Three Things To Do Before You Write A Book

write a book

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Think about this: Every “name” author you’ve ever heard of was once where you are now: unknown and unpublished.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:

  1. Studied the craft
  2. Written and sold things shorter than a book
  3. 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:

  • Frustration?
  • Discouragement?
  • Procrastination?
  • 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.

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  2. Some really great advice here. I totally agree with learning to write shorter pieces first, especially because it’s important to learn how to finish something. The one thing I’d add is about attempting to write a full length book, but I should explain. Yes, by all means, writing a novel is a daunting task, to say the least, but one mistake a lot of early writers make is the belief that the first novel they write will get published. I always tell people that you wouldn’t start taking piano lessons and immediately send out invites to your first concert. You wouldn’t start ballet lessons and then plan on joining a professional company. Writing, like all things, takes practice. Maybe the stars will align and something magical will happen — like getting the first book you’ve written, published. But don’t plan it and don’t think of it that way. Writing is a craft and you study it by reading and writing. You practice writing like you practice your scales or your plies. When you attempt your first book, see it as practicing the craft, learning the craft. Most likely it will get stuck in a drawer somewhere, maybe you’ll let a few friends and family members look at it, but no matter what its fate is, you’ll always love that first book, because it was your teacher and because by writing it, you proved you could. Maybe you’ll go back and rewrite it someday or maybe not. But don’t be afraid to try because in the beginning, and forever, it’s all about learning the craft and doing it to the best of your ability. Write, read, and follow the great advice in this blog post and you’ll be one your way.

    • I started with a short story and it morphed with a great deal of effort into two books over the past nearly 3 years. However; when I really got into writing the story, I challenged myself to treat each chapter as a short story in its own right, or should that be write??
      This helped me, for characters I based them all on well known personalities and this made it so much easier. So Ginny was born in volumes headed ‘Enjoy’ ‘Smile Ginny Smile’ and ‘Two Spoons’ which I am going to self – publish.

  3. Excellent advice here. Someone who can write a good short story has a better chance in writing a good novel, of course with all the other factors pointed out here.
    I never considered the importance of being in a writers group until I joined one. And now I am in three, and glad! Research was another thing I had not paid much attention to earlier.
    Thank you for all these invaluable posts, Bookbaby.

    • sounds good and all but I have a huge difficulty writing a “Short Story” I tried one and it was almost 10,000 words and I had to hack it up to fit in an anthology. E-w-w-w. As for writing groups, how do I choose one that “Get’s me”?

      I am 73 and i grew up with Spillane, Gardner, Allistair mcClain, Hemingway and that era. The group I was in were nearly all under 30 and has zero grasp on the military life. I finally gave up on them but would like to find another group more in line with me and how I think as a writer.

  4. Back in the day, I would have agreed you should write a “story” or “article” before trying to write a “book.” But in today’s digital publishing, to common length of a “book” has gotten shorter, while there are fewer places to publish short work–at least if you want some monetary compensation for you effort. I’ve had six short stories–plus a few article inquiries–making the rounds over five years with no takers, but it’s a little “book” I self-published two years ago that’s paying the bills.

    Maybe you want to “practice” with a shorter work, but when it comes to publishing, you’ll have better odds with a full publication in mind than you will with a portion that may or may not fit into someone else’s vision of a complete publication.

  5. I think the comment about 250 books a year and 3,000 in a lifetime is very unfair. That takes text books into account. Textbooks are used by only a few teachers (usually the author) with mandatory ready by their students. In an undergraduate class that’s hundreds of student a year. That would fit the model. Now, you take a good diet book and it could become a NY Times best seller. A lot of things are market research and marketing. First, I was told by publishers that they like to print runs of 15,000 or more. Their web presses run all the time and they like to have the same size book. That’s why experienced writers tell new writers to stay around 100,000 pages. There are 3,000 to 5,000 libraries in the U.S. alone and you need to find out what they buy and how the choose. You need to pick a topic that is popular, like Astrology or Dieting or Star Trek or Star Wars or Doctor Who. These have built-in fan bases who will buy fixed amount of copies. You also need to market, that includes doing NPR talk radio, cable access TV, You Tube blurbs. The man who wrote The Martian was a programmer with a blog that already had an audience and he was releasing chapters and essays there before he turned it into a book. If you do your homework and work the internet and other forms of media you can get interest. And, it actually easier to do it like my friend who has two books on photography that he sells at his own site for $10 in PDF form. Speaking of that, doing a Glamour photography book complete with showing your camera and light set-ups, with lots of pretty pictures could sell quite nicely, if you price it right.

  6. I think there have been excellent books listed, but reading all, or even two or three, you could get stuck in ‘paralysis by analysis. Ergo the dreaded writer’s block, which I have suffered from notwithstanding my disabilities, and the recent seious illness to my wife. I would suggest two books at the very most

  7. I guess I’m the kindergartner who enrolled in grad school. Actually, I never did kindergarten. I learned to read and write at home and jumped straight in. Even before I could write, I was stapling together pages of construction paper and scribbling on them to make my own books. Sure, they were shorter works. Not novel length. And I did write poems and short stories and essays for school. But books were always my passion. After several attempts between ages 9-11, I succeeded in writing my first novel-length fiction at age 12. And I’ve been writing them ever since.

    I learned how to write books by writing books. I learned the craft by writing books. And I did it without a community of writers.

    I didn’t publish that first book. Or any of my earliest books, though I am rewriting some of them and will get them out there eventually. I didn’t publish for another thirty years. I have honed my craft and made use of the internet, books, magazines, and Randy’s awesome Snowflake Method. But I didn’t do those things before I wrote my first book.

    Sometimes writing the book *is* your classroom. Sometimes you should just dive in.

    • Great to read your comment. I wrote my first book a non-fiction after leaving the manuscript almost finished for 19 years! Only then I could attend to having it edited, ask for endorsements etc.The next one I pulished last year (also non-fiction) took 4 years for completion. Now for a year or so I am at my next work, stuck in a rut for 6 months, letting things work out in my mind. I learned writing by doing: first I wait for the stuff to develop in my head, get stuck, rotate, mature, self-edit. Then the stuff gushes out in a first draft whose content I rarely need to reduce or enhance, only re-shuffle, correct and improve by quality. So far I have refrained from writing just for writing’s sake, only to throw the stuff away another day. This contradicts the usual advice I must “show up for work” and write whatever comes to my mind. So depressing!

    • P.D Workman, well-said. I, personally, had not sought help from writing community when I embarked work upon my first novel about ” The Raj and the Frontier Regions: Evaporating The Dark Ages”…notwithstanding friends and colleagues critique, I did not succumb and continue writing with dedicated determination…at times, I felt that my first work would not grasp the opportunity to be brought out and appreciated, however, it turned out to be one of my best research work. Writing requires an “incessant” excercise….as it is rightly stated that ” practice makes a man perfect”…I believe in this aspiring ideal to write effectively.

  8. I would like to republish my book. It in now published with HaiRadio Publication a year ago April 24, 2015 and I would like to have control over how I receive my own book. I want to put the self back into self-publishing.

  9. The thing that resonated with me most was writing something shorter than a book as your “learning” project.

    Staring at a blank screen is bad enough. Staring at one that answers you back (at least in your mind) saying “you’ve got hundreds more of these yet” can be anough to put anyone off.

    Lots of people read short books on Kindle – ones that are just long enough to be read on a there-and-back commute.

    Established authors such as Bret Easton Ellis have compiled their short stories into a longer book once they had enough of them.

    And Wikipedia has a whole page devoted to Philip K. Dick’s short science fiction stories.

    So you’ll be in good company as well as getting something in print (or in electrons) sooner rather than later.

  10. When I got to: Impacting people with your writing

    I almost did not read further. It should correctly read:

    Affecting people . . .

    “Impacting” sounds like fake business lingo. You could, however, have an impact on their lives. I know it’s picky, but things like this interrupt my reading flow.

    Otherwise, I enjoyed the article.

  11. I would add that the writers group you join should be able to meet your needs. I joined a group that turned out to be page editors only. They were also, with two exceptions, not very welcoming. It was a horrible experience and turned me off writing completely.


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