The clearer your idea of the book you want to write, the easier it will be. That’s why you should start thinking about what you want to write early on: a novel, a biography, a book for young people, a children’s book or a non-fiction book?
If you don’t like to decide what kind of book you want to write, then you make it unnecessarily difficult for yourself. It’s hard enough to write a good novel as it is. It’s even harder to get a good mix of novel and nonfiction, or a good mix of biography and children’s book. In addition, a mix makes it harder to find readers. It’s a lot like a restaurant. If you want to offer a whole new mix of main dish and dessert, it’s hard enough to create a tasty new dish. But where to put it on the menu? About the desserts? Or for the main dishes? It will be even harder to convince people to pay money for a completely new and unexpectedly different creation.
Decide on your book
It’s similar with books: What you can’t clearly categorize is hard to accommodate and hard to sell. Of course, a mix is possible and mixtures of all kinds can be found on the book market. But if you’re a beginner and want to start with the hardest part of writing a book, think twice.
A little help in deciding:
- A novel is a purely fictional story.
- A biography truthfully describes a person’s life.
- A young adult book is aimed at a target group between 12 and 18 years of age. The narrower the target group, the better. Because 13-year-olds are interested in different topics than 18-year-olds are.
- A children’s book is aimed at a target group between 3 and 11 years old. Again, the narrower the target audience, the better. A four-year-old child is interested in other books than a ten-year-old child.
- Nonfiction presents clearly defined topics, well and excitingly presented.
My most important tip: Make up your mind. This makes it easier to get started writing. After the 10. Bestseller is still time for experimentation.
In this blog post, we will now move on to the novel. If you want to write a different kind of book, you can find more information about here on my blog:
And as I said, if you want to write a novel, this is the place to be.
2. Write what you would like to read
Do you want your novel to be a literary work or more mainstream? For clarification, it is often helpful to look at your own reading pile: What do you like to read?? It makes no sense to want to write a literary book if you don’t read literary novels yourself. It’s a similar story with mainstream books. If you’ve always enjoyed reading crime fiction, you’re in the best position to write a good crime novel.
Literary novels are innovative: they bring new insights for the reader, are told in completely new ways, experiment with familiar narrative patterns. With literary novels, experiments are desired and wanted. Some literary works turn everything you’re used to upside down, like the novel "What We Dreamed Of," by Julie Otsuka. Others are inconspicuously different, they conform to the usual narrative traditions and incidentally provide new insights, for example the novel "Unterleuten" by Juli Zeh.
But regardless of whether the new thing is in the foreground or comes along quite inconspicuously – of course the quality must be right. To do that, you first have to learn the craft. The experimentation comes afterwards. It’s similar to painting or music. If I want to improvise freely as a jazz musician, I should first learn the craft: notes, an instrument, jazz. Only then do I devote myself to free improvisation. If I, as a beginner, start improvising right away without learning an instrument first, it could be difficult with the quality. It is similar if you want to write a book.
Novels for the audience
Novels of the mainstream are not written experimentally. The focus here is on new, unusual stories. It’s not the writing style that’s innovative, and neither is the storytelling. The stories are innovative. That is: These books tell extraordinary stories in a very traditional way. Or they turn traditional material into new, unusual stories that are traditionally told, for example, "Harry Potter" by J.K. Rowling. Of course, the quality has to be right. So before you come up with unusual stories, you first learn the craft of writing: plotting, character development, writing style – the full works.
If you want to read more on the difference between literature and mainstream, you can find it here on my blog: What distinguishes literature from the mainstream?
3. How to find good book ideas
No matter whether you want to write a literary book or a mainstream novel, the most important prerequisite is a really good idea. Average ideas are a dime a dozen: These are stories where you think right at the beginning – ah, I’ve read something similar before. Of course, it’s hard to come up with something that hasn’t already existed in this or a similar form at some point. The challenge is to take an average idea and develop it into a really good idea. One possibility: you make a change to the rather average basic idea, which ensures that something truly new emerges.
How to turn an average idea into an extraordinary story
An example: "Fate is a lousy traitor" by John Green. The basic idea: Two young people meet, fall in love and experience the first weeks and months of their new love. Ok, this has been done a hundred thousand times already. The unusual thing about this novel: the two meet in a support group for young people with cancer. Both have cancer and don’t know what will happen to them and their disease in the coming months or years. Under this premise, the love story is quite new and unusual, as the main character struggles with the question of whether she can bear the other person to think that she might die in the foreseeable future. Whether it is fair to enter into a relationship in this situation.
And so the fact that they both have cancer turns the seemingly banal love story between two teenagers into a completely new, different, challenging and unusual story. The banal basic idea "Two teenagers fall in love" became the extraordinary basic idea "Two teenagers with cancer fall in love". And out of this came this extraordinary story.
The challenge is not to come up with something completely new. This is hardly feasible. Stories are as old as mankind and what could be told that many others have not already told?. The challenge is to add a new, unfamiliar ingredient to the "known" ingredients for a romance novel, mystery, or thriller. To give the story a new, different, exciting twist.
Good books are based on extraordinary ideas
Another example: a man and a woman meet, fall in love, have a relationship, and break up again. So simple, so banal: "Agnes" by Peter Stamm. The unusual thing about this story: at the end, the woman just seems to disappear. It remains open whether they and therefore this relationship ever existed. A simple idea, written without frills, unusual conclusion. This also worked well.
The story must fit the genre
In developing good ideas, there is another challenge to overcome. For literary works, the idea must provide enough input for an innovative novel. Be it that the writing style is innovative, or the way of narrating, or the view on society.
For a mainstream novel, the story must not only be extraordinary, it must also fit the genre. Mainstream novels are expected to belong to a certain genre, such as crime, romance, or science fiction. This is a special challenge: The story has to stay within the usual framework of a certain genre and still be extraordinary – how can this be done?? What else can you think of that would make it z.B. as a romance novel or crime novel or thriller has not already existed? Good examples are "Fate is a Lousy Traitor" by John Green, "The Trap" by Melanie Raabe and "Torn" by Juan Gomez-Jurado. All three stories are within the bounds of the usual within their genre, and yet they are exceptional.
If you want to learn more about genres, you can read on here: Book genres – does that make sense or can that go away?
4. Build suspense
If the extraordinary basic idea for the book stands, then you should summarize the plot of the story in one sentence. The planning sentence is the common thread for the story, meaning that from beginning to end, all events in the book should bring this planning sentence to life.
The planning sentence helps not to lose sight of the most important events despite many creative ideas. This is the best prerequisite for writing an exciting book. But the planning sentence should not only be a summary of the story, it should also contain the main conflict. There are a lot of conflicts in every book, but only the main conflict is the main thread.
A good example is the novel "Perfume" by Patrick Suskind. This is how the story could be in one sentence:
A man with no scent of his own and an ingenious sense of smell wants to make a perfume from the smell of young women that will make him more lovable.
The sentence summarizes the book, but the main conflict is missing. In other words: Where is the problem in this story, that is, where is the conflict? That which makes the book really exciting? Here is the summary in one sentence including the main conflict:
A man with no scent of his own and an ingenious sense of smell murders young women and turns them into a perfume designed to make him more lovable.
In the second version, it is clear what the suspense in this book comes from, where the greatest potential for conflict lies: The main character of the novel is a murderer. So it is clear that he has a lot of trouble on his hands. In the book, all events and scenes are subordinated to this main conflict – this is the common thread of the story.
Even before you start writing your book, you should formulate the planning sentence. Of course, it can be two or three sentences for this initial planning. But the summary should be as simple as possible. If the logline is too complicated, then maybe the story will be too complicated too. Skilled writers can handle this, but with less practice it might be difficult.
5. Establish the plot
In the next step, you develop an exciting plot from the planning sentence. The plot is the course of action in a novel that results from all the events in a story. The most important basic principle of an exciting plot: Causality. That is, all events in a plot should be causally connected. In a good story, nothing happens that doesn’t follow from what came before it.
The only exception is the entry. The first event in a book can be purely random. But it ensures that all subsequent events get rolling – that’s why it’s also called a triggering event. The triggering event is at the beginning of a story and sets everything that follows in motion. This is very similar to the domino effect: the first stone falls and takes all the following stones with it. For a good light novel, the causality of the plot is the most important basis.
In the planning phase, the most important events and turning points of the plot should be identified. The planning sentence specifies which events are part of the story and which are not. If the plot is clear so far, then it should get a good arc of tension: The plot needs an inner drama. This arises from the fact that the events gradually come to a head.
To get a good suspense plot for your book, you can work with drama models. The simplest drama model is the three-act, which goes back to Aristotle. To this day, the three-act play is used for the dramatization of screenplays and novels.
At the beginning there is a triggering event and the first gradually increasing events.
The events keep coming to a head – until finally there is a turn that gives the plot a new direction.
In the last act, there is a chain of particularly dramatic events and then the conclusion. The conclusion must be the logical consequence of the preceding events. The less chance involved, the more drama.
For the planning of the plot, you can first write down the plot in three sentences. In the first sentence, you name the triggering event. In the second sentence, record the event that turns the story around in the middle. The third sentence describes the conclusion of the story.
6. Develop interesting characters
Good books need good characters. Because only when readers find a character exciting do they read on. Interest in a story is triggered by interest in a character and his or her fate. That’s why you should allow plenty of time for character development before you start writing your book.
To arouse initial interest in a character, it should have a clear profile with an individual character and a comprehensible storyline. To get this right, the first step should be to develop a three-dimensional figure with:
- a striking appearance (1. Dimension)
- a distinctive psychological profile (2. Dimension)
- an individual social environment (3. dimension)
A three-dimensional character often forms the first incentive to read on. To make her even more exciting, you can give her something extraordinary to take away with her. Something that makes her stand out from the crowd: an unusual hobby, extraordinary character traits, an extraordinary life story, or the like.
But there is more that can be done in character development. A three-dimensional character who brings something out of the ordinary often succeeds in sparking initial interest in a book. But in order to keep the reader interested for several hundred pages, your main character should have a certain goal. Maybe she wants to fulfill an unusual wish, or she wants to save her child’s life, or she wants to win over her great love. Whatever it is, we humans are curious, and when we learn that a character is determined to achieve something, we read on with curiosity. Finally, we want to find out if the character can achieve its goal. In addition, the character and his or her plot always remain credible in this way: because whatever he or she does, as readers we know that the character consistently pursues a certain goal and accepts many difficulties to do so.
The character and his or her actions become even more believable when their goal is linked to a clear motive. We don’t have to think long about why a character wants to save her child or win over her great love. Behind this are primal human motives that are immediately obvious to everyone. If a character desperately wants to climb the highest mountain in the world or win a marathon – this is understandable if it is a lifelong dream. This is also a strong motive. If the character really wants to build a house, it becomes more difficult to interest the character and his story. Because building a house is not extraordinary and the sympathy, if a character does not succeed, is quite limited. However, if I as a reader have learned that the character will lose her family and her savings as well as her self-confidence if she does not finally manage to build this house: Then the character has a strong motive and a lot to lose – and thus the interest in her fate increases.
7. Write vividly
The principle of "show don’t tell" is currently considered to be one of the most important recommendations in writing books ever. This principle distinguishes between two types of narrative: narrative and scenic.
In narrative storytelling, events are described.
In scenic storytelling, events are "shown" through dialogue and action. We describe visually what we see in our mind’s eye, so that the events become more vivid. Scenic writing succeeds when we engage all five senses: We describe what the characters in the story hear, what they see, smell, taste, and feel. The goal is for the reader to form a pictorial idea of what is happening.
Classic examples of narrative storytelling are fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel. Here is an example of how the difference becomes noticeable.
That’s how it sounds narratively:
Hansel and Gretel lost in the forest. There it was dark and cold and they were very afraid.
This is how it sounds scenically:
Gretel trembled and her pale face stood out against the night-black tree trunks.
"I’m tired," she whispered.
Hansel wiped his nose with the back of his hand.
"We must go on," he urged.
(I owe this example to my colleague Simone Harland and the Montsegur authors’ forum.)
A fiction text contains many different elements such as pictorial descriptions of settings, characters and their inner view, actions – and last but not least dialogues. You might think that the most important thing about dialogue is what is spoken. But the opposite is true: dialogues live above all from what is not said. The most common rookie mistake when starting to write a book: Characters talk too much.
Back to our example of Hansel and Gretel.
There is too much talking here:
Gretel shivered and her pale face stood out against the night-black tree trunks.
"It’s so cold here, and we don’t even know where we are. Besides, I’m tired," she whispered.
Hansel wiped his nose with the back of his hand.
"Soon it will be midnight and if we don’t find our way home quickly, we’ll have to spend the night in the woods. There we are at the mercy of the wild animals. We don’t have time, we have to go on," he urged.
And this is what the wordy version sounds like:
Gretel shivered and her pale face stood out against the night-black tree trunks.
"I’m tired," she whispered.
Hansel wiped his nose with the back of his hand.
"We have to keep going," he urged.
Exciting dialogues are only created through revision. When you’re in the middle of the writing process, it’s best to write dialogue as the words come to mind. This first version should be revised later: To make it more entertaining and exciting, it often helps to shorten sentences in direct speech to the point where they are just understandable. Readers usually need only a few words to be able to follow a story. Anything beyond that is often considered boring.
Of course, there are really good books with wordy dialogues. But it takes a lot of experience to write detailed dialogues that don’t bore you. That’s why when you’re new to writing books, it’s easier to keep dialogue concise.
When you start writing your own book, this is how you will gradually develop your own writing style. To begin with, you can orient yourself to what you like to read yourself. A good exercise is to write your own text over and over again in different writing styles: sometimes as a comic, sometimes like Kafka, sometimes like Rowling and sometimes like a staple novel. This will help you to recognize the differences and learn to use language consciously. This way you can find out what you are comfortable with and what fits well for you and your story.
8. How to write a book in a year
A novel consists on average of about 300 pages of text. A lot of time goes into it. But most authors don’t write their books full-time, but "on the side" – alongside their job, family, regeneration. How to get it right? For many writers, set writing times have worked well for them. It can be every morning before work, every evening after work, every Wednesday evening or every Sunday morning.
In the beginning, you should experiment a little to find out when the best time is for you. When do you have time and the right energy to write your book?? How do you best fit an hour or two at a time into your daily routine? You should coordinate your writing time with your social environment and family so that you are not disturbed during this time. Switch off the phone and go offline.
You should only skip your fixed writing time in an emergency and stick to it 80 percent of the time. Write your book whether you feel like it at the moment or not. If you don’t feel like writing, you can do research or file research results or revise the text or something similar. Once you’ve gotten started, sometimes it may go better than you first thought. You often succeed in getting from researching to revising and finally to writing. So gradually this should develop into a certain routine: you write every morning between 6 and 7 o’clock or every Sunday morning between 10 and 12 o’clock. It does not have to be perfect what you do during this time. The most important thing: stay on the ball.
Combine your writing time with something positive. Treat yourself to a cup of coffee or a piece of chocolate or work at your favorite spot. Writing time should be a reward, not a penalty.
Fixed writing times combined with small rituals such as coffee and chocolate brings many writers well forward. This makes it possible to work regularly on the text and to make progress in writing your own book. Try it out and find out what works best for you.
9. Publish your book with the right strategy
Finally finished? Then nothing stands in the way of publication. But how to proceed?
It is now easier than ever to publish your own book. On the one hand, there is the very classical way: You look for a publisher who brings out your book. The other option: you publish your book on your own. In the past, independent publishing was called self-publishing, today the English term is common: self-publishing.
The difference between publishing and self-publishing
The two publishing options have similar advantages and disadvantages for you as working as an employee or self-employed:
Publishing with a publisher
- You have to apply to a publishing house
- The publisher receives many applications, accepts a few manuscripts, rejects many others
- The publisher pays you and determines the amount of your fee
- The publisher determines the appearance of your book (title, cover, hardback or paperback) and may also influence the content
- The publisher pays for editing, printing and distribution
- The publisher bears the financial risk
- As a self-publisher, you decide if and how your book is published
- You set the price of the book and thus your proceeds
- You alone decide on the appearance and content of your book
- You pay for the editing and the cover
- You look for a service provider who takes over the printing and distribution and receives a share of the proceeds from each copy sold
- You bear the financial risk
How to find a publisher for your book
Apply to a publisher with a synopsis and a reading sample. Often you have to wait several months for a response, not infrequently there is no response at all. Because publishers get more and more manuscripts offered to them and often they don’t have the time to write rejections. On many publishers’ websites you will find the announcement: If you don’t hear from us (the publisher) in eight (or ten or twelve) weeks, please take this as a rejection.
An alternative are frahlinguren. They take (prospective) authors under contract and place their manuscripts with publishers. Agencies are not paid by the publishers, but by the authors: For the successful placement of a manuscript, agencies charge a commission of between 15 and 20%. So you get your share of the author’s fee. In return, they use all their know-how for their authors and get the best possible results in the publishing negotiations.
Applying to frahlinguren is similar to applying to publishers. The chances of success are also comparable. There are two ways to a publishing house publication: You can apply to agencies, so that they land a suitable publisher for you. Or you can apply directly to publishers.
This is how you bring out your book in self-publishing
As a self-publisher, you are spoiled for choice: there are many reputable service providers and it will take a while to get an overview of the market. All service providers have advantages and disadvantages, which makes it difficult to make a good decision. You also need to invest before publishing: You commission the editing, the cover and the book typesetting. Depending on the size of the manuscript and your requirements, this will cost between 1.000 and 3.000 euros due. You also have to take care of the marketing yourself or pay a service provider. In the end, there is neither a publisher nor an agency that earns money from the sale of your book.
To the point: advantages and disadvantages of agencies, publishers and self-publishing
+ Agencies know the market well and get the best possible for their authors*.
– Agencies receive a pro-rata commission from the author’s fee.
+ Publishers are book and distribution professionals. They put all their know-how into selling as many copies of your book as possible. (But the financial and personnel
Commitment also has limits, don’t expect too much from a publisher.)
+ The publisher bears the economic risk.
– The process is lengthy (usually one to two years between application, acceptance and subsequent publication).
– The publisher wants to have a say and a say in the publication.
+ Authors can publish very quickly (within a few weeks after completion of the manuscript).
+ Authors can make all the decisions themselves.
– The authors have to pay in advance and bear the economic risk.
You can find more about publishing books here on my blog: How to publish books.
10. Write a gripping synopsis
If you want to apply with a finished manuscript to frahlinguren and / or publishers, then you need a good synopsis and an appealing reading sample. Publishers and agents never receive the complete manuscript, only a synopsis and a reading sample.
This is what a good synopsis looks like
A synopsis should be a maximum of two to three pages long. The shorter the better. This is usually the biggest challenge for novelists. For in two to three pages you should put the following:
- The most important data about you (name and contact details) and your manuscript (length, genre, target audience)
- A short summary of your manuscript (also: pitch or blurb)
- A complete synopsis (incl. Conclusion)
- An author bio (about 5 to 10 sentences)
Some authors add a short list of the most important characters and a list of their previous fiction publications.
Choose an appealing sample
As a reading sample, you should choose the beginning of your novel. The introduction of a novel is difficult to write and publishers and agents want to see if you have mastered this challenge well. The usual length of a reading sample is around 15 to 20 standard pages. But the information varies. Therefore, before you send a sample to an agency or publisher, you should check their website to see what their requirements are. Some want 15 standard pages as a reading sample, others 20 or 30 standard pages. The reading sample should be in the form of standard pages, neatly formatted (you can read about how novel manuscripts are usually formatted here) and without any other bells and whistles.
More about reading sample and expose (incl. example) can be found here on my blog: synopsis and reading sample.
Checklist – The best tips for writing a really good book
And here you can download a checklist The best tips to write good books – just click and download it.
If you have read this article with interest, you will find further reading fodder here: