—so turn that sucker off when it’s time to put words on a page.
- Don’t be afraid to scrap your book and write another. Published authors write an average of four books before they get the hang of it and are noticed by literary agents.
- Keep a glass of wine handy when you start submitting queries and sample pages to agents.
- Read absolutely everything you can, but specifically books in your genre. It’s the best way to learn what the experts are doing and how you can distinguish yourself in the space.
Meg LaTorre is a writer of adult science fiction and fantasy, YouTuber, developmental book editor, writing coach, creator of the free query critique platform, Query Hack, and former literary agent with a background in magazine publishing, medical/technical writing, and journalism. On Meg’s YouTube channel, iWriterly, she geeks out on all things books—from the concept to the bookshelves (and everything in between). Meg also launched Query Hack, a query critique platform where writers can submit their manuscript queries or Twitter pitches for free feedback. She has written for publications such as Writer’s Digest and Savvy Authors on topics related to writing and publishing, participated as an editor in Twitter contests, including #RevPit (Revise and Resubmit) and Pitch to Publication, is a Resident Writing Coach at Writers Helping Writers, and can be found teaching online classes throughout the year. To learn more about Meg, follow her on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook, sign up for her monthly newsletter, and subscribe to her YouTube channel, iWriterly.