My 20-Step Plan to Writing a Book: Part 1 (Steps 1-10)

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writing a book part 1

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.

Surprised?

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.

Having trouble finishing your book? Tell me in the comments and feel free to ask questions. And check back here for Part 2.


This content originally appeared on Jerry Jenkin’s blog as “How to Write a Book: Everything You Need to Know in 20 Steps.” Reposted with permission.

Read Part 2, Steps 11-20.

 

Hybrid Author Game Plan

 

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There Are A Million Kinds Of Writers: Which One Are You?
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32 COMMENTS

  1. Mr. Jenkins: first let me thank you for your article 1-20 steps. It is very insightful and I see many of the struggles I am having listed.
    I guess if I had any questions they would be more directed to introspection and why I have all these wonderful stories piling up in me and I can’t seem to get them out- there are over 21 novel-length across all genres in various stages of completion.
    All are mapped but fleshing them out has become the problem. It’s the darndest thing: when I do my best writing its like I am in a zone where I am just listening to the story and simply taking dictation.
    The issue is how to get the “storyteller” to talk to me when I have the time to write. I know- it sounds silly, doesn’t it? The “narrator” picks and chooses when the stories flow. I could be driving, mowing the lawn or some other mundane task- and there it is- like a movie playing out in my mind with no pencil and paper in sight.
    From your training is there anything I may do to convince the “narrator” to talk to me when I have the time to write?
    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.
    All the best.

    • Sarah — I have a couple of personal insights that may, or may not apply to you.

      First I and many other writers in my circle have transposed the narrator who comes to us. When that happens it seems so easy. On closer inspection, however, that narrator is usually a crappy writer. Good writing does not come to in a first graft. Good writing is hard work that demands critical rewriting of each sentence.

      Here is the second insight: When you cannot write—write anyway. You know what is supposed to happen in this chapter. Write it down, no matter who bad it is. When you are done with the chapter go on to the next. A week later you will come back to the chapter and edit it to death. It may still be bad. If so let it set another week and come back.

      For me, good writing is 20 percent first draft and 80 percent rewriting and editing. When you are done editing, edit again.

    • I know EXACTLY where you’re coming from. I could churn out 2-3 page outlines/synopses by the dozens, but when I try to flesh them out, I get mired in where this event should go, what my characters are going to agree to call that, why someone would do something this way instead of that.
      I did, however, shag a clue during this year’s NaNoWriMo. I carried one of those yellow legal pads with me. (Obviously it doesn’t HAVE to be a legal pad, but I would recommend something large enough that your hand has room to wiggle and scribble in big strokes all over the page if it wants to.) Sometimes, I wrote bits and pieces of the story to be typed in later. Sometimes, they were quotes from a character that might or might not end up in the story. Sometimes, it was entries in my own little world-building encyclopedia. Sometimes it was sketches or doodles.
      Thing is, even though over half of what was on my yellow pages wasn’t in any way intended to be part of my “draft,” I discovered I was more productive on the days when I used my scribble pad; when you’re not locked into line-by-line words with a word processor (or even a typewriter), your subconscious has room to work out what it wants to say.
      Rachel Aaron had a similar experience she recounted in “How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day” (originally a blog post, now a book)–though I’m even looser about using my pad than she is.

  2. Hi Jerry,
    I have benefitted greatly from reading your first ten steps. I’m Joe Woodward and I retired in January of this year with the goal of getting my first book published the same year…somehow I did it through Create Space. I wish I had read this piece in January. My book would have been more structured, better planned, etc.
    My background has been in writing copy for sales, marketing and advertising so I tend to say a lot with fewer words. I’m anxious to read steps 11-20. I need more pages to give the reader some meat. My book has four short stories and compiles 44 pages…very slim.
    (I didn’y quite start the book sitting on a couch, but I am going to get a better chair:)

  3. Hi Jerry, I’ve been an “aspiring” writer all of my life. Starting many books and never finishing. It just takes so much time. I currently have one I have finished, like in the past day or so, I want to get it published by years end. I feel it lacks something. Do you have a suggestion as to how I can find that “umph” factor for the book? It’s a spiritual self-help book, nonfiction. There’s eight chapters and about 90 pages, 5×8 size. Publishing through Amazon as eBook or printed book, or both. Thank you, PM

    • Try Book Baby instead. They have a special right now where you can get a book published for $19 (1 copy) so you can see the quality of the book before you place a larger order.

  4. Interesting advice.
    I am age 85 I have written only two books, one crime fiction and one non fiction.

    I dont accept the idea of an outline. I dont use a thesaurus.. Stephen King advises against them.
    I did a full outline once, years ago, with a list of characters, and photos of actual events and copies..It was a fiction spy story about the Concorde aircraft and the Russian TU 144
    MacMillans liked it and said yes , write it and we will publish it.
    I never got past chapter 4 . The book was never written.
    The problem was the characters, apart from having different names, were all real life people, who held jobs and worked in the industry.

  5. When I get an idea I write the first few scenes, to outline the characters and describe the situation. Then I write the final scene. So far that final scene as first written has never made it to the final draft, but now I know where I’m going. Also it disciplines me because when I review what I’ve written, I can see immediately if it’s not essential to the story.

    • That’s a great idea. I wrote the last chapter of my book some time ago. It’s helping me to connect the dots and place the pieces of the puzzle where they need to go.

  6. You wrote: “The chair I work in today cost more than my first car!” Please, please tell me, kind sir, what is the chair that works for you? I know a supportive chair will make a significant difference in my work. Thank you for sharing!

  7. I’ve been writing a fictional romance. My question is, if it makes me cry when I write it. Does it make it a good book, or me just sn overly empathic writer. I have a funeral scene where a parent passes it took me 18 hours to write it because i kept having to stop becsuse o could mot see the scteen through my tears.

  8. Great stuff! I will try harder at the outline, but like Sarah (earlier comment) I have to see before I can write, then it just happens. It is like a movie playing in front of me and I am a bystander in the story watching it unfold. I need to find a way to make it play for me when I want it to. Any suggestions?

    • Sandy — Concerning outlines, I am a big fan of Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. It is his way of organizing before writing the first draft. He sells the method, but you do not need to buy his product, it is all in his blog — Google: Ingermanson snowflake method. The method includes an outline but it is a way to drill down. Anyone who follows the Snowflake Methow will end with a well-constructed novel. It may suck, but you will not wind up in the woods 50,000 words into a bad novel with no end in sight.

  9. I live in California, the San Juaquin Valley to be exact. Arrived here with my parents in 1932, survived the depression and know first hand what life was like in those days. Have written several paragraphs in the quest to write a book about that era. Want to finish and publish…help!

    • Get busy. I would like to read about the depression from someone that lived it. I wonder what people did to survive and if it brought people closer together of farther apart

      • Do read “the grapes of wrath” by Steinbeck and “the blue willow plate”, a children’s book.. they are fiction, but the stories reflect the era.. I was born in 1935 and heard stories from people who lived it.

    • If you remember the depression, you must be about 100 years old. Time is not your friend. I suggest you contact an interested younger person to interview you and record your reminiscences on tape or digital recorder. Pick someone who can be your reliable bridge to the future, someone who can turn your wisdom into compelling reading.

  10. In memoir writing, do we use actual names? Or should we fictionalize them? Do we need to get permission if we do use the real ones?

  11. Ok ive completed my work. Been rejected. Im trying to self oublish through amazon. I cant seem to create the cover correctly. At this point do i go to a company to oublish my work? Who is reliable and not expensive to publish my work?

  12. Thank you for your input. I have finished an adventure memoir, and spent much time with book called, Story Engineering by L. Brooks. It gave me a great narrative arc. I am pitching agents now, but still messing with edits. How do you let it go?

  13. My issue is that I start off strong. It’s enticing and the characters are alive. Then somewhere along the 20something page, the writing becomes stale. The characters seem dull. I lose it just like that. Any advice?

  14. Hi. I noticed you wrote the Left Behind Series. Loved the movies. I just finished a Christian book with a never done before story. Could you recommend an agent that would be interested in representing such a work?

  15. It really is so simple. Why do so many people complicate what is straight forwards. Like when I decided to learn the piano I bought the sheet music learned to play and within a year was writing my own.ahem, music. Same with writing. You wouldn’t be writing if it did not suit your creativity. So you write. That is what I do. Almost seven days. Research in the afternoon a few days a week. And I stay away from social media. It saves a few lives along the way in hours gained for oneself. As for all the bits to organize that is really a personal preference. Got the idea? Write! That’s it.

  16. I am 12 and I have written a 290 page fiction book this helped me all throughout the way. When I was stumped and had no clue what I was supposed to do next I came back to this page and and looked through the steps and moved on. This is a life saver. Use this it helps

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