Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a platform that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. She's very passionate about indie publishing and helping authors achieve their dreams! her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing as much she can.
You may have heard the stat that up to 81% of Americans think they have a book in them — a book they want to write, that is, not a manuscript lurking in their intestines somewhere. (Sorry for the mental image.) Extrapolating from that figure, we can assume that roughly 4 out of 5 people reading this right now have an idea for a book — and some of you may have already taken steps toward making it a reality!
But before you excitedly tell all your friends about the Great American Novel you’re going to write, or order new business cards that say “[Your Name]: Professional Author,” you should sit down and evaluate your expectations for this process. Writing a book is infinitely easier said than done, and if you don’t know what’s in store for you, you’ll find yourself discouraged before you’ve even begun. That’s why I want to share these five key things to know about writing a book — so you’ll be prepared to meet each challenge that crops up along the way.
1. Dedication is more important than talent
Perhaps the number-one misconception about writing a book is that talent is the most important factor. While I have no doubt that many of you are brilliant writers — and that your potential will blossom into tangible triumph as you write your book — you can’t rely on talent alone to propel you through 300 pages. For that, you’ll need an entirely different ingredient: dedication.
It’s easy enough to say you’re committed to writing a book, and even to plan a rigorous writing routine that carves out blocks of writing time every day. However, when the hour comes to actually write, it’s a lot more difficult to force yourself to do it… over and over again, especially on the days when it doesn’t feel fun or rewarding, but like a total slog.
This is where dedication comes in. If you’re not 100% dedicated to finishing your book, you’re simply not going to make it. Most great writers have talent, yes, but they also have dedication in spades. For example, Stephen King writes 2,000 words every single day, even on holidays. Maya Angelou supposedly aimed for 2,500, famously declaring, “Nothing will work unless you do.” And countless renowned writers through the ages, from Franz Kafka to Ursula K. Le Guin to Danielle Steel, have gotten up early and/or gone to bed late so they could bank some extra writing time.
If you’re just starting out, forget about artistry and perfection; these things will naturally be honed with practice. But unless you’re able to truly dedicate your time and effort to a project, you may as well call it quits right now.
2. You need to outline (at least a little) before you start
Another potentially crippling misconception is that you don’t need to outline your book before you write, because you can always “figure things out along the way.” While I completely understand if you’re more of a pantser than a plotter — I consider myself a pantser, in fact — writing your first book is a huge undertaking and you'll almost certainly need an outline to guide you through it. After all, you wouldn’t try to build a house without blueprints, would you? (If you answered, “Sure, why not!” remind me never to hire you as my contractor.)
In any case, even if it seems unnecessary right now, trust me that your outline will become your lifeline as you delve deeper into your book. It will help you remember important events, character arcs, and themes you want to incorporate throughout the story. And if you get stuck and start to despair, you can always return to your outline for encouragement and inspiration.
At the bare minimum, this outline should include a few lines for each major plot point, perhaps with offshooting notes about other elements or thoughts you may have as you’re brainstorming. I’d definitely recommend the “web” structure or snowflake method for fellow pantsers, as these allow for the most flexibility. But of course, no outline is set in stone — feel free to change it as you come up with new ideas, or leave parts of it blank if you’re not sure what should happen. The important thing is that you have one, so you can refer back to it when need be.
3. Steel yourself for setbacks — especially in the middle
Once you actually begin writing, with a prepared outline and true dedication to your work, you’ll probably feel incredibly excited about your project and the possibilities it holds. You may still have a few kinks to work out, but in all likelihood, this energy will carry you through the first few chapters — possibly to the midpoint of your book.
Unfortunately, the midpoint is often where even the most dedicated writers start to falter. You might suddenly register a gaping plothole, realize you’ve neglected one of your characters, or simply run out of creative steam. Setbacks like these are always discouraging, but especially when you’re right in the thick of it: far enough along that major revisions seem impossible to enact, yet not close enough to the finish line to give you that final burst of motivation.
When you get stuck in the middle of your book, you have two options — you can either work through doggedly, or take a break. Be careful with either of these, as the first can cause burnout, while the second can all-too-easily lead to giving up. However, if you can figure out which works for you (hint: it’s usually the opposite of what you want to do), you’ll surely find your way out of this literary labyrinth you’ve created.
I personally find that taking a break, while at the same time setting concrete limits, works best for me. If I lose my footing in a project, I take a week — no longer — to work on other pieces and enjoy my hobbies. Most of the time, this incubation period is exactly what I need to solve the problem that’s been plaguing me. By the time I get back to writing a week later, I’m fully unblocked, recharged, and more than ready to get back to work.
4. Feedback from other people is your best friend
You know how I just said that what you want to do is usually the opposite of what you should do? Well, that advice also applies to asking for feedback (and exercising, but I digress). 95% of writers I’ve met, including myself, are highly reluctant to show their work to anyone. This is extremely understandable — after all, if you’ve chosen this path, it probably means that writing is near and dear to your heart, and even a single word of criticism can feel like a crushing blow.
But once you’ve finished the first draft of your book, it’s time to toughen up and do it anyway. Friends, family, fellow writers: these are all invaluable sources of feedback as you transition into your next draft. They’ll confirm what you need to fix or change, and point out issues you never would’ve noticed by yourself. This doesn’t mean you have to show your book to everyone you know, but if you can pick a handful of advisors to give you feedback, it will be a huge help in avoiding bigger problems — like scathing reviews from actual critics — down the line.
And after you’ve shown the book to your personal contacts, consider getting a professional beta reader or editor to take a look. Fair warning: their feedback will likely be less considerate than your friends’, but more honest and helpful overall. These pros know what they’re doing, and you can trust their opinions, even if you don’t always feel good about them. Just keep in mind that, no matter how painful the process, listening to feedback will ultimately result in a better book.
5. Don’t be intimidated by the prospect of publishing
Congrats! You’ve made it through the first, second, maybe even third or fourth draft of your manuscript, and it’s finally finished. What are you going to do next?
You might just pop some champagne and close your ridiculously long Google Doc forever, satisfied in the knowledge that you achieved your goal. But if you’re like most authors, you’ll probably want people to read your book — which means, of course, publishing it.
Traditional publishing can sometimes seem so lengthy, complex, and filled with rejection that you may feel it’s futile from the start. However, if you break it down into bite-sized pieces, it’s much more manageable (and definitely worthwhile if you can get signed with a major publisher)! You can start by querying agents and submitting your manuscript to slush piles, and if you have success, move into additional edits and negotiations from there.
That said, if you don’t care about trad-pub “prestige” and just want to get your book out in the world, self-publishing is also a very viable option! It’s easy to self-publish a book on Amazon, and with just a bit of research, you can learn how to market your book independently as well. But whichever path you choose, remember my very first tip: if you dedicate yourself wholeheartedly to your ambitions, you’ll find that you can accomplish almost anything.