Writing a book is hard work – it’s easier to quit than finish. When you become overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the task, you might be tempted to give up. The key is to follow a proven, straightforward plan.
So you want to write a book.
Becoming an author can change your life – not to mention potentially impact thousands, even millions, of people.
However, writing a book is no cakewalk. As a 21-time New York Times bestselling author, I can tell you: It’s far easier to quit than to finish. When you run out of ideas, when your own message bores you, or when you become overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the task, you’re going to be tempted give up.
But what if you knew exactly:
- Where to start…
- What each step entails…
- How to overcome fear, procrastination, writer’s block…
- And how to keep from feeling overwhelmed?
You can do this – and more quickly than you might think, because these days you have access to more writing tools than ever. The key is to follow a proven, straightforward, step-by-step plan.
My goal in this two-part blog series is to offer you my personal plan, the techniques I’ve used to write more than 190 books (including the Left Behind series) over the past 40 years.
Trust me – with a reliable blueprint, you can get unstuck and finish your book.
Let’s jump in.
1. Establish your writing space
You don’t need a sanctuary. I started my career on my couch facing a typewriter perched on a plank of wood suspended by two kitchen chairs.
We do what we have to do.
And those early days on that sagging couch were among the most productive of my career.
Naturally, the nicer and more comfortable and private you can make your writing cave, the better. But real writers can write anywhere.
My first full-time job was at a newspaper where 40 of us clacked away on manual typewriters in one big room – conversations hollered over the din, most of my colleagues smoking, teletype machines clattering. Cut your writing teeth in an environment like that, and anywhere else seems glorious.
2. Assemble your writing tools
In the newspaper business there was no time to handwrite our stuff and then type it. So I have always written at a keyboard. Most authors do, though some handwrite their first drafts and then keyboard them onto a computer or pay someone to do that.
The publishing industry runs on Microsoft Word, so whether you prefer a Mac or a PC, either will produce the files you need. And if you’re looking for a muscle-bound electronic organizing system, you can’t do better than Scrivener. Just remember, Scrivener has a steep learning curve, so expect to give it some time.
Don’t shortchange yourself on a computer. Even if someone else is keyboarding for you, you’ll need a computer for research and for communicating with potential agents, editors, and publishers. Get the best one you can afford, with the most capacity and speed.
Try to imagine everything you’re going to need in addition to your desk or table, so you don’t have to interrupt your work to find a stapler, paper clips, a ruler, a pencil holder, a sharpener, notepads, printing paper, paperweights, a tape dispenser, cork or bulletin board, clock, bookends, reference works, a space heater, a fan, a lamp, a beverage mug, napkins, tissues, you name it.
Last, but most crucial, get the best, most ergonomic chair you can afford. If I were to start my career again with that typewriter on a plank, I’d at least grab a straight-backed chair and be proactive about maintaining a healthy spine.
The chair I work in today cost more than my first car!
As you grow as a writer, you can keep upgrading your writing space, but don’t wait to start writing until you have a great spot.
3. Break the project into small pieces
An old adage says that the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.
Get your mind off your book as a monstrosity. It can’t be written all at once any more than that proverbial elephant could be eaten in a single sitting. See your book made up of sentences, paragraphs, pages. Those pages will begin to add up, and a few months down the road you’ll be into your second hundred pages.
Start by distilling your big idea from a page or so to a single sentence – your premise. The more specific, the more it will focus your writing.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. You first must settle on exactly what that big idea is.
4. Settle on your BIG idea
A book-worthy idea has to be killer. You need to write from your passion. It should excite not only you, but everyone you tell about it. I can’t overstate the importance of this.
Think The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, or How to Win Friends and Influence People. The market is crowded, the competition fierce. Your premise alone should make readers salivate. Go for the big concept book.
The right concept simply works, and you’ll know it when you land on it. Most importantly, your idea must compel you to write it. Otherwise you’ll never finish.
5. Construct your outline
Starting without a clear vision usually ends in disaster. Even if you’re writing fiction and don’t consider yourself an outliner, you need a basic structure. Fashion some sort of a directional document that serves as a safety net if you get out on that high wire and lose your balance. You’ll thank me.
Potential agents or publishers require an outline in your proposal for a nonfiction book. They want to know where you’re going and what you want your reader to learn.
Fiction or nonfiction, if you commonly lose interest in your book somewhere in what I call the “Marathon of the Middle,” you likely didn’t start with enough exciting ideas. That’s why an outline or some basic framework is essential.
What separates great nonfiction from mediocre? Setting your reader up for a huge payoff, and then making sure you deliver.
Structure a memoir, an autobiography, or a biography like a novel and you can’t go wrong. But even if it’s a straightforward how-to book, make promises early, triggering your reader to anticipate something that will thrill him with the finished product, your unique solution.
Keep your outline to a single page for now. And don’t worry if you’ve forgotten the basics of classic outlining. Your outline must serve you. Even just a list of sentences that synopsize your idea is fine.
Simply start with your working title, then your premise, then – for fiction – list all the major scenes you anticipate. For nonfiction, come up with chapter titles and a sentence or two of what each chapter will cover.
6. Set a firm writing schedule
Schedule at least six hours per week to write. I recommend a regular pattern (same times, same days) that can become a habit.
News flash – you won’t find the time. You have to make time. Something in your calendar will likely have to be sacrificed. Just make sure you never sacrifice your family on the altar of your writing career.
We all make time for what we really want to do: watch the latest Netflix series or big Hollywood feature. Go to concerts, parties, ball games, whatever. What will you cut from your calendar each week to ensure you give your writing the time it deserves?
Successful writers make time to write.
7. Establish a sacred deadline
I need that motivation. Set your deadline – then tell your spouse or loved one or trusted friend and ask that they hold you accountable.
Enter in your calendar the number of pages you need to produce per writing session to meet your deadline. You may have to experiment before you finalize those figures. Adjust the numbers to make your deadline realistic and doable, and then lock it in.
8. Embrace procrastination (really!)
You read that right. Don’t fight it; embrace it. You wouldn’t guess it from my 190+ published books, but I’m the king of procrastinators.
The secret is to accept it and, in fact, schedule it.
I quit fretting and losing sleep over procrastination when I realized it was inevitable, and also actually productive. I learned that while I’m putting off the writing, my subconscious is working on my book. When you do start writing again, you’ll enjoy the surprises your subconscious reveals.
Knowing procrastination is coming, book it on your calendar. Go back in and increase the number of pages you need to produce per session (I still do it all the time).
But – and here’s the key – you must never let that number of pages per day exceed your capacity. It’s one thing to ratchet up your output from two pages per session to three. But if you let it get out of hand, you’ve violated the sacredness of your deadline.
I procrastinate and still meet my deadlines, because I consider them sacred.
9. Eliminate distractions
Have you found yourself interrupting your writing to check your email? Then Facebook? Get caught up in the come-ons to see the “10 Sea Monsters You Won’t Believe Actually Exist?”
Then you just have to check out that precious video from a talk show where the dad surprises the family by returning from the war.
Once I’m in that trap, the day has gotten away from me.
There are apps that allow you to block your email, social media, browsers, games, etc. during the hours you want to write. Some carry a modest fee, the rest are free.
10. Conduct careful research
Fiction means more than just making up a story. Your details and logic and technical and historical details must be right for your novel to be believable.
And for nonfiction, even if you’re writing about a subject in which you’re an expert – as I’m doing here – you’ll be surprised at how getting the facts right enhances your finished product. I’ve researched a few facts while writing this blog post alone.
Even a small mistake due to lack of research will bring you reader mail you don’t want.
My favorite research resources:
- World Almanacs: Facts, data, government information, and more. For my novels, I use these to come up with ethnically accurate character names.
- Merriam-Webster Thesaurus: The online version is lightning fast. (One caution: Never let it be obvious you’ve consulted a thesaurus. You’re not looking for the exotic word. You’re looking for that common word on the tip of your tongue.)
- WorldAtlas.com: Limitless information about any continent, country, region, city, town, or village. Names, monetary units, weather patterns, tourism info, and even facts you wouldn’t have thought to search for.
This content originally appeared on Jerry Jenkin’s blog as “How to Write a Book: Everything You Need to Know in 20 Steps.”