This is a quick insight to writing your first book. A few lessons from the greatest and the strugglers. This information is based on polls of thousands of authors and is meant to give you precise, helpful information that will help you avoid the biggest pitfalls of the journey. This is not about publishing or marketing a book, but is about the first task, writing a great one.
Highlights of this post: Know the core message or outcome your book presents. Find out your primary writing style. Understand the reality of the task. Learn some things many wish they would have known at first. Make sure you make it to the end!
F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author of The Great Gatsby, said, “The reason one writes isn’t the fact he wants to say something. He writes because he has something to say.”
If you are ready to start your first book, you have something you want to share with a broader audience. The challenge in writing a book is translating your ideas into something interesting and useful to your audience. This quick guide can’t tell you everything you need to know about writing your first book. But, it will help you see what you need to do to get from idea to finished manuscript. After reading this guide, you will be ready to not only start your book, but you will also be prepared for doing the work it takes to finish your book.
What is Your Book Really About?
You must know what the core message of your book is, or you risk losing your audience before you ever get one. Every great creative work is about something, and it usually is something precise. This includes non-fiction or fiction books, screenplays, novellas, and the like. Author and screenwriter Steven Pressfield describes this as knowing what the hook of your book will be. A hook is an exciting incident that that tells in just a few words what the book is about and draws the reader in. Your hook should be closer to the 140 characters of a tweet than a paragraph. A great resource for finding your core message (and later marketing it) is Made to Stick by Dan and Chip Heath.
Think about the fairy tales you heard as a child. The hook for Hansel and Gretel could be:
Lost children find a candy house in the woods and are captured by a witch.
The hook for Cinderella could be:
Her family enslaves a woman, until she escapes for one night and falls in love with the prince, leaving behind a glass slipper.
Both fiction and non-fiction books need hooks. Hooks keep a book focused and can later be used to market and pitch your ideas to others. The clearer you are on what your book is about, the easier the writing will be.
Pantser or Planner or Combo?
Writing a book is like going on a road trip. There are two major ways to undertake the journey. You can meticulously plan the route, deciding beforehand where you will stop for food, gas, and lodging. The other option is you can just head out in your car, trusting in your ability to find what you need along the way.
When writing a book, you are either a pantser (someone who flies by the seat of their pants when writing) or a planner, or a hybrid of both. Neither way is necessarily better than the other, but one method probably fits you better. Famous pantsers like Stephen King feel an outline stifles their creativity and keeps them from the kismet of new ideas and experiences that breathe life into their work. They write by the seat of their pants, making it up as they go. Famous planners like J.K. Rowling feel that without a solid framework they get lost, and their writing is not as crisp as it needs to be. Their work is made stronger by the limits they place on themselves.
The truth is, most writers are somewhere in the middle. They start where their initial inspiration was. That might be a character to define, the climax of the plot, the start of the story, or a world that the story happens in. Wherever inspiration strikes, that is where you should begin. Many dive into writing, then realize the need to structure some, then return to writing and so on. Whatever the approach, you should focus your efforts on where your inspiration and best ideas are taking you, even if it feels a bit scattered.
When starting out you, need to decide what method you will use. Since it is your first book, you may not know enough about yourself or your writing style to declare yourself in one camp or the other. Don’t waste time worrying about it. Decide you are going to try an outline, or decide you are going to write by the seat of your pants. If after a week you feel uncomfortable with your chosen method, switch. Writing a book is a great experiment. What works best for you is your lesson to learn.
Know the Reality of Daily Writing
How much should you write each day? Writing a book, like any other big goal, is only possible if you break it up into smaller milestones. You may not know how long your first book will be. But, to help you finish the book, you need to come up with a goal. Many authors and other writers are obsessed with word counts. But, with your first book you may not know how many words you should be aiming for.
The number of words on the average page of a book will depend on things like the font size and the size of the page. Most books have about 250 words on a page. To calculate the estimated word count of your book you simply multiply the number of pages you want by 250. For example, a 200-page book is about 50,000 words long. Stephen King claims he shoots for six written pages a day. That is on the higher side of most declared averages. George R.R. Martin, on the other hand, claims that some frustrating days he spends the entire day on one sentence.
After you have a basic idea of the size your book may end up, create a daily word-count goal. This is important. Writing a little every day will keep you on track. We tend to overestimate what we can accomplish in a day and underestimate what we can accomplish in a year. If you write 500 words a day, five days a week, you can write a 50,000 word, or 200-page, book in four months! It doesn’t matter if your book ends up being longer or shorter than your first goal. Use the word count goal as a guideline.
Some Ugly Truths About Writing a Book
Writing a book is something many claim they want to do, but not so many accomplish. The reason for this disconnect is that writing a book takes a long-term focused effort and requires patience. Writing a book is not about instant gratification. It is a marathon, not a sprint.
You may be excited to start your book, but at some point in the process you may start to hate the challenges and get frustrated. This is natural. You may have doubts, but you will have to learn to ignore them and push through.
If you are serious about finishing your book, you will need to work on your book every day, consistently. Find a realistic daily word count goal and stick to it.
The people in your life may be excited about you writing a book at first. But, as you plod along, they will grow impatient. They may start to ask you when it will be finished. They may even start telling you that you are wasting your time. You will have to learn to ignore the doubts and criticisms that will come your way.
Writing is an iterative process. Understand that you will have to rewrite some, or much, of what you write in your first draft. Rewriting is not a punishment for poor first drafts. Polishing your work is part of the writing process. Some of your best work may come out of your second, or third, or fourth draft.
If writing a book were fast and easy, everyone would already have done it. Remember your excitement when you started. Realize that you will have that same excitement when you finish the book.
A Few Tips for Making It to the End
You could spend the rest of your life reading about writing. There are a lot of great books on the subject. However, while reading is important, you can’t write a book if you only read the work of other authors. Here are a few tips to get you through the sometimes-long process of writing your first book.
Don’t get hung up for too long on the ideas of finding the perfect hook, or figuring out if you are a pantser or an outliner. At some point, you have to just make peace that you are doing the best that you can and start filling up the blank page.
Don’t Write and Edit at the Same Time
The creative part of your brain and the editing part of your brain do not work well together. When you are writing, just write. Do not correct spelling. Do not listen to your doubts. Just lose yourself in the keystrokes. After you have written a chunk, you can go back and edit. But, if you edit while you write, you may never finish your book. As Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird, embrace writing “blankity blank first drafts.”
Just like a house painter can’t get to work while the house is being framed, you cannot edit and polish your book until you have a first draft. Nobody else has to see your first draft. Some believe that the first draft belongs to the author, and the rest belong to their editors, critics, and fans.
Finish What You Started
Half-finished books do not help anyone. You cannot inspire, educate, or entertain people with something you keep unfinished in a drawer or in a file on your computer. Finish your manuscript. It doesn’t matter how awful it is. Just finish it. If you quit on your first book, it will be that much easier to quit the next time you try to write a book. Finish your book. It will give you strength in the future. It will teach you valuable lessons about writing. Plus, it is probably much better than you think it is.
Finishing a book is a great feeling. It is a sensation that you will never forget.
If you still need some inspiration are some excellent books on the craft and mind-set of writing: