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 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. Your book idea is worth writing if you think it is. 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, Marquis de Sade and Marina Nemat 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 most people do. Why? Writing is work. No matter how smart you are or how great your idea is, you will have to put in the time and no one else can do it for you.
It helps to kill the magic: a book is just a bunch of writing. Anyone can write a book. It might be bad or be incomprehensible, but so what: it’s still a book and many published authors haven’t done any better.
Nothing is stopping you right now from collecting all of your elementary school book reports, a years worth of emails you wrote, 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. More 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, or whatever you like. Sure there are tricks here and there, but really writing is a kind of work. I like this though: it means anyone who puts in enough time can actually write well. Some of our best writing comes from ordinary people from all walks of life.
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 (start with Jane Friedman’s website). 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 people who want to be authors is, again, the work. They want to hear a secret that skips over the work part. 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. People look down on self-publishing, but I don’t see why. When people buy books it’s not like they care who published them (“Oh, I don’t read Random House books, sorry”): they only care who recommended or reviewed the book. But again, our tragically unpopular companion, work, is required to self-publish so many prefer to keep asking writers how they got published instead of just doing it themselves. You can read what I learned from self-publishing the first time here (although the technology and options have improved since then).
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. A book can help you gain professional credibility, but then it’s more of a marketing project than a writing project, isn’t it?
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? Here is the upside: I love writing books. I love reading books. Books have profound powers and they’ve changed my life so many times. Maybe the bittersweet challenge of chasing words into sentences suits you. If you want to do this you have my support. GO YOU. Sincerely. I am behind you. But thinking about writing isn’t writing. Talking about it isn’t either. Commit to 10 hours of effort (basically a weekend or two). Write an outline or even just a few pages of a chapter. Take a course that focuses on actual writing and getting feedback. If it feels hard but rewarding, keep going. If it doesn’t, well I think you know.
Here are some practical next steps:
- The single best website to learn more about writing and publishing books – Jane Friedman
- How To Start a Book Project – specific advice for tackling a book sized effort.
- Is Your Book Idea Good? I’ll tell you here
- 28 Things No One Tells You About Publishing
- How To Get From An Idea To a Book – a bit harsh, and focused on publishing, but explains the steps and the time you’ll need
- Writing Hacks: Part 1 – Starting – What to do when the page is blank.
- Part 2 of ‘How To Write a Book’ is here, where I answer the best comments.
- Time-lapsed video of a writer writing an essay – amazing and revealing
- Confessions of a Self Published author – here’s what I learned from self publishing my last book.
- Writer’s Market. How to find a publisher for your written work (more good advice here).
- National Novel Writing Month – You must check this out.
- Or leave a comment below. I am, despite the curmudgeonly vibe, happy to answer thoughtful questions.
- Austin Kleon’s book writing flowchart
- Preview image credit
[Light editing: 10/7/2019, 2/4/2021]
Great and Motivating article!! I am writing a book for the first time and I really want to feature you!!
Sis on which novel u r writing i am also trying to write a novel first time,how is ur novel going?
this is really heard i need to see your composition
I am very interested writing novels, EBooks and stories, but I am not sure how to write the top notch novel, I did a Google search and found one of the guide it helps me to write top notch novel book within few days, The method explain in the guide it created me to think differently, I felt some writer had come to my mind and I done perfectly, Before writing any novel, books or stories, I recommended this guide to all, before writing any E-books read at least one time.
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Writing good eBooks is one of the good skill set
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!
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 .
You spelt disappoint wrong smarty.
Oh you made my day!
And you spelled spelt wrong, smarty!!
Well, actually, the past tense of ‘spell’ can either be spelled OR spelt, so technically he isn’t wrong.
Says the man above, who failed to spell disappoint correctly. You sir, are a nincompoop.
but he proved his point!
First off you comes across stuck up Second it doesn’t matter if you can spell if you can tell an amazing story and you put in all your effort you can still be a writer don’t discourage people .
I think you meant to write,
Who may have commented ON this article but….
You omitted the ON.
*Disappoint, just because you so courageously commented on others’ spelling without paying attention to your own.
Please check your spelling….dissapoint??????
I am so late to this writing party but I just found Scott’s blog and I really wanted to share this. I think one really great way to figure out how to write a book is to read books in the genre that you want to write in and breakdown the book to core elements. Who are the characters? Where are they? What are they doing at the start of the story? Why are they doing it? Then look at how chapters end and begin. Then when you get to the end of the book, observe how the authors end their stories. Do the characters get what they want or not? Do the writers sum up the ending nicely or do they leave it ambiguous? This is how Benjamin Franklin learned to write really really well. If writers can understand the skeleton of the type of stories in their genre then they can write really great novels for a specific audience.
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.)
My Spill Czech app says it is “Spelled Wheat”
Thank you Scott for sharing. It sounds very helpful :) You just confirmed my suspisions :)
Thank you for all that cold and nice info lol.
I am currently writing a book myself and I am super excited.
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…
Your experience is Amazing. Wishing you Best of Luck (Y)
This was there best inspirational rant ever! With awesome timing and such wisdom coming through from an wonderful author! Thank you!
I loved your story. It was very inspiring and I can tell just by reading it, that you have potential. Plus your spelling mistakes were pretty much non-existent.
You’re so young, yet so capable. Very impressive! Keep up the good work and I wish you best of luck! :)
Love your encouragement to a beginner as such.
We need people like you to counsel us the beginners
I like that. I’m brain dumping my life into a ruled notepad for me, an honest and mixed up account of my inner thoughts, rituals and experiences from bipolarity. To me it’s overwhelmingly satisfying and true, if other people want to read and enjoy the dribble then fair enough but as you say, this is for me and its real therapy. X
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.
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.
Thank you Scott.
I’m ready to tell my story, any pointers
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
Fort Myers, Florida
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!
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
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 !
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. (???)
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.
Tiffany, you sound very brave and confident. I want to read your book and feel inspired by you and your story.
I’ve never write before ….but being a stay at home mom am really thinking about it
Nickey, please begin by writing about all the free time you have to write since you became a “Stay At Home Mom”, OK ?
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.
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.
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 :)
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
I agree completely–fame/recogniztion/mass approval and success should *always* be secondary motivations, because they are out of our control–
Write for love…write for the heart, write for the soul :)
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.
I really needed this.
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!
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.
me too am trying out write a good novel but I real need u both so that can I have confidence in this field since its not easy ..
Hi Scott, I’m a 10th grader and I need to directly interview a writer for one of my projects so I was wondering if I could interview you because I think you’re just the writer I need for this interview. I would really appreciate it if you could reply.
Writing a book: very simple.
My 13 year old son has already written one book (30,000 words in length), and is half way through his second book (he’s now at 20,000 words).
Watching him do it, I’ve really learned the power of keeping it simple:
He writes 200 words a day. That’s it.
He doesn’t pages and pages, he doesn’t wait until he’s inspired, he writes a little bit every day…
It’s amazing how fast time goes by, in a blink you’ll have a book.
It doesn’t have to be brilliant, it doesn’t have to be good,
A little bit every day will help you build a book that in the end is yours :)
A writing coach can help. There’s a couple of great ones at http://www.heart-of-roses.com. Check it out.
Actually, when I ask that question, I simply want to know your routine. A.m. or p.m.? With a pen and pencil or a typewriter or laptop? Do you disable all of your technology devices? How many hours do you write at a time? Do you sit in a chair or lay on your bed? Etc.
I have specific reasons for my questions, believe me. Lol
I’d love to see other sources of data if you know of any.
Why do people who write articles likes these always use the scare tactic of a person not being able to make a living as a writer? Is everyone blind? I say that because millions of people makes great money writing. A lot of these “helpful posts” are founded on personal experience. YOU find it difficult to break bank as a writer, but I can name people who I know, personally, that are rich off of there writing. Of course it took hard work, but misleading words like “don’t expect to get rich off your writing,” or “don’t expect to make a lot of money writing” pisses me off… (smh)
The question isn’t whether some writers do well financially, of course there are some. The question is what percentage of all writers? This would be a better way for a new writer to set their expectations, wouldn’t you agree?
The Author’s Guild had this report in 2014:
“Overall, the median writing-related income among respondents dropped from $10,500 in 2009 to $8,000 2014 in 2014, a decline of 24%. The decline came for both full-time and part-time authors with full-time authors reporting a 30% drop in income to $17,500 and part-time authors seeing a 38% decrease, to $4,500.”
I’d love to see other sources of data if you know of any.
Thank you very much for you honest article :) Most people do not get rich by writing books, as most people do not become movie stars :) just some :)
Such a dope post! No nonsense and straight to the point. Thank you for this. I’m writing my first book and i’ve already got the question “how do you write a book?” And my answer has become, just write one. I then give them my method of how I’m doing it and like you said I just get to work!
“So many questions, so few answers”
Thank u for this mini guide, very informative)
After your advices, there will be several brand new books from readers ^.^
Great tips to use in my next book!
Very important tips Thank you for sharing them!
So, I read the article and was going to comment it but then I read all the comments and they just made my day lol
Thank you. I have wanted to do this for quite some time and I am not getting any younger. Although money would be nice, it’s not my motive. I want to share life changing experiences I’ve encounteted and Things I Believe In, especially for the younger generation before it all gets too far out of control. I am starting NOW!
Many people consider writing a book, at least once in their lives. I know many professionals who would like to contribute knowledge and put all their experiences on paper, and many people who have ever dreamed of writing their own book.
I am a single parent of 7 children from which 5 are college graduates (Rutgers, Berkley, SFSU, UCLA, SCU…) My last 2 are in high school preparing themselves to follow their siblings footsteps. I want to write a book about our challenges who motivated us to become a successful family. I’m an educator so would like to help those parents who think it’s not possible. Thoughts?
A debt of gratitude is in order for the great tips about composition. You referenced with independently publishing that you may not go that way once more. I’d be intrigued to hear why you would, and wouldn’t independently publish once more.
Thank you so much for the book writing advice. Now, I m confident enough to write a book and get it published. https://www.guideadda.com/havells-geyser-in-india-review-2019/
These are priceless tips for writer beginners like me. Thanks for sharing.
Very Nyc blog ,These are priceless tips for writer beginners like me. Thanks for sharing.
This goes far beyond the commenting! Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body. It is also to train your mind to imagination to think big. Keep it up!
Loved reading your blog. Practically all great writers start with horrendous first endeavors. You need to begin someplace. Thanks!
This is very interesting. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the best educator of how to compose. Thanks for sharing your idea.
Wonderful tips and guides. I could compose recorded fiction, or sci-fi, or a secret however since I think that it’s intriguing to investigate the pieces of information of some little know period and build up a story dependent on that, I will likely keep on doing it. Thanks for sharing your post!
I generally needed to be in the realm of amusement. I simply love the possibility of a crowd of people being content with what I am doing. Writing is a stage for modest individuals. That is the means by which I see it. This is very useful information for all writers and authors.
This post was truly worthwhile to read. I wanted to say thank you for the key points you have pointed out as they are enlightening.
Your article has really inspired me a lot to write my own book. The tips that you have provided to me in this article are really very informative. I am sure that if I follow all these tips I will definitely be able to write my own book successfully. Thank you for inspiring me.