So, you have this great idea for a book. Maybe it’s a story that’s been burning a hole in your brain since childhood. Maybe it’s a sudden inspiration you got after watching two movies and combining some ideas. Maybe you have expertise the world really needs right now. Maybe it’s some entirely different thing.
On the other side of the writer’s journey, you’ll have a book that’s ready to self-publish or send to an agent or editor. The day it’s ready to move forward will be one of the landmark days in your life as a writer.
Trouble is, there’s this whole writer’s journey in between those two points. If you’ve never taken that journey before, it can be easy to get lost. Even if you have done it before, it might have been a difficult trek with lots of twists, turns, dead-ends, and time spent wondering how to move forward.
In martial arts, there’s a word: sensei. It means teacher, but literally translates to “one who has walked this path before”. It’s a good word for what we’ll be doing today. Guest writer Jason Brick has written over 80 books, and is going to tell you his road from idea to finished book. You don’t have to do it exactly as he describes here, but it’s easier and better to change a well-known process than to try and make up your own from scratch. So without further ado, heeeeeeere’s Jason!
Like the man said, I’ve written, edited, ghostwritten, or substantively contributed to 84 books as of this writing. You can find most of them on Amazon, or track me down on Facebook and I’ll send you one for free just because you’re buddies with Erin and Blaine. Over that time, I’ve honed down processes I learned from grizzled writing veterans like Lawrence Block and Jack Rochester, and fine-tuned it to work for me.
Some of this will be perfect for you. Some of it will be pretty good with a few tweaks. Some might not work for you at all, but if you start here and move forward you will find you get more written, faster, and with higher quality. Let’s get to work.
Step One: Begin With the End in Mind
Steven Covey didn’t lie. Start the process by envisioning what the book will look like when it’s finished. Start with an overarching summary. For fiction, it should be something like your elevator pitch: a one or two sentence description of the plot and themes. For nonfiction, it should describe the high-level benefit a reader will gain from your book.
Armed with that summary, you’ll need to find your desired word count. Different genres and styles have different requirements and traditions about book length. You can read all about them in this article here. Self-publishing is much more flexible about this than traditional publishing, but it’s still a good idea to stay within 10 or 20 percent of those numbers.
With those two pieces in place, you’ll have the general framework of your book and a sense of how long it’s going to be. That’s enough to move on to step two.
Step Two: Set Up Your Support Poles
Your book is like a tent. It has taut sections and slacker sections, and the whole thing is held up by a handful of support poles that keep the thing open and inviting for everybody. Once you have a general notion of where your book is headed, you need to build those support poles. This process looks different depending on whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction.
Fiction Support Poles
Popular fiction has a rhythm that you’ve gotten used to over the course of your entire life. Readers expect to find certain points where the action rises and gels, and if they don’t get them when they’re expected, they tend to become disappointed. The most common support poles include:
- An inciting incident, where your protagonist first gets involved in the trouble their adventure in the book is about. This usually shows up about 1/10th of the way into the book.
- The first plot point, where your protagonist discovers or experiences the first major event that changes both them and the story. This should appear between 20 and 25 percent of the way into the book.
- The midpoint, where they begin to go on the attack, making things happen in the story rather than reacting to what the story has been doing to them. This happens midway through the book (hence the name).
- The second plot point, where the protagonist begins the process that leads inexorably to the climax. Put this about 80% of the way through.
- The climax, which begins at 90% of the way through the book and should end about 95% to the end.
Make notes, maybe even detailed notes or entire half-finished scenes, for each of these points in your story. They’ll be holding up all the connective tissue of your tale, so you should think about them and work on them the longest.
Nonfiction Support Poles
Divide your book into parts, each dealing with a major subcategory of your topic. These might be individual elements, or they might progress through the journey you want your reader to take as they become progressively more immersed in your subject.
Your book should have between 4 and 6 such parts, each of which is divided into 3 to 5 individual chapters. For each part, note what the chapters will be and the general overview of what you will cover for each.
As with fiction, the structure of your book will hold up the details within each. The better handle you have on how each part works, and interacts with the other parts, the better your book will be.
Step Three: Sketch What Has You Excited
Pro writing tip #258: you don’t have to write your book in order.
There will be scenes, sections, chapters, snippets of dialogue, worksheets, top tens, and other elements of your book that you’re absolutely riled up to make happen. Write them now, while they’re still burning a hole in your mind.
Capitalize on that enthusiasm and just get it all down, with all the fire and enthusiasm they’re demanding. Once you finish each, place it into your story between the poles that are most appropriate. You’ll find that knowing where they go in the overall structure of your story will help you write them more effectively.
Once you’ve finished with the parts you’re most excited about, scribble down a few notes about each of your support poles. Many writers find that, after they’ve written the hot scenes, they’re ready to write these support poles outright. Others just have a few extra details or bullet points. Either way, flesh them out further while you’re in this writing mode.
Step Four: Build Your Outline
At this point, you’ve got the bones of your book lined out. You know how the story or information will flow, and you’ve identified the parts that are most important in general or most exciting to you. From here, it’s time to add the connecting tissue that bridges the gaps between those points, as follows:
- Take the word count you figured out in step one and map it to your support poles and the scenes you wrote during Step Three.
- Use that information to find out about how many words are between those scenes. For example, if you’re writing a 100,000 word fantasy novel, you know there’s about 25,000 words between your first plot point and your midpoint.
- Estimate how many words you use to write one “block” of your story, whether that “block” is a chapter, a scene, or a piece of dialogue. You can usually use your excited scenes as a rough guide.
- Do the math to find out how many blocks you still need to write.
- Build your outline by making a general note about what goes in each block.
You can always deviate from your outline once you’ve written down, but it’s better to start with an outline and change it than to try writing without the outline in place. This is one of the most important ways to avoid having to spend endless time in revision.
Step Five: Writing Binges
At this point, you have a list of blocks you need to write, and a top-level idea of what each block should be. Give yourself an appropriate amount of time to attack each block. Some you’ll write in their entirety, because you have all you need right now to write them out. Others might just get some bullet points or sketchy notes. Some might be both, with some notes for thin sections but other paragraphs written completely.
Don’t judge how much you get done in each block. Just get down what comes most naturally, and move on to the next. Whenever possible do each block in one session where you can concentrate on them undisturbed.
Step Six: Count What’s Remaining
After your binges, you’ll have a certain number of blocks for your book. Some of those will be in solid rough draft state. The rest will be partially done.
Count the number of blocks that still need work. Estimate how long it will take you to finish each block. Put that time in your schedule, then keep that schedule. Again, you don’t have to write the blocks in order. It can be a good idea to alternate between easy or fun blocks and blocks that take more work.
It’s exactly that simple, though I’ll be the first to admit it might not be that easy.
Consider this writing schedule a promise you make to yourself, and keep that promise as vigorously as you would a promise you made to somebody you love.
Step Seven: Excited Nine Year Old Draft
While you’re keeping the promise you made yourself in Step Six, use the following technique each time you get stuck for even a few seconds.
Think about the last time a nine year old kid told you the story of a book, show, movie, or video game they like. They didn’t get artful. They just spewed out information. They talked really fast and used the phrase “and then” a lot.
Write like that whenever you have to. It’s okay to put in “and then there was a big fight”, or “and then they had their first kiss”, or “then the hero spent the night drinking and worrying” or “i’ll put in that quote from Dr. X here”, and move on.
At this stage, your most important task is to maintain your momentum. Use the excited nine year old technique to maintain it.
Step Eight: First Real Draft, In Order
Here you go through your draft in order for the first time. You clean up the nine year old text, perfect the sentences, and make sure about continuity issues that might not have been apparent as you were writing things piecemeal.
Again, set a schedule and stick to it. Often it’s better here to set your goals by hours of writing instead of finishing specific chapters. Setting a finish line can make you hurry through the hard parts, where you should be taking your time.
When you reach the end of this step, spell check it and send it to your beta readers, then stop writing. Think about other things, or work on your next book, while you wait for the feedback to come in.
What Comes Next?
After a month or so, you come back to your manuscript armed with the ideas and suggestions of your beta readers. How to revise a book is a subject for another article (which I’ll be writing for everybody next month, so stay tuned!), but here’s something to remember about revisions.
The better you writer your initial draft, the less revision you’ll need and the easier those revisions will be. Writing a great initial draft relies much more on your process for writing it than your talent as a writer. Nail down these ten steps, or build your own with them as a starting point, to make sure your initial draft is as good as you can make it.
We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. You might have caught Jason’s pre-pandemic workshop about productivity or some of his earlier articles. If not, track him down on our Facebook group if you have any questions. He’s a huge writing nerd (like us), and happy to geek out about this with you.