Learn How to Write a Book
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You Can Learn How to Write a Book

For many, the idea of writing a book, especially a novel-length book is intimidating to the point of being scary. How do you do that? Many of us would like a clear, basic guide. So let’s see what we can do here. First, learning how to write a book is a two-step process. The first step is emotional as you accept the challenge of a task that requires dedication, hard work, ambition, and a certain amount of discipline. The second step is procedural as you break down the huge job of crafting a publication-ready book into smaller, easier-to-accomplish tasks. It’s a huge relief to recognize that you don’t need to accomplish the whole thing at once but can take one step at a time with a plan.

Learn How to Write a BookThe plan is key. It will keep you on track when times are tough. It will remind you that if you get through this moment when you’re feeling a little lost, you’ll be back on firm ground soon. But knowing how to plan, can require preparation on its own. You can take workshops. You can read writing books. You can take complete writing courses such as those offered by the Institute for Writers (which actually offers a course on how to write a book, so that can be a huge help for getting started and creating a plan that works.) However you prepare, know that preparation is key to success. The most important part of writing takes place before you write. It’s the learning part.

Before You Write the Book

I’m a big fan of questions. I’m always asking questions whenever I write. Sometimes when I hit rough spots, I’ll stop and refocus, asking myself new questions about motivation and action that help me move forward. Here are questions you to consider before you launch into a novel or long nonfiction work:

  • Are you ready to devote your energy and time to writing a book?
  • Are you ready to learn potentially unfamiliar skills like self-editing and re-writing?
  • Do you have a grasp over your main characters, plot, or the subject matter you are considering?

Of course, you don’t need to know everything about where your book is going before you start writing. Every writer discovers surprises along the path. I do extensive outlines before jumping into a novel, and I still make room for new ideas that will change the story while still working with the characters and goals I have for the book. In fact, sometimes these new ideas work even better than what I had originally planned. But having a reasonable idea and direction for your book will keep you writing during the more challenging moments ahead.

Fiction Isn’t Everything

Fiction is defined by the story being made up by the author. Fiction can be inspired by real events, but it is not a factual recount. On the other hand, nonfiction (books with factual, researched content, and no made-up bits) can be a solid and exciting choice for a writer. In fact, nonfiction often outsells fiction when the subject matter is of specific interest to a wide readership. Many young people prefer nonfiction over fiction. Nonfiction is published in every format from board books to picture books, chapter books, and even novel-length works and graphic novel formats.

Learning how to write a book can include one of the most popular forms of nonfiction—factual narratives, also called narrative nonfiction. These nonfiction books narrate stories that are true but are written in engaging language to captivate the target audience. Narrative nonfiction is most associated with memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies, but can also be found in humor and commentary, travelogues, and even how-to books. (How often have we seen cookbooks with lengthy family stories before each recipe? Those stories are narrative nonfiction.)

Fiction is Still Something Great

For writers approaching their first book, fiction is often the choice. Novels are the most commonly published and read fiction books for middle grade readers, young adults, and adults. A novel can tell a single narrative, or it can involve entwined narratives that connect in some way. Again, workshops, books, and writing courses can help you understand the nature and crafting of a novel. IFW’s novel writing course could be helpful in mastering the many skills needed to craft a novel.

Keep in mind that novels aren’t the only option for fiction writers. For young children, board books and picture books are far more important. Elementary children may also enjoy chapter book fiction or graphic novels. Even teens can enjoy fiction in short forms such as novellas (which are structured much like a novel, but shorter) and short stories (which tend to be very different in structure and execution than a novel, though there are similar needs in characterization and plot). Writing for Children and Teens is our most popular course because there is such a large market for children’s books.

Short stories can be sold to magazines, through electronic publishing, to anthologies, or sometimes in short story collections. Short story collections are a little tough these days, so unless you’re working in horror, you may want to choose a different option for your short stories. The discipline of short story writing can be an excellent place to hone your skills in creating plots, writing purposeful dialogue, and catching the reader’s interest in a few words.

But How Do You Write the Book?

If your main interest is writing a novel, it’s worthwhile to think about some of these essential elements so you don’t get stuck along the way.

Do Your Research

This one catches a great many new writers off guard. In the case of nonfiction, most of us realize we have to spend time researching in libraries and archives, digging in and absorbing everything available about the subject so that we can turn it into engaging prose for the reader. But research is also equally helpful, even essential, for fiction writers. Historical fiction requires research and understanding of the time period of the book. Fiction set in real countries and real cities require research to make the setting read true. And in even the most magical of fantasy fiction, you will run into things you need to know from edible wild plants to engineering. Research makes your book read as real, and that captures reader interest. You may have to do research around real events, people, locations, and elements that make up your story. Again, if your research skills need work, you can find books on research for writers, workshops on the topic of accurate research, and it will be part of the skills taught in writing courses such as those at Institute for Writers.

Check All the Elements

Launching into writing a novel often happens when a writer has become excited by a premise or has found a character to explore, but there are other elements that sometimes fall by the wayside in the early days only to create issues when the book begins to feel slight. For example, ask yourself:

  • What is the theme of this story?
  • What are you trying to say about the world?
  • What will the character learn?
  • How will the characters change?
  • How do elements surrounding this theme affect the story?

A theme doesn’t necessarily have to be pinpoint specific (though it may be). Instead, you can be looking at larger themes such as duty, friendship, or familial love. The book could explore a number of things about the larger theme. Even in a strong genre novel (such as a murder mystery), the story will be deeper and linger more with the reader if it has a theme to explore.

First Draft Fatigue

Writing your way to the end of the first draft of your novel can be challenging. It’s normal to face self-doubt or find your enthusiasm and motivation are waning. That doesn’t mean the novel is failing. It’s a normal part of the process. Few writers can stay excited through every moment of the writing process. Your excitement can wax and wane as you push through and keep writing.

Even writer’s block is not abnormal. You can work around these stuck moments by side-tracking such as dipping into your research or trying some writing prompts connected to the novel (one fun one is interviewing your characters as if you’re a journalist who plans to do a story about what they’ve been through). These sidetracks can refresh your inspiration and get you writing again.

Keep in mind that your first draft isn’t going to be a masterpiece and it isn’t supposed to be one. In fact, if this is your first book, it could turn out to be more of a learning experience than a bestseller. Still, if you focus and keep writing until you reach the end, you’ll have accomplished something most people have never done—written a book!

Learn How to Write a Book: Read, Revise, and Edit!

Understanding and accepting that your first draft will need revision work will help you through the next steps in the process. It is at this point that you stop writing for yourself and begin focusing on how this book works for the reader.

Keeping your reader in mind during the revision process will help you to accept change to make your book clearer, more logical, and more engaging. Keep in mind that it is not enough to correct spelling errors, typos, and grammar. Revision requires much more from a writer than that. Return to your manuscript and ask yourself these questions:

  • Are there any logical inconsistencies?
  • What is the pacing? Is it fast enough to keep the reader engaged?
  • Is the structure of the book clear and smooth?
  • Do the main characters all have arcs where they change?

These questions will help prepare you for the next big step: the second draft.

The Second Draft is Different

If all you did in your revisions was correct typos and small mistakes, your second draft will be much like your first. This is not your goal. All first drafts, no matter how well you planned, will benefit from substantial revision. That means your second draft implements the changes your questions above revealed. This second draft is also the place to really drill down and ensure that the process of getting the reader into your novel (the opening) and getting your reader out of the novel (the ending) are strong. A great opening will keep the reader with you as the story gets going and a great ending will keep the reader thinking about your book, thus ensuring they will have an interest in your next book.

If you’re writing a novel as part of a writing course (such as one through IFW) or you’re part of a supportive critique group or if you have a single critique partner, you will be benefiting from feedback to help you with this second draft (and possibly with your third or even fourth draft). Getting feedback is important, but it can also be challenging. It often hurts to hear that a passage you loved is confusing the reader or that a character you adore is not engaging to the reader.

Not every bit of feedback is necessarily going to be right for your book, but it’s important to understand that your initial reaction to feedback is rarely useful. We almost always resist before we see the wisdom of the feedback. So, when you are receiving feedback, listen, resist defending, and instead focus on asking questions only to clarify so you completely understand what has been said. Then later, you can weigh the feedback and decide if and how to implement it.

Publication Decisions

While you’re writing your book, there will be moments when you’re sure this is wonderful. And there will be moments when you’re equally sure it’s awful. But ultimately it isn’t until the end, after all the writing is done and the revisions are done, that you need to decide what to do with the final product.

You may decide to query based on the book and find an agent. You may decide to go directly to publishers who are open to submissions. You may decide to self-publish. With the rise of online marketplaces and e-readers, self-publishing is easier than it used to be and not nearly as expensive as in the past. Still, whichever publishing option you choose, weigh the choices carefully and don’t pick one until you’re sure it’s the right one for you and your book. This sureness comes from rigorous research.

Again, you can find help with the process of deciding what to do with your book and how best to do it through online research, books, workshops, or the help of your instructors in IFW courses. Whatever you decide, don’t be stalled after writing your book. Get started on your next book.

As important as it is to keep writing, it is also important to keep learning. Never stop researching how to be a better writer. I know I have attended workshops and read books many times to help me to improve in areas where I don’t feel as confident, and I keep doing that even though I make a living at my writing. Being a writer means embracing the thrill of lifelong learning. And, in case you missed noticing, IFW is a great writing institute that can help you become a better writer and enjoy the journey that never ends. Learning how to write a book is just the beginning.

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With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.

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