How to write a book (getting started)

For some people, writing a book is as easy as sitting down and putting pen to paper… but they’re freaks. For most of us, it’s hard work. I have a PhD in Literature and still get agonizingly stuck and frustrated in the middle of a new project.

Writing a book is HARD. It takes months of continuous self-motivation and persistence – you’re basically working for free, risking that all your invested time and energy will result in SOMETHING of value. For most people, the struggle and challenge is part of the goal. It’s a personal quest and defiant battle. You’re choosing a difficult goal and DECIDING you can meet it.

But then it gets hard. What if the book doesn’t go anywhere? What if you don’t know what happens next? What if it sucks, and forces you to reconsider your self-images as a literary genius? What if nobody likes it?

The good news is…

All of this is completely normal. This is the process. If you’re dealing with fears or lack of confidence, read my post on dealing with uncertainty or procrastination. For some, the creative process is necessarily frightening, because creatives never know how (or if) their works will turn out as good as they hoped.

HOWEVER – if you want to be a career authors, write books that matter or that changes people’s lives, the process is actually easier.

It’s much easier to intentionally write a book readers will love, as long as you respect and understand the needs and desires of your audience. The truth is, most authors don’t want to do that – they’d rather wrestle with the dark shadows of void and muse, dancing on the edge of madness and divine intervention, struggling to force their passion into a manageable structure that will make sense to others.

It is that sense of unease and discomfort and fear and doubt that makes the eventual completion of your book so satisfying.


Even though you weren’t sure you could.

Even though you thought it would never be good enough.

Some ways to actually get the book done:

  • Write every day. Develop a habit. Either write 1000 words a day or write for an hour a day. Consistency is key.
  • Research your genre. Read the top 10 bestsellers. Read the reviews and figure out what readers liked and didn’t like. How can you write something BETTER than all the bestsellers (while still satisfying the shared genre tropes readers love and expect?)
  • Use a plotting chart or outline – especially for commercial fiction, you need to structure the experience.
  • If you get stuck, take a day or a week off. Don’t beat yourself up for not writing.
  • If you’re frustrated and can’t write, it’s probably because there’s a problem in the story you need to fix first.
  • Your first draft will be shit. INTEND to finish a shitty rough draft, rather than a masterpiece (the draft comes first. The writing starts getting decent after the 3rd revision.
  • If you’re bored, your readers will be. Make something exciting happen. You can use my writing prompts.
  • Focus on the story. The actual writing doesn’t matter nearly as much as you think it does. Focus on WHAT HAPPENS, tension and conflict between characters, and how they feel about it and each other. Make sure they can never relax or chill, because something’s coming or they’ve got to go do something or something is hunting them or one of them is dying.
  • Don’t expect others to understand or support you. Your friends or family may be jealous of all the time you’re devoting to your special project. You’ll probably annoy the hell out of them by talking about your book all the time. They won’t get why you’d spend SO much time trying to do one thing without any obvious benefits
  • Build an audience – the more my audience grows, the less fear or doubt I have; because I know my fans will like my writing; and I also know how well the book will sell because I’ve done research (it’s less risk if you know your book will earn some money).
  • Set a deadline – one of the main problems with writing a book is that nobody else is waiting on it. It can literally take years, and continually get harder and harder to actually finish (because it will grow and change with you). Make a bet, put it up on preorder, announce it to the world… find a way to have other people COUNTING on you to finish by a certain date (for example, paying for a table at a book conference and NEEDING to get it done on time). Stress and pressure can really help with writer’s block.
  • Join writer communities or groups: it’s important to get support and encouragement from other authors.
  • Lower your expectations. Most writers never finish because they want a PERFECT book. But nobody’s perfect and your first book probably won’t be your best. If you care too much about this project, set it aside and write something simpler or easier just for fun, or to “test launch” a book you don’t care much about, just for practice. This could even be a short permafree book meant to build your fanbase.
  • Once you’ve finished, self-edit your book as much as possible before getting some new eyes on it. Feedback is important, but make sure it’s from actual readers of your genre, and don’t be afraid to just put it out there (if anybody gives you negative feedback, listen – but also be OK if your book isn’t for everyone).


Writing nonfiction

Nonfiction can be easier, since you mostly just need to provide value, HOWEVER – it’s a mistake to only focus on the content. A successful nonfiction book will be 1/3 personal anecdotes, 1/3 quotes or stories about interesting or successful people or events to illustrate points, and 1/3 actual, practical content.

It’s true that a lot of readers would RATHER just get straight to the good stuff without all the drivel, but they’re also less likely to remember or care about it. If it’s all practical stuff and no story, they may get bored and tune out. It’s your job to teach AND hold their attention.

If you want a super successful nonfiction book launch, it helps to interview/include a bunch of other people with relevant audiences, so the book launch becomes a shared project (also, you can get people to commit to share your book release six months in advance (hat tip Tim Grahl). A general nonfiction book in a popular subject can be a stable earner, but you can also use a book to attract clients or build your business.


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