But you know what?
Writing a book still feels like a daunting enterprise. That’s why I always break the project down into bite-size steps, so each little part of it feels doable and achievable.
Step 1: Figure out your motivations
So – why do you want to write a book? What do you hope to achieve?
You might say:
- I want to make a living from writing
- I want to change the world (a bit!)
- I want to see my work in bookshops
- I want to know I can achieve a certain standard
- I just want to make money
- I want to create something I’m proud of
Or anything else. Quite likely, it’s a combination of factors. (For me, I want to earn a living, write good books, and be very happy and flexible in my work.)
But whatever your exact motivations, it’s worth being clear about them. I suggest you actually write down your aims and pin them above your computer or desk.
Writing a book is hard and it’s easy to lose momentum unless you have a permanent reminder of why you’re in this game! Create a positive image of what you want to achieve and keep that goal close by you as you work.
Step 2: Figure out your working habits
You need to be ambitious, committed – but also realistic.
Got plenty of time? Not too many fixed commitments?
Then allocate real slabs of time to work. Mark it in your timetable. Set aside hours for writing, with no other distractions permitted.
But most of you won’t be in that position. You’ve got work commitments, kids, a million other pressures. So be kind to yourself.
You do need to create some space for yourself, yes. But don’t beat yourself up if you don’t always meet your goals.
Realistically, life comes first, and writing books comes second. That’s only going to change once you start earning money from your work. Until then, it will be a juggling contest . . . and quite often there are going to be balls rolling all over the floor.
That’s not your fault. That’s just the way it is. (And me, I got my first break as a writer precisely because there were balls rolling all over the floor. I had a nice safe job. I had no time for writing. Then my wife got ill. I gave up work to look after her. And, in the gaps, started to write my very first novel. I’ve never looked back.)
Step 3: Figure out your idea
No book is successful these days unless the core idea is strong enough to distinguish it from the throng of other titles competing for the reader’s attention.
Just take a look at that little ‘New Releases’ screengrab from Amazon. There were more than 500,000 new books released in the last 90 days alone.
It doesn’t matter (for now) whether you have some beautiful writing in Chapter 12. Or if the plot twist in Chapter 25 is just breathtaking.
If the basic premise of your novel doesn’t induce a reader to explore it further, those things don’t matter at all.
Don’t get me wrong. I think good writing really matters – but it matters only once the reader has bought into your pitch, your idea. Until that point, you’re just another book on the shelf.
So how do you get a great idea? And how can you tell if it’s strong enough?
Well, we have good news on both fronts. In terms of getting your idea, you almost certainly have the seed of it already. Maybe a half-formed idea for a book. Or a passion you’d love to write about. Or a favourite novel you want to re-do in a new way.
The point is that almost anything can be a starting point. It’s the work you do from that point onwards which will make the difference between a smash-hit and a book that no one ever reads.
As for testing whether your idea is good enough (and making it better still), we have a brilliant free video on the topic. Get it here.
Step 4: Learn your characters
And that’s okaaaaay . . .
As long as you don’t mind tearing up your completed novel and starting over. Because inevitably, you will (a) become a better writer as you go, and (b) learn a ton more about the characters you’re writing about.
There’s not much you can do about the first of those things. But the second issue is one you can address. You just need to learn everything there is to know about your central characters.
What do they look like? What do they want? Who are their friends? What are their first memories? Do they like snow? How do they dress? What makes them laugh?
The more you learn about your characters, the better your writing will be, the more absorbing your novel will be – and you can also look forward to a much less brutal editing process when you’re done.
So how do you know your characters? Easy. You use our Ultimate Character Builder. It always works.
Step 5: Figure out your strategy
The reason I ask is that if you’re a high-planning type, then you should probably take that approach with you into writing novels. If you’re more of a seat-of-the-pants type, then you’re not going to suddenly change, just because you have a pen in your hand.
That said, you don’t want to overdo either strategy.
If you like planning, then by all means sketch your novel out chapter by chapter.
That sketch is only a sketch. A rough guide. As you go along, you may get new and better ideas, and you have to let those things breathe and come to life. Don’t make the mistake of ignoring those great ideas, just because your plan didn’t have a slot for them!
And if you like a bit of mud on your jeans . . . well, fine. But honestly? I think a bit of planning is good for almost every writer.
I’m reasonably happy to let things take shape on the page, but (a) I’ve had more practice than you, so I’m allowed to take shortcuts, and (b) I’ll always have a rough sense of the novel’s broad story arc. If you don’t have that sense of story arc before you start, you will almost certainly create a mess.
So, you seat-of-the-pants types please plan a little. And you uber-planner types, please remember that it’s OK to relax a little too!
Step 6: Remember the basics of plotting
All you need for a storming and memorable plot is:
A) A character who wants something. It’s OK if that desire isn’t all that strong to start off with, but it has to grow to become an all-consuming, all-or-nothing need.
(So in Pride & Prejudice, referenced in our illustration, Lizzie does want to get married at the start of the book, but only in a fairly general something-to-do-one-day sort of way. By the end of the book, we understand that her life will be terribly injured if she doesn’t bag Mr D’Arcy.)
B) People or circumstances that stop that character getting what they’re after. So, in the P&P case, a series of misunderstandings that arise mostly from the inner flaws of the two central characters.
C) A sense that nothing is stable, nothing is finally decided, until the very end of the book. And I mean that really literally. If one of your chapters doesn’t, in a significant way, alter your character’s relationship to their basic goal, then that chapter probably needs to be deleted!
Step 7: Learn to write like a professional
Writing like Gillian Flynn or Jonathan Franzen or Annie Proulx or Hilary Mantel. OK, that’s hard. You could practise for fifty years and not achieve their standard.
But you don’t have to write that well.
If you can – then great. But most massively successful authors write to a perfectly good professional standard and nothing more.
So take a look at the work of Stephen King or John Grisham, Patricia Cornwell or Stephenie Meyer. Those people write like real pros, but they don’t write wonderful prose.
They don’t have to.
Their genius lies in a mixture of story, situation, character and urgency, which gives their work its extraordinary saleability.
But all those writers share an ability to convey their meaning in a way that is:
- Economical, and
Unless you actually have difficulty writing an ordinary English sentence, you can achieve that standard. You do not need a degree in English or a mastery of grammatical theory.
To write like a pro, you just need two things. You need to focus relentlessly on the quality of your writing. You can’t just spew words onto the page and hope that they come out OK. (They won’t.)
But you also need to understand what makes good writing good, and bad writing bad. There’s nothing mystical about these things. There are simple rules – to do with the way we achieve clarity, economy and precision – which can be learned and then applied.
Luckily for you, we have a great video on that exact topic and it’s available free here.
Step 8: Mood matters
And be honest: how much of it do you really remember?
Chances are that a lot of the detail has already faded from your memory. You probably don’t recall many of the finer details of plot and character.
But do you remember the mood?
Of course you do! It’s why that book jumped to mind just now. It’s the thing that makes your action and the dilemmas your characters experience so memorable.
And how do you create mood? Well, we’ve actually already covered a lot of the basics. If you have lifelike, vibrant characters at work inside a story whose outcome seems to matter intensely – well, you’ve got a lot of the raw material right there.
But then there’s all the layering as well. Making places seem real. Describing characters’ clothes, actions, feelings, mood in a way that responds to who they are and what their circumstances are.
Mostly, you’ll achieve success on that front by seeing your characters clearly, and writing about them well. But remember to layer everything in. A layer that describes places. A layer that talks about relationships with family and friends. A layer in which you describe the physical sensations of your character. Leave any one of those things out, and your book will end up feeling bland and weightless.
Step 9: Commit, commit, commit
But now, there’s no avoiding this –
You need to commit.
Heart and soul. All in. Everything you’ve got.
Writing a novel is a big, ambitious project and you’ve just got to have enough in the tank to carry you through the sticky patches.
That might mean you set yourself a daily word count and stick to it like glue. That’s not a technique I use – me, I can’t think of anything worse – but plenty of pro authors do.
Or you can make sure that you allocate a set number of hours per week to the project and use those however you will. So you might be actually writing. Or you might be planning or researching. Or you might be editing the text you’ve already written.
All those things count as working, even though only one of them actually adds to the page count.
So you can adapt your approach in any way that feels right to you. Except –
You have to commit. You have to give this your all.
Step 10: Edit like an obsessive
And you’re an author, not a reader. So you don’t stand back to admire the thing you just made. You hack into it, looking for flaws, looking for anything that could be wrong.
A lot of people think that the editing process is mostly about two things: (a) fixing typos and (b) removing surplus word count.
The editing process is about just one thing: Everything.
It’s about typos and word count, yes. but it’s also about characters, and plotting, and sense of place, and story flow, and pacing, and dialogue, and whether your way of describing that ride through the dripping autumnal forest was absolutely smack bang on the money, or whether you could improve it a bit.
Unless you go into the editing process absolutely determined that you will make that manuscript shine like a diamond in every facet, it will never be good enough.
Your own low expectations and ambitions will kill the book. You owe it to yourself and your manuscript not to let that happen. There’s no particular limit for how many drafts you need to go through or how much time you need to spend.
You just need to spend enough time, do enough drafts. This is a part you simply have to get right.
Step 11: Get help
All professional authors get editorial help with their work. I’ve had 11 novels published, and four works of non-fiction, and other books that I’ve edited or ghost-written . . . and every single one has involved the use of a professional editor. And every single book has got better as a result.
And I’m quite a good writer! I’m experienced. I’ve sold big books for big money to big publishers. I know what I’m doing.
Yet I still use professional third party help.
I don’t know any serious pro author who takes a different approach.
But there’s almost a culture among some new writers that they have to get the book right by themselves. Or perhaps by using a circle of (untrained, non-professional) beta readers.
And for sure, I prefer the beta-reader approach to nothing. But really, if you care about your book and you recognise that you’re not as experienced as other writers, why wouldn’t you bring in a pro editor, just the way published authors do?
And OK. Full disclosure. (1) I get my third party editorial help for free, because it comes via my publisher. (2) The Writers’ Workshop offers a range of excellent editorial services from outstanding editors, which means I have a financial interest in encouraging new authors to get advice.
But I stand by what I say. Getting a book right without professional input isn’t impossible, but it’s dramatically harder and likely to be a very much slower process.
You wouldn’t, most likely, design and build a house without the help of an architect, a buildder, etc. So why discard the advice of professional editors on a project you care about almost equally? If you want to get a quote for manuscript feedback you can get it right here, right now.
Step 12: Sell like a pro
So now make sure that you do justice to it in the marketplace.
If you want to self-publish, that’s really fine. Just follow the advice here and commit to the process. You can’t make money by self-pubbing one book. You make money by building a readership and ensuring that you give that readership good service over an extended period.
And if you want to get traditionally published, that’s fine too. As a first step, you almost certainly need a literary agent, so follow our advice here and do as it says.
Step 13: Grab our wonderful freebies
Well, I lied.
Here’s a thirteenth step so sweet and easy that you can take it right now. You can sign up for our free videos on how to write a novel. It’ll take you ten seconds and the first video will be in your inbox in less than a minute.
Those videos are mixed in the following proportions:
- Bullshit – 0%
- Expert advice – 90%
- Helpful encouragement – 10%
If that sounds good, then get your free videos right now.
We might change our mind and take ’em down, so don’t delay.
And in the meantime, happy planning, happy writing, and good luck!