How to write a book and get it published
Writing a book and getting it published is a multi-stage process. Here’s a step-by-step guide to each of the main elements involved.
Decide upon your bestselling story idea
There is, so the expression goes, a book inside us all. However, if you can’t articulate what that book is, in other words the big idea, the book will most likely remain within you.
Decide from the outset exactly what this book is going to be: a novel, a non-fiction book outlining an area of your expertise, or a straight autobiography. Interrogate the idea by writing a list of what will be included in the book. If it is fiction, where will the story go, who are the main characters? Is there an underlying message? For a non-fiction title based on your talents, what areas will it cover? Who will it help? How will it change their current perspective?
Give a lot of thought to who might pick up your book. Can you see a potentially significant readership? If it might only appeal to a handful of people, it will be considered too niche for traditional publishers.
If you find yourself really struggling at this stage, it might indicate that you haven’t quite got the right idea.
Do some background research – and make a plan
A full length book can be 80,000 words or more. At this stage it is very easy to get overwhelmed by the scale of the task ahead. The sheer weight of information that will be required, not to mention the task of crafting it into an interesting narrative, can make it almost impossible to think clearly.
If you properly define all the component parts, it’s a lot easier to focus. Flesh out the original list you made in section one by plotting a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of the whole book before beginning with chapter one, or indeed that dreaded page one. Once you have a more detailed plan, it will take some of the pressure off and provide you with a helpful road map to keep you focussed on the subject as you go along.
For fiction, pay some attention to key characters, working out their back story and personality traits. Plot out what part they play in the book. With non fiction, research will play an important part of the planning process. What is the information you need and where will you get it from?
While research and planning is crucial, take care it doesn’t tip over into the territory of procrastination. If this stage in the process is taking weeks, or even months, you are stalling. Move on to the next section and begin writing. You can always go back and add more detail or research at a later date.
Start the writing process
Even experienced writers feel a frisson of anxiety when they stare at a blank page, well, more likely screen. Knowing that you are at the start of this process can be overwhelming. Some authors feel a little self conscious or exposed, wondering what people will think of what they write. Others expect criticism. Everyone is also aware that the first few paragrpahs can make or break a book. This is the moment you draw the reader in and engage them. If you don’t succeed they’ll move on to something else. That can really put the pressure on. The feeling can be so strong that it is almost impossible to type those all important first few sentences.
The only solution is to just get on with it. Start writing. Don’t worry about what it sounds like for now. (This is why it is called the writing process. It can take months, or even years). A technique I learned from my old days as a journalist is really useful here. Think about what you want this opening chapter to say and get something on the page. Once things start to flow, you will quickly find your direction. Then (and this is the magic part), go back and highlight the first sentence, or even paragraph and press the ‘delete’ key. (Or the ‘cut’ one if you are not feeling brave enough). Nine times out of ten, the next sentence or paragraph that you are left with is the perfect opener. It will be the absolutely brilliant, 100% attention-grabbing, beginning you were looking for all along. Try it.
Don’t think that you need to offer the reader absolutely everything you have from the off. It’s a huge mistake to cram in too much, too early. Long-winded details of a lengthy cast of characters, along with their motivations, reasons for being in the book and relationships with each other, are not necessary. The narrative should develop as you go on. Tempt and tease your reader: but don’t reveal all too soon.
Write every day – without distraction
The key to finishing a book, rather than starting off with great intentions and abandoning it a few chapters in, is discipline and consistency. Set a daily word count goal. It’s not always easy when it’s not your main job, so don’t be over ambitious. Just fix upon a small, yet doable, quantity of words and stick with it. If you are the type of person who likes routine, write at the same time of day, each day and in the same place (preferably somewhere quiet). A fixed daily word count target might not conjure up visions of an angst ridden, hugely creative author, but this is the way to guarantee a book gets written. Waiting until you feel ‘inspired’ each day is pointless.
Accept that some writing days will be better than others but even if you don’t feel up to it, try to get at least something down on the page. You can always go back and adjust what you’ve done later. The important thing is to maintain the momentum, keep the words coming through and the book will rapidly begin to take shape.
Always begin your allotted writing period by turning off all notifications on your phone and screen. Getting into the zone is impossible with social media messages bleeping, emails flashing up, or radios blaring in the background. Interruptions destroy your focus and it can take forever to reset. If you absolutely have to keep in touch with the outside world, resolve to only check messages once per hour, or better still, just twice a day.
Allow yourself to write badly. If your head is bubbling over with ideas, get them down on the page. Don’t slow your writing time to a standstill by trying to craft your sentences into the perfect prose. That can come later. Ditto, don’t worry if you stray off topic at times. If you have something to work with you can go back and revise it. Those few pars that don’t quite work in that chapter, might be perfect elsewhere. Even if they are not suitable, you always have a delete key and don’t need to show your manuscript to anyone until you are completely ready.
Revise, revise, revise
There are milestone moments a-plenty in book writing, but finishing the final word, of the final sentence, of the final chapter is a big one. However, this does not mean the task is over. The book now needs to be edited into shape before it can be submitted.
It is always useful to leave a short time gap between completing the manuscript and beginning the edit. A break of even a few days can help you see what’s been written with completely fresh eyes. You’ll be in a different mindset and your copy will hit a different note too.
Editing is not a one-off process. You will most likely read your book many many times. What should you be looking out for? At the most basic level, consider spelling. Spellcheckers don’t always get the nuances in language right, particularly in creative writing. They also don’t always pick up on mistakes where two words are used instead of one, such as girl friend, instead of girlfriend. Hyphenation is often a weakness too, so it is no-nonsense, not no nonsense. This is also a good time to look out for confused words such as accept, when you meant except, or conscious instead of conscience, and that old favourite their, there, or they’re. Plus, check your capitals. Authors often err towards Starting As Many Words as Possible with Capitals. Don’t.
Check out how you’ve presented the dialogue of your characters. As a rule, signs of emotion go ahead of the dialogue, as in: she stuttered (whispered, shouted). If they just plain old ‘said’, ‘asked’ or ‘replied’, it goes afterwards. Think carefully about how much dialect or foreign accents you decide to include in your dialogue. It can get tiring for a reader trying to work out exactly what the character is trying to say if the language is unfamiliar. Certainly never put it in the main narrative.
If you have written a work of non fiction, check and double check your resources. There needs to be an accurate list of works being cited, consulted, paraphrased or quoted from. This can be either in footnotes, or a separate file. Think carefully about resources too. While Wikipedia and Ask.com are great for quick answers, most publishers will require more credible references.
Look for niggling repetitions. Most writers are guilty of having a few favourite stock words or phrases. What are yours? If you find your main character frequently ‘fiddling with her hair self-consciously’, find her something else to do when she feels awkward. Or if your protagonist is always sighing, use a thesaurus to give him some alternative expressions to show his frustrations.
Editing is a process that can’t be rushed. Edit one chapter at a time, take a break and then do another. If you try to do it all at once, the quality of the edit goes down because you’ll find yourself just reading the book, rather than really working out whether every word counts.
Finding a publisher or agent
The number one criteria of publishing houses is achieving sales. Publishers are looking for audiences, not authors. They want to find books that readers have to have. They also need to believe that the author behind it is credible and has the relevant experience/credentials to be able to deliver this potential bestseller.
Your campaign to attract a publisher should begin at the same time as you start writing. It is never too early. It doesn’t matter how traditional, or old school, you see yourself as a writer there is one fact of modern authorship you cannot ignore: social media. You need to step up your online game. Today. If a publisher gets to the stage of seriously checking out your credentials, they will look you up online to see what sort of following you have. This is not something that can be left until you start pitching the book. Build up your online presence while you are writing your book. Choose your channels carefully according to the ones your target customers are likely to use. If you are not quite sure whether Insta, Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn would work best for you, try a few platforms with different campaigns and watch the response. Focus your energies on the one that works best, publishing regular, engaging content, but don’t completely neglect the rest. They may be a slow-burn source of success.
Another big, early decision is whether to try to attract an agent, or go direct to a publisher. In days gone by, publishers would only ever accept submissions via an agent, but some are a little more flexible today. Go through their websites and check their submission guidelines to see if they will accept a direct approach from authors. As a general rule, an agent might be a better bet for a first time author, since they will guide you through the submission process. Agents know what publishers want and don’t want, and how authors can sabotage their chances of landing a deal. You might also take the attitude that if a book is not good enough to excite an agent, it is unlikely to set the world of publishing on fire.
If you want to try going direct to a publisher, try to be targeted in your search. I always suggest that authors take a trip to Waterstones, or their local independent bookstore, to browse the shelves for similar titles. It is a really good way to get a feel for who publishes what sort of book, which will help you identify where to pitch your title. There is no point sending your sci fi series to a publisher that always majors in romance, or your business ‘how to’ book to one that only publishes fiction. The identity of the publishing house is obvious, since it will be on the spine of the book.
Approaching a publisher or agent
Authors don’t need to wait until the book is fully completed before they begin approaching agents and publishers. It is possible to start part-way through the writing process, say between three to six chapters in. It’s worth it too because this can be a very slow process and you might as well keep yourself occupied writing the rest of the book while you wait weeks for a response.
While agents require a one-page query letter and, in they are interested, will follow-up with a request for more information, initial submissions to publishers (and some agents) can often be more complex, requiring chapter-by-chapter breakdowns of the book, marketing information, target readership and more. They’ll also want sample chapters. Publishers and agents publish precise requirements online about what they wish to see in proposals from prospective authors. Follow them to the letter! If they say they want three chapters and a blurb, send three chapters and a blurb. Not five chapters. Or two. Accuracy is key.
As well as checking the strength of the idea, one of the key elements publishers want to get out of the proposal is an idea of potential sales. This is why they generally ask about the market the book will be pitched at and for an idea of competitive titles. You won’t have access to all the latest book statistics, but it is worth making a rough calculation. Search for books in a similar genre in the Kindle store or on Amazon and note down the top ten sellers in the bestseller rankings. Plug the titles into one of the many free sales calculator tools available online, which will give an indication of the number of books sold per day. Warning: this can be quite a sobering process!
If you do choose to go down the mainstream publishing route, you will get rejections. A lot of rejections. It can be pretty humbling and dispiriting too. However, remind yourself that it is a business decision by the publisher, not a reflection on your writing ability. If you’ve put in the work and produced a creative, highly readable and well-edited manuscript, there is every possibility that another publisher will see the merit in the idea and, most importantly, a substantial potential audience for your book.