How do I write a book?

How do I write a book?

It’s been said that some 80% of people surveyed want to write a book someday. Regardless of the kind of book, whether fiction or nonfiction, that figure tells us that a large percentage of the population someday want to put their thoughts, ideas, and stories down in a book.

Of course, writing a book is no small task, even to those who have done it many times before.

So, how does one write a book? Are there best practices that have helped other authors?

Thankfully, the answer is yes. And so, without writing a book right here about the subject, here are a few guidelines to follow if and when you want to write a book.

I’ll talk about nonfiction first, and then I will list a few additional guidelines to follow when writing fiction.

How do I write a bestselling nonfiction book? A few guidelines

Guideline #1: Pick a subject and then narrow it

This may sound like the easiest step, but it’s not, and one can’t over-emphasize its importance. Picking your nonfiction book’s subject is more complicated that it may seem.

For instance, let’s say you spent years as a successful stock trader and did some investing for yourself and a few clients and you want to write about. Great. But what facet will you write about? Will you talk about the history of the market, how it has influenced our life and this country over time, how it works, which stocks to pick, or something else?

In other words, investing and the stock market are huge subjects, and unless you want to write a 500-page tome (most people don’t), you need to narrow down your topic and subject so that it can fit within the typical word count and page count of most books on stocks and investing, which is probably between the 150- and 250-page mark.

You also need to decide what your perspective will be and what your central point—or points—will be.

So, yes, it’s easy to say that you want to write about stocks, but before you get in over your head, you need to pick an aspect of your book’s subject and then dive deeper from there.

Guideline #2: Start with an outline

Once you’ve picked your focus, you need to map out your book. Ideally, you should do this before you write another word.

I know the topic of outlines puts many people to sleep—I certainly never listened in class when I was a kid and my teacher started talking about outlining—but outlining is essential to make sure you cover what you want to cover and say what you want to say.

Your outline doesn’t have to resemble the traditional Harvard outline with Roman numerals, Arabic numbers, capital letters, lower case letters, and all that. But you do need to list your major topics, which will likely become your chapters, and then list the subtopics under those topics, and so on.

And don’t worry about the order you put your chapters in when you start out. You can always reorder them pretty easily later, especially if you use the headings feature in your word processing program.

You can even include side topics in your outline that you want to discuss where they might fit best. By side topics I mean any subject that isn’t quite big  enough or important enough to be its own chapter but that you want to include for your readers’ benefit.

And last, but not least, don’t forget that your outline  is not set in stone. If, while writing your book, you decide to add to or cut some topic or subtopic, you can easily do that in your outline.  Remember, it’s your outline and your book. You are the boss.

Guideline #3: Commit to a schedule and stick to it

I am no expert on following schedules. I dislike them, but I also find them useful. Schedules are good for reminding you to do some small task every day that will lead to accomplishing a much larger goal down the road.

Given that writing a book takes time, it helps to take it slow but steadily. If you think that you are going to take a couple of weeks off work and write a book, you might be in for an unpleasant surprise.

So, set aside an hour or two every day during a time you know you won’t be interrupted (easier said than done, to be sure), and keep that time space un-booked and use it for writing, research, reflecting, whatever.

The more regularly and steadily you work, the more likely it is that you will finish your book, maybe sooner than you thought.

Guideline #4: Give yourself rewards at key milestones

Because writing a book is almost always hard work, it helps to set up rewards to give yourself when you achieve certain milestones on your way to finishing your book.

For instance, when you are 1/3 the way through your book you could treat yourself to your favorite meal or dessert, or you could treat yourself to that new outfit you’ve been eyeing or that new accessory or electronic gadget you have been coveting. Whatever will brighten your day and function as a reward is all right. Just make sure it’s something you can look forward to.

In other words, feel free to manipulate yourself into writing and finishing your book. Because you’re worth it.

Guideline #5: Get help

Because writing a book is a huge task, and because it’s likely that you are not a professional writer (or you wouldn’t be looking for advice on this subject), feel free to get all the help you can to write and finish your book.

Even if you don’t opt to hire a ghostwriter (like me!—always a good idea), you can enlist others’ help in many ways. You can do the following:

  • Run your topics by someone you trust
  • Have someone else proofread your book—heck, you can even hire someone to do that
  • Get others’ feedback on how your book reads, what you include in it, whatever
  • Hire (or cajole someone) to transcribe your thoughts for you, in case you hate typing or just aren’t good at it.

The possibilities are endless. The point is, even though writing and authorship are often solitary pursuits, they don’t have to be, and many of the most successful authors—at least authors who actually finish their books—all got someone else’s help along the way.

In other words, enlisting others’ help makes writing a book not feel so lonely. Because I suspect that  loneliness is one of the chief causes of why many would-be authors abandon ship not long after having set sail.

Guideline #6: Don’t expect perfection—or a bestseller

I throw this guideline in because the pursuit of perfection has scuttled many a creative or worthy project like writing a book before it even got off the ground (if I may mix my metaphors for a moment).

Instead, resign yourself to the fact that your book will have imperfections, but know that it will have the one important thing you need most: it will be finished and ready to be given or sold to others.

Guideline #7: Celebrate when you finish

Just as you celebrated your key milestones along the way to writing your book, so too should you celebrate finishing your book. Thus, when you have finally completed your book, throw a party, have a picnic, or rent out part of your favorite restaurant, and then invite as many people as you can, be it family, friends, coworkers, business associates, clients, or whomever, and let them all know that you have finished writing your book.

Life is short, so celebrate what matters most, especially when that something is writing a book.

How do I write bestselling fiction? A few guidelines

As promised, here are a few additional guidelines to follow when writing fiction that I have culled from various articles, notes, and books on fiction writing as well as from my own observation and experience.

Please note: Because writing fiction is still writing, you need to follow most of the guidelines I listed for nonfiction, as well as these extra guidelines for writing fiction. Why? Because fiction is more complex and thus more difficult (for most people) to write than nonfiction, which means that you have more work to do and more pitfalls to avoid—fiction writing is not for the faint of heart!

Guideline #1: Tell a compelling story

To explain this concept, let me introduce a term many in Hollywood use called high concept. Basically, it means that you don’t make movies about ordinary people going to work and coming home and bickering a little over dinner. We can all get that on our own and don’t need to watch a movie to see that. Instead, you make movies (or write books) about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances or extraordinary people in equally extraordinary circumstances. For instance, a man who, on his way home from work, has a mysterious woman jump into his car at the stoplight who tells him to drive quickly so she can escape some secret agents would be much more compelling than a man who rides home and gets to eat leftovers for dinner. One great way to make your story compelling is by making it high concept, and if you’re lucky, a few people might actually watch that movie or read that book.

Even if you do tell a story about a family, that family has to be extraordinarily bad, or good. If bad, the family in your work of fiction has to be so awful that it strains credibility. If good, we want to read about a family whose intrigues rival those of the Kennedys or the Rockefellers. Again, high concept.

In other words, fiction is reality but felt and lived at a higher level and with much more drama. So, if you are going to write fiction, it had better have some drama and shouldn’t look like people sitting around just having dinner. Got it?

Guideline #2: Start early and start strong

I no longer work helping ghostwrite fiction, but when I did, all of the works in progress that potential clients wanted help with violated this one guideline. Instead of starting strong with something happening within the first couple pages—or even on the first page—to get the story rolling, their beginnings dragged on and on, giving us huge, overly detailed descriptions of the new world that they had created. Yawn. I am not sure if this is J.R.R. Tolkien’s fault (given how slow and descriptive his Lord of the Rings was, or if the entire fantasy genre has ruined a generation of would-be fiction writers, but too many beginning fiction authors start their novels way too slowly.

Instead, give us something, some action, or an inciting incident, fairly soon. Describe only what you have to. I mean, we all know what a shopping mall looks like and what a run-down apartment looks like. Don’t go on and on for pages describing stuff when a few well-placed words can paint enough picture for the reader. Just get going.

And this leads to my next guideline.

Guideline #3: Put your characters in danger or trouble and then let them fight the rest of the book to get out of that trouble.

Your characters can either start out in a bad place and then struggle for the rest of your book to escape, or better yet, they can start out in an okay place but lose it all and then struggle to get back to normalcy—or even improve.

No matter which plot line you use to write compelling fiction, you must put your characters in jeopardy and then have them spend the rest of the book fighting (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively) to survive.

Your characters have to need something and they have to spend the book trying to get that something. Again, you can’t just have your characters sitting around, talking with their friends, going for rides, and complaining about life, and expect publishers to pick up your book. You have to give them roadblocks to overcome and put obstacles in their way that they must almost constantly fight to get themselves clear of.

In English class your teacher might have called this conflict, but I hesitate to use that word because it makes it sound like your characters have to fight constantly with each other. They can do this, of course, but this so-called conflict can happen between your characters and the government, your characters and their situation, your characters and mother nature, and so on.

Remember, you are not writing a story that someone will turn into a French art house film. No, you are writing a story that publishers will print, people will read, and that maybe, just maybe, some producer will someday buy and turn into a movie or a TV show.

Guideline #4: Keep your writing tight

Bad writing happens in even the bestselling fiction (just read a few pages of the Twilight series or some of Dan Brown’s books, but if you’ve obeyed the guidelines above, your fiction can survive your bad writing. Better yet, if you write well and produce clean, tight prose that moves along, your fiction will be all the better for it.

By tight writing I mean eliminating wordiness, too much description, too many adjectives, and too many secondary characters or sub-plots.

Again, some level of detail is necessary, but most new fiction authors way overdo it. If you need more info regarding what I’m talking about, please read Stephen King’s (yes, that Stephen King) book On Writing. He spells out in plain English how to improve your fiction writing quickly and thoroughly. You can also visit my blog post on fixing your bad writing.

Guideline #5: Revise, revise, and revise, and then get feedback

This guideline is simple. You may have finished your novel (yay!) and think that you’re done, but chances are you’re not.

When xxx wrote The Help, she and her agent took her manuscript through some sixty drafts. Yikes! You may not think you can do that, but if you want your fiction to soar, revising and revising and revising is key.

Don’t just give your manuscript to your idiot family and friends (unless they’re all bestselling fiction writers, which they probably aren’t). Instead, find an actual professional, like a literary agent or another published fiction author, and see if they will help you. You can even hire me, and I can help some, even though fiction is not my main gig. Regardless of whom you work with, don’t just rely on family and friends, who won’t give you good, deep honest feedback and will just blithely tell you that your novel is great when it actually still sucks.

Guideline #6: Keep your story moving

This guideline essentially repeats much of what I’ve already said, but I put it here because it’s so important that your work of fiction keep moving and not get bogged down by too much description, too many characters, or too many pointless side trips.

Keep your fiction and your story moving or your hard work will never see the light of day.

So that’s it, kids. Several simple, but doable, guidelines you can follow to increase your chances of writing and publishing your nonfiction or fiction book.

Feel free to contact me if you think I’ve missed something vital or if some guideline worked for you but wasn’t listed here.

Happy writing!

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