I’ve written almost a dozen books, some in as little as two weeks. Here’s how.
It wasn’t long after I became a full-time writer that I realized I was capable of writing a book. I’d written over 100 articles that first year, adding up to around 70,000 words. If I put that energy and motivation towards a book project, I knew I could finish a book within a few months.
For a lot of writers, especially first-time authors, writing a book is a daunting concept.
It is, if you look at it as a whole. But if you saw your book as a collection of short articles or scenes, then writing it simply becomes a matter of doing a small section or scene every day and rearranging them at the end to make a coherent whole.
That’s exactly what I did and, over the years, I’ve written almost a dozen books, some in as little as two weeks. Here’s my step-by-step process and approach for how to write a book.
JUMP TO SECTION
In this foundational stage of your book, it’s important to get clarity on what you’ll be writing, why you’re writing it, and how you plan to get to the end.
Step 1: Determine your why
The most important question you can ask yourself before you begin work on a new book is why you’re doing it. What’s the goal here? Is it to build a career? To honor your family or history by sharing their stories? To improve your craft? Or, as was the case with my first book, to prove to yourself that you can?
Listen, writing a book can be a long and sometimes frustrating process. If you don’t know why you’re doing it, it’s easy to quit when you’re having a difficult writing day or you don’t know where to go next. Remembering why you’re writing this book in the first place can ground you and keep you connected to the project.
Step 2: Choose your book idea
Your book idea and your reason for doing it are the cornerstones of any writing project. They guide your creative process and serve as the driving force behind the book’s completion. Here’s what you need to know about your book before you start writing it:
- What’s the big idea? Every book has a central, overarching theme or message. What’s the big idea behind your story? This concept will serve as the backbone of your narrative, influencing the characters, plot, and the ultimate impact of your book.
- Who is it for? Determine the kind of book you’re writing. It is a novel, a short story collection, a children’s book, or a work of science fiction? Identify your target audience—understanding who your ideal reader is will help tailor your story to their preferences.
- Why is it unique? What makes this book different from the rest? Every project has a unique identity, and it’s important to get clarity on your vision for this book and what you hope it will add to the conversation or marketplace.
Step 3: Create space in your life for this project
Writing a book takes time, and it takes space. You need to create the physical and mental space in your life to dedicate to this project, especially if you already have a full life with other responsibilities.
- Creating time: When it comes to finding time in your life for this book project, there are two ways I recommend. One is to simply decide on a non-negotiable hour or two in your day that you’ll be devoting to this book. Two, if your routine tends to run more flexible, is to slot hours in your calendar. Most writers will average 1,000 words of writing in an hour. Which means that in order to write the first draft of a 60,000 word book, you’ll need approximately 60 hours. Block off those 60 hours in your calendar for the next month or two before you even begin.
- Creating space: Your writing space doesn’t need to be extravagant; it only needs to be comfortable and conducive to creativity. Some writers thrive in a cozy nook at home, while others find inspiration in the hum of a coffee shop. Establishing a designated writing zone, be it a desk, a corner of your room, or a favorite local cafe, can signal to your brain that it’s time to get to work. Make sure, too, that your writing space is free of any distractions. Consider using apps that block off social media and podcasts while you’re writing.
Step 4: Outline your book
If I were being simplistic and reductive, I’d tell you that there are two types of writers. There are the plotters who outline their book and often, to such extremes that they know every single chapter and scene before they write a single word. And there are pantsers, writers who know nothing about their story before they open a blank page and start typing.
The truth is, there are as many variations of that as there are writers. And often, whether you plan out a book or not will come down to the book itself.
I’m not a fan of giving new authors prescriptive advice about outlines. What I recommend is simple: get clarity on what you’re writing before you write it. This makes the process both easier and faster. After all, if you don’t know what you want to say, how are you going to say it?
(Here’s my six-step process for outlining a novel that pantsers love.)
Here are some ways to get clarity, both for the whole book and at the chapter or scene level:
- Mind map your ideas: Mind mapping can be an invaluable starting point since it allows you to brainstorm ideas and visually represent the connections between different story elements. Begin by jotting down central themes, characters, and plot points. From there, you can expand your mind map into a more comprehensive outline.
- Use plot templates: If you’re new to book writing, seek out templates that provide simple steps specifically for designing or outlining novels. There are many methods to pick from—The 3-Act Structure, The Hero’s Journey, Save the Cat, and the Snowflake Method. Don’t forget to look outside of Western storytelling for ideas as well.
- Character development: Characters are a critical element of any compelling story. For new writers especially, it’s important to understand your characters, their backgrounds, motivations, and arcs before you start writing.
- Chapter outlines: If you’re writing a nonfiction book, this is the point where you decide how to structure your book, which information will go in which chapter, and how long you want your chapters to be. For fiction writers, this is the plot. Consider your story’s climax, twists, and key turning moments.
Step 5: Set writing goals
There’s a reason challenges such as NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) are so popular, even among professional writers who’ve been publishing for a long time. It’s because goals give you feedback on your progress and provide a psychological boost for getting work done.
The mistake most new authors is make is making writing a book one big goal. Instead, what you need to do is create mini-goals and milestones as you move through the project.
Some ways to do this include:
- Word count goals: Setting a specific word count target for a day, week, or month is a common writing goal. For example, you might aim to write 2,000 words a day, 10,000 words a week, or complete a 50,000 word novel within a month.
- Chapter or scene goals: Instead of focusing on the daily word count, you can set goals to complete specific chapters, scenes, or sections of your project. This approach can be helpful for writers who prefer to break their work into manageable chunks.
- Time-based goals: You can establish goals based on the time you’ll dedicate to working on this book each day or each week. For instance, you might aim to write for an hour every morning or spend weekends working on your book.
- Writing sessions: Some writers prefer to track how much they’re writing through writing sessions or sprints. If you know you can write 500 words in a 15-minute sprint, then your target could be 4 sprints a day, which can feel far more achievable than 2,000 words a day.
- Research goals: For nonfiction or research-intensive projects, you might set goals related to the amount of research you need to complete. This can involve reading a certain number of articles or books, or conducting interviews.
- Character or plot development goals: For novelists, you can set goals to develop your characters or plot. This might involve creating detailed character profiles, outlining key plot points, or brainstorming subplots.
Step 6: Start writing your first draft
This is where your book writing journey truly takes off. With your ideas, outline, and goals in hand, it’s time to dive into the actual writing process and begin your first draft. But here’s something you should know in advance: if you’re struggling to begin, you’re not alone. Most writers, including successful writers who make a full-time living with their work, get intimidated by the blank page. The good news is that once you get started, the momentum you build will make it easier for you to keep going.
- Write the first chapter: Begin with your opening chapter. It’s crucial to hook your readers from the very start and introduce your story, characters, or topic. Remember, we’re not thinking about the entire book at this point. Simply how to begin.
- Know your audience: Keep your target audience in mind as you write. What do they want or need from your book? Tailor your content to appeal to your ideal reader.
- Discover your writing style: As you write, you’ll refine your writing style. It may be descriptive, concise, or somewhere in between. Don’t worry if you don’t have a well-defined style from the beginning. The key to becoming a better writer and developing your own unique voice is to write and practice more.
- Use writing prompts for inspiration: If you’re facing writer’s block or simply stuck on a scene or plot point, consider using creative writing prompts to spark some ideas.
- Use writing tools: Good book writing software, like Scrivener, can help you outline, organize chapters, and manage your research material.
- Embrace the rough draft: Remember that your first draft is a rough version of your book. It’s not meant to be perfect. Give yourself permission to write poorly, with the understanding that you’ll revise and refine in subsequent drafts.
- Stick to the outline: While writing your first draft, keep your outline or plan in sight. It’s your roadmap, and while you want to stay flexible, it will keep you from veering off course and introducing inconsistencies in your narrative.
- Avoid self-editing: The initial draft is about getting your ideas on to the page, not refining every sentence. Resist the urge to backtrack and edit extensively during this stage.
The messy middle
Navigating the middle stages of your writing journey can be like traversing a dense, uncharted forest—filled with obstacles and uncertainty. Let’s talk about how you can navigate this tricky terrain and emerge on the other side with your creativity and determination intact.
Step 7: Keep yourself accountable with mini-deadlines
Maintaining accountability during the book writing process is essential to staying on track and motivated. One effective way to do this is by giving yourself mini-deadlines. These smaller, manageable goals help break down the colossal task of writing a book into more achievable chunks.
Deadlines are effective for several psychological reasons:
- Eustress vs. distress: Deadlines create a type of stress called “eustress,” which is the positive form of stress. It motivates and energizes you, pushing you to perform at your best. When managed well, eustress can lead to increased focus and productivity. In contrast “distress” is negative stress that can occur when deadlines are missed or unreasonable, leading to anxiety and decreased performance.
- Parkinson’s Law: Parkinson’s Law is the idea that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. Deadlines impose a limit on your available writing time, preventing work from dragging on indefinitely.
- Focus and attention: Knowing that a deadline is approaching can sharpen your focus and attention. It encourages you to stick to your writing schedule and concentrate on the task at hand, instead of being pulled into a million different distractions.
- Reduced perfectionism: Deadlines reduce perfectionism by pushing you to take action and make progress rather than seeking unattainable perfection.
- Incentive and reward: Deadlines also offer a built-in incentive system. Completing a task by a specific date often comes with a sense of accomplishment and the promise of rewards or avoiding negative consequences, such as penalties or criticism.
- Cognitive activation: Knowing that time is limited activates your cognitive processes, increasing your mental alertness and problem-solving abilities. You become more aware of the importance of the task and what needs to be done to complete it.
- Self-regulation: Deadlines require self-regulation, which means you have to manage your own behavior and impulses. Self-regulation improves as you practice meeting deadlines, leading to better self-control and discipline.
- Sense of accomplishment: Meeting deadlines gives you a sense of accomplishment and boosts self-esteem. This positive reinforcement encourages you to continue setting and achieving goals.
Step 8: Touch the book daily
“Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e., do not cave in to endless requests to have ‘essential’ and ‘long overdue’ meetings on those days,” says bestselling author J.K. Rowling. “The funny thing is that, although writing has been my actual job for several years now, I still seem to have to fight for time in which to do it. Some people do not seem to grasp that I still have to sit down in peace and write the books, apparently believing that they pop up like mushrooms without my connivance. I must therefore guard the time allotted to writing as a Hungarian Horntail guards its firstborn egg.”
Listen to the master. Maintaining a daily connection with your book is vital for several reasons:
- It keeps the momentum going: Writing, like many creative endeavors, thrives on consistency. By touching your book every day, you establish a rhythm that can make the writing process feel like a natural part of your everyday life. It becomes a habit, reducing resistance and procrastination.
- It allows you to remain immersed in your story: This is true, especially if you’re writing fiction. Daily engagement with your book allows you to stay in touch with your main character, your story, and your ideas. It keeps your mental gears well-oiled, making it easier to pick up where you left off without needing to reacquaint yourself with the details of your plot or your characters’ voices. This is essential for writing the best book you can as efficiently as you can.
- It keeps you making progress: Connecting with your book daily serves as a constant reminder of your commitment to your project. You’re making progress, even if it’s just a few sentences or a paragraph. This can be incredibly motivating. It’s a tangible, daily affirmation that you’re moving closer to your goal of completing your own book.
Listen, touching your book daily doesn’t always mean writing thousands of words. It can also involve thinking, planning, or researching. On some days, it might just be about re-reading your previous work or jotting down new ideas. The key is to keep that connection alive and not let too many days go by without engaging with your project. Whether you write one word or one thousand, daily touchpoints can be the difference between steady progress and falling out of sync with your book.
Step 9: Leave the voices at the door
When you sit down to write, it’s important to leave behind the judgmental, critical voices that surface. These voices often take the form of self doubt or concerns about how your writing will be received. It’s crucial to recognize that these voices can get in the way of good writing and lead to writer’s block.
Many successful authors of bestselling books will tell you they’ve learned to enjoy the process of writing by embracing imperfections along the way. It’s important for them—and you—to embrace the notion that a first draft is a place for ideas, exploration, and experimentation, not perfection.
Understand that your initial draft is not a final product. It’s the raw material from which you will craft the final book. Remember, even a good writer can produce clichés or face challenges with word choices in early drafts. To write a great book, allow yourself to experiment and make mistakes, knowing you can go back and fix later.
Reaching the end of the book writing process is an exhilarating milestone that every writer should experience. Let’s talk about the final steps you need to take, the sense of accomplishment that awaits, and what you need to do after you’ve typed “The End” on your manuscript.
Step 10: Finish the first draft
Reaching this point in the book writing process is a significant milestone. To complete your first draft, you’ll need to stay committed and maintain your daily writing habits and hard work. Don’t worry if your draft seems too cluttered or messy. This is a common feeling at this stage for most writers. The first draft is merely the beginning of the journey towards a finished book. Finish writing up the last of those words and don’t forget to celebrate your win once you’re done.
Step 11: Work with beta readers
Now that you’ve finished the writing, it may be time to bring in some outside help.
The first thing you’ll want to do is read through what you’ve written and clean up the first draft so it’s coherent. Some writers will jump straight into a second draft at this point, especially if the first was the messy and rough version that I’ve been advising so far. More experienced writers may, however, produce cleaner first drafts. If that’s you, give it a look over and then send it to beta readers.
The reason I like beta readers to see my draft at this stage is so that I can get all the feedback about thin characters or subplots that don’t work before I’ve revised and polished to perfection. If I get notes suggesting I need to change major parts of the novel, then it makes sense to do it now before I’ve spent weeks on making every sentence sing.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when working with beta readers:
- Assemble your team: You want to find beta readers who are familiar with your genre or subject and will offer constructive criticism. While it may help to ask other writers, what you’re really looking for is people who like to read in your genre.
- Prepare your manuscript: Address glaring issues, such as grammar and spelling errors, before you send your manuscript to beta readers. The goal is to receive feedback on your storytelling, characters, and overall plot, not writing tips, and you don’t want readers distracted by obvious mistakes.
- Set clear expectations: Establish clear guidelines and expectations when approaching your beta readers. Tell them what aspects of your manuscript you’d like them to focus on, such as plot holes, character development, or pacing.
- Be open to feedback: Keep an open mind. There’s no point asking for feedback if you’re not prepared to hear it. Every reader may have a different perspective, so consider how their feedback aligns with your vision for the story. Look for recurring themes or issues. It’s important to differentiate between personal preferences and genuine concerns that affect the quality of the work.
Step 12: Revise and edit
“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” – Stephen King, New York Times bestselling author
The revision and editing phase is a critical component of the book writing process, ensuring that your manuscript is refined, error-free, and ready to captivate readers. In this draft, you’ll need to fine-tune your manuscript and focus on clarity, coherence and style.
Here are the areas you’ll need to focus on:
- Novel structure: Start with structural edits, which involve looking at the overall organization and flow of your story. Pay attention to plot consistency, character development, and pacing. Address any gaps in the narrative and ensure that the story’s progression is smooth and engaging.
- Character development: Assess the depth and consistency of your characters. Ensure that they undergo growth and change throughout the story, and that their actions align with their motivations and traits.
- Dialogue and descriptions: Are your characters’ conversations realistic and engaging? Are your descriptions vivid and immersive? Polish these aspects to create a smooth reading experience.
- Voice and style: Throughout the revision and editing process, remember to maintain your unique voice and writing style. You’ll also want to refine your writing at the sentence level. Look for grammar and punctuation errors, awkward phrasing, and overused words.
Step 13: Hire a professional editor
Regardless of how you choose to publish, working with a professional editor has become standard practice. If you’re planning on approaching literary agents with your work, they’ll want to see a polished and publication-ready manuscript and, of course, if you’re self publishing, you’ll need this, too. An editor provides an objective assessment of your work, free from personal biases or attachments. They can identify areas that may require improvement, even if it means suggesting changes you haven’t considered.
There are various types of professional editors, each specializing in different aspects of the editing process. These include:
- Development editor: This editor focuses on the “big picture” elements of your book, such as plot, character development, pacing, and overall structure. They offer guidance to strengthen your narrative and storytelling.
- Line editor: Line editors dive into the nuances of your writing at the sentence and paragraph levels. They polish your prose, addressing grammar, punctuation, style, and readability. Line editors ensure your writing is clear, engaging, and free of errors.
- Copyeditor: Copyeditors review your manuscript for grammatical and stylistic issues. They correct grammar, spelling, punctuation, and consistency in style.
- Proofreader: A proofreader’s role is to conduct a final check for any remaining errors or inconsistencies. They review your book for typos, formatting issues, and other minor imperfections.
Step 14: Decide how you’ll publish
Once you’ve finished editing your manuscript, you’ll need to decide how you intend to publish your work. The publishing process and the steps you take to bring your book to market will be different based on whether you choose the traditional publishing model or decide to self publish on your own.
Traditional publishing involves partnering with established publishing houses to release your book. While it can be a competitive and lengthy process, it offers the following benefits:
- Editorial support: Traditional publishers provide professional editing services, ensuring your book meets the high industry standards. That said, if you’re a first-time author, you’ll need to ensure your manuscript is the best it can be before you go on submission.
- Distribution: They have established distribution channels, allowing your book to reach bookstores and libraries more easily.
- Marketing and promotion: Traditional publishers often provide marketing and promotional support to help your book gain exposure. Do note, however, that it is mostly authors at the top who receive this support and if you’re a mid-list author with average sales, you may not get any marketing support at all.
In order to get a traditional publishing book deal, you’ll need to first, get yourself a literary agent. You do this by sending them a query letter and synopsis of your book. Once you have an agent, they will pitch your book and negotiate your contract (advances, rights, etc.) on your behalf.
Self-publishing, on the other hand, grants you full control over your book’s publication. Here are some advantages of going indie:
- Independence: You make all the decisions, from book cover design to pricing, with no need for external approval. You don’t need anyone’s permission to publish your book in languages other than or in addition to English, as well as to bring out audiobooks. If you want to put your book in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, you can do that easily.
- Speed: Self-publishing is a lot faster than traditional publishing, allowing you to release your book and start making an income sooner.
- Higher royalties: Self-published authors keep a more significant portion of their book’s royalties.
- Flexibility: You can experiment with various marketing strategies and adapt your book’s presentation based on feedback.
And that’s it. Once you’ve decided which road you’ll be going down, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get it in the hands of readers. Good luck!
Write your next book in three months
The first draft of a book should take no more than three months to finish, as the great Stephen King once said, but for most authors, it can end up being a multi-year challenge. If you’re ready to stop struggling once and for all and finally finish that damn book, Wordling PLUS can help you find the tools and strategies to make it happen more easily.
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Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more. She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators. Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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