So You Want to Write a Book
Tips for getting started and getting published.
Posted October 26, 2017
You’ve felt for awhile now that you have it in you; you see all these books lining the shelves and none of them seem to bring to light the things you would like to bring to light. You know you can do it but there’s a little niggling sense of “What if I’m not good enough?” or “I don’t know how to write a book” or “I’m too busy. I’ll start writing when _______________ happens and I have more time.”
Maybe you’ve even written an outline or a chapter or two and have contemplated sharing them with friends you trust or have gotten some feedback already and feel like it’s now or never.
I think I’ve midwived around 60 to 70 books in my career, maybe more, and I can tell you that those doubts I listed above are completely normal. I know people who’ve written 10 books who start out their eleventh one wondering if they really have it in them.
So you think you want to write a book?
Stop thinking and start writing! Here are the six steps to getting a book written.
Step one: Find a topic.
I know not everyone has this issue; many would-be authors have too many topics they want to write about and can’t settle on just one. But the best books are the ones that are focused and have a purpose (which we’ll go into in step two). Pick a topic. Just one.
If you’re like me, you may not have a specific topic in mind. I’ve been wanting to write a book from my heart for years but never could figure out exactly what I wanted to say in one.
What is something you could talk about forever? What do you enjoy thinking about, exploring, and participating in?
Not everything will be book-worthy, but it’s a start. Write a list of things you love or continue to think deeply about. Hobbies, topics of interest and study, experiences that have affected you, lessons you’ve learned, things your loved ones seem to appreciate about you.
Step two: Find the book's purpose.
One of the main patterns I see in book proposals is a lack of pattern: people wanting to say too much about too many disparate things without the book having a real mission or purpose. I once got a proposal that claimed that the book would answer every major human question. Needless to say, that went into the circular file.
You know that you have something to say, you know the book’s topic: now, what is your reason for writing the book? How is your reader going to use the information you’re communicating to them? How will it change someone’s life or thinking? How is your book going to contribute to the larger human dialogue?
This may seem like an overly large question, but people buy and read books to discover something new; to hear a new story, whether the book is fiction or nonfiction. The promise of the book will largely determine how many people will be drawn to read it.
This is where you can ask friends or colleagues you trust whether the promise of your book feels compelling to them and, if not, what’s missing.
Step three: Develop an organizational structure.
Much has been written on how best to organize a book, so I won’t go into it too much here. Suffice to say: the book should have an organizational structure. It should be obvious why one chapter or section comes after the previous one. Unless that’s your schtick, books should not be train-of-thought.
Think of it as if you’re presenting a curriculum to a classroom of students. Organize the information in such a way that the reader will be able to absorb it easily. If it’s too hard to read, you risk losing readers.
Step four: Write!
This is where the rubber meets the road. Write. Every writer has a different method for keeping the momentum going: writing the same time every day, writing a certain number of hours a day, binge writing, writing meticulously by rewriting over and over, doing a brain dump, or going away on a writer’s retreat. But however you do it: write.
If you’ve been blocked for years and want a push to get the thing done, remember that November is National Novel Writing Month. Even if you’re not writing a novel, it can be a good experience to have other writers along for the ride. Sign up, join the community, and use the tracking tools. (www.nanowrimo.org)
Step five: Edit!
When you’re done with your manuscript and have hopefully gone through and revised it at least once, it’s time to spring it on the world, or at least on a handful of people.
I’m biased in that I think it’s very helpful to have a professional editor go over your manuscript. Friends, even if they’re writers, will often be less than honest if you ask them to edit or provide feedback on your book. But if you pay someone to look it over, you’ll be more likely to get good information that will make your book better.
There are two main kinds of editors: copyeditors and developmental editors, though these categories can often overlap. In publishing houses, most often a manuscript gets a developmental editing pass and a copyediting pass, and finally, a proofreading pass when the book has been designed to catch errors that have slipped through.
Developmental editors will work more with the concepts, organization, writing tone, topical focus, and other larger issues. Copyeditors will usually look for the details such as grammatical and spelling errors. Both types of editing are important.
Editorial help can be found online at places like Mediabistro. Jane Friedman has a good article on how to find freelance editors.
Step six: Develop your publishing plan.
These days, there are many ways to publish your book that go beyond sending it in to publishing houses and hoping for the best, although many would-be writers still feel like getting published by a publishing company is preferable to self-publishing.
Getting published is more likely, though not guaranteed, to get your book out into the hands of more readers simply because most publishing companies have a distribution network and a process to pitch books to book buyers in major retail outlets. However, getting published in this way does not guarantee your book will be a bestseller.
The hidden secret of book publishing is: Success is mostly based on how hard the author is willing to work to sell themselves (and their book).
Self-publishing is another option that is becoming less stigmatized these days. Here’s an article from Jane Friedman with more details on self-publishing options.
How you choose to publish will largely be based on the topic of your book, how much control you want over the end product, and whether you want to share any profits with the publisher (Authors may get as little as 10 percent of the net profits from their book sales, based on the final cover price, less retailer discounts).
Many writers seem to be embracing the idea of pitching the book to publishing companies and then exploring other options if publishers don’t seem interested (or if the deals they get offered aren’t very good).
Either way, if you wish to have a successful book, you’re going to have to work to promote yourself and your product. There’s no real way around that.
What you do with the book after the manuscript is finalized will, obviously, depend on whether you plan to publish it yourself or pitch it to a house. If you’re pitching it, you’ll need to develop a book proposal. If not, you’ll need to research ways to self-publish. One warning: I caution against ever paying another company to publish your book. If you want to self-publish, which means having someone design the pages and the cover, you can easily find freelancers to do that work. So-called “vanity presses” usually rely on hoodwinking would-be authors into paying for services that may be substandard.
For my next post, I’ll write about the ins and outs of finding publishers and pitching to them.