Sometimes I blog for published authors. Sometimes, for those who’re sitting on a finished manuscript and scared witless about the next steps. And sometimes I blog for you–the one who just wants to know how to start writing a book. You know you have it inside you; it’s there, demanding to be told and released. But you’ve never thought of yourself as a serious writer.
I’m going to let you in on a bit of a hot tip: a lot of serious writers make writing too serious.
The truth is, in really practical terms, if you can write a sentence, and follow it up with a lot of other sentences, you’ve got what it takes to write a book. That’s it. Here are some other encouraging truths:
- You have technology at your fingertips that writers throughout history couldn’t even imagine…and that’s, like, their business–imagining hard-to-imagine things.
- You have powerful marketing tools at your disposal. In fact, even middle-schoolers know what a “personal brand” is.
- It’s cheaper to publish a book now than it’s ever been. You don’t have to refinance your home to buy thousands of books at a time.
Oh, you want to write a good book, though? No worries. Quality controls are possible, too. Yes, even as a newbie. Here’s another hot tip: book snobs hate that! They *liked* the days when you had to cross multiple barriers to entry, when you had to impress editors and agents, and had to wait weeks, months, and years to see your dreams evolve into reality.
Me? I like freedom. I think if you do the work and want to take the risk, you should be allowed to put your work out there and let the market decide. Later, gatekeepers.
Is it easy? Heck to the no. If it was easy, then the 80% of people surveyed who say they want to write a book someday would actually do it! Effort–that’s the real barrier to entry.
But if you want to know how to start writing a book, here’s the good news: it’s a lot of effort, but it’s still probably easier than you think. This is what you can do–today!
Get Clear On Your Story
Before you start writing, take the time to get very focused on the story you want to tell. Usually, the narrower the topic, the better. Seinfeld might be able to write a tv show about nothing, but the rest of us should pick something specific to write. Have you ever watched a movie and, at the end, thought, “I don’t even know what that was about!” That’s the feeling you want to avoid in your book.
If you had to tell someone what your book was about in only one sentence, could you do it?
Practice now: write a few sentences to distill your book’s topic. Here are a few examples:
- A weak, ordinary guy and his ecclectic group of friends save the world from an hideously evil power. (Lord of the Rings)
- A misunderstood orphan chooses revenge rather than forgiveness and destroys two families. (Wuthering Heights)
- Despite great tragedy, hope always wins. (The premise of many incredible memoirs.)
Let’s talk about the last example. It’s a little vague and cliche, yes, but doesn’t it sound more interesting than the standard reply to the ‘Hey-what’s-your-book-about’ question? “My life.” Yikes, total lack of focus.
Get Clear On Your Plan
Now that you’ve got your idea, think about the form that would best fit. You could squish the Lord of the Rings into a poetry chapbook, sure, but you’d have to cut a lot of scenes. It just wouldn’t be the same.
Do you want to write a collection of short stories to bring your idea to life? Or are you more drawn to a snappy, no-nonsense nonfiction handbook? Maybe what motivates you to write is the deep, driving desire to capture your family’s memories in a memoir to pass on to your grandchildren.
I actually believe that the format, length, and even the look of your book is closely connected to the purpose in your heart for writing it. This is a deeply personal decision, one that you should take the proper time to consider. You’ll need to strip away all the reasons you think you want to write a book until you get to the very bedrock bottom of the matter. Like this:
“I want to write a book.”
“Because I’ve always wanted to.”
“I love books.”
“They’ve always been an escape for me.”
“Why is that important?”
“I want to feel accepted, and when others read my book, I want them to feel accepted, too.”
Now, you’re getting somewhere.
You may discover that stocking your books in bookstores is less important to you than connecting with your readers. In that case, a PDF ebook might be just as effective as a printed paper book, and might springboard you to offer your story as a public speaking platform.
You might be surprised where this planning will lead you, just from asking, “Why?”
Get Clear On Your Outline
Once you decide on the type of book you want to write, make an outline. If even the word ‘outline’ makes you break out in a rash that’s been dormant since junior-year English class, relax. It doesn’t have to be a formal, tedious outline.
You can jot down all your ideas and all the elements you want to include in your book in a cheap notebook. Then number or highlight the ideas into groups: beginning, middle, ending. That’s it.
Or, you can do a mind map. If you’re really artsy, you can draw a pictorial mind map.
Whatever method you prefer, just dump all your many ideas and inspirations into one place, then sort them into a rough order.
Don’t even try to make it perfect; just get it done. You can adjust along the way.
Get Clear On Your Schedule
Even though, in its most simple form, a book is just a long string of sentences, it still takes time to write. There will be a cost. But don’t think of it as saying no to other opportunities; instead, remember you’re saying yes to one of your big dreams 🙂
If you’re working fifty hours a week, raising a family as a single parent, or the sole caregiver to an elderly parent, then you’re going to have to be realistic about your schedule. There are two choices.
A.) Tell everyone you know that you’re writing a book for the next two or three months, and that you won’t be available–for anything. This is a short-term but total isolation. Call it a writing sabbatical. If your family is supportive, you can enlist their help by allowing them to take over on day-to-day chores and housekeeping (and accepting that help even though it won’t be perfect). If your circle is, shall we say, less than supportive, tell them you’re working on a project that’s important to you, and that you’re totally committed to finishing it over the next few weeks. Tell them as little as possible, actually. Then turn off your phone and the wifi and make the book your life for the next couple of months. Plan a big celebration for the end!
B.) Figure out how long it will take to write your book and schedule it. A typical novel has around 50,000-75,000 words. Then find your writing speed. I can do about 1,000 words an hour. So it will take me 50-75 hours to write a book that size. If I commit to two hours a day, six days a week (always take a day off), then it will take me at least a month and a half. (I allow for a little wiggle-room.) If you can only spare twenty minutes a day, it will take longer, but you’ll get there sooner than you think. But you have to actually do it! And if you choose this method, you should also plan a big celebration for the end 🙂
See, I told you. You already have what it takes.
Now go, before you get distracted by anything else, and figure out these four key parts of the process. Take the first steps and, in less time than you think, people you know will be asking, “Can you tell me how to start writing a book?”
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