How to Write a Book Without Losing Your Mind
(The following article initially appeared on Medium.com.)
I wrote my first book without a clue, and to be frank I’m still pretty clueless. The internet is chock full of writing gurus who will tell you how to write a book and then launch it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Many of them are helpful, but some are charlatans.
Writing a book is hard. I won’t lie to you. For some people it’s harder than others, but for most people it’s like surgery: you go nearly unconscious for a while (when in the depths of writing) and wake up after it’s over a little sore (unmet expectations, negative reviews, no reviews, etc.).
It’s worth it.
When I started writing, I had a laptop and a flash drive. That’s it. No prior education in writing, no platform (more on that later), and no plan. What I had going for me was determination and a good support system. I fumbled my way through the writing process and published Walking Through Walls: Connecting Faith and Work in late 2015 to a small audience, mostly people who knew me and were interested to see what I came up with. My new book, Show Yourself a Man, will release this summer.
If you’ve never published a book before, I’m slightly ahead of you — but I am nowhere near the authors who have nearly forgotten what it feels like to get started. (Actually, to be fair, I bet they all remember what it’s like to get started but some of them did so in another time and the publishing industry has changed.)
Here is what I learned from writing my first book:
1). You must write a book because you want to write a book. If you intend to write a book to make money or gain notoriety, you’re on a fool’s errand. Unless you’re already famous, odds are you’ll spend several thousand dollars (again, that’s spend, not make) and you won’t become even mildly famous. Sorry snowflake, but that’s the truth. You need to write because you need to write.
2). Unless you’re famous, traditional publishing is probably not for you. Now I must grant that I don’t know what I don’t know. I haven’t tried the traditional publishing route, but I will tell you why I haven’t. First, as a new writer it is my opinion that I need hours in the chair and I need to churn something out. If I waited to publish my magnum opus with (insert New York publisher here), I would probably burn out. Second, there are tons of great options out there that don’t require you to grovel to agents and publishers before you have any street cred. These options range from vanity presses (companies that make it look like you got published but are glorified printers) to print on demand options like Amazon’s CreateSpace to partnership publishers, which are a hybrid of the traditional model and the self-pub model. I have worked with partnership publisher Lucid Books twice and I highly recommend them, especially if you write in the Christian space.
3). Use an outline, but don’t be afraid to ignore it. There is a debate in the writing community between “pantsers” (those who write freely and without a grand plan — that is, by the seat of their pants) and “plotters” (those who use rigid outlines). As a first-time author, you don’t know which one you are yet. Write an outline and use Steven Pressfield’s foolscap method — a one page summary of your book. My final draft of Walking Through Walls was nothing like the initial outline, but the outline gave me a framework to keep going.
4). Find your time to write. I get up at 4:45 a.m. every day. As a busy father with two kids and a career, if I didn’t make time in the morning I’m not sure how I’d do it. I write for an hour and a half, work out, then go on about my day. I’m a morning person and my brain fires before the sun is up, but maybe you’re a night owl. It doesn’t matter what time you write, but make an appointment with yourself and plan to keep that appointment for the rest of your life. Keeping your writing appointment will ensure you maintain momentum on your book and build a discipline of writing no matter what. As Stephen King said in On Writing:
“[a]mateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
5). You need an editor. Editors are like doctors: they can see what’s wrong with your book and set you on a path to fix it. They are not perfect, but they are crucial. It’s not only about word choice and typos; your manuscript needs developmental help. Editors will charge anywhere from several hundred dollars for a cursory look to tens of thousands, depending upon their resume and how deep you want them to go. You get what you pay for, but for your first book plan to pay several thousand (ish).
If you only heed one of the above, heed number one: you must write a book because you want to write a book. That is where I went astray during my first book project. I got distracted and started trying too hard to build my platform so I’d get noticed. I started paying too much attention to the fact that few people paid attention to my writing. I lost my first love, which was a quest for the truth. By God’s grace, I returned to it right as my book launched and I got my head screwed back on.
If you’re starting from square one, you do need to build a platform. Don’t know what a platform is? No worries. A platform is essentially your branding plus the distribution of said branding. It would include your website, social media pages, email list, and everything in between. Don’t obsess over it, but do work at it — and take a long-term approach. Michael Hyatt’s Platform is a good resource, as is Tim Grahl’s Your First 1,000 Copies.
You have something to say. I don’t know you but I know for a fact that you have something valuable to say. We need more writers, more producers of that which is true and relevant and beautiful. You’ll find your voice. You’ll find your audience. Just sit down and get started.
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