How to write your book

Reading time: Just over 5 minutes

You have a book in you. I know you do! Here’s how to get it out of your head and down on paper. Here’s how to write your book…

There are many ways to do anything and I don’t delude myself that I offer the only feasible plan for writing a book. Just as there are different ways to train for a marathon, plan for a new product release or cook a meal, there are different ways to write books.

But if you’ve had a book idea you’ve never addressed — or if you’ve been delaying, procrastinating or otherwise putting off writing it, look at this plan closely and see if you can use it to develop a plan for how to write your book.

  1. Find a model for length. It’s important to know how many words you need to write so you have a measuring stick for yourself. (When I used to hike I never left the house without knowing the distance, the elevation gain and the expected time the hike would take. Writing a book requires at least the same level of detail, if not more.) While the publishing industry uses 80,000 words as the “typical” length for a first book, obviously there’s a big difference in length between Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix  (896 pages) and Jonathan Livingston Seagull (144 pages). So, find a book that matches the length you want to achieve. Most people can determine this only by holding the book in their hands. Look on the shelves in your home or go to a library and find a book that feels “right” for you. Count the number of words on one page. Then multiply that by the total number of pages in the book. Voilà. You now have the word count you need to aim for.
  2. Find model(s) for voice or style. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Now, you need to find another book (or two or three) written in a style you’d be happy emulating. It can take a good chunk of time to identify such a work so don’t try to do this too quickly. Also, be prepared to read outside of your usual genre. If you’re writing about wine, for example, the style model might come from books about history. If you’re writing a murder mystery, literary fiction might give you some good ideas (and vice versa). Don’t be too literal-minded when you’re seeking effective models. When you find one, spend at least a week copying from it, for five to 10 minutes daily. Yes, you definitely should be a copycat.
  3. Do a large mindmap. I’ve written many times about mindmapping and believe the process is essential for any book. You’ll probably want to mindmap every day while you’re writing, but begin your book with an extra-large one (use butcher’s paper or blank newsprint stretched over a large boardroom or dining-room table). Generally, I think mindmapping is an inspirational rather than an organizational tool. But the first mindmap for a book is different. Your purpose? Twofold: (a) To focus your idea. (b) To identify your chapters. A book mindmap is unique in that it helps uncover some organizing principles. When your mindmap is complete, take a set of coloured pens and circle the chapter subjects. Then number them and transcribe this list into a Word document. (If you’re new to mindmapping subscribe to my no-charge weekly newsletter and you’ll receive a booklet on mindmapping at no cost.)
  4. Decide how much research you need to do. Don’t begin writing until the research is at least 75% complete. Know that if you’ve adequately focused your idea in your mindmap you won’t waste too much time doing unnecessary research.
  5. Determine how much time you have to write per day, five days per week. Many people ache to commit an hour or more per day to their book. This is almost ALWAYS a mistake. Work, family responsibilities, illness and other natural life events will intervene. Instead, plan a unit of time you know you will be able to deliver no matter what else happens in your life. As little as five minutes per day is fine. But plan on no more than 30. If you like, start really small and increase your time later. The Japanese principle of kaizen  applies to writing as it does to so much else. Small efforts made daily are infinitely more effective than large efforts made irregularly. Note that you MUST take off two days every week. We all need breaks. You should also plan on taking holidays — just as you would from any job — throughout the year.
  6. Figure out how many words you can write in that time. And make that your daily goal. Some people can write 125 words in five minutes. Others only 50. There is no shame in that. The only shame lies in not being realistic. If you don’t know how many words you can write in five minutes then time yourself until you figure it out. DON’T take your total word count goal and divide it by the number of days/weeks within which you want to finish your book. Instead, do the reverse. Calculate how many words you can write in the time you have available each day. Then divide that number by the total word count goal. This will tell you how many writing days it will take you to finish your book. If it’s going to take you a year (or more), so what? Being realistic is the biggest favour you can do for yourself. You’re in this project for the long haul.
  7. Create a chart for your writing plan. A Word or Excel document will work just fine. Give it four columns: (i) date, (ii) number of words written, (iii) cumulative number of words written and (iv) cumulative number of words remaining. (Remember when I asked you to set your total word count goal back in step 1? Use this goal to calculate that last category.) Although this isn’t mandatory, I also suggest you add a fifth heading: “feelings.” If you chart how you feel as you write each day, the utter unimportance of feelings will quickly become apparent to you. You’ll see that on some days when you feel upbeat and enthusiastic your word count will be relatively low. Surprising, isn’t it? And on other days — even though you’re tired and discouraged — your word count may be high. This lesson will help inspire you on the inevitable “down” days. Keep this chart in a highly visible place on your desk and update it every day that you write. Once you hit the cumulative total of 20,000 words I predict you will be so buoyed by your achievement that it will be enough to inspire you to finish the project — even if your ultimate goal is 100,000 words.
  8. Set a definitive morning time for your writing. None of us accomplishes what we don’t plan for. I always try to do my writing first thing in the morning (before the phone starts ringing and before I check my email) because my schedule is more controllable then. But there’s another good reason for writing in the morning: our willpower is higher at the beginning of the day. This is true, even if you’re a night person. Here’s why.
  9. Don’t edit WHILE you write. Writing and editing are two entirely different jobs that use different parts of the brain. If you try to do both things at the same time you’ll make yourself both frustrated and woefully inefficient. It took me six months to break myself of the habit of editing while I wrote (which I’d done for more than 25 years). Breaking the habit tripled my writing speed. There are some good tricks here and here but the best one I learned while working on my first book was this: I kept one “master” document of my manuscript. When I finished my day’s worth of book writing I copied that material into the master and copied the very last sentence into a fresh document. This was the only thing I allowed myself to open the next morning. With only a sentence in place, I wasn’t able to waste time editing. You can’t edit what you can’t see! Ernest Hemingway had a trick of always stopping his writing day mid-sentence. In that manner, he managed to make himself enthusiastic about working the next day. Do that, if you can, too.
  10. Have an accountability lever. Writing even five minutes a day is damn hard work. There will be days when you don’t feel like doing it. My Get It Done group addresses this issue by having participants accountable to me. (They have to report their daily writing achievement to me, by email. If I don’t hear from them, I track them down.) If you’re interested in joining the next group (newcomers start on the first Monday of every month)  apply here (scroll down the page).
  11. Allow yourself at least six weeks of incubation time. I prefer to finish the first draft before editing. But if you’re anxious to edit immediately at least give yourself six weeks of lead time. It’s amazing how much incubation can improve your work. (I always imagine the good editing fairies are working on my drafts when I’m not looking at it.)
  12. Read your entire draft (or, at least as much of it as you’ve finished) before you start to edit. I’ve learned this the hard way with my current book. I dove in and started editing on a chapter-by-chapter basis. Screech. That was the sound of me hitting the brakes as I realized I needed to read the whole thing before I could sensibly edit.
  13. Have a definitive plan for editing. Books require professional copy editors. Plan on hiring one. In Canada, go to the Editor’s Association of Canada and check their hiring board. In the US, go to the Editorial Freelancer’s Association and consult their find-a-freelancer page. Cost will be in the neighborhood of $35 to $50/hour, depending on their experience and where your editor lives. But this person should be able to give you a quote for the whole job, upfront. You can save yourself money by submitting a relatively clean draft. Check out my 4-part series on how to self-edit for some advice. And there are more tips here.

Writing a book isn’t easy. But it also isn’t as hard as you think. It just takes planning and commitment.

Have you ever considered writing a book? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section of my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post  (or any others) by March 31/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of the beach-read novel The Vacationers, by Emma Straub. Please, scroll down to the comments section, directly underneath the “more from my site” links, below.