So, you want to write a book? Here's how to start, how to keep going and how to enjoy it (even if you never get published)!
"I've always wanted to write a book." This is, by far, the most frequent response I get whenever I tell someone I've written two books.
My response: "Go for it!"
Followed by: "Even if it never gets published."
Here's How To Start, Keep Going & Enjoy It!
1. Write a book because you have a burning desire to WRITE and TELL A STORY—not because you have a burning desire to get published. (Or make money! HA!)
Getting published is a nice bonus but truly, writing is its own reward. I know, I know, it's easy for me to say, right? But hear me out: long before I was a published author, I loved writing. I wrote because I couldn't NOT write. Writing fed me, healed me and fascinated me. I can tell you with 100% certainty that even if my work didn't get published, I would still be writing. Why? Because getting published didn't make me a writer. Writing made me a writer!
This is good news because it means the joy of writing is available to you, right now, today. You don't need a book contract to experience the joy of writing. You are allowed to love writing and be a writer right NOW.
And if you want to share your writing with others, then write what you know and write for the people you know. Start there. Who knows? Maybe you'll end up writing for millions. Or maybe you'll bring joy to five people and listen to me, THAT matters. To this day, I write to five very specific people in my life. I can't write for five million people—I don't know them! But when I write honestly and beautifully for my five people, then those words make wings and fly to all the other people who need my words, too.
Secondly, most authors I know can't make a living just by writing books. Most of us have to do something else as well: teach, tutor, create e-seminars, host sponsored podcasts or just work a regular 9-5 job. Only a very tiny, TINY percentage of published authors make enough money to live on. Even NYT bestselling authors often have to subsidize their writing income with other work like paid speaking engagements. My point is, don't write a book because you're hoping to get rich. Write a book because you can't NOT write a book.
2. Set specific goals.
When I first started blogging, I had a specific goal in mind: to build an online platform large enough to attract the attention of a literary agent. It wasn't enough to say: "I'd like to write a book someday." I needed to be more specific. Wanting to write a book is a desire, but unless you have a specific action plan it's not a goal. Blogging worked for me. As a stay-at-home-mom, I wasn't able to attend writers' workshops or get an MFA in writing. A long time ago, I read a piece of writing advice that said: "Just get your work out in front of other people." Blogging did that for me. These days there is talk about the death of blogging and that bloggers aren't getting book contracts anymore. I say: ignore the negativity. Even if you don't blog everyday, having a personal website can act as an excellent portfolio. Agents and editors are always looking for compelling content. You can do that by providing high-quality writing through blog posts and links to your published works (or guest posts!). The point is, get your work in front of people. Even if blogging doesn't land you a book contract, the practice of writing for an audience is beneficial. It hones your writing skills.
Other specific goals might be: 1. attend a writer's conference to learn more about the craft and business of writing, 2. join a writer's group, 3. research writers in your genre (pro-tip: a writer will often thank their editors and agent in the Acknowledgments sections of a book—this is an easy way to see which agents are representing the kind of book you're interested in writing).
And if you're really serious about getting a book contract, you will take the next step:
3. Write a book outline or book proposal.
Maybe you already have a good idea about the kind of book you want to write. Awesome! Outlining your book will take that idea and make it a concrete reality. I love the snowflake method. It's an easy-to-follow guide for turning your book idea into tangible, helpful structure. For my first book, I did a book proposal instead of a full, snowflake outline. I did this because I already had some solid sample chapters ready and had written one full draft even before I got an agent. Believe me, when you approach a literary agent (or the agent approaches you), you want to be ready. You want to be able to say exactly what your book is about—preferably in one sentence. Good agents and editors are busy. They don't have time for rambling explanations. You don't necessarily need to have your whole book written (although some agents require a complete first draft, especially for fiction) but you need to have done your homework.
4. Set limits.
I learned the hard way that I need to set limits on how much I write everyday. I can produce high-quality writing for two hours. Then I need to take a break. I need to do something entirely different. I know there are some writers who can write for 4-6 hours. They amaze me! I can't do it. I've tried. My best writing happens when I write for two hours in the morning and (maybe) 1-2 hours at night. In between, I live my life. And sometimes, all I can do is two hours in one day. That's OK. Two hours of good writing is better than no writing at all and it's also better than 6 hours of crappy writing. Good writers do other things besides write: they read extensively, they exercise, they have relationships.
Writing requires discipline, organization and patience. Being a writer isn't romantic. Try not to get swept up in the romanticized idea of a "Writer's Life." Smoking all morning, drinking all afternoon and hanging out in a writers' Facebook group until the wee hours isn't the same as actually writing. There's this old Earnest-Hemingway-esque adage that says "write drunk, edit sober." I think that's a bunch of crap. Writing is like any other job: you need control of all your faculties and you have to work hard. Just like other jobs, you can't do that very well when you're drunk. Set limits on your writing time, your drinking and your Internet. You'll be a better writer for it.
Lastly, setting limits often means saying no to things you love—for a season. Book writing season is for book writing. Try not to remodel the house at the same time. DON'T ASK ME HOW I KNOW.
5. Set deadlines.
Most writers, myself included, can attest to the magical powers (and agony) of a deadline. We need deadlines because without them, the work doesn't get done. And while people like to say: "You can't force art!"—it's amazing how much you can do when you have a little deadline motivating you. If you don't have an editor or agent yet, you can still set deadlines for yourself. In fact, self-made deadlines are my favorite. I get really anxious when someone else creates a deadline for me. I'd rather set my own pace, thankyouverymuch. If you're just beginning your writing journey, set a deadline for everything I mentioned in this blog post: set a deadline for setting goals, set a deadline for writing an outline, set a deadline for writing a book proposal. You can even set a deadline for setting limits. For example, while I was writing my books I had to set limits on how much volunteer work I was doing at my kids' schools. I loved volunteering so much that I knew I wouldn't have stopped unless I set a deadline for stopping.
This is important: if you don't meet your deadline, forgive yourself. Here's my dirty secret: I've missed a bunch of my deadlines. I've learned that hitting the deadline isn't as important as having a deadline. Write it down. Start working towards it. Editors are more willing to give you an extension if they can see you are making progress. That said: don't take advantage of the deadline. Make every effort to be prompt. A finished manuscript is better than no manuscript. Let yourself turn in imperfect writing (that's why we have editors—or friends who will read it and provide feedback). Resist perfectionism. Here's the thing: every time I finish a book, I'm always convinced I could have done a better job. It's never gonna be perfect. And that's ok. I completed two books. That's amazing!
I hope this inspires you! Please let me know if you have any further questions or comments!
If I can help, I'd love to share what I've learned!