In this post, I’m following up on the first entry and giving you the last 10 steps in my 20-step process to writing a book you can be proud of.
11. Start calling yourself a writer
Your inner voice may tell you you’re no writer and you never will be. What do you think you’re doing, trying to write a book? But working at writing, studying writing, practicing writing… that makes you a writer. A cop on duty is a cop whether he’s enforced the law yet or not. A carpenter is a carpenter whether he’s ever built a house.
Self-identify as a writer now and you’ll silence that inner critic. Calling yourself a writer can give you the confidence to finish your book.
Are you a writer? Say so.
12. Think reader-first
This is so important, you should write it on a sticky note and affix it where you’ll be reminded of it every time you write.
Every decision you make about your manuscript must be run through this filter. Not you-first, not book-first, not editor-, agent-, or publisher-first. Certainly not your inner circle- or critics-first. Reader-first, last, and always.
When readers tell me they were moved by one of my books, I think back to this adage and am grateful I maintained that posture during the writing.
Does a scene bore you? Think reader-first and overhaul or delete it.
Whatever your gut tells you your reader would prefer, that’s your answer. Whatever will intrigue him, move him, keep him reading, those are your marching orders.
So, naturally, you need to know your reader. When in doubt, look in the mirror. Write what you would read and believe there are a lot more readers out there like you.
13. Find your writing voice
This is nowhere near as complicated as it may sound. Find yours by answering these quick questions:
- What’s the coolest thing that ever happened to you?
- Who’s the most important person you told about it?
- What did you sound like when you did?
That’s your writing voice, the way you sound at your most engaged.
If you write fiction, go through the three-question exercise on the narrator’s behalf and you’ll quickly master his or her voice.
14. Write a compelling opener
You won’t write a more important sentence, fiction or nonfiction. Make sure you’re thrilled with it and then watch your confidence – and momentum – soar.
Great opening lines from other classics may give you ideas for yours. Most great first lines fall into one of these categories:
Fiction: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” —George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
Nonfiction: “By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree.” —Elizabeth Gilbert, The Last American Man
2. Dramatic Statement
Fiction: “They shoot the white girl first.” —Toni Morrison, Paradise
Nonfiction: “I was five years old the first time I ever set foot in prison.” —Jimmy Santiago Baca, A Place to Stand
Fiction: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Nonfiction: “It’s not about you.” —Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life
Fiction: “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” —James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss
Nonfiction: “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’” —Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
15. Fill your story with conflict and tension
Yes, this applies to nonfiction as well.
If everything is going well and everyone is agreeing, your reader will soon lose interest. Have one character say something that makes the other storm out. Is it just a misunderstanding that has snowballed, or something worse?
Thrust people into conflict to keep your reader’s attention. Inject tension in nonfiction by setting up your reader for a payoff. Check out some of the current bestselling nonfiction works to see how writers keep you turning those pages, even in a simple how-to title.
Tension is the secret sauce that propels your reader through to the end. That’s as simple as implying something to come.
16. Turn off your internal editor while writing the first draft
Many of us are perfectionists and feel compelled to make every sentence perfect before we move on.
That voice that questions every word – well, that’s just your editor alter ego. He or she needs to be told to shut up.
I still have to remind myself of this every writing day: I cannot be both creator and editor at the same time. That slows me to a crawl. But do whatever works for you.
Our job is to get down the story or the message or the teaching – depending on your genre. It helps me to view that rough draft as a slab of meat I will carve tomorrow. I can’t both produce that hunk and trim it at the same time.
I tell myself, “First thing tomorrow you get to tear this thing up and put it back together again to your heart’s content!”
I do not submit anything I’m not entirely thrilled with. My goal is to make my manuscript the absolute best I can before a publisher sees it.
Compartmentalize writing vs. revising and you may find that frees you to create quicker.
17. Persevere through “The Marathon of the Middle”
The middle is a particularly rough stretch for novelists. When they realize they don’t have enough cool stuff, they start padding just for bulk. They’re soon bored and know readers will be too.
This happens to nonfiction writers too. The solution there comes in the outlining stage, being sure your middle chapters are every bit as magnetic as the first and last.
Every novel becomes a challenge a few chapters in. But that’s not the time to quit. Force yourself back to your structure, come up with a subplot if necessary, but do whatever you need to so your reader stays engaged.
Novelist or nonfiction author, remind yourself you have something to say. You want to reach the masses with your message.
It’s still hard for me – every time. But don’t panic or surrender. Embrace the challenge. If it were easy, anyone could do it.
18. Write a resounding ending
This is just as important for your nonfiction book as your novel. Even a how-to or self-help book needs to close with a resounding thud, the way a Broadway theater curtain meets the floor.
How do you ensure your ending doesn’t fizzle?
- Don’t rush it. Give readers the payoff they’ve been promised.
- Never settle for close enough just because you’re eager to be finished. Keep revising until you’re thrilled with every word.
- If it’s unpredictable, it had better be fair and logical so your reader doesn’t feel cheated. You want him delighted, not feeling tricked.
- Go for the heart rather than the head, even in nonfiction. Readers most remember what moves them.
19. Become a ferocious self-editor
Agents and editors can tell within the first two pages whether your manuscript is worthy. Maybe that’s unfair, but we writers need to face it.
Your best bet to keep an agent or editor reading is to aggressively self-edit.
- Omit needless words
- Choose the simple word over one that requires a dictionary
- Avoid subtle redundancies, like “He thought in his mind…” (Where else would someone think?)
- Avoid hedging verbs like almost frowned, sort of jumped, etc.
- Generally remove the word “that” – use it only when absolutely necessary for clarity
- Give the reader credit and resist the urge to explain, as in, “She walked through the open door.” (Did we need to be told it was open?)
- Avoid too much stage direction (what every character is doing with every limb and digit)
- Avoid excessive adjectives
- Show, don’t tell
- And many more
For my full list and how to use them, get my Ultimate Self-Editing Checklist. (It’s free.)
When do you know you’re finished revising? When you’ve gone from making your writing better to merely making it different. Determining that makes you an author.
And finally, the quickest way to succeed…
20. Find a mentor
Get help from someone who has been where you want to be, a mentor who can help you sidestep all the amateur pitfalls and shave years of painful trial-and-error off your learning curve.
Many masquerade as mentors and coaches but have never really succeeded themselves. Look for someone widely-published who knows how to work with agents, editors, and publishers.
There are many helpful mentors online. I teach writers through this free website.
Want to save this definitive guide to read later? Click here to download a handy PDF version.
Having trouble finishing your book? Tell me in the comments and feel free to ask questions.
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.
My 20-Step Plan to Writing a Book: Part 1 (Steps 1-10)
Finding Your Voice As A Writer
Overcome your inner critic
“Good Enough” May Be The Best Thing For Your Writing
Improve Your Writing: Become a Demanding Self-Editor