Thursday, January 26, 2012

How to Write a Book

Recently, I had a Twitter buddy of mine ask me if I could tell them how to write a book.

If the rest of my blog doesn’t make it clear, I enjoy helping. And complaining about how certain TV shows bug me. But I don’t think anyone is looking for information about what some dude on the Internet thinks about various TV shows, so I’ll kind of wander away from that topic for now.

Okay? Okay.

Honestly? I don’t know if one blog post can really tell you how to write a book. That implies that a book is a singular thing. It’s like asking how to bake a cake. Well, okay, I can Google a cake recipe, and send it to you, but if it’s for a sheet cake and you wanted a German chocolate cake, it isn’t going to do you much good.

Really, to talk about writing a book, you need to come up with a branching tree of questions, and answer them to your satisfaction, and at the end you’ll have a book. Or at least a manuscript, which isn’t quite the same thing.

I would argue that the first question you need to ask yourself is, am I going to find an agent/publisher for this book? Or am I going to indie publish?

Now, this can be a fluid answer. You could change your mind in the middle of the project. You can publish the book yourself, and then if someone wants to put it out you can sell it to them and let them put it out.

Or you can look for an agent/publisher, and if no one wants to release your book (a very real possibility) you can decide to put the book out on your own.

If you’re going to try to get an agent or publisher, do yourself a favor and Google the following things and people:

Writer’s Market
Stephenie Meyer
Janet Evanovich

The latter two are authors, and they have a lot of information on their respective web sites about how to write a book and get it into the hands of an agent. (Janet turned all her posts into a book on writing, if you’d rather pay to consume the same information.)

Writer’s Market is a big book (if they still sell it as a book… I’m not sure, really) and more importantly, a web site that has information on pretty much every publisher and agent in existence. For maybe five bucks a month, you can run a search on agents and publishers who are looking for the kind of book you’re writing.

On the other hand, if you’re self-publishing, Google:

Joe Konrath Blog
Amanda Hocking Blog
Karen McQuestion Blog

These are three of the most well-known indie writers in the world, and all of them offer massive amounts of “how I did it” blog posts for free. Perhaps more importantly, Konrath has links to the people who do his covers and book formatting. At some point, you’ll probably want that information.

Now, here’s the reason this is important – the next question is, what kind of book are you planning on putting out?

For the sake of brevity (too late!) we’ll divide this into two choices: Fiction, or Non-Fiction.

Fiction books work like so: You write the book, from the first letter to the last. Then you revise it. Then you either publish it, or start looking for agents and publishers.

Non-fiction books, however, don’t usually work that way. What happens is, you write a book proposal, and reasonably sized chunk of the book, and then you send that piece of the book to agents and/or publishers.

Why do it that why? I’m not totally sure, but if I understand it correctly, it’s kind of a marketing decision. Essentially, it’s so the publisher can say, “Well, we really don’t want to read a story about an autistic man who has memorized pi to the 2 millionth place. However, it sounds like this guy is also a ninja. We could use a book about an autistic ninja. Why don’t you completely rework your premise and get back to us?”

It’s probably not that drastic, but that’s the general idea.

Of course, if you’re planning on putting out the book yourself, you can’t publish in incomplete manuscript. So you should plan to write the whole thing.

Okay, now we’re getting into the stuff that’s sort of impossible to quantify.

For both fiction and non-fiction, before you dive into the process, I would read four or five books that are similar to yours that have been published in the last ten years or so.

Chances are good that you’re already doing this. Maybe you love young adult vampire books, and want to write one of your own. Great. By now you should have a feel for what they look like. Go ahead and start writing.

Or maybe you love memoirs, and as an autistic ninja, you think your story is interesting enough that the world will want to read it. Get right on that.

But, seriously. If you’d never been in a car before, you wouldn’t hop into one and try to drive it. So if you’re looking around, and seeing that YA Paranormal Romance is selling, and you figure you can knock one of those out, because your friend told you “Twilight” was dumb and nothing happens in it and you figure that you can write a dumb book where nothing happens…

I’d give you maybe a 5% chance of finishing that book. Probably less, but no more.

And if you do finish it, I give you maybe a 0.01% chance of finding an agent or publisher for it. And really, your chances are probably even smaller than that, because unless you’re some kind of YA PNR savant, chances are good that your book won’t give your intended audience what it wants.

Now, you may, accidentally or on purpose, create a new thing that someone thinks will sell. But I wouldn’t count on it. If you try to build a house, and you make a train instead, it’s possible you’ll find someone who wants to buy that train. But chances are better that people are going to say, “But I wanted a house!”

So, to reiterate: Read at least 4-5 books in the genre you’re trying to emulate, all of them published in the last ten years. The last five might be better.

Next, figure out your book format.

In fiction, you can quite literally write a book any way you want. I’ve read 450 page novels with over 100 chapters. I’ve read a 200 page novel that had no chapters. Some people like to name their chapters. Some people have short chapters, and some have long. Some people like to divide the long chapters up into sub-chapters, for easier reading.

I once read a 600 page non-fiction book with 12 chapters, no titles or subheadings. Holy cats, was that confusing sometimes. The book was very long (obviously) and very rambly and bounced around a lot from topic to topic. And with those long chapters, I had no frame of reference.

The point is, that’s how he did it.

Which leads me to non-fiction, which can also be written any way you want. But if you’ve read a few books in the genre, you’ll have a good idea of what they look like. Again, long chapters? Short? How is the subject matter divided up?

And so on.

Again, you can make a decision and then change it later, but then you get to deal with the trouble of undergoing a massive book reformat, which can take anywhere from minutes to days.

When I wrote my own non-fiction books, the first thing I did was lay out what all my chapters would be, and then typed up some notes on what each chapter should include.

I added and subtracted stuff as I went, but in the end, I stuck pretty close to my original outlines. (And I guess it worked. “How to Find a Job” made it as high as number 6 in the resumes category.)

With fiction?


Again, this is where reading those four or five books comes in. Because I can’t tell you how to write your novel, first because it’s your novel and not my novel, but second, because different kinds of novels come with different expectations and demands.

Most publishers want a novel to be more than 80,000 words, but consider 120,000 words to be sort of an upper limit. Unless we’re talking about fantasy, in which case sometimes 120,000 words is maybe the halfway point…

Which is where I go back to understanding your genre.

Ultimately, knowing what “your” kind of book is “supposed” to look like will help you to determine how to write your book. If long chapters are the norm, you should take that into consideration. If your genre specifies certain types of outrageous (or buttoned-down) characters, try to accommodate that.

Do you have to follow every single data point? No. In fact, being a little different is often how you stick out. But your book should have the shape of other books in your genre.

So, let’s talk plot.

I was once asked, by a totally separate friend, how you write enough words to make up an entire novel, because they always got stuck around page 20.

There are a lot of reasons that happens. I would argue, first of all, that maybe the idea they had wasn’t designed to be a novel. Perhaps it was a short story. Or a novella. A novel, quite frankly, is not just one complication dragged out for 400 pages. It’s a very large complication that involves a lot of other smaller complications.

I don’t know if that was my friend’s issue or not.

A secondary possibility that I see an awful lot is the sheer daunting fact that 90,000 words is a whole lot of words. I just finished a 65,000 word YA novel. In manuscript form, it was about 315 pages long. When you’re on page 20, and you know you have 295 pages to get to the end, and the only way to get there is to pull stuff out of your own head, it’s easy to go find something else to do.

Another possible problem you can encounter when trying to write a novel is that you simply don’t know what’s going to happen next. Some people like to call this writer’s block.

Honestly? I’m not really sure I believe in writer’s block. I think writer’s block mostly happens to people who either have no fear of starvation, or no real deadline.

When I have a freelance journalism gig, I have a deadline. My story must be in X inbox at Y time, or I’m not getting paid and probably never getting another phone call to write another story from that particular editor.

Journalists aren’t allowed to have writer’s block. At Y time, the story needs to be there, or you’re done. So you have to write something.

(Edit: There used to be a paragraph about John Scalzi here. I have removed it because John kindly came here and corrected me on my understanding of the situation. My apologies, John.)

(Second edit: I pulled out some other stuff, about some other authors. Because, really? They weren't kind. And on the whole, I'd rather be kind.)

What I suspect happens to a lot of wannabe novelists is that they stop writing one day, and then never go back to it. Not unlike all the people who sign up for a new gym on New Year’s Day and then have stopped going by February.

Are there ways to fix this?

There are a couple.

First, set up a writing time and stick to it. One hour. In the morning, or at night. And you sit in the desk for that entire hour, in front of the computer, and you’re not allowed to play games, check your email, or do anything fun. You can write your story, or not.

Second, before you start writing the novel, put together a beat sheet. Which is to say, write down the entire novel, scene by scene, in short form. Some authors claim that outlines kill creativity, but, eh. No one said you can’t change your outline later.

But if you can’t even put together five pages that tell you what the story is going to be, trust me, I’m 99.9% sure that it isn’t going to magically come to you if you start writing the novel anyway, and you hit the point you got stuck on. What will happen is, you’ll stop and it will probably be game over.

Once you’ve got an outline, all you have to do is fill in the details. Is that still hard? Yep. It still time-consuming? Yep. But you will never wonder what comes next. It’s right there on the page. You just have to expand on it.

One final thought, as far as plotting a story goes.

First, always keep in mind what makes for a good story. I’ve always said it something like this:

A good story follows a character you find interesting through a series of increasingly difficult obstacles, until your character wins.

Now, granted, if you’re reading a horror novel, your character might lose. Sometimes, characters do lose. But that definition at least gives you a starting point.

For that matter, if you get stuck, ask yourself this: What’s the worst possible thing that could happen to my character next?

Stop short of death, and you can probably at least write the next scene.

So… you type and type and type, and then you get to the end. What then?


Let it sit. Stephen King says six weeks, I think. But unless you have a super-awesome memory, I’ll wager that by the time you get to the end of your story, you’ve probably forgotten whole chunks of the beginning.

So I’d say, wait a week, and then go through and read your book, cover to cover. Makes changes. Make notes. Some people edit on paper, but I do it on the screen because I like to fix problems immediately.

If you’ve never written a novel before, I’d recommend editing on paper, only because it’s easier to make notes, and scribble little changes you want to try, but aren’t committed to.

How many times should you edit? I have no idea. I know one friend who struggled with editing a book for seven months. That friend? Got six figures for the three books.

Amanda Hocking, on the other hand, wrote a novel in two weeks. She edited it (though I don’t know that she ever said how much) and then sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

I’d say the answer is it takes as long as it takes.

Next, find a couple friends who have English degrees. And are willing to be harsh with you and/or your typos and/or any other issues the book might have. Give it to them. Let them read it. Edit again.

Then it’s time to submit to agents/publishes and/or self-publish the book, whichever you wanted to do.

How do you self-publish? Type kindle publish into Google and sign up, then follow the steps/tutorials they give you. It’ll take you a few days to figure everything out. That’s normal. I realize that if you’re really close to done, not getting your book out RIGHT NOW might drive you insane. That’s hard. Work through it.

You’ll need cover art. If you have a friend who knows how to use Photoshop, they can probably help you with this. Or you can hire someone. That’s where the Joe Konrath search will have come in handy.

If you really want to, you can pay someone to format your book as well. That’s up to you.

You can pay someone to professionally copyedit your book. Not a bad idea, if it’s your first novel and you want to look like you know what you’re doing.

What will all this cost you? Anywhere from $100 to $2500. Shop around. Remember that, yes, it takes money to make money.

If you’re going to agent/publisher route, look stuff up on Writer’s Market. They’ll tell you what they want to see. Usually a cover letter and some part of the book.

After that? Well, you’ll either get a publishing deal, or you’ll have a book on the Kindle. You can also do the nook (Google pubit).

How do you sell the book? Eh. Tell your friends on Twitter. Tell your friend on Facebook. Ask them to tell their friends. Some will. Some won’t.

After a week, stop talking about it, because people will get sick of hearing about it, the same way non-parents get tired of hearing about your new baby.

And then what?

Depends. If you liked writing a book, and all the stuff that goes with it, write another one. If you didn’t enjoy the process at all, well, you never have to do it again. That’s your choice.

And for what it’s worth, that’s a VALID choice, which is something people forget. If you start writing a novel, and get 100 pages into it, and realize that you hate writing and you don’t want to do it anymore? Quit. Really. There’s nothing wrong with that.

That’s how you write a book. Good luck.


  1. "I would never back out of a contract like that."

    Your understanding of events is incorrect. I didn't back out of a contract, I just didn't write that particular book. Nor did I get stuck; the writing was coming along perfectly well.

    The problem was the writing was not up to my standards, and when I realized that I stopped, informed my publisher of the problem, and then offered to write a different book to fulfill the contract. As the book I offered them was in the Old Man's War universe (i.e., a book they were going to want anyway, and which would have likely cost them substantially more if they had to write a new contract), they were perfectly pleased with the substitution.

    Thus was the contract fulfilled, to the satisfaction of all parties. I wrote a better book (which would later go on to be nominated for a Hugo), and my publisher reaped the benefit because they were flexible with me.

    1. John: My apologies. I've removed the paragraph and added a note of correction.