How to Write a Book in 2020: The Ultimate Guide for Aspiring Writers
Writing a book is a long-time dream for many people. It’s a fact now that almost anyone who can write can write a book. Many diverse people and inventions have made this possible.
But most of all, we have to thank Johannes Gutenberg. When he invented the printing press around 1440, he would never have imagined how popular it would become. He also wouldn’t have guessed that his invention would affect the future. Before Gutenberg, people have been writing and publishing, but his invention gave steam to the speed of publishing a book. What was previously a slow process was suddenly running on top speed. It was the radical technology of its day. In Europe during the Renaissance, the printing press paved the way for an era of mass communication. And that changed society itself. People’s literacy rates increased. They need to read something. Among others, that meant one thing, writers had to write.
What has it got to do with writing your book, you ask? Well, you should thank Gutenberg because he laid the foundations so that nearly 580 years later, you can be easily published today.
You, if you are interested in writing a book.
Can, if you know how to write a book.
Easily, because of the advances in technology.
Be published, if you go through the process of publishing a book after writing it.
Today, because of the ease of publishing a book now.
In this article, we will look at how to write and publish a book.
Wanting to write a book and actually writing it are poles apart. How do you go from an aspiring writer to becoming an actual one? Let’s find out.
Before You Begin
Writing a book begins much before the actual writing of it. Even if you have the perfect idea for the book ready, and you are raring to go. You can call it the planning stage. You can skip this stage, but you’ll be happy later if you didn’t.
1. Find your Motivation Behind Writing
Examine your motives. What are you trying to accomplish by writing a book? Ask yourself again and again till a clear answer emerges. You can, of course, go ahead and write a book without any self-reflection at all. However, the work you put in at this stage will give you answers to one crucial question you will need later. This stage will give the scaffolding on which your future book will stand. So please don’t rush through it.
People write books for many reasons. Here are some reasons why people want to write a book:
- To be respected.
- To build their credibility.
- To earn money.
- To share a powerful story.
- To provide a mental escape for others.
- To change people and their lives.
So, why do you want to write a book? This question is tied up with your idea of success. Are you writing because you want to be a famous writer? Nothing wrong with that. But it would be best if you were clear about it. It is because if fame is the aim of your writing if you receive critical acclaim but not fame, will you be happy? You might not.
On the other hand, if you want critical acclaim and get accidental fame, will you feel satisfied? You may or may not. Look deep inside yourself. In answering this question, you will clarify to yourself what your motivation is for writing a book.
2. Choose a Perfect Writing Space
Now that you have done the foundation work, it’s time to look at your immediate surroundings. One of the questions interviewers ask writers is, “Where do you write?” That is because everyone is curious to know where the book took shape.
A leading online newspaper had a column devoted to writer’s rooms. They included a photograph of the writing space as well. You could see the variety of areas that qualified as “writing spaces.” Children’s author Michael Morpurgo wrote on his bed. Fantasy author Philip Pullman has his writing shed. He says, “I sit at a table covered with an old kilim rug, on a vastly expensive Danish orthopedic chair, which has made a lot of difference to my back. The table is raised on wooden blocks, so it’s a bit higher than normal.”1
We know that Jane Austen wrote in her kitchen. J. K Rowling wrote in a café. Before becoming famous, Haruki Murakami had a full-time job as the manager of his jazz bar. He says: “Each night after that, when I got home late from work, I sat at my kitchen table and wrote. Those few hours before dawn was practically the only time I had free.”2
Your workspace is probably the most important space. Hence, finding a place where you will not be disturbed and conducive to writing is significant. You don’t need to get the best table, the best ergonomic chairs or the best equipment. The thing with writing is that it can be done anywhere. But it would help if you decided on the place that is most comfortable and productive for you.
3. Choose your Writing Tools
So now you have fixed a place for writing, you will need tools. Make a list of all the items that you will probably need. Here is a list to help get you started.
- A laptop with a writing software of your choice.
- A wired/wireless mouse (optional).
- Backup hard drive or cloud space (subscribed or free).
- Printer & cartridges.
- Pens & Pencils.
- Paper clips
- Sticky notes
- Research material (if any).
- Reference books (if any).
- Your notes (if any).
First, make a list and gather the things you need. Try to think of all future possibilities. For example, you might need a printer and paper because someone asks for a hard copy of your manuscript.
If you handwrite your manuscript, store a significant amount of paper that you prefer writing on and pens and pencils that you need. British fantasy author Philip Pullman preferred a specific type of paper: “I write by hand, using a ballpoint pen on narrow lined A4 paper (with two holes, not four).”3
4. Embrace your Emotional Environment
By emotional environment, we are talking about your mental and emotional health. It is also essential. Are you sleep-deprived and anxious? Are you in the middle of a custody battle? Are you worried about the end of the world? All these will show up in your writing, either directly or indirectly.
Perhaps it is not such a bad thing. A book is the product of its author’s time, and the time it is written in as well. You can’t write in a vacuum. Some of these events might seep into your writing. And that is okay. Take stock of it before you begin. The stresses and strains of everyday life will be there. Some writers think of writing as being therapeutic, a way to deal with the stresses of life.
For instance, many writers are not able to write during the COVID pandemic. Even though isolation and time alone are plenty, this is because of the sense of anxiety that permeates the world. Our uncertain future affects everyone. It is essential to acknowledge this and try to write as much you can.
Getting Ready to Start
Now that you have laid the foundation for writing the book, you need to turn your attention to the book’s actual writing. There are several sequential stages to go through.
1. Divide the Task into Smaller Chunks
You know that anything big can be tackled once it’s broken down into smaller chunks. It would help if you thought about the book you want to write. Is it a novel? Is it non-fiction? Is it a biography? You need to ask yourself many questions that will give you some broad idea of the book. Of course, this is not to say that you only need to think about your book’s contents during this stage. You should have started some time ago. An idea germinates in the head first.
Many writers have written books in a few days. Some books have taken years. Irrespective of the total time taken to write a book, it has to be broken up into smaller chunks. There is no way you can finish it at go, no matter how dedicated and hardworking you are. Many writers recognize this and make writing a habit. Some write as little as 200 words a day. Some write three pages a day. You can choose how much you want to write per day as per your comfort level. But you need to be consistent. It is how you win the writing game.
You can think of granularity if it helps. A book is a manuscript in a published form. A manuscript consists of pages. Pages consist of paragraphs. Paragraphs consist of sentences. Sentences consist of words. You can even change page count to a word count when you want to break the task down to its molecular level.
book> manuscript> pages > paragraphs> sentences> words> big idea
2. Narrow Down Your Big Idea
Once you have your idea, in one sentence (a few words), filter down the book’s basic concept. Think of it as a summary in a sentence. Here are some examples of published books summarised in a sentence.
- Madeline Miller’s Circe: Circe is a minor Greek God who escapes the shadow of her own family and creates a life of her own when she discovers her true talents.
- Brian L. Weiss’s Many Lives, Many Masters: A book on reincarnation from a psychologist who didn’t believe in it until he met the patient who changed his life.
- J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone: Harry is a boy living with his relatives who mistreats him until he discovers that he is a wizard who is invited to attend Hogwarts, the school for wizards.
- Eva Ibbotson’s Song for Summer: The daughter of a suffragette discovers true love in an Austrian alternative school when the Nazis come to power and change the world as she knows it.
The one-sentence summary is your elevator pitch. What this summary does is tells you that readers will decide if they will read this book or not based on it. It also gives your outline a laser focus.
You can use some existing templates to arrive at this one-sentence summary.
- [Your protagonist] is a ________ who wanted more than anything to ________but couldn’t because ________, then ________ happened, which________.
- [Your protagonist] wants ________ [concrete want] because ________ [abstract want], but ________ [conflict] stands in the way.
- So, [Your protagonist] is ________ [place/time/circumstances when the novel starts] until ________ [a turn of events].
- When [your protagonist] ________ [verb] ________ [something] ________ [something else happens] but ________ [the person/thing/attitude that’s in the way] then ________ he/she/it ________ [the action that sets the story going].
3. Make an Outline
Now that you know what your book is precisely going to be about, now is the time to create an outline. Everything that needs to stand on its own needs a basic structure. The structure will tell you what the story is going to do.
Some writers do not believe in outlining and would instead write spontaneously. Some fabulous novels have been born in that way. The pansters are writers who ‘fly by the seat of their pants’ whereas the plotters are the ones who make a plan before they go.
Many other books have been born because writers created a structure before they build the book. If you prefer to know what is coming up next, a plan is a way to go. There are literary heavyweights on both sides of the ‘to plan or not to plan’ divide.
Famous pansters include the Canadian literary heavyweight Margaret Atwood, horror and supernatural fiction writer Stephan King and American science fiction author Pierce Brown. Renowned plotters include British novelist J. K. Rowling, American author Joseph Heller, an American journalist, novelist, and Ernest Hemingway.
Some authors follow a hybrid model where some parts of the novel are written instinctively, and the other parts are planned.
If you are more of a panster, you can skip this step. If you are more of a plotter, you can spend a lot of time on this step. However, if your book is non-fiction, you will need an outline. It is impossible to keep so many details in your head as you develop the book.
There are many ways to outline your book, depending on what you want to focus on. Here are a few of them:
- The synopsis outline.
- The mind map method.
- The detailed outline.
- The snowflake method.
- The bookend method.
- The skeleton outline.
- The beat sheet outline.
- The character-focused outline.
- The eight sequence structure
Once you have decided on the outlining method you are comfortable with, you can proceed with the steps to outline your book. The outline is supposed to work for you. But what if none of these work for you? Then, you can go ahead and invent your own too. No matter which kind of outlining method you follow, here are the steps to follow to construct your book’s blueprint.
- Draft the premise of your book (this is your one-line summary).
- Determine the setting.
- Decide the plot structure.
- Develop characters.
- Construct the plot.
- Organize the scenes.
- Summarize the chapters.
4. Create a Schedule
We have reached one of those dreaded parts of writing a book: Time. Do you have the time to write a book? Time is connected to motivation. The more motivated you are, the more time you will find for writing.
Time is a finite quantity. So, in all probability, you will have to make the time for your book. There is no other way. The time that you give to the business of writing will come off from some part of your life. It is when you decide aspects like:
- Will I give up watching that daily soap?
- Will I cancel my Netflix subscription while I work on the book?
- Will I socialize less and write more?
It’s all a matter of priority. However, whatever the sacrifice you make, let it not be your family. It is possible to be a writer and have a normal family life. Let no one tell you otherwise.
Where you can look to find some free time is your day. Everyone on earth gets 24 hours. How are you spending yours?
Identify the time wasters that eat into your everyday schedule. Chances are you will have some free time—the best way to identify these time wasters by keeping a daily log or journal. Keep a notepad and note down all the tasks you do each day and the start and end times for each task. Write down every activity you do, however, unimportant. Write down that 15 minutes you spent watching cat videos. Observe your entries for a week or two while you log entries into the journal. When you are done, you will get a clear picture.
With this information, you can decide to cut out the time-wasters or if that’s not possible work with them.
Now you have identified the lost hours, how many do you need per week or per day? Experiment and figure out the number of hours you can write per day and stick to it. Some writers write for four hours a day; some write for six hours. Suppose you are writing while holding down a full-time job, kudos to you. Every spare minute counts in this case. Whatever the number of hours, make a habit your good friend.
Another aspect to factor into your schedule is if you are an early or late riser. If you are a morning lark, do not force yourself to write late into the night. If you are a night owl, do not schedule all the writing at 6 am. It is a sure-fire way to set yourself up for failure. Work with your body, and your body will work for you.
5. Decide on a Deadline
The end date of your book is the date by which you decide you will finish the novel. If you are a first-time author, this is something that you need to decide. If you have a publisher or agent, then this is sometimes determined by them. Once you climb the ladder of success, you have more control over the amount of time you can bargain for yourself with your agent or publisher.
If you are setting your end date, get your family and friends’ help. There will be distractions. (We will look at them a bit later.) But how you manage them will determine how soon your book will be published.
You’ll need to calculate backward. If you want to write, say, a 350-page book in a year. Then divide the total number of pages by 52 weeks of the year. It will give you the number of pages you need to finish in a week: this is 7. Now divide your weekly page quota (7) by the number of hours you are available per week. That will give you your daily page quota. That becomes your daily target.
Of course, the first time you do it, it is an experiment. Within a few days of starting to write, you will know if you have set a realistic deadline or tried to overachieve. Adjust the period to meet your practical capabilities. Show yourself some love and factor in days you cannot write as well. There might be medical emergencies, dentist appointments, school PTA meetings, and other various tasks that might eat into your writing time. Once you have a date, stick to it. That can be a motivating factor by itself.
6. Deal with Distractions and Procrastination
You can meet your daily, weekly, and monthly targets, and you will need to deal with distractions and procrastination. First of all, accept that there will be distractions and procrastination. There are no ideal conditions for writing. Distraction and its cousin procrastination will be faithful companions on your journey toward being a published writer. Better work with them rather than against them.
One way is to understand why you procrastinate. Here are some possible reasons:
- You are afraid of starting the whole task of writing.
- You are afraid of what this book will bring—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
- You are scared that everyone will know everything about you from this book.
- You are afraid that you won’t have any readers or have low sales.
- You are scared that the reviews will be negative.
- You don’t know how to write a book.
These reasons might be the cause of the writer’s block as well. These are all fears that writers who have looked at the blank page have felt. You are not alone. It is a necessary step in your evolution as a writer. It would help if you faced the fear of beginnings, fear of ridicule, fear of non-performance, and the fear of the unknown. The one way to do that is to change your perspective. What can keep you moving is the fear of future regret. You don’t want to look back on your life and think, “Oh, I could’ve done that if only I had the time/place/money/ perfect conditions.” So, start now, start small, and dream big.
When you do start, you can use some apps to focus on your writing. They block your email, social media, games apps, and the internet or let you control it your way. It, in turn, helps you concentrate on your writing.
Now we come to research. No matter the genre—fiction or non-fiction, you need to do your research. It’s a big and vital part.
- Fiction: If you are writing fiction, you need to spend some time thinking of each character’s backstories. That is where their motivation lies. What do your characters want? One of your characters could be a pilot for which you will need to understand their job. That also needs to be researched. All these will go into the research stage of your writing.
- Non-fiction: If you are writing a non-fiction book, all the more you will need to have a long and detailed research phase. You will need to draw up a research plan and gather your material. Interviews, secondary sources, field trips, writing notes go into your research plan. If you need money from institutions and universities, you need to apply for funding. The application process is long and detailed. Or you can hire a grant writer to help you. Some writers spend years in the research phase. For a good reason, because you are putting out a book on a subject only you know about, which makes people look at you as an expert. Any mistakes will be in the public eye, which might hurt your reputation as a writer.
8. Accept that You Are a Writer
You should do the inner work and accept your calling as a writer. Don’t worry about the imposter syndrome or any other syndrome. You are here to write. Accept this wholeheartedly. Permit yourself to think of yourself as a writer. Repeat the affirmation “I am a writer” many times a day if needed. Ideally, this precedes all other steps, including motivation. And sometimes, you might need to check in with yourself from time to time. It could be a potential mind block on your journey. You are sufficiently deep into the writing process to know now that you are the real McCoy as a writer.
The Writing of the Book
You have now laid all the groundwork. It is time to dive into the actual writing part. You probably know that spending more time on the analysis stage cuts the development stage by half, if not more. It’s somewhat true for writing as well.
1. Consider the Audience
In this stage, you need to think about whom you are writing to. It has a profound impact on writing. It influences writing style, choice of words, characters used, and even the plot.
Remember that the reader is the person who will decide how well your book will do. So they should be taken into consideration first when writing your book. Your primary audience is the reader. You also have a secondary audience: they are the editors, agents, and publishers. However, the primary audience is the one for whom you are writing, not the secondary audience.
For example, if you are writing for young adults, you will use a certain vocabulary. Characters whom young adults will relate to; and a story that appeals to them and addresses the concerns they grapple with at their age.
Suppose you are writing a memoir for an adult audience on the theme of old black and white films. In that case, you can use sophisticated vocabulary that they are likely to know. Choose stories or incidents that they will find interesting and connect to complex ideas on history, economics, and politics. It is not only expected of you but desirable as well.
Some of the audience-specific concerns, themes, likes, and dislikes you can research and narrow down. For the rest of it, you need to rely on your gut instinct. Go with your gut. It’s never wrong if you are not sure whom to write for, then you can always write for yourself.
2. Find Your Voice
Finding a voice is an essential step to becoming a writer. Your voice is your unique instrument, through which you tell your stories.
Notice how you narrate stories in familiar surroundings. How will you describe an exciting incident that happened to you? The voice that you use to narrate stories/events is your voice. It sounds like you, and it is unique, like your fingerprints. There is no equivalent of it in the world.
While writing fiction, if the main character is not you, you need to find a voice for that character that’s uniquely him/her. Learn as much as you can about this character. Ask questions and create backstories. They will lead you to your protagonist’s voice.
3. Start Writing the First Draft
You know your book has a beginning, middle, and end. But where will you start writing? It is, of course, entirely up to you.
If you prefer being sequential, you can start at the beginning. Many writers begin at the end, and then they write the beginning. It is because you can tally events and changes more accurately this way. If the ending is known, the story can take any path but end up in that exact ending. J.K. Rowling claimed that she knew the ending of Harry Potter’s story when she started writing the first book.
Some writers start in the middle. There are no hard and fast rules, so you don’t need to feel pressured to start only in the beginning.
4. Write That Cracking First Line
Readers love a good first line. They love it because it gives them a flavor of the book and opens a promising new world. Other people involved in the book production line also love a good first line. Editors, agents, publishers, and marketing people like it because it is a great marketing tool.
So crafting that cracking the first line can be a lot of pressure. It is probably one of the most crucial lines of your book. Take time over it, but do attend to it right away because once the book gets going, there might be little chance that you can go back and write a great first line. So write a draft of it and then you may edit or work on it later.
First lines of some books go on to become immortal lines quoted in drawing rooms and classrooms equally. Here are a few that have captivated readers over the years.
- “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 1813.
- “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1967.
- “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949.
- “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, 1762.
- “A specter is haunting Europe — the specter of communism.” Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, 1848.
- “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.” Richard Dawkins, Unweaving The Rainbow, 1998.
5. Add Conflict and Tension
Your story needs conflict. In real life, conflicts might get tiresome, but conflict in fiction makes the plot exciting. It is what grabs the attention of the reader. If there is no problem with the story or the book, the reader will be bored. If everything is fine and no one has any issues or secrets, there is no story. Readers read to get a satisfaction of seeing that a character comes out of a situation victorious.
Conflict and tension also apply to non-fiction. Your memoir about old Indian films, if narrated without conflict, will leave the reader cold. Conflict and tension keep the reader enthralled enough to turn the next page, the next, and so on.
6. Take off the Editor’s Hat
When writing your book, you will find an internal editor surface. He/she might say,
- “No, this word is too strange/confusing/silly/weird.”
- “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
- “I don’t think this word fits.”
- “Your reader will sleep if you use “soporific” in your book.”
- “You can’t go on with THAT paragraph! It’s controversial.”
- “If you replace this word with that, maybe it might work.”
We all have the dreaded inner critic and editor. It gives us a lot of advice. Some of it might even be useful. However, while writing, you can only wear one hat. Take off the editor’s hat and place the writer’s hat on. The writer is the one that does the writing. The editor’s job comes later.
7. Persist Through the Middle
Once you are in the thick of the writing, you will come to the middle of the book. While working on the middle, it might feel exhausting as you cannot see the end of the writing process. The excitement of the early chapters would have faded, but you still have to continue writing. Don’t worry about when the book will end and continue working on it. It takes discipline and perseverance to write any book. Convince yourself that you have it in you and soldier on.
8. Reach the Finish Line
Congratulations if you made it to this stage! Follow the plan and write your conclusion. It might or might not vary from your initial vision. And that’s okay. Keep these tips in mind.
- Take time to write the ending. If you rush, you might lose out on something.
- Don’t write an ending for the sake of finishing the book. You owe your readers a fantastic conclusion.
- Write an ending that integrates with the logic of the story or book. Don’t choose one that you think the market or your reader will prefer.
- Don’t cheat the reader. The character should not wake up and find that it was all a dream. That is a cop-out you should avoid. Avoid shortcuts in general.
- Choose an ending that your heart wants. If you have ideated multiple endings, choose the one that your gut or your heart goes with. Don’t follow your head this time.
The Process of Rewriting
By this time, you would have written that last line and closed the book. You would be so steeped in the book that you will need a complete break from it. Do something else. Go on a holiday or spend some time with the family. Do things that are unrelated to the book for a few days. Then return to edit it.
1. Unleash the Inner Editor
It is the time when you welcome your ruthless inner editor. Your time away would have given you a perspective to look at the book with fresh eyes. Now you can unleash the editor you silenced earlier. The manuscript needs to go through different types of editing.
As an editor, watch out for:
- Incidents that tell rather than show.
- Voice and tone.
- Unnecessary words.
- Word choice.
- Redundant phrases.
- Stage directions for each character.
- Mechanics (typos, grammatical errors, punctuation).
2. Work with a Mentor
Now that your book is sort of ready, it’s time to start seeking some feedback. It can be a very touchy thing for the writer. Besides, not everyone would be interested in reading a new author’s book. Find a mentor who is invested enough in you to give feedback. They could be writer friends, famous writers, and people you know. The mentor should be open to helping you and who has some connection to the writing world. You may respect an old corporate boss, and he might like you. He might even be willing to read your draft. But he may not be the best person to be a writing mentor. Follow through and incorporate your mentor’s feedback. Don’t seek feedback and then ignore it.
Publishing Your Book
After you have made the changes as your mentor suggested, your book can be called a manuscript.
1. Decide the Publishing Path
It is time to consider how you’d like to be published. It depends on what you want.
- Traditional publishing: This is the kind of publishing that has been mainstream. You submit your manuscript and wait. They will decide if they will publish your book. If they do, they take care of every aspect of publishing like editing, typesetting, proofreading, creating a book cover, marketing, sales, and distribution.
- Self-publishing: If you choose to self-publish your book, you are in charge of all departments listed above. And you also pay for it. You can hire freelancers at every stage to work with you. You can approach a self-publishing company whose competitively priced packages you can choose from.
2. Format Your Manuscript
Whether you choose traditional publishing or self-publishing, it’s essential to format your manuscript as per the conventions. Pick up a few books, and you will notice what they are. You need to format your manuscript since the readability of the book is highly dependent on it. You will also find these conventions listed in the submission guidelines section of the websites of publishing companies. There might be some minor differences, but mostly they stick to the following conventions:
- Font and font size, which is usually Times New Roman 12 point size.
- Double spaced lines.
- Evenly spaced paragraphs.
- No double spaces between words.
- Left aligned and not justified (this is slowly changing now).
- Do not use colors. Not even for children’s books. All text is in black. All pages are white.
- Include one-inch margins on the top, bottom, and sides.
- A header (name of your book, the surname, and the page number) on all pages except the first.
3. Create Your Presence Online
The writing part is over, but you still need to find readers. Earlier, you didn’t have to worry about that. But now the market is crowded, and every bit of marketing and publicity the author does help.
Create social media profiles on all major social media platforms, if you don’t have them already. Start engaging with other writers and readers. Think of it as a big party to which every reader with an internet connection has been invited. Make friends. You will need them when you announce your book is being published.
Once your book is published, promote it on social media.
To sum it all up, the marathon activity that is writing a book starts with a tiny idea, goes through birthing pains before you can hold it in your hands. With your effort and others’ efforts, the book becomes this huge force that many people support. It is a privilege to write a book. It’s a greater privilege to be published. And the greatest privilege to be read and honored by readers. Congratulations, if you achieve that!