Countless people dream of a rich, fulfilling writing career, but few ever actually attain one. Why? Because writing a book is a lot of work, and it takes the sort of perseverance and dedication that, in our instant-gratification media-driven world, is in increasingly short supply.
But writing and publishing a book is entirely possible, even if you have no prior writing experience. You’ve arrived at this page by taking the very important first step, and now, we’ll guide you through everything you need to know to get your big idea onto the page—and into the hands of readers.
Things to do before writing a book
You know the phrase “learn to crawl before you can walk”? In this case, it’s more like “learn to crawl before you get on the motorcycle.” Writing an entire book is a huge undertaking, and you can avoid lots of mental and emotional hardship by taking some preparatory steps.
Learn the craft
If you decided you want to learn the art of woodworking, you probably wouldn’t buy a log and a knife and attempt to carve an elaborate four-poster bed. It’s the same with writing: the writer’s craft is filled with techniques, tools, and knowledge that have been passed down from our storytelling forefathers, then explored, expanded, questioned, inverted, and passed down again.
Before you begin writing, it helps to at least familiarize yourself with the sorts of craft ideas that are out there. For instance, how do successful writers approach plot structure? What literary devices do they use to create immersive worlds? How do they create dialogue that’s realistic and natural and doesn’t sound like something they practiced in front of a mirror?
Fortunately, we have a ton of amazing resources in our Writing Academy with all the writing tips you need to master the craft.
Read a lot
If you love the idea of writing, you probably love reading, too. But reading as a writer is a little bit different than reading as a reader. Next time you pick up a new novel or a beloved favorite, try examining it through a more analytical lens.
If there’s a character you particularly love, ask yourself what the author has done to make you love them. If the story has a thrilling plot turn or makes you think about something in a new way, ask yourself, how did they do that? When you find yourself riveted by a stunning passage of prose, try to isolate what about it you find so captivating.
It’s the same with bad writing. If you read a book that you think is awful, or unconvincing, or dull as bricks, try to pinpoint what exactly is giving you that impression. Did the dialogue seem stilted? Were the plot twists too convenient and contrived? All of these observations are things you can absorb to improve your own writing craft.
Practice your writing skills
Now the actual writing begins! But maybe not with a doorstopper epic right away. If you leap into the first draft of a novel without ever having written before, you’ll most likely find that you hit a block or run out of steam by around page 17. In this way, writing is like a muscle: it needs endurance and stamina in order to be effective in the long game.
Many beginner writers build up their creative muscles by writing short stories. This gives you a chance to explore the structure of a story with a beginning, middle, and end in a more manageable space. You can also write poems, articles, essays, a blog post, flash fiction, free-writing exercises and writing prompts, and other short-form written works to practice stringing words together in a coherent and beautiful way.
As a bonus, you can get these pieces done a lot faster and start sending them out into the world to build up those publication credits.
How to start writing a book
If the steps above seem like a lot of work, trust us—they’ll make your writing journey much smoother. Once you’ve gotten in a little practice, you’re ready to put your eye on the prize: writing a book that you can be proud of.
Here are the things you’ll need to put in place before, while, and after you write a book.
These are the essential steps to take as you get set up, before you attempt to write your first page.
Come up with an idea
This is the big first step—coming up with a book idea that will knock everybody’s socks off. When writing fiction, a strong premise should consist of three things: a protagonist, a setting, and a conflict.
Your protagonist is the main character —the person your readers will follow from beginning to end. Ask yourself: what does this person want? What do they need? What are they willing to fight for?
Your setting is where the action takes place —the geographical location, the moment in time, and the way these elements impact your characters. For instance, a stretch of farmland in a rural and underprivileged area will invite very different choices and attitudes from your protagonist than a steel-and-chrome flat in a big city.
Your conflict is what gets the story moving. Your protagonist has a problem, and they need to take action in order to solve it. When they do take action, however, there are unintended repercussions which create even more problems—i.e. your plot.
Establish a dedicated writing space
Some writers can compose their work anytime, anywhere. Most, however, find it beneficial to set up a devoted creative space—an office, a favorite coffee shop, or a cozy corner of the local library.
Ideally, this should be a space you go to when you do your writing that you don’t use for anything else. When you settle into this work area, you’re signalling to your brain that it’s time to write. Try to keep it free from clutter and distractions as much as possible. This is why a controlled personal space, such as an office, is ideal.
You can also set up writing spaces with inspiring quotes or messages, and choose color schemes and decor that you feel will put you into this mental creative space. Some writers even change up their writing space to fit the project they’re working on. Whatever shape or form your writing area takes, it should be a safe and quiet place that pushes you forward.
Create a writing schedule
Now that you know where you’re going to begin your writing process, you’ll need to know when these writing sessions are going to happen.
The road to obscurity is paved with the half-finished manuscripts of writers who didn’t bother to set up blocks of time dedicated to their work. There will always be a thousand reasons not to get down to actually writing, but if you’re going to write a book, making that time available needs to be a priority. You’ll find it becomes easier to reach your writing goals if you keep a consistent, regular writing routine week after week.
The way you organize and allot this time can vary widely from writer to another, and you may need some trial and error to find the schedule that works best for your everyday life. Some find devoting one intensive, eight-hour day a week suits their method and availability. Others find that one target hour per day (like our daily Writing Together meet!) helps them hit their goals. Your ideal writing time might be first thing in the morning, or right before you go to bed (it’s pretty rare for a writer’s most productive time to be mid-afternoon, but you might be the exception).
Some writers like to schedule by word count, rather than by time. For instance, you could arrive at your desk each morning and write until you’ve hit 500 words.
A dedicated writing session will give you accountability to your goals and make them feel more real—which puts them within reach.
Do preliminary research
Before writing a convincing, immersive story—whether this is a novel or creative nonfiction—it often helps to do some supporting research and gain a deeper understanding of the world you’re portraying.
Some genres require this more than others; for example, historical fiction often begins with a wide swath of research about the chosen time period and the sorts of struggles and limitations happening at that time, as well as other historical details like food and clothing. Fantasy and science fiction writing might require supporting research to build a convincing and realistic world.
Before you begin writing a book, make sure you have a rich and thorough understanding of the setting you’re creating on the page.
Draft a novel outline
The last step before you finally write your first draft is to put together an outline. This helps you get your ideas organized. How much detail to include can vary widely from one writer to another. Some writers like to use predetermined dramatic shapes like Freytag’s pyramid or the eight-point arc to map out each stage of a story. Others take a more “wide lens” look through story arcs like the three-act structure or the five-act structure.
However you want to approach your novel outline, it’s a good idea to at least have the inciting incident in place—the first major plot point that turns your protagonist’s world around and sets the story into motion— a list of characters your protagonist will interact with along the way (although you can add more as you go), and a general idea of where they’ll all end up.
Doing this work beforehand will make the book writing process smoother and help you avoid stumbling blocks later on.
It’s time to start writing a book! Now to get down to work and write that rough draft.
Choose your narrative point of view
One of the most important mechanical choices a writer makes when undertaking a new project is the point of view they want to tell the story through. There are about eight different point of view types that broadly fall under first person, second person, third person, and fourth person narrative.
Each of these point of view styles lends something different to a story. Some writers will immediately know which is right for this particular book; others will need to experiment to feel out which one is the perfect fit.
Write a compelling first line
The first page is often what makes or breaks a novel. You need to pull your readers into your story world and make them care about your main character enough to keep on reading. And the best way to immediately hook the reader’s attention is with a captivating first line.
Look at these examples of eye-catching first lines:
From The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams: “The story so far: in the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”
From 1984 by George Orwell: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
From The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by CS Lewis: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
Each of these are clever, snappy, rich in narrative voice, and make you want to know more about the story’s world. See if you can come up with an evocative opening line that snap up your reader’s interest.
Develop your story’s inciting incident
The first major plot point your story will reach is its inciting incident —the turning point in the first chapter which takes your protagonist’s life from status quo to something new and unpredictable. This will usually be something outside their control; for example, a new arrival in town, a new opportunity, or an external problem that needs to be solved.
Once your protagonist is faced with the inciting incident, they need to react. They’ll make a choice for what to do about this new influence in their life, and that choice will set the events of the story into motion.
Raise the stakes
Once your story gathers momentum, it’s all about tossing in more and more obstacles for your characters to overcome—sometimes known as progressive complications. Each successive plot point should come with a bigger challenge and a bigger reward.
Throughout your story, the main characters will encounter setbacks and victories that lead them farther on their journey.
Push through the muddy bits
Once you’ve established your inciting incident and introduced some progressive complications, you may find that you start losing momentum. This is completely normal, and a challenge nearly every writer faces: the muddy middle. You may find you’re not sure where to take your characters next, or your words start to feel heavier than before, or you can’t remember why you began this godforsaken undertaking in the first place.
There is no way over the tunnel; the only way forward is through. Look at the bookshelves around you and remember that every bestselling author you love is where they are today because they reached this point and kept going. It doesn’t have to be brilliant; it doesn’t even have to be good. It just has to exist on paper so that you have malleable raw material to work with.
Build to a big finish
If you’ve made it through the muddy middle, you’ll notice your pace starts picking up and the idea of writing a book seems exciting again. Now all the pieces of your story are in place; the characters know what they want, and what they have to lose if they don’t get it; all the possible paths they could have taken are narrowing into one inevitable conclusion.
Once you arrive at this point, all cylinders are firing as all the choices made throughout the plot carry the story to its finish.
Once you finish writing your first draft there are a few more steps to getting it into the best possible shape it can be, and then into the hands of readers.
Set your manuscript aside
The first thing you need to do after writing a book is take a big step back. Since your started writing you’ve spent, at a minimum, several months of your waking life staring at these pages until you went cross eyed. It’s going to be difficult to examine it with an objective gaze right away.
Put your novel aside and try not to think about it for a while—at least a week, if you’re on a time crunch, but a month is better. Then you can come back to it with a fresh eye to begin your editing process.
Now it’s time to look over your work with a cold, hard, editorial eye. This means examining the overall story shape as well as how the prose works on a mechanical level. Ask yourself: are the characters believable? Does the pacing flow smoothly? Are the narrative choices believable and compelling?
A useful method for story-level editing is to write out a single-sentence summary of each scene on a scrap of paper or an index card, then lay them out in order. This way you can see how each idea flows into the next and if there are any gaps where important scenes might be missing. Try comparing it to one of the story structures we looked at above to see if your key turning points are falling into place where they should be.
Also be sure to check your descriptive passages and dialogue to make sure they’re as tight and cohesive as it can be. Snip out those unnecessary adverbs and purple prose, and incorporate concrete detail to any settings that might be a bit too vague.
Seek out external feedback
If you feel like you’ve attained a strong second draft, the next step is getting feedback from some outside perspectives. Beta readers and writing groups are a great (and affordable) way to do this; you could also look into private mentorships or hire a developmental editor.
These external readers will offer you a detached yet constructive feedback on what’s working well in your manuscript and what needs further development. They’ll also catch any continuity errors or silly mistakes that your own internal editor might have missed.
Revise, revise, revise
Thus armed with helpful support from your team, it’s time to incorporate your feedback into your written work. Note that you might not agree with every suggestion you hear, and that’s okay—this book is yours, not anyone else’s. But it’s always a good idea to at least consider what other people have to say and if they might be onto something, rather than following your knee-jerk reaction of feeling defensive.
Take what you have learned from this process and use it to beat your story into something you would be proud to see on the shelves. Once you feel you’ve done as much as you can with your novel to the best of your writing abilities, it’s time to start thinking about publication.
Plan your publication path
There are two broad publication paths writers can pursue: traditional publishing and self publishing. Additionally, traditional publishing is further divided into two streams: direct submissions and submissions with the help of a literary agent.
Self publishing involves taking on the roles of writer, editor, typesetter, graphic designer, printing manager, publicist, and accountant. It’s a huge learning curve and a lot of work, but it has the benefit of bestowing complete creative control over the work—you don’t have to compromise on anything with anyone else. Plus, you get to keep all the money that your book makes.
Traditional publishing involves submitting your book to a publishing house and working with them in partnership to turn your manuscript into a sellable book. Some independent presses accept submissions directly from authors, but many of the larger ones only accept submissions through reputable literary agents acting on an author’s behalf.
The benefit of working with a traditional publisher is that you get the support of an experienced team of experts to help bring your book to life. Your book will also have more avenues available to it such as major retailers, literary festivals, and awards. The downsides are that you’ll often have to make some compromises about things like design, and you’ll have more people to share your profits with.
When you have a completed draft ready to go, you can look into the pros and cons of each of these options and decide which is right for you.
YOU WROTE A BOOK!! You have braved untold hardships and reached a threshold that most aspiring authors only dream of. Regardless of what happens next—international acclaim, literary obscurity—you have accomplished something big. Take a moment to bask.
Start the next one
Don’t bask too long though, because you have work to do. While you’re waiting to hear about the next steps, start on the next book. Becoming a successful author is a continuous process of learning and growing in your craft. Every project—whether that’s a novel, collection of short stories, book of poems, or nonfiction book—will teach you something new and make you a better writer.
Book writing is a rewarding challenge
Writing a book isn’t a weekend-long splurge; it’s a huge undertaking that requires focus, perseverance, and raw chutzpah. In fact, this dedication and commitment matters even more than talent. If you’re willing to put in the time and the work, you can write an amazing book that becomes the start of a rewarding career.