Hearing the success stories of famous authors inspire others to work on a book. There are polls that say that a large number of Americans want to become authors. However, most people do not realize the struggles of writing a book and often ask “How do you start writing a book?”
Starting to write a book is a daunting task. Aspiring writers may feel lost in the process while experienced ones feel like they are running out of ideas. In this article, you will learn the steps in writing a book so you can build your ideas with confidence. In addition, you can get real-life inspiration from the writing habits of famous authors.
7 Key Steps to Start Writing a Book
- Brainstorm for Book Ideas
- Do your Research
- Write a Premise
- Make an Outline
- Start Writing
- Set Up a Writing Routine
- Use Distraction-Free Writing Tools
Writing a book is one of those lofty goals people wish to achieve. If you have ever felt that you have a story worth telling readers, you are not alone. According to author and game designer Jane McGonigal, as many as 90% of young Americans asked in a survey said they want to write a book (Anderson, 2015).
Before, being a published author involved finding a publisher and an agent, then negotiating a book deal. For first-time writers, the many steps and time-consuming process of traditional publishing can be intimidating. As such, the rising popularity of self-publishing gives a more accessible platform for becoming a published author.
According to publishing service provider Bowker, the number of International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) for self-published titles have increased by 156% from 2012 to 2017. For the same period, the number of print and e-books in Amazon’s publishing platform CreateSpace grew by an astonishing 472%.
No matter if you choose the traditional or self-published route, it is important to have a plan in place. Below are seven steps to write a book to help you kick-start the process.
How to Start Writing a Book
1. Brainstorm for book ideas.
Writing a book is a laborious process. Thus, to start a book, it only makes sense to write topics that you are passionate about. This way, you have the motivation to finish no matter what obstacles come your way. You might have some ideas here and there but find difficulty capturing them on paper or on the screen. If so, you can use writing prompts to give you that much-needed push to start thinking creatively. This is especially useful if you want to write a fiction book. Author Neil Gaiman suggests completing these writing prompts, asking yourself these beginning questions and even gave a few examples (Gaiman, n.d.).
- What if… For example: What if your sister turned into a mouse?
- If only… For example: If only real life was like it is in Hollywood musicals.
- I wonder… For example: I wonder what she does when she’s alone.
For non-fiction ideas, you can find topics that interest you or you know a lot about. Sit down with a timer and free-write anything that comes to mind within five to 15 minutes. Put it away and after a day, revisit your output to see if there are ideas worth developing into a book.
2. Do your research.
Doing research about your genre is important so that your readers will know what to expect. It also pays to know the market that your book will be competing in. Knowing what is currently out there in your chosen genre will help you create a title that is different from the rest. To do this, you can read the summaries of books and films in your chosen genre. Take note of any patterns and how the plot progresses. You can interview experts to lend accuracy, depth, and credibility to your work. Next, imagine your book has just been published. In what section can the reader find it at the bookstore or on the Amazon Books website? Every time he writes a book, Robert Greene does research by reading 300 to 400 books. He uses flashcards to write down the most important ideas that he finds. With this method, he can distill ideas from a hard-to-read title like Friedrich Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human, and present it in a more orderly manner in his own work. The genre of your book shapes how long it will be. For example, the typical length of a fantasy novel is 60,000 to 90,000 words. In contrast, the average word count for a memoir is 45,000 to 80,000 words. On the other hand, you can also gain insight into the profitability of your book based on past sales in genre categories. In the U.S. for example, printed adult nonfiction books had more unit sales than adult fiction, juvenile nonfiction, and juvenile fiction in 2019.
3. Write a premise.
A premise helps your book have a solid foundation from where other ideas can be built on. With it, you will be able to see the overall picture to guide your writing. That way, when someone asks you “What is your book all about?” you have a ready answer. Think of it as your elevator pitch to a potential publisher. The premise is a one- or two-sentence summary of the idea behind your book. At a minimum, a premise for a fiction book should contain who the main character is, his objective, and the situation or obstacle the protagonist is in. For nonfiction books, it should state the main concept or thesis.
4. Make an outline.
The classic debate in the writing world is that between plotters vs. pantsers. Plotters make an outline and plan out how they will write their book even before they start writing. Pantsers, on the other hand, like to “fly by the seat of their pants,” as the idiom goes. They go ahead and write without an outline and just see where their creativity takes them. One famous plotter is J.K. Rowling, author of the best-selling Harry Potter novel series. For Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, she made a handwritten spreadsheet containing the characters and subplots for each chapter. This gave her an easy way to track what happens to a character across multiple timelines (Paperblanks, 2013). If you are comfortable with making an outline, start by answering the 5Ws and 1H:
- Who are the characters and/or your reader?
- What is your book’s main topic or idea?
- When do the events of the book take place?
- Where do the events take place or where are the ideas in the book applicable?
- Why is the idea or concept relevant?
- How will the events or ideas unfold?
Once you have answered these, you can then figure out the specifics of your book. For fiction work, this involves mapping out the beginning, middle, and end of your plot. At this point, you can also add your characters and write the major scenes of your book (Dunbar, 2020). For nonfiction, the next step is to think about your main points and to organize them as chapters. Fill in the details needed and create an outline for each chapter (Dunbar, 2020). With a creative process such as writing, you do not have to stick to one single way of outlining. Each writer is unique so find an outlining style that works for you. Below are other outlining methods that you can use:
- Synopsis Outline. This is a one to two-page outline which condenses the beginning, middle, and end of your book. It should provide an overview of your book while also allowing you the flexibility to expand on the points of your outline. A novel synopsis should discuss the main characters, conflict, and narrative arc. For a nonfiction book, you have to present the problem, state your target audience, and briefly explain your approach and qualifications to write the book.
- Snowflake Method. The snowflake method involves gradually developing your idea and expanding it to an outline. First, write a one-sentence summary of your book. It should contain the core characters and the beginning, middle, and end of your plot. Next, turn that sentence into a paragraph, adding more plot points if you wish. Next, pick out your main characters and build character profiles for them. Once you finish this, there should be enough material for you to write a four-page synopsis.
- The Bookend Method. This method is a happy compromise between being a plotter and a pantser. You just have to know the beginning and end of your book and let your creative juices flow to write the rest (van der Pol, 2019).
5. Start writing.
Now that you have a solid grasp of what you are trying to write, you have to set aside time to develop the substance of your book. But this is easier said than done when there are distractions and other challenges that stop you from achieving your goal.
To maximize your writing sessions, create an environment that lets you stay focused. Writing involves sitting down for hours so it is crucial to make your space a distraction-free zone. You might want to declutter your work desk and get rid of unnecessary files, books, and other things. Put similar items in a container and label them accordingly. Declutter regularly so you don’t have to use the excuse of cleaning up as a way to procrastinate from your writing tasks. When you are busy hammering out your words, let others know that you do not want to be disturbed. You can put on your headphones, listen to music, or put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door. Do everything you can to protect the hours you devote to writing.
6. Set up a writing routine.
You may already have a great idea with your book, but you put off carrying it through to fruition. For many writers, the struggle with procrastination is one of the top challenges they face. In the Become a Writer Today’s 2018 Writing Survey, data revealed that 25% of writers felt that procrastination is their biggest fear or frustration (Collins, n.d.). To combat this, you have to adopt the mindset that you have to make time to write, not that you will find time for it. Setting a writing routine also concretizes your commitment to finish your book (Bradshaw, n.d.).
Before you make a writing routine, figure out what time of day you work best. Perhaps you are an early bird who likes to get a head start. Other people are night owls who like to write when everyone else is asleep. Once you know this, it will be easy to build your schedule around your ideal working times. It also helps to set daily or weekly micro-goals using any metric that makes sense to you. For example, you can aim to hit 2,000 words per day or write for four hours uninterrupted. No matter what metric you use, what is important is that they support your goals.
A famous author who likes sticking to his routine is Stephen King, who has sold over 350 million book copies. King likes to sit down and write between 8:00 to 8:30 in the morning. He makes sure to be in the same seat and that his papers are arranged in the same way. King’s pre-writing routine includes taking his vitamins and listening to music. He aims to write six pages a day and usually hits his goal (Oshin, 2017).
Source: Become a Writer Today 2018 Writing Survey
7. Use distraction-free writing tools.
Your writing plan should also take into consideration today’s always-on lifestyle. It is easy to lose focus when you receive an email or a phone call. Making sure that you work without interruptions not only impacts your productivity but also your IQ. In fact, research carried out in King’s College, London found that people distracted by repeated interruptions saw their IQ fall by 10 points. This decrease in IQ is more than that found in cannabis users, which is at four points. To get rid of distractions, Jonathan Franzen removed the wireless card from his laptop while writing his best-selling book The Corrections. He also glued one end of his ethernet cable to his laptop’s internet port and cut off the rest of the cable (Rushton, 2010). Now, you do not have to go to the extreme like what Franzen did. Today, there are full-screen writing programs meant to help you focus on nothing but your work. These tools typically feature a simple user interface with just an empty screen. Below are some distraction-free editors you can consider using:
- Calmly Writer. An online text editor with a full-screen mode with minimal text and formatting tools. It has a focus mode feature which highlights only the current paragraph you are on.
- WriteMonkey. A free downloadable program with a minimalist interface showing only the text you type and the word count.
- FocusWriter. A free downloadable program showing only a solid background image and text. It features a hide-away interface that makes tools accessible only when you hover over the edges of your screen. A word count and goal percentage at the bottom helps you keep track of your progress.
- CreaWriter 1.0. A freemium downloadable text editor with just typing features and customizable background. Aside from formatting options, there’s also a break timer for scheduling time off from your work.
A New Chapter Awaits
It used to be that traditional publishing houses get to decide which authors’ work gets read by the public. However, self-publishing is upending this dominance and offering an alternative way for aspiring authors to get their work published. But whether you go the traditional or self-published route, it helps to set good habits that ensure your book writing process is off to a good start. First, brainstorm your book idea using writing prompts and freewriting. Next, research your genre and target audience. Third, create a one- or two-sentence premise of your book idea. Fourth, make an outline using any method you are comfortable with. Lastly, set yourself up for writing success by establishing a writing routine within a distraction-free environment. By following these tips, you’re one step closer to writing the first few chapters of your book, and even more.
- Anderson, P. (2015, May 29). What if the 90 percent does write a book? The Bookseller.
- Bowker. (2017). Self-publishing in the United States, 2012-2017. Bowker.
- Bradshaw, C. (n.d.). 7 Useful tips for establishing a writing routine. Writer’s Edit.
- Bunting, J. (n.d.). Want to write a book? Do this first. The Write Practice.
- Collins, B. (n.d.). The top challenges of writers in 2018. Become a Writer Today.
- Dunbar, C. (2020, May 4). Book outline: Quick guide on how to outline a book. Selfpublishing.com.
- Gaiman, N. (n.d.). Where do you get your ideas? Neil Gaiman.
- Griffey, H. (2018, October 14). The lost art of concentration: being distracted in a digital world. The Guardian.
- MasterClass (2019, December 19). How to ensure your story has a strong premise. Master Class.
- Oshin, M. (2017, Aug. 15). The daily routine of 20 famous writers (and how you can use them to succeed). Medium.
- Paperblanks (2013, May 29). Writing Wednesday: How J.K. Rowling outlines her books. Endpaper: The Paperblanks Blog.
- Pope. B. (2019, August 15). Book genres: Writing genres dictionary [examples & word counts]. Self-Publishing School.
- Ribeiro, P. (2014, April 12). The ‘Robert Greene’ method of writing books. Medium.
- Rushton, S. (2010, August 25). Step away from the laptop; it’s addictive. Independent.
- van der Pol, B. (2019, November 13). Outlining techniques for every writer. Medium.