Writing a book is one of the most significant things you can accomplish in life.
Fiction or nonfiction, a finished book gets your thoughts on the page, transforms your ideas into something more permanent, and plants the seeds of your legacy into more fertile soil than the earth inside your mind.
But writing a book is also difficult, especially if it’s your first one. Yet, that hardship is an asset if you know how to leverage your experience. Writing a book will help to shape your character, and help you turn into a better thinker. By its very nature, writing a book gets you to see yourself in a new light. How you think and the ways you choose to express yourself, or not.
A finished book is always better than the one in our imagination, so the best thing you can possibly do for your creative self, as well as whatever it is you’re working to nurture by writing your book, is to start. This page is to get you out of your dreams and onto the draft.
And after writing more than a hundred books by myself, and a few hundred with my partners in our studio, I’ve fallen down, gotten back up, and kept on writing plenty. I want you to finish what you started, or finally step on the gas.
You’re here because you want to write a book, and I’m here because I want to help you. You’re about to read 24 tips that will take you from feeling numb as you stare at the page, wondering when you’ll ever find momentum, to the exhale that can only come once you finish your book.
As with most things I do, writing a book starts with this essential step:
1. Know Your Why
Many authors stumble through the process because they aren’t clear enough on their reasons for doing it. Never make this mistake. Always get clear first. Understand what you want to achieve most so you can appropriately arrange the experience around your opportunities. There are plenty of reasons, and none of them are right or wrong. There is only what’s right for you.
But ask yourself, are you writing a book to:
- Make a lot of money?
- Connect with readers?
- Feed your passion?
- Give yourself an escape?
- Build authority?
- Change people’s lives?
- Get your stories onto big and little screens everywhere?
Each one of those reasons (and any of the other countless motivations not listed) is a different why, and therefore requires a slightly different approach to the book writing process.
Especially when it comes to nailing one of the essential elements of a fluid book writing process, covered in tis next tip.
2. Nail Your Outline
There is no “one way” to outline a book. Any Google search will turn up hundreds if not thousands of methods. But knowing your why helps you to refine the way you approach yours.
Is your book fiction or nonfiction? That’s the biggest factor that affects the outlining process. The easiest way I’ve found to outline nonfiction is to start with a massive list of questions I know my ideal reader would need to know the answer to. If you have no idea where to start this process, or what questions your ideal readers are asking themselves, you might be writing the wrong book.
For a fiction title, I want to start by breaking down each of the four acts (we use four rather than three, even though it’s essentially the same thing), then break each of those acts down into ten chapters, with a single sentence each.
You could use notecards, a list of scenes. Organize chapters by mood or tone. It’s all dependent on the author and the project. I outline for everything, but how I outline depends on what I’m trying to accomplish.
It’s always best to experiment and see what works for you, but never neglect this step. If you’re trying to prevent yourself from getting stuck at some point along the way, you need strength in both your momentum and your message. An outline helps with that, and keeps you from getting lost in the weeds.
3. Read Outside Your Genre or Niche
This goes for nonfiction and fiction. You should have already been feeding yourself with the main ingredients of your book for a while. If you’re writing nonfiction, that means you know the topic inside and out and will be able to explore the material in a way that’s unique to you. If you’re writing fiction, you should be a fan of the genre and have a general understanding of what is already available in the space. Now it’s time to read outside the lines.
If you’re writing nonfiction, you want outside ideas to color your perspective and help shape your argument. If you’re writing fiction, investigate outside voices and ideas as additional ingredients to make your storytelling unique. And be aware as you’re exploring that your preferred genre might not be the appropriate genre for you at all.
4. Know your Genre
After working with hundreds of writers over the last decade it came as a shock to discover that most writers finished their first book in the wrong genre. This happens most often in romance, because the story structure for that genre are straightforward and easy for novice authors to get their heads around. Demand is high, so on the surface the risk in this genre appears to be low. But there are major discoverability issues and the opportunity cost of wasting time writing in the wrong genre can be almost absurdly expensive, especially considering the overhead is often invisible.
Though this is pervasive in romance, the problem itself is genre agnostic. Many authors find themselves several books deep into a type of stories they never should have entertained let alone lost years of their creative life trying to feed.
Never assume your genre. Just because you enjoy consuming a particular type of tale doesn’t mean your best equipped to create that experience on your own. Ask yourself what genre excites you, while also matching your skill set. If you know nothing about science, despite enjoying the genre as a consumer, that’s probably not the best place for you to be writing. Same if you love fantasy, but are weak on description.
If you want to write your first book reasonably fast and without getting lost, questioning your genre and really finding out what’s best for you longterm is essential.
5. Schedule and Protect Your Writing Time
You want to write, but too often you let other things get in the way. Either you don’t make time for your creative work, or you let other things get in your way even after you do. Knock it off.
If writing a book is genuinely important to you then you have to send that signal out into the world. Put your writing time on the calendar and treat it with the same importance as you would give any other appointment.
Back when I was a freelance copywriter I realized that my dream of writing a book one day was exactly that — only a dream. The only thing that would turn it into something more was me. So I told myself that I was my best client, and thus deserved a spot on my writing schedule. Once I had booked my regular spot I didn’t allow anything else to stand in the way. That was about twelve-million words ago, thanks to this next related tip on our list.
Once you have your scheduled time, don’t let yourself get in the way of your own success. This is easy to do, and if I’m not careful it still happens to me all the time. It might be Facebook, Twitter or Instagram for you. My kryptonite is email and Slack. There are apps that will bar you from your worst vices. Know yourself; if you need the help, get it.
6. Hold Yourself Accountable
Like money, everyone spends their time differently, but we don’t all put as much thought into how it’s spent as we probably should. Unlike money, time is a finite resource. Once it’s gone you can never ever get it back, no matter what you do or how hard you try, or how much you’re willing to spend.
Commit to writing your book, then honor that promise to yourself by doing everything possible to keep that commitment.
There is no right way to hold yourself accountable. But if you understand your strengths and weaknesses you will be able to design a system that is optimized to you. This can include the proper tools, applications, peer groups, calendars and to-do lists. Never assume that something will get done because you’ve told yourself that it would be. You can’t improve what you don’t track, or track what isn’t measured. So give your book a better than fighting chance by knowing who and when you will report your results to, even if that person is only yourself.
Weekly deadlines, daily word counts, an overall percentage of progress — whatever you decide, your work deserves a target.
7. Get Organized
It’s a lot easier to hold yourself accountable when you’re working ahead with a sense of clarity. Don’t just get started, get started right by doing the following:
- Designate your official writing space. Whether this means a room in your house or a table for one at Starbucks, make sure you have a distraction free area where you’re not likely to be bothered.
- Create a path of least resistance for getting your words in. This means a clutter free space with all of your tools (digital or otherwise) easily accessible.
- In addition to your writing space, you should designate an official writing time. Never mingle this block with other activities. Don’t set aside a fat chunk of creative time only to fill it with assorted to-dos that thinned your potential results.
- Prepare your tool box with whatever you need to write. Everyone’s box is different. Writing is different from brainstorming, which is often a more analog activity for me. But for rough draft writing I’ve migrated to an almost entirely digital environment. Scrivener and my current work in progress is usually enough. But you might need pen and paper, maybe legal pads, in addition to tools like Grammerly for editing assistance.
- Know your software. Even within our studio where uniformity lubricates momentum, we don’t all use the same tool. Most of us use Scrivener for a variety of reasons (you can find out more about the software here: https://www.literatureandlatte.com), but there’s also standbys like Word, or newer online entries like Hemingway. Whatever you choose, make sure your software isn’t by default or accident.
- Even if you’re hand-writing your book, you should still take the time to save your work digitally with a permanent backup. You’ll need to publish it eventually, so this isn’t a step you can permanently skip. One of our studio authors writes every book by hand, then copies it over to the typewritten page once she’s done.
Start out organized to build early momentum into your book writing project, then stay organized to keep yourself from getting lost.
8. Understand: Perfect is the Enemy of Done
Progress and perfection are not the same thing. It’s never about getting your work into a flawless state so much as it is about getting it out the door in as appealing a way as possible, given the time you have, knowing you can do it even better the next time.
Your job as a storyteller is to tell a story, not to fret over every syllable. Instead of getting lost in the details, constantly yourself if your work is moving you in the right direction.
Effective writing pushes you toward a desired outcome. You will make mistakes and your work will have flaws. But momentum matters more than anything, and you’ll earn less of it if you fixate on the details that do little if anything to move the dial.
Focus on the process rather than the finished product, because while a single book is an asset on your shelf, the process you use to create that piece of IP will stay with you forever.
9. Take the Time Required to Think
It isn’t enough to organize your time, space, and writing tools. Productive authors who can regularly finish one book before moving onto the next understand that sometimes going slower is the best way to go faster.
We all need time to think. Whether you are brainstorming ahead of your project, during difficult parts of the draft, or once it’s finished and you’ve cast your eye on revision, it’s always smart to take a step back when the work requires it.
Barreling forward just to get the work done isn’t just sloppy, it usually ends up requiring more work on the backend. This doesn’t mean you should second guess yourself as a constant, but you should listen to your instincts when they’re requesting a brief creative respite.
While you don’t want to forget that perfect is the enemy of done, and thus slow down enough to turn a simple pause into a longterm paralysis, you do want to note when your work is in need of some genuine thought.
10. Don’t Panic
Even after finishing more than a hundred novels, almost every project still has a moment or two (or a whole lot more than that) where I’m doubting everything I’ve written, am writing, or am going to write in my story. Everything feels stupid and like it’s all going nowhere. A total waste of mine and the reader’s time. I imagine the heavy revision the work will require, the endless mountain of edits I’m almost for sure going to see. The awful reviews if I can’t fix what’s broken.
By now I have the experience to recognize all of that for the bullshit it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s easily ignored. The process is second nature by now, so I acknowledge the hiccup’s existence, then do whatever I must to get through those moments without letting them derail me.
I’ll take a short break to work on something else, or go on a long walk through my neighborhood to consider the project, and why some part of it’s giving me trouble.
If you don’t have a moment or ten of self-doubt at some point while writing your book (especially in the beginning, of either the project or your writing career), there’s an excellent chance you have an inflated sense of self or are slightly delusional about your own abilities. Writing can be difficult, but it isn’t brain surgery, so don’t ever let it be hard enough to beat you. Which is exactly the point of this next tip.
11. Stick With Your Project
You will be tempted to quit, anywhere from one to a hundred thousand times or more. But please, don’t do that. You will regret it. Worse than not finishing, you’ve taught yourself that you’re not a finisher. The next time you make plans for yourself there will be a voice inside you that knows the truth: you don’t see things through to their end.
That can cripple your momentum more than any other factor. Finish your draft, no matter what. Even if the book is three times harder to revise than you expect or want it to be, there is exponential value in getting through to the end.
Again, the biggest value in writing a book (if you’re wanting to write as a career) is in the personal process you develop over time. It will be frustrating, but use the fuel of truth that it will constantly get better. I’ve been at this for a decade now and am still seeing improvements in both my work and my systems with every new story. The same will be true for you…but only if you teach yourself to stick with it, taking notes on what works and what doesn’t while you go along.
You have to ship eventually. Whether that means sending your draft to a publisher or uploading it to digital retailer yourself, your book belongs in front of readers rather than your bottom drawer.
12. Write the Story You Would Most Want to Read
This alone will help you stick with it. I’ve met a lot of storytellers who feel desperate to develop their author career. They start out “writing to market”, then end up with a project that looked great in the idea stage and held its convincing argument all the way through the outline. But the author isn’t connected to the narrative, characters, or situation at all. They’re only writing that story because it seems like a more certain path to readers than the ideas more native to their personal interests and style.
This is a mistake. You never want to write a story because you think it could be a bestseller. Chances are it won’t be, then you will have failed by definition. Whether it’s a genre you love, or a specific style of story or voice or cast of characters, tap into your natural interests to consistently stoke your drive. Because once you unplug from the narrative it can be difficult if not impossible to plug back in.
If you find yourself stuck at any point in your story, pause, and ask yourself if you would want to read the book you’re writing. If the answer is NO, ask yourself why not?, then do whatever you can to fix it and thus maintain a high level of interest in the project. Without it, momentum will always be a struggle.
13. Make Things Happen
It’s easy to get stuck throughout your story if there aren’t enough things happening. And nothing will get you staring at the blank page for harder and longer than trying to figure out what’s next when there isn’t enough going on. Even the most compelling characters and well-crafted prose will crumble in the face of a story that isn’t moving forward.
This is why we spend so much time in the outlining phase. If something significant to the plot is happening in each scene, and I make sure I’m hitting those points in the draft, then the meat and potatoes are already served so the details are gravy.
Sometimes we get carried away with our own ideas and allow a written tangent to lead us somewhere we didn’t intend or need to go. Cut it, either now or in the revision, but get on with your story. No matter how great an exchange of dialogue, internal monologue, description or setting, if it isn’t driving the narrative forward you should question its presence in your story.
Every scene must pull its weight. If one of them isn’t, then cut it. If you have questions about how to “make things happen,” remember that great storytelling always comes down to character.
14. You Can Never Focus Too Much on Character
Your characters can’t be marionettes for you as the author. They must have their own opinions, motivations, and flaws, with all of them influenced by yet independent from you. More than anything, your characters need compelling problems to solve. Something to challenge, torment, or propel them forward. Both through their lives and your story.
Every well-told tale has a beating heart of constant conflict. And whether it’s internal or external, that friction will shape your character, and if you did your job while writing the book, she’ll be different by the end of your narrative.
So make her flawed yet believable. Rich with inner thoughts and outer behaviors that support them. She should live and breathe and feel real enough to surprise you at least a few times throughout your draft.
If a character’s thoughts or behaviors fail to surprise you at any point in the story, there’s an excellent chance that they’ll come off as flatter or more one-dimensional to your reader than you need or want them to.
15. Keep your Story Believable
That doesn’t mean your book should read like a documentary. Or that it shouldn’t have superheroes, dragons, or monsters. It’s the paranormal activity that makes the genre fun. But everything in your story should be consistent within the universe you’ve established.
Marvel movies are able to make more than a billion dollars at the box office because, even as unlikely as it might be to get super powers from a radioactive spider, the narrative pieces all support that fiction.
Deus ex machina is the death of excellent writing. Do it even a little and the best your book can be is good. Great is automatically out of the question. Do it a lot and your work will read like it was written by a hack. In case you don’t know what it is, Deus ex machina is a plot device where a seemingly unsolvable problem is very suddenly resolved by an unexpected and/or unlikely occurrence. It’s contrived and readers hate it. Fortunately, we have a terrific solution for you.
16. Writing is Rewriting
This is most true when it comes to what we call “reverse seeding.” You can pile all the deus ex machina into your story that you want, just make sure you justify it the second time through.
We do this for every story, but it was born during our Fiction Unboxed project. My writing partner, Johnny, and I were finishing a book with a rather dramatic climax that involved a local bakery burning to the ground. This scene was supposed to have some deep emotional impact, but what we wanted the reader to experience simply wasn’t there, because we’d done nothing to set it up.
We fixed this during revision, with an additional scene that showed our main character visiting this bakery as a child, along with a few mentions and memories throughout the draft. Something that seemed sudden and stupid in the first draft became anchored with the weight of emotion during the second.
Knowing that nothing in your draft is permanent, and that you will always have the opportunity to improve your work should be enough to keep you consistently moving through it.
17. Understand that Writing is Practice
I’m ambitious and undaunted for the most part. I often have unreasonable expectations of what I can and can’t do. Still, I would never wake up one morning and assume I could run a marathon without training. Yet, that’s what a lot of people assume they can do when it comes to the creative process of writing a book.
You may work in sprints, but writing itself is a marathon, and for maximum results you need to train accordingly. It doesn’t matter how many books I have in the done pile behind me, I still approach each new project as yet another opportunity to practice and improve what I do.
Writing is one of the biggest parts of my job, so it makes sense for me to do it every day. That might not be true for you, even if you hope that it will be someday. Regardless of how much you’ve done, or plan to do, see your work as practice and practice as work. That framing will make the process more fluid and fun over time.
18. Do What You Can Do
Most of us have made some sort of New Year’s resolution promising that we’ll lose weight, drink less, be kinder, or any other example of a temporarily solemn vow you can possibly think of. The problem usually stems from the best of intentions crashing into human walls such as willpower and crippling inertia.
You tell yourself you’ll go to the gym 3-5 days a week, then by the second week when you’ve only gone a total of four times you start feeling like a failure. The next week’s even worse. But if you had given yourself the more reasonable goal of two days a week, no matter what, you could have developed enough consistency to carry you through.
Don’t promise yourself you can write 2000 words a day if you can’t. Same for 1000 or 500 or any other number. Whatever your Holy Grail goal, let it surprise you when it happens. Demand consistency for yourself more than anything else. If you can only get 250 words in a day, then make that happen, no matter what, and by the end of next month you’ll have 7500 words. Not bad at all. Now do it again. And PLEASE:
19. Don’t Edit as You Go
Getting in your head is the worst thing that can happen to your work. Imagine having to write after just getting out of a terrible argument with someone you love, especially if that argument is still unresolved. Worse than not being able to focus, you can barely string two thoughts together. It’s too difficult with the parade of exchanges you’ve been replaying for hours in your mind. Regardless of what you want, the story you’re supposed to be writing comes second to the one on a loop in your mind.
The same is true when your inner editor is cranked on high. It has no business casting judgment on a work in progress, and doing so will only keep flow from happening. Never forget that writing is rewriting, and that your rough draft will never (by its very nature) be good enough. Of course you can and should correct obvious typos, and if something will affect your continuity (and therefore your mindset) you might want to leave yourself a comment or quickly address it, but your job in the first draft of a book is to keep going forward.
If you wouldn’t edit every word out of your mouth during a conversation with a friend, then don’t do that to your story, because the page should be your best friend while you’re on it.
Other friends come later.
20. Write With the Door Closed, Then Open It
This is one of my favorite takeaways from Stephen King’s excellent book, On Writing. I have my three drafts — say it, say what you mean, and say it well — and he has his two: door open and door closed. My rough is always written with the door closed, meaning no one gets to read a word while I’m writing it. There are rare exceptions. Sometimes I’m collaborating in real time enough that it’s necessary, but I always prefer to work on the first draft in isolation.
But then I share. Though it is important that you get outside perspective on your work, you must always trust the source. For better or worse, your mom will tell you what she’s going to tell you, the same is true for your friends. Fellow writers have their own stories in their head and are often filtering your narratives through their perspective. Worse, they might not be in your genre, and could therefore gift you with some well-meaning but terrible advice.
Ideally, you want people who would be among your ideal reader group to be giving you usable feedback. This group might be harder to target at first, but you should always keep it mind. After all, getting it into the right readers’ hands is what marketing is all about.
21. Bake Your Marketing into the Book
All books need a marketing strategy Yes, anyone can publish, but that doesn’t mean they can do it successfully. There is no EZ Button or autopilot. Everything in this business takes consideration, marketing included, or even especially if getting new people to find, read, and share your work is among your type priorities.
But beyond reading the right books and blogs, listening or watching the appropriate podcasts and YouTube channels, or networking with a specific circle of friends, you should always be looking for ways to make marketing a more natural part of what you do. The easiest way to do this is by putting the reader’s experience in front of everything else.
Design your series so they lead from one right into the next. Create side stories and shareable content that makes it simple for them to show your world to like-minded friends. Write your books toward your ideal readers’ interests so it becomes easy to communicate with them through social channels and regular emails.
The most successful authors have built strong enough brands that their names alone will sell the book. Hopefully you’ll get there one day as well. In the meantime, always consider the elements you could introduce to your book that makes it either conversation worthy or easy to share.
22. Embrace Failure
You will absolutely mess up at some point. Hopefully, many many times. A successful author is one who can afford their whims and mistakes, and that’s what I want for you.
This is going to be difficult. You may stumble lightly, and you might fall hard. But be okay with what’s happening, no matter what. Understand that writing a book is a journey and not an event. Using that truth as a compass will keep you on the path far more than an unreasonable standard of perfection.
23. Get Ready For Whatever is Next
Every book you publish is another employee who never clocks out; an asset to feed you forever, a dollar or two at a time. If your first book isn’t good enough, throw it away and make sure that your second one is. There’s no shame in that.
If your book is good enough for prime time then get to work on the followup immediately. If a reader falls in love with your work, they need to know they can get more. New authors without a catalog are too easily forgotten. Know matter how great your story is, there are great stories everywhere.
It’s worth saying again: If you can afford to hold off on publishing your first book until you have a few in the bank, I highly suggest you do. That might make the difference in your ultimate sustainability, and could lead directly to either your failure or success.
24. And All the Rest of It
Because of course there’s more. Writing a book is an exhaustive process that gets easier (though never easy) by the project. The above tips all required more detail, but the rest can be handled in a sentence or two.
- Work breeds work. Write in the company of others and commit to not talking. We have office hours in our studio. A bunch of us get on Zoom, write in sprints, pause to chat for a few minutes, then rinse and repeat.
- Take frequent breaks. Even if you think you don’t need to. I walk several times throughout the day, and have a streak of getting in at least 10K steps a day that’s over three years now. It takes a lot of time, but I’m still more productive than I was when I didn’t spend I because I ‘couldn’t afford it.”
- Pay attention to what inspires you. Once you start writing, you should be seeing the world through a writer’s eyes. People are characters and everyone (and everything) is a story.
- Make the muse come to you. She’s fickle and you know that, so never allow her to control your destiny. Show up for work consistently and you will be in charge of the relationship.
- Try something smaller. If you’re getting stuck on your big book, try a novella, a short story, a letter, or whatever it takes to get your brain used to getting words on the page. Writing is a muscle, never be embarrassed to build it.
- Know what your book is about. You’d be surprised by how many authors don’t, even after it’s finished. Of course they know what their book is about, but they can’t sum it up in a sentence. Learn to do that before your Once upon a time … and you will have a better book.
These tips are all general understandings that have worked for me and the writers in our studio. Your mileage may vary. Some of the above will permanently improve the way you create, and some of it you’ll forget a few minutes from now. That’s great, exactly how it’s supposed to be.
Stay true to yourself and to the writing.
Finish that book, and start changing the world with your story!