Many people believe that learning how to write a book requires a lot of schooling and raw talent. But that’s not true. Plenty of famous, successful writers don’t have master’s degrees in creative writing. Many new fiction writers have no prior experience in writing or publishing a book. There are only two things you need to write a book successfully: inspiration and determination.
Inspiration will be the thing that gets you started. It’s the story idea or character that won’t leave you alone. Or perhaps it’s a love of writing that you want to take to the next level. But it’s determination – persistence, willpower, and the refusal to quit no matter what – that will get you to “the end.”
It also helps to have a handy step-by-step list of everything you need to know about writing a book. So, here you go!
1. Start with a “seed” of a book idea
Believe it or not, you don’t have to have the entire story figured out before you can start writing a book or short story. All great novels started as a spark or a “seed” of an idea. This could be an intriguing character, an ominous or magical setting, or a romantic or funny scene. It could even be as small as a witty piece of dialogue. All these are seeds that you can water and harvest into ideas for good books.
When you first sit down to think about the type of fiction book you’re going to write, don’t worry about the details. You don’t need to know what genre it is, every character’s name, or what every moment of the plot will look like. Find a spark or a seed that you can grow.
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2. Develop the main character
Once you have your idea “seed,” the easiest part to start growing it is with your main character. Decide who will be the primary person the reader will follow through the story. Who will introduce your reader to your world? Whose perspective will the reader see your story through? Once you decide who this is you can ask yourself more questions about this person. Here are some brainstorming questions to get you started:
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- What does my character want?
- Why do they want it?
- What problems is my character facing?
- What do the characters need to improve in their lives?
- What happened in the characters’ past to make them who they are today?
Answering questions like these will make your character take shape. It will give you a good idea of who your book will be about. Every good novel is essentially about a character who changes or transforms in some way. This is called a character arc. To establish a good character arc, you first must understand who your character is at the start of the story. This will help you figure out where they go and how they change.
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3. Create a simple plot outline
Not every writer chooses to start writing a book with an outline. Some writers prefer to brainstorm a few details and start writing, figuring out the story as they go. Other writers prefer to map out an extensive outline before they write a single word. Some figure out every chapter in advance. It’s up to you.
Starting with a basic outline of your story will help you succeed when you write the first draft — even if you don’t end up sticking to it.
The basic three-act structure
You can base your outline on the three-act structure. Most successful stories ever told have a three-act structure. You’ll find it in books and movies alike. If you sketch out a few ideas for each of your story’s three acts, you’ll have a basic plot outline. This will help guide you when it’s time to write your book.
Here is an overview of the basic three-act structure:
- Act One: Set up your story. You introduce the world of your story, the main characters, and their problems and goals. During this act, something usually happens to push the main character into action and send the story in a new direction. This is called a Catalyst.
- Act Two: The journey. This is when your character goes somewhere new or tries a new way of doing things. This usually results in more conflict and problems. These conflicts lead the character to a low point where all hope seems lost (also called an All is Lost).
- Act Three: The resolution. The character figures out what to do to solve all the problems and conflicts from Act One and Two and achieve their goals, which might or might not have changed again.
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4. Start the first draft
“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” — William Faulkner
You’ve got your main character developed and your outline ready to go. It’s time to hit that coffee shop, library, or your favorite writing space, and start writing.
The most important thing to remember about the first draft is that it’s a discovery process. It’s not supposed to be good. It’s only supposed to be finished. This is where you are letting the story unfold. You are discovering things about your character, plot, and world.
For that reason, the first draft is often messy and imperfect. As you write, you’ll find characters and plots growing in directions you’d never thought possible. You will often discard your outline as you experiment with characters, plots, styles, and forms. This is a place for you to break the mold and push yourself. Don’t bother being perfect. The faster you can jot down ideas on paper, the better. This rough collection of thoughts, ideas, and plotlines will eventually come together into a book. That will be after due editing and countless revisions, of course. For now, focus on writing anything.
It helps to set goals for yourself, like a daily word count goal. Try estimating how long your book will be. Typically fiction books are between 50,000 and 100,000 words. Divide by the number of days you want to spend writing the first draft. This will give you an estimate of how many words per day you’ll need to finish.
For instance, you could think your first draft should be 75,000 words. If you want to finish it in three months, you will have to write about 825 words a day to finish in that time frame.
Setting word count goals for yourself can help keep you on task and motivated to write every day. This is important when the writing gets tough, which it’s bound to do. Every successful writer has struggled during the first draft, and you probably will too. Setting a daily word count goal and sticking to it can ensure you don’t quit halfway through.
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You don’t have to be a full-time writer to write a book. You just have to set aside time to write each day. For instance, every day before work, after dinner, or during your lunch break. It doesn’t matter when you write as long as you’re consistent. The more consistent you are, the more writing will become a habit. As it becomes a habit, the easier it is to sit down to write each day.
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5. Take a break
Once you’ve finished your first draft, it’s time for a much-needed break! Writing the first draft is not easy, so congratulate yourself and get some rest and relaxation.
Taking a break is necessary for recuperating and refueling your creative tank. It’s also necessary for giving your brain some distance from the story. After you’ve taken a few weeks away from your novel, you’ll have a fresh perspective on it. Then, you’ll be able to revise it with more objectivity and more clarity.
6. Read through your first draft without editing
Once you’ve given yourself some distance away from the novel, it’s time to read back through your first draft. During this initial read-through, try your hardest not to edit anything you’ve written. Read what you have, absorb, think about the story as objectively and critically as you can. Take lots of notes about what you would like to change and get to the end.
This will help you understand the full picture of what needs revision. Revising without having the full picture in front of you will feel daunting. It might even lead to time wasted. You don’t want to spend two hours perfecting a chapter that you might have to cut later.
“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story… When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.” – Stephen King
Now that you have a full picture of the story and the work that you need to do, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work. On the first revision, focus on bigger fixes that affect the entire plot or character arc. Wait on smaller fixes like word choice or sentence structure. This will keep the process from feeling too overwhelming. It will also help you focus on where you spend your revising time.
Some questions to ask yourself as you work on the second draft are:
- Does the order of the plot feel organic and believable?
- Are there parts of the story where the plot feels too fast or too slow?
- Do the characters make decisions that feel realistic given what’s happening in the plot?
- Are the characters taking action and being proactive throughout the story?
- Does the conflict of the story grow and become more urgent as the plot goes on?
- Is the main character different at the end of the story than they were at the beginning?
Answering these questions will help you figure out what you can improve in the second draft.
Feel free to repeat steps five, six, and seven as many times as you want. Keep going until you feel happy with the plot and the characters. Many writers complete several drafts before moving on in the process.
8. Edit and polish
The final step is to polish it up and make it shiny. With the previous steps, you’ve revised the story. You feel like the plot is working, the characters are interesting and dynamic, and the pacing is tight. Now is the time to focus on the smaller details.
This is where, as Stephen King puts it, you must “kill your darlings”.
To make this murder easier, follow these tips:
- Keep adverb use low. Adverbs are the lazy writer’s crutches. They reduce into a single word what context should convey. “He walked quickly to the door as Lily pulled into the garage,” is not bad writing — it’s lazy. Try being more descriptive. “He rushed to the door as soon as he heard Lily’s car pull into the garage.” See how this second sentence immediately feels more urgent?
- Put every sentence on trial. This is the part of the process where you want to tighten up the writing. Trim down every section of the story that feels wordy or overwritten. You must put every word on trial. Ask yourself questions like, “Does it really deserve to be there or can the story work without it?” Cutting a sentence can help highlight the sentences around it. Be ruthless with your cuts. Leave behind only the best of sentences that serve the plot and move the story forward.
A good test is to cut the sentence in question and read the paragraph without it. If it still makes sense, the sentence was probably not necessary to begin with.
- Read your work aloud. It can be hard for writers to hear their own words read aloud, but it’s also extremely valuable. You can also have someone else read to you. Reading aloud can help you identify unnatural dialogue, wordy descriptions, and slow pacing. Sometimes we hear things a very specific way in our heads when we’re writing. It’s not until we read our work aloud that we get a clear picture of how it looks to a reader.
- Get outside help. Most writers don’t have the critical distance to edit their own books properly. Consider getting outside help to look over your manuscript. A professional editor or a friend can give you feedback on how to improve it.
Congratulations – you’ve written your very first book. It’s time to shout from the rooftops. You’ve just accomplished what many people never accomplish. Well done!
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