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 work of getting published are unlikely to be capable of the 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 person. 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:

 

1,260 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
    1. Abdullah

      Sis on which novel u r writing i am also trying to write a novel first time,how is ur novel going?

      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
      1. Stanlee Ngole

        Oh you made my day!

        Reply
    3. John

      Says the man above, who failed to spell disappoint correctly. You sir, are a nincompoop.

      Reply
    4. Susan

      but he proved his point!

      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
    1. David STEVENS

      My Spill Czech app says it is “Spelled 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
    1. Muhammad Baqi Billah

      Your experience is Amazing. Wishing you Best of Luck (Y)

      Reply
    2. amy

      This was there best inspirational rant ever! With awesome timing and such wisdom coming through from an wonderful author! Thank you!

      Reply
  7. Kathy

    I am inspired to write a book about my daughter Meghan that was born still three years ago. I want to write her story, our story to other families that have been touched by the same tragedy as ours. I want to be able to support them during their journey, I want to share with them some of things I learned during our journey and mainly I want to inspire them. I have read many posts on group Facebook pages that anger me, that bring me inconsolable tears, so many families hurt and do not have the support and encouragement they need after losing their baby(s). I want to put a smile on their face, even if only for a brief second and let them know that when they are ready, my book may be able to help them through their journey. I would like to include, websites, photographers, city information all of these things and many more are information I searched for over the years to help us find people to share our story with, photographers who volunteer their services to retouch your baby’s photo(s) free of charge, municipal information about tree dedications, still birth certificates, balloon release and so forth. I am a stay a home mother of four, three are living an keep me very busy, yet I believe that I can do this.

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      Hi Kathy. Your story is a tough one, and it’s inspiring to hear you want to help other people in similiar situations. I’d recommend reading this post: Is Your Book Idea Good? It will help you clarify why you really want to write a book and if it’s the best way to help other people. Good luck.

      Reply
    2. cinde

      Kathy
      I read your story. I am so very sorry for your loss. Dear God I cannot imagine the heartache.
      I wanted to tell you I feel very strong about you writing a book regarding your loss.
      I know many women men and families can relate. I too had a pregnancy that was a tragic loss of twins. I wish you the best good luck with your book! God Bless
      Cinde
      Fort Myers, Florida

      Reply
    3. Veronica

      Wow! Just this alone has inspired me. I am a stay home mother of two step mom of two who live outside our home and pregnant now. I really do aspire to write I just don’t know where or how to begin. A book that inspires women is my goal. Thanks for this piece!

      Reply
  8. DawnBoden

    I don’t want to be rich! I love reading now that I am 56! Yes that old. I want to write a book like I would develop a website. Unique and fun, I want it to be a book you can’t put down. Here I sit at a computer all day and decided today to investigate how to write a book. LOL

    Reply
  9. Sonia

    Completely shamefaced reading every line above. Unfortunately I stand “guilty as accused” of all the underlying excuses that make for nothing more than a clearly lazy dreamer. I richly deserve the rap on the knuckles that you have so intuitively and adroitly brought down upon me and my ilk. However as a teacher I know that it is sometimes far more effective in achieving its objective than positive and enhancing encouragement!! I hope to redeem myself shortly and without cutting any more corners. And thank you !

    Reply
    1. David STEVENS

      Sonia, I can imagine you writing a very entertaining book about how to not write a book. A book about the procrastinations, distractions and excuses we create for ourselves.
      You seem very outgoing and adventurous so maybe you would consider writing to famous authors and asking what roadblocks they create that occasionally impedes their progress. (???)

      Reply
  10. Tiffany Johnson

    Very nice and inspiration. For two years straight I’ve been into reading on a daily basis. It’s become a Hobby. I enjoy it.
    My dream is to write my own book. I actually been working on it daily. Just writing my story. I’m very serious, an dedicated about doing it. I hasn’t put anything together yet of to how I’m going to get my story out there yet. I really want to, I’m not asking or looking for nobody to pay any fees for me I can manage my own business. I’m looking for some one who can show me the way to getting my story out there. An hopefully it profits from it. But mainly, the experience I went through and still going through. An my daughter, my God”. I really think she deserves this.

    Thank you

    Reply
    1. David STEVENS

      Tiffany, you sound very brave and confident. I want to read your book and feel inspired by you and your story.

      Reply
  11. nickey

    I’ve never write before ….but being a stay at home mom am really thinking about it

    Reply
    1. David STEVENS

      Nickey, please begin by writing about all the free time you have to write since you became a “Stay At Home Mom”, OK ?

      Reply
  12. Brian Robben

    Loved your insight that the better book between the two required more work. It’s so true that you can have do all the reading and have all the strategies, but execution and hard work are the two ingredients for a quality book.

    Reply
  13. Jason

    Some people have the talent to write, some don’t; pick an author and I can guarantee you they were always good at telling stories. They didn’t have to work at it, it just came natural. I know from experience this is true. I didn’t know any writers, but I played baseball my whole life and the guys who ended up going pro were just better than the rest of us, they didn’t work at it, they just did it. Yeah, they maybe went and practiced, but no harder than anyone else, in fact many of the ones I knew, it came so easy that they worked less than the rest of us. I just think people need to be honest with themselves and quit believing that they can be anything with enough hard work, it’s just not reality.

    Reply
    1. Tara

      I absolutely agree that not everyone has the talent to write ‘amazing’ books, however, I do believe that everyone has a story to tell and writing is a healthy expression of working through our own experiences and processing them.

      For example, singing…singing is very good for the lungs, it works your lungs and has other benefits for the body. But is everyone going to be singing on the radio? Of course not. But should everyone sing every day? Yes.

      I don’t think anyone should worry about whether or not they are ‘good’ enough to write, everyone should just write. It’s good for the heart, it’s good for the soul. It’s good for the mind.

      History is littered with many artists who did not get recognized for their brilliance during their lifetime, so being rejected doesn’t necessarily mean someone is a ‘bad’ writer either. Maybe they’re just not meant to be recognized in their lifetime.

      So no one should be worrying about whether or not they (or anyone else) is ‘good’ enough to write–just keep writing :)

      Reply
      1. dr.mark

        Tara… Very positive about your views. The book should be written for our own benefit & happiness. Fame & Success are secondary issues.
        Planning to write … hmmm start a book myself ..
        Kudos for being motivating. .thnx

        Reply
  14. Gandhinagarnu Patel

    I am writing only in the hope that it will make me “famous and wealthy”, but I am neither guilty nor sad about it. There is nothing wrong with it; in fact, it motivates me such that nothing puts me off. Hundreds of millions have failed before me at what I am doing, but I will succeed.

    Reply
  15. Gita

    Thank you so much for the book writing advices. Now, I m confident enough to write a book and get it published.

    Thank you so much!
    – Gita

    Reply
  16. CindyLynn

    Elliot’s got the right approach, I like the challenge in it! And so many of you are on track with the idea that you just need to write and to work at it, but Elliot’s point that it’s a draft and you can edit it once it’s written is key – I like to see myself as a good re-writer.

    Reply

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    I will give a Blank Book. ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ So that he can write something that he always wanted to tell but he could not due to various reasons. I have seen many people suggesting some books, but that does’nt matter if he died reading that book or without re…

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