How To Write A Book – The Ultimate Guide
I would love to tell you how to write a book in ten easy steps...
...to lay out the book writing process like a soothing, predictable recipe.
But my ultimate goal with this ultimate guide is to help you turn the beautiful idea in your head into a book on a stranger’s bookshelf. This will only happen if you’re ready to commit to the entire process. And to fully commit, you need to know up front: this is going to get messy.
But it is so, so worth it.
You’re here because there is a story you need to tell . . . insight you’re dying to share. Your book is going to connect you to strangers and—cheesy as it may sound—the process will connect you to yourself.
Start this glorious mess by accepting that it’s going to be tough. Take it step by step. Backtrack and revisit previous steps when you need to. Call upon the support of friends, family, and fellow writers.
And above all, know that you’ve got this. Because you do.
Before You Begin Writing Your Book
I know you came here to learn how to write a book, but first you need to know how to plan your book. A lot of important work happens well before you type your first line. Even before you begin plotting your novel or outlining your book.
This is the stage where you find total clarity on your goals and the expectations of your audience. Take the time to design a super-specific vision, and you’ll find it’s much easier to write a book that sells.
Why Do You Want To Write A Book?
Before you can really dig into how to write a book, you need to clarify why you want to write a book.
Writing a book is a massive task. It will take longer than you expect. You will face insecurities you didn’t know you had. At some point, you will spend an entire writing session writing, deleting, and rewriting the same sentence.
You will ask yourself, “Why do I even bother?”
Have that answer ready, and make sure it goes deeper than fame and fortune. I suggest thinking in terms of purpose rather than reward. For example:
- “I believe stories bring us joy, and I want to be a part of creating that joy in the world.”
- “I want to continue my grandmother’s legacy through this cookbook memoir.”
- “These lessons on investment opened up so many possibilities in my life, and I want to pay that forward.”
When you know your Why, write it down. Keep it visible in your writing space. There will be a point where you rely on this reminder to keep you motivated.
What Type of Book Are You Going To Write?
This may seem like something you would have figured out before you looked into how to start writing a book. Even if you don’t know what you want to write about, you probably already know you want to be a novelist or you want to write a self-help book to promote your brand.
Believe it or not, you have to get more specific. Are you writing a cozy mystery novella or a classic detective novel? Will you share your life story as a memoir, a book of essays, or an inspirational nonfiction book?
The answer influences several elements of the book writing process, including:
- Writing to serve your intended audience,
- Which tropes you use,
- Formatting and structure,
- And more.
If you plan to self-publish, knowing your genre and subgenre also guides the way you write book descriptions, commission cover art, and design a marketing strategy.
Here are some lists to help you narrow down your vision for your book.
Okay, so you know you want to write fiction. Break it down to something more specific by answering these questions.
What is My Genre?
A genre is a category of storytelling that tells the reader what to expect in terms of tone, tropes, complexity, and more. A happy ending versus a sad ending, dense description versus snappy dialogue… you get the idea.
In short, genre is a powerful guide for how to write a book.
Your book most likely fits into one of these genres:
- Key Characteristics: swift pacing, physical danger, acts of courage, and a “ticking clock”—the sense of time running out.
- Key Characteristics: an alternate timeline or dimension, advanced scientific concepts, and a plot defined by the setting.
- Key Characteristics: the presence of supernatural powers, kingdoms, and mythological elements.
- Key Characteristics: physical and psychological danger, a sense of pursuit and anticipation, and frequent cliffhangers.
- Key Characteristics: terrifying images, chases, a suspenseful or spooky mood, and supernatural or demonic forces.
- Key Characteristics: a gradual reveal of clues, rising tension, and a single question that moves the reader through the story.
- Key Characteristics: a sympathetic protagonist, emotional tension, idealized themes on love, and a happy-ever-after.
- Key Characteristics: fictionalized narrative incorporating historical events or people, vivid descriptions, and dialogue reflecting the time and place.
- Key Characteristics: a setting in the American West, adventure, romance, and themes of survival.
- Key Characteristics: a narrative spanning multiple generations within a single family, often with a timeline that reaches into the past.
- Key Characteristics: characters live mostly regular lives marked with occasional magical events. No one in the story is fazed by this. Magical realism is huge in Latin American literature.
- Key Characteristics: the protagonist’s internal transformation is more important than plot and the theme probably invites us to contemplate the human condition.
Do you see your story here? If you’re still coming up with story ideas, do you see a genre that interests you? Once you’ve chosen it, break it down to subgenre.
What is My Subgenre?
Your subgenre helps you really specify for the reader—and for yourself—how this book is going to read and feel. What will the characters be like? Where will the tension come from? How will your audience feel when they read your book?
Here are some examples of subgenres:
Horror: Body Horror, Gore, Historical, Creepy Kids, Mythic, Comedy
Mystery: Hardboiled, Classic Detective, Cozy, Paranormal, Legal
Romance: Comedy, Billionaires, Erotic, No or Low Heat, Regency, Suspense
Science-Fiction: Cyberpunk, Dystopian, Utopian, Lost Worlds, Space Travel
This is by no means a comprehensive list. Whatever your genre is, dive deep into subgenres. You are almost guaranteed to uncover a specific style of storytelling that matches your objectives. The time you took to nail down your subgenre will pay off big when you get to the research phase.
Also note that you need to take audience age into account. Your book should fall in one of these categories:
- Middle Grade
- Young Adult
- New Adult
Know the expectations for both your book and the age of your audience.
How Long Should My Fiction Book Be?
This is a very common question among people who wish to learn how to write a book. Here’s a general overview:
- Children’s Picture Book: 500-600 words
- Children’s Chapter Book: 1,000-10,000 words
- Young Adult (YA): 40,000-70,000 words
- Flash Fiction: under 500 words
- Short Story: 5,000-10,000 words
- Novella: 10,000-40,000 words
- Novel: 40,000 words or more; most novels fit into the 80,000-100,000 range with the exception of:
- Fantasy Novel: Often 90,000-150,000 words
That said, if you aim to publish a novel traditionally, keep your word count under 100,000. Many agents set this limit for debut authors to minimize risks for the publisher. A longer book means higher printing costs. You have to prove you can move books before they’ll make that big investment.
What if I’m Still Not Sure?
Start by making a list of all the books you have loved… the books that inspired you to write your own. Then, look for patterns. Even if you’re not sure you can identify each book’s genre, ask yourself:
- What is the tone?
- How does it end?
- What is the central conflict?
- What is the theme?
- What is the setting?
- How did it make me feel?
- What did I love most about this book?
Most likely, you’ll see some commonalities, and that will help you define the type of stories you love. From there, choose the subgenre that makes the most sense and try it out. If you find you don’t love writing in that subgenre, you can always try something else.
The most important thing is that you follow what interests you.
So you’ve come here to learn how to write a book that speaks the truth.
The format and tone you use to deliver that truth will depend largely on what information you have to share. Let’s break this down.
What is My Nonfiction Genre?
First, let’s nail down your genre. Odds are, your book fits into one of these categories:
History: This is an account of historical events based on your research. It may be objective or editorialized, but it is rooted in true stories.
Literary Journalism: A work of literary journalism explores an issue or human subject in depth by shaping information gathered from research into a narrative.
Travel Writing: This genre includes everything from straightforward travel guides to travelogues sharing the author’s personal experience of a journey.
Autobiographies, Biographies, Memoir, and Personal Essay: A biography is about any person, living or dead, other than the author. Both autobiographies and memoirs are about the author. The difference is in focus and theme. An autobiography is a factual account of your own life. In a memoir, you use your life experience to explore a theme larger than yourself. A personal essay is similar to a memoir, but it’s much shorter. Several essays around a common theme can be packaged together in one book.
Self-Help, Guides, and How-Tos: If you are learning how to write a book because you want to expand your professional brand, this is probably what you’re writing. Guides and how-to manuals help the reader build hands-on skills like cooking, web design, or investing. Self-help serves as a guide for improving relationships, self-esteem, professional habits, and other more personal skill sets.
Inspirational / Religious / Spiritual: This category includes nonfiction with a spiritual bent, like memoir and self-help books with religious themes. This genre also includes its own unique formats like daily devotions and religious texts.
Philosophy and Insight: Think Malcolm Gladwell and Brené Brown. From the scientific to the cultural, this genre incorporates real data and observation to back up the author’s theories and philosophies.
Humor/Commentary: This category sometimes overlaps with personal essays, like in the case of David Sedaris. Or it can take the form of satirical academic writing, like Megan Amram’s Science . . . For Her!. The common denominator is that this genre is a vehicle for you to communicate and comment through humor.
How Long Should My Nonfiction Book Be?
Here’s a general guideline to help you keep in line with reader expectations:
- Self Help/How-To: 20,000-70,000 words
- Philosophy/Insight: 60,000-80,000
- Memoir: 60,000-90,000
- History: 60,000-100,000
- Biography: 80,000-110,000
Now, what you do with this information depends on which publishing journey you choose. If you want to publish traditionally, you will write a book proposal and use that to secure an agent and publisher before actually writing the book.
In that case, you’ll use your understanding of word count to inform the structure and book details you include in your proposal.
If you plan to self-publish, you’ll start writing the book with your target word count in mind.
Get to Know Your Genre
If you want to be a successful author, it’s not enough to know how to write a book. You also need to know how to sell a book. And to do that, you must master your genre.
Research Your Genre Within an Inch of Its Life
What are the tropes of your genre? What tone and emotional experience are your readers expecting? What does a satisfying ending look like for your readers?
You may think the rules of genre don’t matter, but there will be hell to pay if your cozy mystery readers get to the final line of your book and your protagonist has yet to touch a knitting needle or a whistling tea kettle.
Know your genre at least as well as your readers do.
What Books are Already Successful?
Read recently published books that are doing well in your chosen category. Read their reviews. Understand what makes them so successful. How do they stand out even while committing to the rules? If they take risks, what risks do they take… and why does it work?
To see which books are succeeding, check out the Amazon Best Sellers and select your genre from the menu on the left.
Meet Your Reader
Through all this research, you gain a clearer sense of who your reader is. You begin to understand what they look for when they cozy down with a book.
Dig deeper. Haunt forums where readers discuss your genre. Join Facebook groups dedicated to your genre, or follow bookstagrammers or BookTokers who post about the kind of books you write.
The better you understand your audience, the more equipped you are to write a book that speaks to them.
Assemble Your Book Writing Toolset
You’re almost there! And by “almost there,” I mean “almost ready to start planning to write a book.” But before we can talk about how to write an outline for a book, we need to make sure you have everything you’ll need to get the job done.
You want to create a dedicated writing space where you can focus, be comfortable, feel inspired, and expect privacy.
As for writing tools, think about what you need in your space so you can make notes, find information, and write a book without having to get up from your chair.
For specific suggestions on how to set up your space and gather your writing tools, check out our guide for how to start writing.
Finally, your mindset is the most important tool you bring to your writing practice.
Anne Patchett wrote an incredible essay on the writing life called “The Getaway Car.” In it, she describes the difference between people who claim to “have a story in them” and people who actually write.
The people who write choose to face the reality that what we put down on the page will never compare to the beauty in our minds. To write, she says, is to pluck the butterfly of perfection out of our minds, smash it onto the page, and kill it.
A little violent, sure, but it’s a solid metaphor. Turning fantasy into words is extremely difficult. You will fall short of the brilliance in your head. You will also impress yourself, delight yourself, and make incredible discoveries.
Just know that when you find yourself cringing at your own words as you write them, you are in good company. Your favorite author still makes herself cringe. Not even the geniuses can create a masterpiece without first facing the cringe.
Writing is rewriting. It’s about making a mess so we have a mess to clean up.
So set aside any dreams of perfection, brilliance, or money. Just let yourself be enveloped by the process. When you do that, the brilliance comes. Eventually. Probably.
How To Start Writing A Book: Planning & Plotting
Even if you identify as a pantser (one who writes by the seat of their pants), please do not skip this section. Every writer benefits from doing at least some planning before they start writing a book. This is especially true if you’re prepping for NaNoWriMo.
When you take the time to plan, the book writing process is . . . well, I won’t say “easy.” But there’s less backtracking to do. More importantly, you’re more likely to actually finish your book. This is because even when you run into writer’s block or an unexpected plot hole, you have a guiding light to turn to.
And this is your guiding light:
What Is Your Book About?
To make your guiding light as bright as it can be, you want to get to a point where you can answer this question in two to three sentences. Sounds easy. It’s not.
First, Find an Idea
If you’ve already done that, you can skip ahead. Otherwise, it’s time for some brainstorming. Fiction writers can generate ideas with the help of:
- Writing prompts, which you can find in prompt books or just by Googling “writing prompts.” You can also have them delivered to your inbox regularly when you sign up for the Dabble newsletter at the bottom of this page.
- Inspiration from your own life. Ask yourself, “What if?” What if you’d taken that job in Atlanta? What if you found out your high school crush had always been in love with you? What if your reality was someone else’s science experiment?
- Strangers. Eavesdrop, imagine backstories for people in magazines, or research a location that interests you and invent characters who would live there. Go to an antique store or estate sale and ask yourself questions about the person who owned that Predator statue made of car parts.
- Music. Listen to the songs that elicit the strongest emotional response from you. What is it about those songs? What stories do they make you imagine?
Nonfiction writers, ask yourself questions like:
- What is the problem I am best equipped to solve for my readers?
- What is the belief or philosophy I most want to share?
- What life experience can I use to help others feel seen, understood, and supported?
- What is the story of my brand?
- What is the one thing I wish everyone in the world understood?
Clarify the Big Idea
If you’re a fiction writer, your Big Idea includes:
- A specific character . . .
- Motivated by a deep-seated wound or desire . . .
- To achieve a specific goal . . .
- That cannot be achieved without overcoming a powerful obstacle . . .
- That forces the character to transform.
If you’re here to learn how to write a nonfiction book, your Big Idea comes down to:
- Valuable, relevant insight . . .
- Only you can provide . . .
- On a specific topic of interest.
Some writers start with the big idea. I do not. My book concepts start out as a tangle of scenes, themes, and feelings. If you’re like me, you may need to do some novel plotting before you nail down the Big Idea.
You can also try freewriting. Set a timer, start writing about one aspect of your story, and don’t stop until the timer goes off. Let it be messy, self-contradictory, and poorly worded. I almost always have a breakthrough when I do this.
Ultimately, you want to get to the point where you can state the Big Idea in two or three sentences.
Test Your Premise
Compare your premise to the top performers in your genre. Is there anything missing?
Try writing your book synopsis. Does it resonate? Is the conflict clear enough? If it’s nonfiction, does it offer a compelling solution for a relatable problem? Would you pay money to read it?
Finally, share it with people you know who read a lot of books in your genre. Would they buy the book?
Once you’re certain you have a powerful premise, you’re ready to learn how to write an outline for your book.
How to Write an Outline for a Book
There are so many strategies for outlining your book. You can create a mind map, tape scene cards to your wall, write a traditional outline with roman numerals… whatever you want. My personal go-to is the plotting feature in Dabble (and that was true before I wrote for Dabble, for the record).
However you choose to outline—and however much detail you choose to work out beforehand—I recommend at least working out these specifics for your fiction book or narrative nonfiction book:
- What is the protagonist’s “normal”?
- What is their goal? More specifically, what do they think they need and what do they actually need?
- What is the inciting incident—the event that starts the protagonist’s journey? (This should be an experience that forces the protagonist to take an action they had no intention of taking.)
- What is the antagonistic force keeping your protagonist from their goal?
- What strategies do they use to achieve their goal, and how do those strategies reflect their stubborn commitment to old beliefs and attitudes?
- What weaknesses are revealed about your protagonist?
- What is the turning point at the midpoint: the event that turns the story on its head, catches the protagonist by surprise, and gets us thinking that their old way of doing things won’t work anymore?
- What event finally brings your protagonist to their knees? What is the loss that proves it’s more painful to avoid a transformation?
- How does your protagonist change internally?
- What bold actions do they take as a result of that change?
- What is the payoff for their change (or the consequence of not changing soon enough, if it’s that kind of book)?
We’ve created a free template to help you nail down these details before you either write your book or expand these ideas into a more detailed outline.
Even if you choose to keep your planning to a minimum, I highly recommend diving deeper on the topic of how to write an outline for a book. Even a pantser needs to be clear on what a strong story structure looks like. Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody is a great resource.
Next, make sure you have all the information you need to write a reasonably informed first draft. This includes researching historical facts, gathering insights about your protagonist’s career or hometown… that sort of thing.
If you are writing outside your lived your experience—that is, if your protagonist comes from a race, culture, economic background, ability, sexual orientation, gender, etc., that is very different from your own, research that experience, too.
Writing the Other is an excellent resource for navigating this territory. Consider hiring a cultural consultant early in the process and plan on hiring a sensitivity reader once you have a solid draft. And if you’re inclined to see this type of research as PC culture run amok, consider this:
Wouldn’t you want someone with legal experience to review your crime thriller?
It’s about making the characters as true to life as possible.
Set Deadlines & Schedules
This is where we make sure the work actually gets done. This is where you draw the line between yourself and that coworker who’s spent the last six years bragging about that brilliant novel he’s going to write someday.
Don’t be that guy. Sit down and make it happen by holding yourself accountable.
Set Writing Goals
Now that you know approximately how many pages your book should be, take a look at when you want your first draft to be complete.
Let’s say you want to write a first draft of your 60,000-word YA novel in six months.
Working backwards, that means you need to write 10,000 words each month. That comes out to about 2,500 words a week. If you write 500 words an hour, you need to set aside five hours of writing time each week.
Sound doable? If it doesn’t, extend your timeline. If it sounds too doable, you can shorten your timeline. But do keep in mind: you may have interruptions, like vacation, illness, or unanticipated plot holes. (You will have unanticipated plot holes.)
Overestimate the amount of time you need, then surprise yourself by getting ahead of schedule.
If this all seems a little math-y for your taste, Dabble’s goal-setting feature does a lot of that heavy lifting for you.
Schedule Your Writing Time
Actually schedule your writing sessions in your calendar.
If you have the luxury of doing so, schedule your sessions for the time of day when you are most creative and alert. Also aim for a time when you are the least likely to be interrupted or distracted.
If your current lifestyle requires you to squeeze in a few words while your kids are occupied with Paw Patrol, great! That works, too.
The only thing that really matters is that you commit to showing up and you show up consistently.
Choose Your Writing Software
Finally, find a writing software that has everything you need.
A typical word processor will technically work. But since your goal is not just to write but to actually complete a book project, I recommend at least researching the software and book writing apps designed for this purpose.
Dabble is a good place to start.
How to Write a Book: Your First Draft
Here it is! This is the moment. You’re doing it. You are at your desk with your cup of tea and a stack of reference books, typing the line that puts everything in motion. And your line is…
“One day, a thing happened to a person.”
Been there. You’ll get through it, I promise. Here come a ton of tips for weathering those brain blocks and writing a first draft you can work with.
How to Write a Strong Opening
Your book must have a powerful opening.
Agents and publishers will quit reading after two pages (or less) if your opening falls flat. Readers will do the same. And there’s no point in writing a great middle and end if folks bail on page one.
But feel free to worry about this later. Almost every opening scene I write is garbage on the first draft. There’s so much pressure to be brilliant in those first few lines. I can’t rise to the occasion until I’ve built up the confidence that comes with having created the full story, beginning to end.
So don’t get hung up on your opening. When you are ready to nail that first scene, this is what your readers need from you:
Fiction Opening Scene
- A strong sense of place.
- A clear sense of character.
- An immediately established voice and tone.
- A detail that makes us care about the character. This can be something big like a difficult childhood or an impressive virtue, but the little things work, too… like dialogue that makes us laugh or a relatable perspective.
- A conflict. (It doesn’t have to be the central conflict.)
- An indication of where the story is going through foreshadowing or by presenting the theme. In some cases, you may even want to introduce the central conflict immediately.
- A strong opening sentence.
Examples of powerful opening sentences in fiction:
“Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.”
—Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
—One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
“Check this out.”
—Ghost by Jason Reynolds
If you write narrative nonfiction like a memoir, biography, or history, you need the same ingredients in your opening scene as a fiction writer would.
If you’re writing self-help, how-to, or something else meant to be more informative, you want your opening to include:
- A clear problem being solved.
- A reason why solving that problem is of utmost importance.
- A sense of your voice, values, and expertise. (Why should they trust you?)
- A compelling first sentence.
Here are some strong opening lines from nonfiction books:
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”
—A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
“Jim Gallien had driven four miles out of Fairbanks when he spotted the hitchhiker standing inthe snow beside the road, thumb raised high, shivering in the gray Alaska dawn.”
—Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
“I messed up . . . no I really messed up this time.”
—Get Good with Money by Tiffany Aliche
Personal stories can be a powerful way to open a nonfiction book. Not only do we tend to grasp concepts better with the aid of stories, but a personal anecdote builds trust between you and the reader. They immediately feel like they know you and like you might even understand them.
Now that you’ve nailed your opening, let’s talk about the chaos of the middle.
How to Get Through the Messy Middle
Heads-up: these next two sections about the middle and the end are mostly for fiction and narrative nonfiction writers. There are just too many possible nonfiction book structures to dig into for this article. So, if you’re working on a how-to or something similar, feel free to skip ahead.
The messy middle is also known as “the mushy middle” and “the muddle of the middle,” which tells you something about the way most fiction and narrative nonfiction writers experience this part of the book.
In structural terms, this is your act two.
From the reader’s perspective, the middle is where you pay off “the promise of the premise.” If your synopsis promises a crime fighting grandma, your readers are excitedly plowing into act two, anticipating some old-lady roundhouse kicks.
Not only do you have to deliver on the promise you made, you also have to keep an eye on structural elements and character arc.
This is where the work you did in the outlining section pays off. You can bring in all the fun stuff your readers are anticipating without losing control of your book’s overall shape and pacing.
At this point, you also want to make sure the elements you add still serve the greater story. Here are some tips for doing that.
How to Build a Purposeful Second Act
Enhance your plot with these story-focused techniques:
Introduce a subplot.
This is a second (or even third) storyline that advances or enhances your primary storyline. For example, Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project centers on Don Tillman, a genetics professor who has decided to find a wife using a strategic, evidence-based process. The subplot concerns Don’s colleague, a married professor who is on a mission to sleep with a woman from every country. This second storyline becomes part of Don’s learning as he builds his own definition of love.
Introduce a stranger.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum is a great example of this strategy. It’s like Dorothy can’t stop meeting strangers, but they all serve to forward the plot or theme.
Throw us for a loop at the midpoint.
Halfway through your book, find a way to turn the story on its head. The protagonist learns she’s been working with bad information. A friend turns out to be an enemy or an enemy turns out to be a friend. This part should feel like a shocking reveal or a devastating blow. Sometimes the midpoint is preceded by what’s called a “false win.”
Create a false win.
You know when you get anxious watching a movie because everything’s going great for your protagonist but there are still forty-five minutes left? That’s the false win. The writer has lifted the protagonist up only to smack ‘em back down. It’s a brutal game.
Be hard on your protagonist.
Keep complicating their journey. All through the middle, you want to give your main character new challenges to face, each one greater than the one before. Don’t let up.
Let your protagonist fail big.
You can pepper little mistakes and victories throughout act two, all of which should reveal new information about who your protagonist is and what they truly need from this journey. But your protagonist has to really blow it at the end of act two.
How to Write a Strong Ending for Your Book
For fiction and narrative nonfiction writers especially, the ending of your book is the part where the reader decides if this was all worth it. No pressure.
As you’ve likely noticed, there are countless ways to end a story, from cliffhangers to happy-ending epilogues. What’s best for your book depends on the specific story you have chosen to tell and on—you guessed it—the expectations of your genre.
Still, I can at least tell you that a strong ending has these elements:
- A sense of resolution. It doesn’t have to be a happy resolution (unless you’re writing romance). You don’t even have to be clear about what will happen next in your protagonist’s life. In fact, you can write a stubborn, tragic protagonist who still resists the life changes that this story should have inspired them to make. But you do need to give the reader a sense that your protagonist has completed a transformation on the inside.
- No loose ends. Resolve any subplots you introduced in the middle.
- A conclusion that makes sense. Don’t change the rules of your world or the personality of your characters just to force a twist ending. Readers hate that, and they will not forgive and forget.
- A scene, statement, or closing line that confirms what this whole story has been about. A great example of this is the ending of the movie Up where Carl and Russell sit on the curb, naming the colors of the cars driving by. This moment links back to earlier in the story, where Russell told Carl about his special memories of doing the same activity with his dad, saying, “The boring stuff is the stuff I remember most.” This is, of course, the greater theme of the movie. Carl’s transformation comes from the understanding that life’s true adventures are the small moments we share with others.
When in doubt, study the book and movie endings you still think about. What did the writer do to make those conclusions stick with you?
How to Write the Title of a Book
Why did I wait all the way until the end of your first draft to talk about how to write the title of a book?
Because even though your book title is the first thing your reader reads, it’s often the last thing most writers write.
You may already have a title in mind. Even if you do, I recommend taking the time to workshop it a little. A strong book title isn’t just catchy or compelling. It also:
- Aligns with the genre
- Sets clear expectations
- Establishes tone
There are also practical considerations that should go into selecting a book title. Searchability is a big one. For example, if you title your book “Pictures of Cats,” your would-be readers will have a hard time finding it with a simple Google search.
You also want to make sure your title does not directly compete with an existing book. Titles cannot be copyrighted, so you technically can title your book Twilight. But it’s not a great call, marketing-wise.
I recommend brainstorming a really long list of potential titles as you go through the writing and editing process. Narrow it down to your favorites and get feedback from readers in your genre. Then research the top contenders to make sure there are no issues with search engine competition.
When Trouble Arises
Unfortunately, writing a book isn’t as simple as expanding an outline to 70,000 words. Even with extensive planning, premise-testing, and research, you will run into roadblocks. Here are some of the most common obstacles and how you can work through them.
Writer’s block is that miserable experience of facing the blank page with a frozen brain. You have no ideas, no words, and no hope of making progress.
There are a few ways to work through writer’s block. You can try sparking ideas with writing prompts. You can do a brain dump, writing down every thought that comes into your mind for fifteen minutes without pause.
You can even step away from your desk to do an unrelated-but-mindful activity like walking, biking, cleaning, or painting. Stepping away from the work gives the mind space to process without any pressure from you. When you return to the desk, the answers flow.
My favorite fix for writer’s block? Just write terribly.
In most cases, writer’s block is merely a fear of writing badly, disappointing ourselves, and discovering we don’t have what it takes to fulfill this dream. The only way beyond that fear is to walk right through it. Keep writing, no matter what. This builds resilience, and you quickly learn that every awful first draft will eventually shine.
Even if you literally do not know what your next scene should be, write something. Sit all your characters down around the breakfast table and have someone bring up politics. It’s fine if the scene won’t be in your book. Just stay with the page.
This one is easy but important. If you miss a writing session due to an unforeseen emergency or because you slipped on your commitment, recommit.
One missed session easily becomes more if you don’t take a moment to set that intention again. Don’t get hung up on a single slip-up. It doesn’t mean you are inherently incapable of discipline.
Just get back in the chair.
Inevitably, your motivation will wane. When it does, try one, some, or all of these tactics:
- Rewrite the “Why I want to write a book” statement you created before you began.
- Read work that inspires you or read reviews of successful books similar to yours. How were those books meaningful to readers? What impact might your book have?
- Re-read the best scene of your work-in-progress.
- Read a writing memoir or look up inspiring quotes on writing.
- Find a photograph, artwork, or song that feels deeply connected to the theme or purpose of your book. Make it part of your writing environment or routine.
- Plan rewards for yourself each time you hit a milestone.
Important: do not stop writing to do these things. Successful writers show up when they’re not feeling it. Honestly, that’s the best way to handle motivation: keep writing. Be okay with the fact that not every writing session will be an inspiring experience.
Finally, when your motivation is low, you are likely to be struck with a new idea for a different book. This idea will inspire you and delight you.
Don’t be fooled. A book is like a romantic partner. When you’re struggling to make it work, you become convinced that you wouldn’t have these same problems with a different idea. But you would. You absolutely would.
Write your new book idea down for later. For now, stay committed to the beautiful, complicated thing you started.
Receiving Feedback and Revising Your Book
Writing the first draft is only the beginning of how to write a book. Nevertheless, it is a huge accomplishment to have come this far. Give yourself an evening to celebrate before you move on to the next step.
Once your party shoes are off and the champagne bottle is in the recycling bin, roll up those sleeves.
Things are going to get messy.
Resist the urge to show your work to someone before you have fixed everything you know how to fix.
For one thing, self-editing is an important part of the skill-building process.
Second, asking someone to read your entire book and give you feedback is already a big request. If you hand them something riddled with errors they know you could have fixed yourself, they will hesitate to help you again.
Third, it’s in the rewriting process that you really begin to understand what you are trying to say and how you want to say it. If you start gathering feedback before you solidify these things, you find yourself shaping the story into something someone else would write.
Don’t have a lot of practice evaluating your own work? Here are some tips.
Get Some Distance
First, take a break from the book. I recommend at least a couple weeks. More is better if you can swing it. The goal is to get your mind to fully disconnect from the book so you can return to it fresh. This way, you see what you actually wrote and not what you meant to write.
Taking distance also makes it easier to put yourself in the reader's shoes and ask questions like, “Do I feel the tension building in this scene?” “Do I care what happens to this character?” “Could I see this twist coming?”
Even as you take a break from the book, keep showing up for writing sessions. You don’t want to fall out of the habit, and this is a great time to refine your skills. Spend your time on writing exercises that help you improve in your areas of weakness.
Start with Story Edits
I recommend focusing on big-picture revisions first. Things like:
- Fixing plot holes,
- Refining character relationships,
- Clarifying the theme,
- Heightening conflicts,
- And anything else that concerns story, flow, and structure.
Once you feel good about the big picture stuff, then you can zero in on adding humor, refining voice, and improving style and grammar sentence-by-sentence.
The big-to-small approach helps you avoid wasting time perfecting a sentence that will need to be deleted or rewritten during structural edits, anyway.
Proactively Learn Your Craft
If you’re not sure how to even begin editing your own book, don’t worry. There are a ton of books and articles out there that can help. Some break down the editing process completely, like Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.
I love Writing 21st Century Fiction by Donald Maas for transforming a good story into an unforgettable one. If you struggle in a specific area, find a book that gives you more focused guidance, like The Art of Character by David Corbett. There are also great guides on style, grammar, and punctuation.
Also familiarize yourself with online resources like Dabble and The Writing Mastery Academy. There is so much guidance out there; you just have to look. When you’ve revised to the best of your current ability, call in your community for help.
Getting Feedback on Your Book
No guide on how to write a book would be complete without tips for gathering, receiving and applying feedback.
This step of the book writing process is essential. Feedback helps you grow as an author and clarifies how your book reads to someone who doesn’t live inside your head.
However, the feedback process is not without its challenges. Here are the tips you’ll need to make the most of the critiques you receive.
Types of Readers and Where to Find Them
The types of readers you need for the revision process will depend on what you’re writing and what your goals are for your book. Here’s a quick breakdown:
This is the first place you want to go for feedback on your book. A critique partner is a fellow writer (or writer’s group) with whom you have developed a mutually supportive relationship.
They give you feedback on your writing and you do the same for them. You may choose to bring your critique partner(s) along for the entire process, workshopping individual chapters or scenes as you write them.
Once your critique partners have helped you refine your book, you need beta readers. (As in, more than one beta reader.)
A beta reader is anyone who reads your book and gives you feedback from the perspective of a reader. This includes letting you know when they got bored or confused, how they felt about the protagonist, or if the conflict made sense to them.
Find several beta readers with a range of expertise. This can include fellow writers, people who read a ton of books like yours, and people who are experts in your topic. I have one beta reader who is specifically my plot-holes-and-inconsistencies guy. Errors in logic drive him crazy and never get past him. It’s awesome.
So, how do you find beta readers?
Beta readers can be fellow writers, friends and family, or anyone in your current audience who is excited to be a part of the process. You can also find beta writers through online communities like My Writer’s Circle, Goodreads Beta Readers Group, and on Twitter under the #writingcommunity hashtag.
A sensitivity reader is someone who helps you refine characters whose lived experiences are different from your own. We often talk about hiring a sensitivity reader when writing a fictional protagonist or world whose culture, religion, sexuality, physical ability, or gender is not the same as ours.
However, nonfiction writers can also benefit from the expertise of this type of reader.
You can find sensitivity readers through online directories like Writing Diversely, Salt & Sage Books, and Firefly Creative Writing.
Bear in mind, sensitivity readers are paid professionals. In order to help you write a better book, they often have to revisit and explain traumas like racism, assault, and homophobia. It’s exhausting work that adds immense value to your project. Plan on paying for it.
An editor is a paid professional who knows what it takes to construct a marketable and polished book. You might choose to work with a developmental editor, who provides suggestions for improving the structure and content of your book. Or you might work with a proofreader, who focuses on grammar and punctuation.
If your goal is to get traditionally published, you do not need to hire a professional editor. (But do make sure your story is strong and grammatically correct.)
If you plan to self-publish, hiring an editor is essential for ensuring your book can hang with all the other books out there.
How to Apply Feedback
So, what do you do with all these notes from critique partners and readers?
Once again, I suggest addressing the big-picture feedback before digging into things like word choice and sentence structure.
You do not have to take every note you receive. Sometimes you will receive a note proposing a revision just doesn’t work for you. But before you disregard the note altogether, ask yourself, “What is this reader trying to accomplish with this suggestion?”
Are they trying to increase tension? Add clarity? Relate to the reader?
If you can’t tell, ask them. You can simply say, “I don’t think this exact fix is right for my story, but I know you suggested it to help fix a weakness in my book. Can you help me understand what’s not working?”
When you know the root of the problem, you can brainstorm your own solution.
How to Survive Feedback
It takes time to read someone’s work-in-progress, consider it critically, and give helpful feedback. So please remember to thank your readers, especially if you are not paying them.
Graciousness aside, receiving feedback can be rough. Even the most lovingly delivered criticism can put us on the defensive or make us feel inferior to the massive task before us.
Many people will tell you that you need a thick skin to do this job. It’s true, but you also can’t will a thick skin into being. It’s something you develop over time. Here’s how I did it:
I let myself feel crappy. I didn’t retaliate by getting defensive with the people who took time to give me feedback. But I also didn’t fight myself over what I felt. I vented to a trusted confidant about how the feedback was so off-base. Then I let myself sleep it off.
The next day, I returned to the notes, ready to take them seriously. Without fail, the feedback that was so stupid yesterday was insightful today. And I was no longer irritated, hurt, or defiant. I was just curious to see what would happen if I took the advice offered to me.
Nowadays, I’m able to receive notes with curiosity from the get-go.
Most of the time.
How to Know When Your Book is Done
Your book can always be a better book. I’d bet money there are authors who can’t read their own Pulitzer Prize winning work without regretting a few word choices.
So how are you supposed to know when your book is done?
The answers to this are varied and complex depending on whom you ask. But here are a few questions to ask yourself when you’re wondering if it’s time to call it quits on the revisions:
- Are readers confirming that my book is compelling and fits the expectations of the genre?
- Have I patched up all the holes and improved the pacing?
- In my own opinion, is this book of professional quality?
- Do the sentences flow when I read it out loud?
- Have I reached the point where revisions only cloud my original Big Idea or pull me further away from the story I set out to tell?
- Gut check: do I feel done?
If you answered yes to all of the above, there’s a good chance you’re done. No guarantee, but a good chance.
I’ve Finished Writing My Book!
So your book is complete. Now what?
First, celebrate. (You know the drill.) Then, get your book ready to go out into the world.
Formatting Your Book
Whether you plan to submit your book to agents or you plan to self-publish, you need to make that document look good.
If your objective is to ultimately sell your book to a traditional publisher, you’re technically formatting a manuscript, not a book. In most cases, manuscript formatting involves:
- Double spacing
- Times New Roman font
- 12-point black typeface
- 1” margins
- 0.5” indent
- Left justified alignment
- Numbered pages
Manuscript formatting can get more detailed than that, and standards may vary from agent to agent, publisher to publisher. So make sure you know the expectations for your specific type of book and the entity to which you are submitting it.
If you’re self-publishing, you can find several book formatting software options to help you turn your manuscript into a proper book. Your choices range from free tools like Kindle Create to pricier (and often more versatile) tools like Vellum. This is another area where it pays to do your research, as new options emerge all the time.
Should You Copyright Your Book?
When you hold the copyright for a written work, no one else can legally reproduce that work, make money from it, create works derived from your book, or share the work publicly.
When, how, and whether you formally copyright your book depends on what you plan to do with it. If you are pursuing traditional publication, your future publisher will handle the copyright process. You can hold off for now.
This may sound like you’re leaving yourself vulnerable, but you're not. Your work has been protected under copyright law from the moment you started putting words on paper. The official process of registering your book with the Copyright Office simply gives you additional power should someone attempt to steal your work.
If you intend to self-publish, you may want to register your book as no one else will secure that copyright for you. You can do it online right here.
What if you don’t know whether you’d rather traditional publish or self-publish?
No problem. Let’s walk through the considerations together.
Traditional publishing refers to the method through which most mainstream books are published.
A writer finds an agent to shop their book around. The agent finds a publisher. The publisher supplies all the ingredients necessary to turn a PDF into a proper book. This includes things like editing, book formatting, cover design, and some marketing and PR.
When you sell a book to a publisher, you may receive an advance. An advance is a payment against future royalties. That is to say, as readers begin to buy your book, you do not receive royalties until your book has earned royalties equal to the amount of your advance.
It is also possible to sell your book without receiving an advance, as smaller publishers only pay royalties.
It’s hard to say how large an advance you can hope to receive for your first book. Some advances fall in the very low thousands, while other authors score seven-figure deals. It is worth it to note, however, that those big deals are extremely rare for first-time, non-celebrity authors.
Pros of Traditional Publishing:
- More press
- Publisher covers production costs
- Publisher covers (some) marketing
- Receive payment upfront in the form of an advance
- Distribution to bookstores
- Traditionally published books tend to be more respected
Cons of Traditional Publishing:
- You do not have 100% control over creative publishing decisions
- This route is extremely competitive
- Publishing timeline is very long
- Unknown writers are often offered a small advance (or none at all) and limited marketing
There used to be some stigma surrounding self-publishing. The theory was that self-publishing was something you would resort to if you weren’t good enough to cut it in traditional publishing.
Now, attitudes are changing. As the major publishers pour more money into big name authors and celebrity memoirs, self-publishing is seen as a way to connect a wider range of emerging authors with the readers who will appreciate them. This has also proven to be a strong option for diverse authors who have long been ignored in traditional publishing.
That said, it’s not an easy road. If you choose to self-publish, the responsibility of production and marketing falls solely on your shoulders. This means formatting, hiring a cover designer, distribution, marketing, PR… all of it.
- Total creative control
- Higher royalties
- Ability to bring a book to market on your timeline
- Potentially more control over long-term earnings due to control over publishing frequency
- Upfront costs
- Ongoing marketing costs
- Steep learning curve
- Less prestige
How to Publish Your Book
Got your road to publication nailed down?
Now let’s talk through next steps, depending on whether you’ve decided to self-publish or publish traditionally.
Self Publishing Your Book
Self-publishing is a non-stop decision-making party. But if you can embrace the process, you’ll find it’s a lot of fun. Plus, you’re in control, which means you can pivot any time. Try new tools, adopt new marketing techniques, test a new cover design… the power is yours.
For the purposes of this article, we’re going to keep this discussion super simple. Just know that you can (and should) do a lot more research regarding your options.
Here are the first big choices you have to make.
Platform & Distribution
First, where and how will you publish your book?
One option is to publish your book as an e-book on platforms such as:
You can also release your book in serialized episodes through platforms like Amazon’s Kindle Vella.
As for creating physical copies of your book, the options are endless. Many of the platforms listed above also provide book printing. Services like IngramSpark and Book Baby offer print-on-demand, each with their own added benefits like distribution and marketing assistance.
There are so many self-publishing avenues out there, and they’re evolving every day. It’s worth it to take the time to research so you can pick the one that is best aligned with your budget and goals.
This is one of the most important decisions you will ever make as a self-published author. Your cover is the first thing that draws the reader in. For this reason, it is in your best interest to hire a cover designer unless you have professional-grade design skills.
In addition to creating a cover design that catches the eye, you want a cover that looks good and is readable in thumbnail. Your book cover should also telegraph your book’s genre.
Take a lot of time on your book description. A lot. Like… a lot.
Much like your cover design, your book description carries the heavy task of creating a first impression. You want this blurb to clearly communicate:
- What your book is about,
- The tone of the book, and
- How the book will make the reader feel or what problem the book will solve.
And you have to do all this in a way that sounds so intriguing, the reader selects your book above all the other options out there.
Like I said… take your time on this one.
Planning to get your book out there the old-fashioned way?
You’ll need to find an agent. This is the person who shops your book around to publishers and negotiates the best possible deal when your book sells.
There are a lot of ways to find an agent. Search online databases like Manuscript Wishlist. Find and follow agents on social media. Discover agents who are profiled in writing-themed magazines like Poets & Writers (which, incidentally, also has an agent database).
When it comes to finding an agent for your book, it’s very important that you do your homework. Many agents are transparent about the genres they represent and the type of writing that speaks to them. Only contact agents who seem like a genuinely good match for your book.
In most cases, you’ll reach out to an agent with a query letter. They may also wish to see:
- A book synopsis.
- A book proposal (most common with nonfiction).
- The first chapters or pages of your book (they’ll specify how many).
Side note: it is possible to shop your book around to small, niche publishers without an agent. But if your target is a major publisher, you need to find representation first.
How to Market Your Book
You need to be ready to market your book no matter how you publish it. Even backed by a major publisher, new writers cannot count on getting a powerful marketing push without putting in considerable effort themselves.
These are the tools every writer needs to build a strong following and sell more books:
- An author website
- An email list and regular newsletter
- A social media presence (Consider your readers when choosing your platforms.)
The elements listed above are collectively considered your “author platform.”
Self-published authors will need to take additional steps to heighten their visibility in a saturated market. These steps may include:
- Actively pursuing reader reviews on Amazon as well as book reviews on blogs and in publications.
- Pitching yourself as a podcast guest.
- Collaborating with other authors to cross-promote on one another’s blogs, social media accounts, newsletters, and more.
- Advertising on major platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Amazon.
You know what I’m going to say next, right?
The options for marketing your book are endless. Do your research and test the strategies that seem like the best fit for your budget, goals, and genre.
Ummm . . . You Just Wrote a Book
Or maybe you read an entire article on how to write a book. Either way, you’ve taken a bold step most people only dream about taking.
Keep stepping. The more you write, the smoother this process becomes. You get a clearer idea of what great writing looks like, you find the methods that work best for you, and you expand your writing community.
Above all, you develop the tools you need to share your ideas with the world. Sharpen those tools daily, and in time, the words you put on the page will better represent the brilliant butterfly in your mind.
And what an incredible feeling that is.
Want to know a secret for making this huge book-writing mission just a little bit easier? Check out Dabble, a book writing software that offers great features for plotting, structuring, and revising your work without the steep learning curve.
Plotting for Pantsers
A Bare-Bones Novel Outlining Template for Reckless Writers
What is “normal life” for your protagonist at the beginning of your novel? This could include daily routine, close relationships, culture and values, physical environment, and more. You don’t have to describe all of it; just focus on the aspect of “normal” that is about to change.
What does your protagonist think they need?
What do they actually need?
Describe the inciting incident. What event forces the protagonist to take action that guides them away from their “normal”?
What motivates your protagonist? What goal are they trying to achieve?
Who or what is keeping your protagonist from reaching their goal?
What are your protagonist’s go-to strategies for pursuing their goal? How do these strategies reflect a stubborn commitment to old beliefs or attitudes?
What wounds, flaws, and weaknesses will be revealed as your character pursues their goal?
What’s the midpoint reversal? How does it change the way your protagonist moves forward?
What event finally brings your protagonist to their knees? How does this moment show your protagonist what they really need?
How has your protagonist changed internally?
What bold action do they take as a result of that change?
What is the payoff for their change . . . or the consequence of refusing to change despite what they’ve learned?
TAKE A BREAK FROM WRITING...
Read. Learn. Create.
While the terms "story" and "plot" are often used interchangeably, they are actually two distinct elements of narrative, and understanding the difference can be a useful tool in your storytelling arsenal. You’re going to need some of both to create a compelling book that’ll have your readers coming back for more.
Editing. That tricky little step between drafting and publishing. Okay, maybe it’s not so little. Actually, it’s kind of important. I’ll even go out on a limb and say it’s actually the most important part. And the limb is very short. But where do you start? You’ve got all these words and now you have to take your messy first draft and make them actually readable. You know editing’s a thing, but you’ve probably heard there is more than one kind of editing. One of the most comprehensive is known as content or development editing. This is often the first kind of editing any book sees and, for new writers, can be a valuable step in honing their craft.
We tend to give a lot of thought to our characters when we’re writing. Their likes and dislikes. Their appearance and disposition. Hopefully their wants, goals, motivations, flaws and all the things that make them feel like real people. But how much thought do you give to actually introducing them to your readers? A strong introduction to a character can help make or break that character and the way your reader perceives them. So what’s in an introduction, anyway?