How to write a book – the short honest truth

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 hoping to discover secret advice 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. You will always find excuses if you want them and you probably do.

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, our tragically unpopular companion, work, is required 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. What causes books to sell may have little to do with how good a book is, as we’ve all been mystified by the abysmal bestsellers and surprised by amazing books few seem to know about. 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 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:

 

1,227 Responses to “How to write a book – the short honest truth”

  1. SARA K

    Great and Motivating article!! I am writing a book for the first time and I really want to feature you!!

    Reply
  2. Elkyn Ernst

    While what all the tips you mention in your article are true and interesting , they also strike me as obvious. It really is simple. There are two categories of people. Those who aspire to write and those who just write. Those who just do it and those who make excuses. Furthermore, not to dissapoint anyone who may have commented this article but… all of you in the comments section have horrible spelling! Anyways, continue with the good work!

    Reply
    1. Karl brownell

      I can only thank you for your answer to my comments.yes you gave me a way to think .and it would be interesting to be able to fix toasters .lol ty your a good one .

      Reply
    2. Joe Bloggs

      You spelt disappoint wrong smarty.

      Reply
  3. Shayla

    Thank you for this article. I appreciate hearing the cold, hard truth rather than being sucked into the tempting optimism of “perfection” and “easy money”. Everything requires work, it’s just a matter of finding something you are willing to sacrifice your time and effort for. I am inspired.

    (Friendly fact of the day: Spelt is a type of wheat, also known as dinkel wheat, or hulled wheat.)

    Reply
  4. Magda

    Thank you Scott for sharing. It sounds very helpful :) You just confirmed my suspisions :)

    Reply
  5. Nina

    Thank you for all that cold and nice info lol.
    I am currently writing a book myself and I am super excited.

    Reply
  6. Elliott

    Hey there, I am a 14-year old, and I recently started a novel of my own. It was for NaNoWriMo, which, for you non-NaNoers, stands for National Novel Writing Month. Basically, from November 1 to November 30, you try and write over 50,000 words. It was really helpful to push me out of my comfort zone and get started. Now, writing has almost become like colouring a picture – second nature, relaxing, and fun. Sure, I still have those OH MY GOODNESS WHAT DO I THINK I’M DOING, THIS IS THE WORST BOOK IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD moments. Every time I read the last sentence I wrote, actually. But what I learned is basically this: This. Is. Just. A. Draft. That is all it is, and ever will be. Once you have it all figured otu, that is when you turn on your inner editor and tear your story to shreds. Once you are finished, that is when you can be critical of what you did, and rewrite a paragraph 1,000,000 times just to get it sounding just right. Until then, tell that little voice inside your head to SHUT UP and mind its own business. You are trying to write a freakin’ story, for heaven’s sake. You can’t waste all that time worrying over what you already wrote!
    One last tidbit: The world needs your story. Yes, that is true. But you know what? This book isn’t for the world. It is for YOU. So, you need your story. You need to write it down, and even if you only write two chapters, then that is still TWO MORE CHAPTERS than a lot of people in the world have ever written on their story.
    Thanks for listening to my rant…It’s a little long, but hey, what can I say? I’m a writer…

    Reply

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