This excerpt from “How to Become an Author: Your Complete Guide” spells out some recommended steps to take before you set out to write a book.
So you want to be an author? Well, I’ve got good news and bad news.
First, the bad news: Writing your book will be one of the hardest things you ever do. If you’re in the middle of that process, you’re probably nodding your head.
But here’s the good news: All that work can be worth it. It’s just a small price to pay for the amazing possibilities it can open to you, including:
- Getting published
- Enjoying a career you love
- Impacting people with your writing
- Receiving media attention
- Earning royalty income
Many will tell you this level of success is the exception, and they’re right. According to Steven Piersanti, president of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, the average US nonfiction book sells fewer than 250 copies per year and fewer than 3,000 copies over its lifetime.
If that gives you pause, it should. If you’re going to do this, you want to be the exception. I’m living proof that it’s possible.
Think about this: Every “name” author you’ve ever heard of was once where you are now: unknown and unpublished. John Grisham. Stephen King. J.K. Rowling. All of them. At one time their names provoked zero response. Who’s to say yours can’t be a household name by this time next year?
You might be thinking, Me? Never! Well, if you don’t try, you have guaranteed that. But DON’T attempt to write a book until you’ve:
- Studied the craft
- Written and sold things shorter than a book
- Plugged into a community of writers
I get it. You’re antsy. You’re ready to pen your bestseller right now. You’ve read or heard of writers who had never written a thing before and yet scored with a million-seller on their first try.
Throttle back. Those stories become big news because they’re so rare. Don’t bank on winning the lottery. If you want your book (and your message) to go anywhere, you’d do well to heed my advice.
Study the craft
There’s no need to figure out how to write a compelling story by trial and error. Others have already done it, and written books about it. Great writers are great readers. Here are my favorite 11 books on writing to get you started.
The competition has gotten so fierce, you’ll do yourself a favor if you learn how successful authors write before you try to get a second look from a publisher. Take the time to learn what you’re doing. You’ll thank yourself later.
Write something shorter than a book
A book shouldn’t be where you start any more than you should enroll in grad school when you’re a kindergartner. A book is where you arrive. Start small, learn the craft, hone your skills.
Do some journaling. Write a newsletter. Start a blog. Get articles published in a couple of magazines, a newspaper, an ezine. Take a night school or online course in journalism or creative writing.
Publishers are looking for authors with platforms (audiences, followers, fans). So start building yours now.
Bottom line: Work a quarter-million clichés out of your system, learn what it means to be edited, become an expert in something, build your platform, and then start thinking about that book or novel.
Plug into a community of writers
Think you can do it alone? Then you’re a better writer than I.
Almost every traditionally published author I know is surrounded by a helpful community. How else would they deal with things like:
- Wanting to quit?
I’ve written over 185 books, yet I often wonder whether I can finish the next one. Community means knowing I can be encouraged by colleagues whenever I need it.
When you’re starting out, another pair of eyes on your work can prove to be invaluable. Ten pairs of eyes are even better. Join a writers’ group. Find a mentor. Stay open to criticism.
One caveat with writers’ groups: make sure at least one person, preferably the leader, is widely published and understands the publishing landscape. Otherwise you risk the blind leading the blind.
Writing your book
Surprisingly, most people never get this far. Whether it’s fear or procrastination or something else, few writers ever make it to the first page. To avoid becoming part of this sad group, you need a plan.
Regardless your personal writing method, be sure to cover these bases:
- Create a writing schedule
- Research and plan
Create a writing schedule you can stick to
When you’re an author, writing becomes your job, so treat it that way. Show up and do the work whether you feel like it or not. Writer’s block is no excuse. In no other profession could you get away with getting out of work by claiming you have worker’s block. Try that and see what it gets you – likely a pink slip.
Find at least six hours a week to write. Well, find is the wrong word, of course. You won’t find it, you’ll have to carve out the time. Lock these hours into your calendar and keep them sacred.
If you can’t think of what to write, then edit. If you can’t edit, plan. You’ll be astonished at your ability to get stuff done when you finally plant yourself in your chair.
Research and plan
Skip this step at your peril. Excellent preparation will make or break your book. Two main ways you should be preparing:
1. Outline. Regardless how you feel about outlining, you need an idea of where you’re going before you start. If you’re writing a novel, you’re either an outliner or a pantser – those who write by the seat of their pants. (If you’re writing a nonfiction book, an outline is a given.)
On the fiction side, the definition of an outliner is obvious. You plan everything beforehand. But pantsers write by process of discovery – or as Stephen King puts it, they “put interesting characters in difficult situations and write to find out what happens.”
Neither is better or worse, right or wrong. Most writers are one or the other (a few are hybrids, largely one over the other but doing a little of both). But, depending on which you are, you’ll approach the planning phase completely differently.
If you’re a hardcore outliner (and a novelist), you’ll enjoy my friend and colleague Randy Ingermanson’s “Snowflake Method.” But if you’re a pantser, check out this post for non-outliners. It will teach you how to work within a structure while staying free enough to let your prose take shape on the fly.
2. Do the research. All great stories are rooted in solid research. If your research stinks, your story sinks.
If your character drives 10 miles east out of the Chicago Loop, he’d better be in an amphibious vehicle, because he’ll be in Lake Michigan. (And you thought I was joking about sinking.)
To avoid such embarrassing errors, do your research. Immerse yourself in the details of your setting. Make sure no characters are wearing ski jackets when it’s 95 degrees outside.
Here are two online research tools that will help you avoid mistakes:
This post was adapted and excerpted from How to Become an Author: Your Complete Guide by Jerry Jenkins. Reprinted with permission.
Image via ShutterStock.com.
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