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How to write a book? I would like to write a book, but I don’t really know how to get started. What is the first step if I want to write a book??
I often encounter these and similar questions, especially from beginners or not-yet-authors. Because it’s one thing to dream of your own book – it’s another to make that dream come true. Mao Tse-tung said so appropriately:
No matter how far the way is, you have to take the first step.
The question is: What is the first step?? What is the very first thing you need to do if you want to write a book?
Writing a book: The First Steps
First of all: There are many possibilities and methods if you want to write a book. Some writers start with a scene from the middle that just occurs to them, others start with a character. Even a single author can develop different approaches from book to book. The starting point for my debut trilogy, for example, was a single sentence that I read in an encyclopedia and which then continued to develop as an igniting spark. For my high-fantasy project I first had a picture and a name, nothing more. And for my demon series I started with two figures and a vague idea.
So don’t bite on the following order or put pressure on yourself if you change it slightly. It’s only meant to serve as an initial guide if you want to write a book but really don’t have a plan yet for where to start. You can follow the sequence completely, but you can also start first and adjust the process as you go along. If you decide against self-publishing and in favor of a publisher, start sending your synopsis to publishers or agents in good time (from about 50% finished rough draft).
Step 1: The idea for your book and first notes
It’s always good to start with an idea. You don’t have to decide on page number, genre, and writing style right away in this one. Take it easy. If you want to write a book and came across this article, you usually already have an idea that you want to turn into a book.
Since I’m a big fan of pen to paper, I recommend sitting down with a notebook and jotting down your idea in bullet points. You don’t have to follow any particular order. Just start and write down everything that comes to your mind in a wild way. I prefer to do this in bullet point form. And don’t worry if your "bullet points" degenerate into whole paragraphs – that’s the case with me on a regular basis. The points only help me to separate and sort the individual trains of thought.
In the unlikely event you don’t already have a notebook, be sure to check out Leuchtturm’s notebooks! They are among my favorite notebooks and come in many colors. The advantage: they’re pretty enough that you’ll want to pick them up, but not TOO pretty to keep you from scribbling your ideas in them. I think we all know this problem with the too pretty notebooks. #thestrugglereal
Here you can find a selection of Leuchtturm notebooks: Buy Leuchtturm notebooks on Amazon*.
Alternative and also good notebooks are the ones from Moleskine: Buy Moleskine notebooks on Amazon*.
And if you prefer it incredibly pretty, have a look at Paperblanks. These books are a bit more expensive (which is why I tend to go with Leuchtturm most of the time), but they’re also just incredibly pretty. I’ve linked you to a small selection:
Take a few days or even one or two weeks for the process of the first notes. Writing a book starts with letting your thoughts flow and dreaming up parts of the story. Use this first phase to let your imagination run free and to play with your creativity. This phase is one of my favorites. If you’re artistic (and even if you’re not but still like to doodle), you can also add little doodles and drawings to your notes. You can use whatever entices your muse and fills you with new ideas!
Step 2: Plot your book (optional)
When you have written down everything that comes to your mind in the first step, you can start plotting. In the plotting phase you recall your notes and start putting them in a meaningful order.
Again, you can work with bullet points. Either you do it in your braindump notebook, take a new one especially for plotting or you just create a word document. Most writers in my circle like to use one notebook per project when they want to write a book. Use this to record ideas, paste in character images, pre-plot the story, or record short scenes in writing.
I myself started with just one notebook for all my notes on all my projects back in the day. In this first black booklet, I’ve captured ideas for dozens of books. A collection like this is a pretty good "treasure chest" in my eyes. Every now and then I flip through the pages in search of inspiration – or just for fun – and read through my old ideas.
For example, in one of these forays Basterds – Rockstar seeks nanny* originated! So write everything down and keep every thought, because you never know what will happen to this idea in one, five or eight years time.
If you still need help with plotting itself, check out this guest article by Laura Labas, where she describes her plotting method.
One final note on plotting: this step is known as the optional because not every author approaches his book in the same way. There are authors who roughly plot their book, there are authors who even plot every chapter and every scene, and there are authors who work best without a plot. The so-called discovery writers, or pantsers, have a vague idea and then write blithely on it.
If you’re going for it for the first time, I recommend you try plotting it out. But if you find that you are stuck and can’t get comfortable with it, skip this step and just write away.
You may also find yourself – as I did – becoming something of a "hybrid". Hybrids roughly preplot their book, sometimes slipping in a plotted chapter (z.B. to approach a hard part in the book strategically), but don’t stick rigidly to the plot. Personally, I need z.B. always a rough direction, a red thread, which I can orientate myself on in case of emergency. Once I’m on the road, though, I let my characters off the leash and see where they take us. In my experience, characters often know better what a good story looks like in the end.
Step 3: The rough draft – the big part (+ marketing)
Finally the time has come. You’ve worked out your ideas and – optionally – written them down in a plot. Here we go, you’re finally going to write a book and you need to fill the first few pages. But now it can happen that you open the document and suddenly realize that you can’t think of anything anymore.
Your mind is a blank and even though your ideas are clear, you just can’t get it into the right words. This is roughly called "the fear of the blank page". I’ve also sat in front of my documents, struggling to find that perfect first sentence that never came.
In the meantime, I have developed a little trick for myself, which may help you, too. The thought behind it was: if we’re afraid of the blank page, just make sure the page isn’t blank anymore. The implementation is simple. You just write a sentence.
This may seem rather nonsensical at first glance, but it works. Once I’ve written my first sentence, I can get started on the book, because I know I’ll revise that first sentence later on. And if you have written a whole book, it will be much easier for you to find a good first sentence afterwards. For inspiration, check out this article on famous first sentences: 24 masterful novel beginnings
You still can’t think of a first sentence even now? Then you can use the one I always use:
Yep – that’s it. Writing is a craft and the book you deliver later should have a certain quality to it. But that doesn’t mean you have to go crazy with your rough draft.
Your rough draft is not there to be sent to a publisher or editor. Even test readers don’t have to see your rough draft. It’s simply there to fill the pages so you have something to revise later on. In the current step, there is no correcting, no overturning, and no tweaking of the perfect sentences. You will have plenty of opportunities to do this later.
Now you just write down everything that should appear in the book, no matter how boring and uninspired the formulations may be.
What you should start now is your marketing. Tell the world about your idea! Introduce your characters one by one, share a successful quote or two, let your readers vote on your title (and maybe even multiple cover designs later), and more! Involve your future readers in the writing process now, so they can’t wait to buy your book when it’s finished. Also, don’t forget to market yourself as an author. Show something of yourself and your personality, network with other authors, readers, and bloggers, and build your own network.
Marketing a novel is not an easy thing – but you can make it easier for yourself if you build a relationship with your readers in time and then relate them to your book.
Turn your manuscript into a book
Your rough draft is ready and you have written the word End under it? Congratulations, you have a … manuscript! Basically, you could also say that you’ve written a book, even if it’s not quite finished yet. For the sake of simplicity, I always distinguish between the manuscript, i.e. the written story, and the finished book, which has been proofread, corrected and has a cover.
To turn your manuscript into a book, there are a few more steps to take.
Step 4: The first revision (+ cover)
This is the point where you can finally get started. Reread your manuscript and cross out anything that bothers you. You can rewrite passages, delete scenes, refine sentences, and improve spelling mistakes. The revision phase is there to make your manuscript presentable. Again, there are different ways to go about this:
- print out your manuscript and work with a red pencil
- work on the PC with a comment function
- read it on the PC and improve it immediately
In addition to the general working method, some authors also make a distinction between how they approach content revision:
- z.B. first any scenes that need to be deleted or rewritten
- then z.B. Any repeated words or typos
- or revise chapter by chapter
If you’re unsure how to go about it, it’s best to ask some of your fellow authors how they revise and then test your way through the methods. Personally, I just go from chapter to chapter in this first revision, because that’s what has worked for me. Still, I may jump between chapters because I find out later that I need to add something further ahead. In that case, I make an appropriate comment up front (I revise using Word) and then finish the current chapter.
Important: If you’re self-publishing, you should contact your designer at this time and commission the cover. If you start too late, you’ll end up with a finished book but no cover, and you’ll have to postpone your start. You can also use your cover for promotional purposes and as content for your social media channels. The sooner it’s done, the sooner you can get it out there and win over readers.
If your book has been picked up by a publisher, the publisher will take care of the cover. It is best to discuss with your contact when you will receive the cover and when you will be allowed to display it.
Step 5: Test reader + revision (optional)
This step is optional. If you want to work with test readers, the completion of the first revision is the optimal time to give them the manuscript (and a deadline!) to give. After you have received feedback from all the test readers, you incorporate their comments.
Be sure to include your test readers in your workflow before the paid editor does. Editing should be the final check for the content of your story.
Step 6: The editing + revision process
If you haven’t used test readers, now is the time to hand over your manuscript for the first time. This can be an exciting moment. A stranger will not only read your book, but also criticize it and make suggestions for improvement. If you are nervous about this, it is normal. Do not worry too much at this point. If you’re going to write and publish a book, part of the process is having other people read it, too. You’ve done your best up to this point, now it’s time to let it go.
Remember, you are paying this person to critique your manuscript. No matter what this person says, it doesn’t go against you. On the contrary, she works with you to make your manuscript a really good book that your readers will love.
Once you have your manuscript back, you work the comments back into your manuscript. As you can see, your book will go through several rounds of revisions anyway until it’s ready. You don’t have to get your rough draft perfect, nor do you have to get everything ready for print in the first revision.
If the editor has made a lot of comments and you are unsure, you can arrange a second round of editing. This is usually not necessary. It’s best to discuss whether a second round of revisions is included in the price or whether you have to pay extra.
Step 7: Proofreading, fine-tuning + formatting
As you may notice, this is where things really get moving. Because as soon as you have your book back from the editor and the comments have been incorporated, it’s time for the next service provider: the proofreader.
The proofreader is there to find spelling and grammatical errors. This is not the job of your editor. Your editor may point out some errors that catch his or her eye directly. It is also possible that your proofreader will note something in the content that you and your editor may have overlooked. But it is not a standard task.
It is important for me to mention here that both editors and proofreaders are human beings, not machines. They read your manuscript carefully and chalk up everything they can find. But it can always be that one thing is overlooked. If you don’t like the result, give feedback and resubmit the manuscript for correction.
But please don’t run around telling everyone "how bad" person xy is. Especially if she does the rework for free and cares about your text. Maybe this person is still at the beginning of their career – just like you – and is grateful for all feedback. #formoretogether
Back to your manuscript: Once you get it back from the proofreader, it’s just a matter of fixing spelling and grammar mistakes. Remember: Your text is now corrected. If you rewrite large passages, they are again not corrected. So make sure the substantive copywriting is done before you send your manuscript to the proofreader.
From my own experience (because I tend to forget), here are a few more points that you should also complete before the proofreading and submit right away:
- The acknowledgement
- The dedication
- The blurb
You may even submit the latter to the editorial office so that your editor can work with you on the content.
Attention: You publish yourself? Then you have the fun of the formatting game ahead of you. Make sure that all page breaks are correct, that you don’t miss any whoremongers or cobblers, that the hyphenation is correct, that the blank pages at the beginning are set correctly, and so on and so forth. An ebook requires very little formatting, so it’s best to start with that. With a print version, you have to do more work, or you can simply hand it over to a service provider. By the way, all of you who publish with a publisher can breathe a sigh of relief: the formatting will be done for you.
You see: Either way, writing a book is always teamwork!
Step 8: Publication
How your publication goes will always depend on your particular situation. Are you publishing with a publisher or self-publishing?? You’ll choose Amazon, neobooks and other contributors as your platform? Do you want to publish it as eBook and print, only as eBook or do you want to find a printing company to publish only prints in self-mailing?? Clarify these questions and then, if necessary, find out what final steps are necessary to publish your book on these platforms.
One thing all authors need, though, no matter where or how they publish:
- a band-aid for your "F5 finger
- a lavender candle (to calm you down)
- A friend or two standing by to hang out with you
That’s all you need for a successful publication. *g*
Not really, of course, but some of the things on the list you should really consider doing. Besides what you need to consider in marketing to get off to a successful start, you should also keep an eye on "the trappings.
Writing a book is not easy, but publishing it also takes nerve. If possible, publish when you’re free the next day. Don’t take caffeine and make sure that no important phone calls, family meetings or other things take place. Because you’ll be one thing above all else: Incredibly excited. You’ll write to everyone you know who knows about your book to let them know it’s now online. You will – probably – beep, run circles, call your parents, call your friends, chat with ten people at once, constantly harass your F5 key, and mega freak out when the first book is sold.
In short, you’ll be flooding your veins with adrenaline. If you’ve ever experienced this, you know that as soon as you sit down and your mirror falls off, you’re not going to be much use for anything else. And that’s okay. Go to sleep so you can check right back the next day to see how many books have been sold or how many pages have been read.
Above all, enjoy your first publication. You’ve created something really special and you can be proud of it. Not everyone has the stamina it takes to be able to write a book, revise it, and send it out into the world. You get to celebrate yourself for it, and have your friends and family celebrate you for it, too.
You want to print out the 8 steps as a checklist? Then you can download it here for free:
Find more free downloads for authors on our AuthorWing resources page. Take a look!
The AuthorWing Community – Become part of our network
In our AuthorWing community, I’ve instituted that on the last day of each month, we always celebrate the authors who have a book out that month. This is not about advertising or anything else – but simply about being with each other. To include a "you published a book, that was good work and I appreciate that".
But even apart from that, authors in this community offer each other mutual support, motivation through shared writing sessions or help with general and project-specific questions.
Young newbies meet experienced authors here, who support them with words and deeds, but also learn from the younger ones themselves. AuthorWing is now over three years old and I find it incredibly exciting to see how this community has evolved.
If you want to write a book, be part of our community, and network with other authors, you’re invited to join us!
Please make sure to answer the questions when joining – everyone who does not answer the questions will be rejected. If you forgot to answer the questions and got rejected, you can submit a new application and answer the questions.
Come by and become a member of AuthorWing! You can find more information here.
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For the next year, I have resolved to finally write a book. This has been on my list for many years, but I just never managed to do it. I really like the step-by-step explanation here and I’m definitely going to get a notebook and write down and record my ideas to get a clearer picture of my book. I hope to have it in print by 2021 – that would be a dream come true.
Hello Fine, thank you very much for your comment. &
I wish you super much success with your book! Are you already in the community on Facebook?? If not, feel free to join me! There you will find support and like-minded people. &
Love (and happy holidays),
I’m also finally starting to work on my first book of my own. I’ve been meaning to do this for a long time but never dared, but now I’m thinking "screw it"! It’s worth a try, go ahead!". I am only 17, but that means I have plenty of time to do it. I have my idea we in the first steps even already, more or less, written down in detail.
And this article really helps me to structure this whole process a little bit and to finally tackle it.
So thank you very much that you have made the effort to write such an article! I think I’m not the only one who thinks that and that helps.
Hello Lulu, thank you very much for your feedback! & I am very happy that the article helped you so much and I wish you much success in writing your novel! &