How to write a book
Writing a book is one of the most satisfying things we can do, no matter if it's a novel, memoir, short story, or poem. It doesn't even matter if it's good or bad! Once you've written your book, no-one can take that away from you, and you can boast about it at dinner parties forever!
But how on God's green Earth do you actually write your first book?
It's both simpler (and maybe harder?) than you might think, but I'm going to break it down for you here.
- Story anatomy and terms
- Ways to write your book
- Creating initial story ideas
- Writing test scenes
- Use a beat sheet
- Other story planning options
- Getting the right book writing software
- Actually write!
- Does my book need a theme?
- Get feedback on your book
- Getting your book published
- Final thoughts
Story anatomy and terms
Before we get into things, here is a short list of terms that I'll use throughout this guide. Most will be obvious and self-explanatory – especially if you've already read an article or two on writing – but it's important I make sure we're all on the same page.
Book: Duh, that thing you want to write! It could be a memoir, novel, collection of poems or short stories. For the purposes of this guide, we're looking at fictional novels of any genre.
Plot: This is all the things or events that actually happen in your story.
Scene: This is your basic unit of story. Broadly speaking, they usually span from 1 to a dozen pages in your book. For most standard commercial fiction, they tend to be from one character's point of view (which means we're only getting one character's thoughts and direct perspective on events), and will usually happen in one location (unless, of course, it's an action scene where your characters are moving around). Some people might think of this as a "chapter", but a chapter is really be a collection of scenes grouped together.
Plot Point/Beat: This is a significant event in your plot. If you were to write an outline of your story, these would only be a single sentence, but they can take anything from a few paragraphs of prose up to several scenes to play out. They might also be small, quiet events like a secret being revealed or feelings being expressed, or they might be big and loud, like two super-powers coming together for a fight.
Ways to write your book
The first thing to think about on your book writing journey is if you're a pantser or a plotter. These are two terms you'll hear all the time, and they're colourful ways to describe your writing style.
A plotter is someone who likes to plot out most of, if not all of, their story and its plot before they start writing. This might be a high-level plan of a story's major beats, or possibly a breakdown of every scene.
A pantser is someone who likes to ‘write by the seat of their pants', which is to say they start bashing away at the keys before they have much of an idea of who the characters are, where the plot will go, etc.
This comes across as a binary, but most writers are on a spectrum between plotter and pantser. (I, personally, am much closer to the plotter end.) And which you choose is perfectly fine as long as it works for you! There aren't any wrong answers here. In terms of this guide, it'll only affect how deep you delve into each step before you jump into writing. A pantser might only glance at each heading over coffee where as a plotter will at least make some notes for each point.
Again, there's no wrong answers for this – and you don't even have to know which one you are before you continue! – but keep the question at the back of your mind for now.
Creating initial story ideas
To start writing your book, you first need an idea.
But don't worry! You don't actually have to know all that much about your future book at this point. In fact, many authors (especially pantsers) might only know a few high-level details about a main character and their world before they write their first scene.
Common story details to know
Here are some common things writers will think about and jot down when first developing their book, and is a good basis for your own brain storming and world building. (But, again, you might only know one or two of these details before you start writing.)
- This could be their names, appearances, social backgrounds, jobs
- Relationships to each-other (say, a father and son, or best friends)
- World building:
- Is your book set in the real, modern world? Set in the past or future? A fantasy setting?
- Are there any important locations (maybe a home; school; office; field where the cops find the body; cave where the treasure if buried)
- What is the government/society like? e.g., how are minorities treated? Are people with blue eyes microchipped and kept in cages?
- World items
- This could be spells, tech, food
- Plot points
- Is there going to be a big and important death?
- Do the characters run into each-other at the mall food court?
As an example, for one of the first novels I ever wrote, the only two things I knew about it were that the main character had his consciousness copied into a robot body at the beginning of the book but could only see his real, human face. And that, at some point, the robot would have to dig himself out of a cave-in, after which point he'd finally be able to see his real robot self.
So you don't need to know too much to get started writing your book, but knowing some things will help inform other decisions you'll eventually make, and will even give you other ideas!
Where to get ideas for your stories
There are plenty of places to gain inspiration, but the trick is to recognise it when it happens.
For instance, if there's a funny family story that gets retold over and over every Thanks Giving, maybe that could be the basis for a plot point in your story? (Famously, Zach Braff wrote ‘Garden State' from a collection of such family anecdotes.) Or maybe there's some big (or little?) struggle or desire in your real life which – after changing names to protect the innocent – you could explore through fictional characters.
You can also get inspiration from other books and movies. No, I don't mean by stealing or plagiarising their plots! (And I don't even mean fan fiction.) But sometimes you'll watch or read a story and think it's going to end up in a certain place but it goes somewhere totally different… but that certain place stays with you after. Or you think that the characters should have made different decisions. You'll of course have to change the other major details to make the story wholly your own, but that difference will be the basis of your new book.
You can also find inspiration in art. Sometimes seeing a character design will spark an idea of, "What if she was actually like this?" Or maybe you'll like the look of a weapon or vehicle, or it'll give you a certain feeling you want to imbue into your book.
AI-based image generators (like DALL-E 2 and Midjourney AI) can also take text prompts and produce unique images.
Again, this isn't about stealing or plagiarising ideas, but finding those sparks of inspiration that you want to expand upon and iterate. You could even commission some concept art on job sites like Fiverr and Upwork.
And your ideas don't need to be that numerous or in-depth before you proceed (remember my example above about the buried robot?). The few ideas you do have will quickly snowball into a larger world and plot.
You can also use story planning software like our companion app, Story Path, to help flesh out your ideas. (We'll talk more about Story Path below.)
Writing test scenes
So now that you have a few ideas, where do you go next?
A common technique for experienced authors is to start a new manuscript by writing test scenes, or even short stories.
A test scene is a short written piece (from a few-hundred to a few-thousand words, but the length is really up to you) where you explore one or two aspects of the story you're about to write. This usually includes a major character as well as one other aspect of the world (perhaps exploring their job or a piece of technology).
But why waste your time instead of just writing your book? Well, test scenes can help you develop your character's voice as well as decide on whether the story will be told in first or third person. It can help you explore how, say, a religious person sees a secular world (maybe they walk around saying little prayers to themselves, or they flinch at every punk with a mohawk). Or maybe you want to see how they'd handle extreme stress or the risk of death.
The point is, these are little playgrounds for you to experiment and explore in. Sometimes an author will put some of these test scenes into the final book, but you can expect to throw away most of them. (After all, they're about finding what does and doesn't work.) You might even find that you keep a test scene and expand it into a stand-alone short story at some point.
Use a beat sheet
Once you have a handle on your main cast of characters and have a few other world details, it's time to actually think about your book's plot.
If you're a pantser, you might be happy to just gloss over this section, but for plotters this section is your meat and potatoes!
The real truth is that there aren't any rules of what must be in a story to make it a good book or film. There are plenty of examples of stories that seem to break all of the rules but that grab readers' attentions none the less. There are also plenty of experimental or high-concept films that seem all over the place but are highly regarded.
That said, there are several well-known story-telling systems that many authors swear by and follow (and I've been known to use them once or twice). In no particular order, some of the big ones are:
- Save the Cat!
- Hero's Journey
- Heroine's Journey
- Dan Harmon's Story Circle
It's beyond the scope of this article to explain each of these, but it's definitely an important part of your writing education to look them up and learn about them.
The basics, though, is that each of these writing systems gives you what's called a "beat sheet". This is literally a list of story beats that each system says should be in your book and (often) in which order they need to occur. For instance, in the Save the Cat model, you need to start with an "opening image" and quickly have your story's "theme stated". It then covers the events leading up to your character going on their ‘journey' (which may be a metaphorical or literal journey), the troubles they have in the middle, and how they finally slay the dragon (again, maybe metaphorically) at the end.
Each system is different and may suit one type of story better over another. And you might even find you prefer one system over another! There aren't any wrong answers if you choose to use a beat sheet, as long as it helps you flesh out your story.
Scene One has a built-in Save the Cat beat sheet you're able to use, and you can learn more about the beat sheet manager here.
Other story planning options
While it's a common and useful idea to use a beat sheet, you aren't required to by law. There are plenty of other options to develop your story.
If you're a pantser, the obvious solution is to just start writing! As you go, the characters will lead you along, and your own imagination will throw in the obstacles and drama.
You might also want to use a story planning app such as Story Path to plan your book. Story Path takes several basic details about the book you're trying to write (such as characters, basic plot) and generates ‘next steps' for you to take. It can really jump-start a new book.
One way I often write my stories is to have several major "sign posts" set up that lead through my story and happen roughly every 20% or 25%. An example of this might be something like:
- 20%: The dead body is discovered
- 40%: The cops think the main character did it
- 60%: Main character tracks down the real killer
Then, as I write, I gently guide the story towards with next sign post while keeping in mind what'll be coming next. And when I reach each milestone, I re-evaluate where the story's at and where it's headed then update all future sign posts. Usually, by the time I reach the end of the book, I've re-written every sign post several times.
Getting the right book writing software
You might think that you can just bust out Google Docs or MS Word to write your book, but we have an entire article about how to choose the best book writing app for you. Spoiler alert: you're going to need and want more features than Gdocs or Word can give you.
If you're here learning to write a story, we'd hope you'd choose Scene One as the app to write your first book (you can even write your first book for free!), but with whichever option you choose, it's important to have a book writing app that easily manages your scenes and helps you keep track of your world building notes and items.
This is the toughest (and longest) part of the process, but it's one you can accomplish by putting one foot in front of the other. You want to take your beat sheet, figure out your first scene, then put finger-to-keys.
Tell the reader what your character is feeling and experiencing. Use the five senses. Make sure your scenes have conflict! (And keep in mind that conflict doesn't have to be physical!) Remember your sign-posts and where the story is headed, and what the villain or antagonist is doing in the back-ground.
The average book is something in the ballpark of 60,000 to 90,000 words (although some genres – like fantasy – tend to be well over 100,000 words), so if you can average 1,000 new words in a writing session (which is what a lot of authors aim for) it would take you three to six months to finish your draft.
This sounds daunting, but I mention it so that you are prepared. I'd hate for you to look back after a month of dedicated writing and feel like you aren't getting anywhere, even when you're right on track! Even the pros budget around six months (or even more!) for a new draft, which is why most authors only release a single book each year (don't let the likes of Brandon Sanderson skew your expectations – that man is super-human at the keyboard!).
But while this is the hardest part of the book-writing process, it's also the most fun! It's when you finally get to see your characters and world truly come to life, when you finally get to explore all those nooks and crannies of your universe that most intrigue you. You'll be surprised by the choices your characters make and where they naturally take you. That's right: you might think that Mary is going to end up with John, but maybe you discover that she actually has better chemistry with Charles.
What if my story deviates from my beat sheet?
Honestly, that's fine and to be expected. It's very common for writers to get themselves into trouble by fighting their characters and story and trying to make them do things that they really don't want to do.
That sounds silly considering we're talking about fictional people that we created with our brains, but it's true! You'll hear beta/test readers say things like, "I didn't believe that Mary would drop out of school in Chapter 5. She'd see that as failure." Or maybe, "You wrote Johnny to be nice, but thoughtless. He never would have bought flowers for his date with Jane, even though he really likes her."
So what's the solution?
Go with the flow! Let your characters and world take you where they want to go. You might think it's a problem, but it just means that you've given your characters real lives! Of course, there's the problem of your pre-planned plot. You will, then, need to re-evaluate how things will turn out, and that might mean major changes. Only you, as the godly author, can decide what you're prepared to change, but I'd always err on listening to what your characters want, as that is the story that will resonate with readers.
Does my book need a theme?
You've heard of that pesky thing called a theme, right? (Maybe back in Year 10 English?) But does your book really need one?
Well, this isn't actually the question I want to explore here.
Most likely, the first book you write won't be the first one you sell. Nor the second or third book. Brandon Sanderson, for instance, wrote over ten books before finally making a sale.
So the real thing I want to bring up here is that there are lots of pieces of writing craft that you'll need to learn, and that eventually will have to be present in your books. Some of these things are:
Any one of these things can make or break a novel, and you'll eventually want to master each. But does your first book (or second or third, for that matter) need to have perfect execution of each one of these story elements? No. My advice is, while trying your best, treat them as learning experience. Pick one or two that you feel confident with or want to explore, and focus on learning and improving those elements in this book. (So maybe that is a theme.) Then, in your next book, choose another element to work on and explore.
Get feedback on your book
Now that you've finally finished your first draft, it's time for someone to read it!
You might find this stage terrifying, but it's a necessary step in becoming a better author.
Having others read your book will tell you several important things:
- Is the book coherent?
- Is the plot interesting?
- Are the characters consistent?
- Are any parts confusing?
And as you write more and more (either by writing new books or redrafting this book), you'll find out:
- Are you getting better as an author?
- Is this book improving?
You also don't have to have finished the entire book before getting feedback. It might work for some people to read several scenes at a time, over the weeks as you write them. (I'd recommend at least a 5,000-word chunk as a minimum, though.)
You'll also need to learn who gives you good feedback and who – frankly – you can ignore. This doesn't mean to ignore people who said they didn't like your story or anything like that, but giving critique is a skill in and of itself, and some people simply can't give good feedback. To me, a sign of good feedback and critique is that it's specific about what caused a feeling, and there are actionable steps to fix it.
For example, bad feedback is, "I didn't like Uncle Bob." Okay, great. Is it because he's a vegan? Or because he's a cop? Or because he's bald? Good feedback is, "I didn't like Uncle Bob because he's always complaining about his job, but he never does anything about it." That is something you could fix, and would only take a few extra paragraphs here and there or Bob applying for something new.
And the final Golden Rule of feedback that will serve you well is: If one person states an opinion, you can take it or leave it; but if three people say the same thing, you must listen to them.
Writing and critique groups
As you progress in your writing career, you'll want to look into joining or forming a critique group.
We'll expand on this topic in a future article, but – in brief – a critique group is a group of usually 4-6 writers (although some are much larger) who meet regularly to exchange sections of their books to read and then give feedback on.
As an example, my critique group meets weekly (with regular breaks), with the general plan that we'll submit up to 5,000 words of our current book by Sunday night (preferably in sequential order!), which we then read on Monday and Tuesday, then come together on Wednesday to discuss. We then give feedback on, for example, things we loved, things that didn't work for us, parts we found confusing, etc.
Getting your book published
Congratulations! You've finished writing your book! You've re-drafted it once or twice, and your beta readers love it!
So, now what?
Well, that's kind of up to you. Usually, we write books because we want to get them published, either ‘traditionally' or self-published on a platform like Amazon. But, sometimes, authors write books just for themselves, and having it on a thumb drive in their top drawer is enough for them.
But that last example is the least interesting one for us!
We'll expand much more on the following in future articles, but we'll briefly discuss your publishing options here.
Getting traditionally published
Basically, when you think about "getting published" and ending up in a book store, this is what we call being "traditionally published": an editor paid you for your work then sent it to press. Usually it involves a (small) advance on sales, and you will almost definitely require a literary agent. Once you have an agent, they'll then be the one to pitch your book to publishers and editors who'll ultimately buy your story.
Being traditionally published comes with a lot of prestige, especially in the days of self-publishing. It can be hard, and there is a lot of competition, but is also rewarding.
The big bonuses of having your book traditionally published is that all the "business stuff" is done for you. You'll (usually) get an advance, which is money up front for future sales. And your publisher will commission a cover artist, they'll negotiate to get it into book stores, they'll market it for you.
The caveat is that, these days, if you're a brand-new author, you may be left to fend for yourself when it comes to marketing. The general idea is that a publisher will buy up ten new books with the hope that just one will be a hit and will recoup the money they lost on the other nine. So, if yours isn't a slam dunk, they may focus their marketing attentions elsewhere.
Self-publishing your book
This is becoming more and more popular – and becoming more and more viable for certain genres – as time goes on, and might also be your ‘back-up plan' if traditional publishing doesn't pan out.
Simply put, it involves you bundling up your book into a e-format like ePub or Mobi and making it available online, either through your own website/store or through a bigger marketplace like Amazon.
In this publishing option, there are no advances and no marketing help, and you have to pay for – and do – everything yourself. This includes:
- Getting a copy editor
- Designing a cover (probably by commissioning an artist)
- Writing marketing copy
- Actually marketing your book
It's true that there have been some very successful self-published authors out there, but it's important to understand the reality. The reality is that even the best book just won't self itself. They aren't magic, I'm afraid, and you have to spend a lot of time and money on marketing. As you build up a back-catalogue this becomes easier, but you'll have to spend a lot of time taking off your author cap and putting on your internet marketer cap.
Just like being a plotter or a pantser, the route you take (traditional or self-published) is entirely up to you, and there aren't any wrong answers!
As I said at the beginning, learning how to write a book is both easy and hard! It's easy because the steps are laid out for you, and the tools you need to write and readily available. But it's hard because it takes time and passion and dedication, and sometimes you won't get it right.
But, like everything, writing gets easier with practise. Your daily wordcounts will climb, and you'll find your groove with writing witty dialogue.
And again, once you've written a book, no-one can ever take that away from you! Even if it stays in a drawer forever, you still birthed it from your brain and invented something new. And make sure to tell everyone you meet at dinner parties!