Every author I know gets asked the same question: How do you write a book?

It’s a simple question, but it causes unexpected problems. On the one hand, it’s nice to have people interested in something I do. If I told people I fixed toasters for a living, I doubt I’d get many inquires. People are curious about writing and that’s cool and flattering. Rock on.

But on the other hand, the hand involving people who ask because they have an inkling to do it themselves, is that writing books is a topic so old and so well trod by so many famous people that anyone who asks me, with the serious intent of discovering secret advice from my small brain and limited writing experience, is hard to take seriously.

Here’s the short honest truth: 20% of the people who ask me are hoping to hear this – Anyone can write a book. They want permission. The truth is you don’t need any. There is no license required. No test to take. Writing, as opposed to publishing, requires almost no financial or physical resources. A pen, paper and effort are all that has been required for hundreds of years. If Voltaire and Marquis de Sade could write in prison, then you can do it in suburbia, at lunch, at work, or after your kids go to sleep.

If you want to write, kill the magic: a book is just a bunch of writing. Anyone can write a book. It might suck or be incomprehensible, but so what: it’s still a book. Nothing is stopping you right now from collecting all of your elementary school book reports, or drunken napkin scribbles, binding them together at kinkos for $20, slapping a title on the cover, and qualifying as an author. Want to write a good book? Ok, but get in line since most pro authors are still trying to figure that out too.

Writing a good book, compared to a bad one, involves one thing. Work. No one wants to hear this, but if you take two books off any shelf, I’ll bet my pants the author of the better book worked harder than the author of the other one. Call it effort, study, practice, whatever. Sure there are tricks here and there, but really writing is a kind of work.

Getting published. 30% of the time the real thing people are asking is how do you find a publisher. As if there wasn’t a phone book or, say, an Internet-thingy where you can look this stuff up. Writers-market is literally begging to help writers find publishers. Many publishers, being positive on the whole idea of communication, put information on how to submit material on their website. And so do agents. The grand comedy of this is how few writers follow the instructions. That’s what pisses off all the editors: few writers do their homework.

The sticking point for most wanna-be published authors is, again, the work. They want to hear some secret that skips over the hard parts. Publishers are rightfully picky and they get pitched a zillion books a day. It takes effort to learn the ropes, send out smart queries, and do the research required to both craft the idea for a book, and then to propose it effectively. So while writing is a rejection prone occupation, even for the rock-stars, finding a publisher is not a mystery. In fact the whole game is self-selective: people who aren’t willing to do the leg-work of getting published are unlikely to be capable of the leg-work required to finish a decent manuscript.

But that said – it’s easier today to self-publish than ever. Really. But again, this requires work, so many prefer to keep asking writers how they got published instead of just doing it themselves. I self published my last book, and you can read what I learned from it here.

Being famous and wealthy: Now this is the kicker. About 50% of the time the real thing people want to know is how to become a famous millionaire rock-star author dude. As if a) I qualified, b) I could explain how it happened, or c) I’d be willing to tell.

First, this assumes writing is a good way to get rich. I’m not sure how this lie started but writing, like most creative pursuits, has always been a less than lucrative lifestyle. Even if a book sells well, the $$$$ to hour ratio will be well below your average corporate job, without the health benefits, sick days, nor the months where you can coast by without your boss noticing. These days people write books after they’re famous, not before. And if the only books you read are bestsellers, well, you have a myopic view of the publishing world. Over 100k books are published in the US annually, and few sell more than a few thousand copies, and what causes books to sell may have little to do with how good a book is. Either way, to justify the effort you’ll need reasons other than cash.

Discouraged yet? Good. Here is the upside: I love writing books. I love reading books. I love the entire notion that people can make things up in their mind and then make them real on a page, for the pleasure or utility of someone else. That’s just awesome. If you like writing, if you enjoy the bittersweetness of chasing words into sentences, then you might love writing books too, despite, or even because of, everything I said above. If so, get to work – now :)

Here are some practical next steps:

 

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1,113 Responses to “How to write a book – the short honest truth”

  1. Sophie |

    Hi, I’m 11. I want to be a author but I don’t know what to write about. I want to do Romance, Girly story’s, Sad story’s also Happy ones!
    I don’t know how to start it off.

    Reply
    • Lizzy |

      Hey, Sophie. I was, (still am), like you, but I’m sixteen now. I’ve written more plotlines than I can remember. Most of them have failed to get past the second paragraph. You can write any book you want, but don’t give up if you fail at one story. Find a way around writers block/plothole or anything else in you way. Don’t give up or in. As for starting off, I always start, (after the pencil, paper, etc.), in the middle of the beginning, where my plotline picks up, then I write the beginning, introducing characters and such. I hope this was helpful. Good luck and Good writing.

      Reply
    • veronica |

      hi Sophie! I’m 12 and at this moment im my 3 books right now, anyways back to the point. if you don’t know what to write about then what inspires you, do you ever day dream, or have ideas? next time you do remember them! that’s how i came up with my 3 books! for me, how i get ideas is i look out of the car and think. just ask yourself, “what are everyday things i can write about?”

      Reply
    • Jessica Balfour |

      Hi Sophie,

      The best thing I can say to you is write from the heart about what you know. Think about the books you enjoy and ask yourself why you like them. That will give you an idea as to where to start.

      if you like, visit the blog I have just started, my posts are around the journey my book has taken, from an idea to a first draft, and I will keep posting until it becomes a fully fledged book. Perhaps it might help you!

      http://www.mydystopia.co.uk

      Reply
    • Old Publisher |

      Hi, as a former publisher and current writer, my advice would be to read as much as you can in the field you want to write it and practice. Get a notebook and write stories for yourself. Write essays. Describe how you feel. Over time you will find that you have your own style of writing. That’s good.
      Don’t compare yourself or your writing to your favourite writers. That’s how people get put off. If I thought I was nowhere near as good a writer as Martin Amis (which I’m not!), then I’d be tempted to stop. Look at Dan Brown, one of the biggest-selling authors in the world today, and his writing is terrible! There’s a lesson for you: story is everything.
      Tell a good story and you will succeed.
      But nothing beats practice and perseverance. Keep at it. Think of all the people who gave up for whatever reason… we’ll never hear of them. Don’t be one of them, be one of the ones who is determined to succeed. Then you will.
      Good luck!

      Reply
    • Nina |

      Salutations Sophie :)
      I have dreams to become an author and ironically im only 11, due to my age, the chance of anyone publishing our books is low… But dont give up, try and write a touching story about a homeless person who finds a friend in the end… I have many ideas! Unfortunately, I scrap most of them.

      In my opinion I think you should take some of your favourite books and alter them! Tweak them to make them better, but dont use these, they will be practise books. When you have altered many books, begin to pick out of the stories to create a new one.
      Hope it helped,
      Nina

      Reply
      • teresa |

        I do not want to know how to write a book. I want to know how to find an author to write it an how to prevent someone from stealing the story after you tell them

        Reply
      • teresa |

        you did not answer the question the first time

        Reply
    • Tara |

      Sophie,

      My son is 11 years old and he is currently over 27,000 words into his first novel. What he does, is he just writes a little bit 4-5 days a week. He is not worried about the length of the book, is just enjoying his characters and having fun putting them into different scenarios.

      If you want to write a novel, just start writing every day. Don’t put any pressure on yourself–just write what you want to, and enjoy it for what it is.

      Warmly,
      Tara

      Reply
  2. Chloe |

    I just need a motivation push, I have to say that post did help. Never knew It was as simple as that, all along the answers were right in front of me, you pointed out the obvious and I ended up kicking myself, thank you for this. Time to continue my book and think positive, this time I won’t stop, no more breaks for me, I’ve been wasting my time and ended up hitting a dead end trying to cut corners, you taught me to try harder and work for something I truly want and for that I thank you.

    Reply
  3. Sammy |

    I love your sarcasm in this and have to say I’m a little disappointed in your response on how to write a book. Your right in two things, writing a book takes work a lot of work because it isn’t going to write its self and that yes a lot of people have too many stupid questions. If I wanted sarcasm I would’ve searched for that, so good poster of your opinion maybe you could tell us instead of your struggles what worked for you and the challenges you crossed to write your book. that’s what I am interested in, not a useless survey on the stupidity of the most ignorant writer. thank you

    Reply
    • mikkyol |

      first, of all there are no questions that is stupid. i am no writer but i think anyone that is trying to be a writer should just write what ever comes to mind and the rest will fallow.

      Reply
  4. gary |

    Hi, I am an Iraq war veteran, I was wounded while fighting there. I now have a traumatic brain injury. My whole life I wanted to be a writer, now I am learning how to spell and form words into sentence’s. I am not crying about it, I will write a my books, and sell them. Is there a way to set up a computer that would help me write?

    Reply
      • Keke Lopez |

        Hello, my name is Keke Lopez, and I have a couple questions to ask based on my favorite author, J.R.R Tolkien. Is it hard writing a book that has so many pages in it? And after writing a book so long do you think it’s hard to to end the book? I like your opinion please.

        Reply
      • gary |

        thank you all for the best wishes, and advice. it is good to talk to people who want to write, I love everything about writing, It is a wonderful thing to use’s the written word to tell a story. I love syfy, But also want to write the story of the war I fought, and the men I fought it with. So thank you all for the help, I will keep watching this blog.

        Reply
      • Sally |

        i would recommend Tim (Timothy) Mason, he wrote a book called ‘the best that i can be’ after having a stroke at a young age. He is from the UK, (Devon I think) and has a website that I can’t remember off the top of my head but there are contact details and he can tell you how he wrote it as he has very limited mobility and communicative abilities.. hope this helps!

        Reply
    • Linh Tran |

      Gary awhile back I was told about a program called “Dragon” it’s a speech recognition software. Works very well I haven’t had a chance to use it myself but I know some organizations use it to help veterans especially. Here is a link and good luck thank you for your service!

      http://shop.nuance.com/store/nuanceus/Custom/pbpage.resp-dragon-home-landing?utm_medium=pla&utm_source=Google&utm_campaign=Dragon&cvokeywordid=621549037&utm_term=PLA_Nuance_Dragon_Home12_LP_Test&siclientid=2868&sessguid=20197297-bb57-4990-b7ca-3f41a978d5cc&userguid=20197297-bb57-4990-b7ca-3f41a978d5cc&permguid=20197297-bb57-4990-b7ca-3f41a978d5cc

      Also I would love a copy of your book when you finish! :)

      Reply
    • veronica |

      yes there is! there is a system called dragon where you can just speak and I will write! hoped this helped!

      Reply
    • Jonathan |

      Gary,

      Id love to hear your story and possibly help you get it onto paper then print. Reply with your email and in happy to be in touch.

      Reply
      • Christine |

        Hi Jonathan

        I have been scrolling down this page and noted your email to ‘Gary’ regarding hearing his story and possibly helping him to get it onto paper and print. I am about to start writing my own book which I have intermittently considered over several years now. After much careful thought, consideration and commitment to what I feel is my further direction and destined path, I am now at a point where I feel the time is right to proceed. For several years now I have intermittently felt within me, a desire to write a book about my life which to summarise; has been very troubled. Although I have several times allowed myself to stray from this will, my inner voice consistently returns me to this direction. My aims in writing my book are many. I wish not only to tell the story of my life and my lifelong struggle with depression, but to name but a few within my aims; is my principle desire to inspire others, empower and support inner strengths against adversity, and continue the promotion of understanding those in a plight for survival.
        My question to you is quite simply this… would you be prepared to hear my story and help me in successfully publishing it?

        Reply
    • brian cotton |

      hi there i was at a computer fair a few years ago and there was a computer that when you spoke through a mike it wrote rthe subject matter for you i dont know the extent of your injuries but felt this might be of help i do feel that a computer like this could well be expensive but might be worth looking in to

      Reply
  5. Jasmine |

    Hi, im fourteen now and i want to become a writer. i love reading books and i have always wanted to be a writer since i was at a younger age. i love fiction novels and i want to write fiction novels. My problem would be that i don’t know how to start one. Does anyone have any advice?

    Reply
  6. teresa |

    how do you find someone to write a book for you an keep them from syealing your story?

    Reply
  7. Adam – web designer calgary |

    As the Internet allows for basically anyone to get published, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find quality material, so having a post dedicated to web books is a great idea.

    Reply
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