Writing a Book for The First Time: The Definitive Guide
How to Write Your First Book

Writing a book for the first time can be a life-changing process in many ways. But, that doesn’t mean it’s for the lighthearted.

Depending on your existing writing skills and time you have, it can be an intensive process that can take anywhere from a few months to several years. But don’t let that sway you from the experience!

Whether you want to write a fiction or non-fiction book, this post will help you get there.

The journey of writing a book can be filled with pitfalls... and most people who start writing a book never end up finishing. Don’t let this be your fate.

The process below will walk you through the various steps of the writing a book for the first time. Like the structure of a book itself, you’ll have the beginning, middle, and end of the process to work through.

It’s important not to skip any parts of the writing process mentioned below. It can be tempting to jump right into the actual putting words on paper (or screen), but you’ll only be making it more difficult for yourself down the road.

With proper preparation, you’ll build a solid foundation that’ll make it that much easier for you to power through the difficult parts of writing your first book.

The Pre-Pre Writing Phase

Before you even being writing you’ll want to get your workspace and your mindset ready. Writing a book is a pretty monumental task, and probably not as glamorous as the picture that exists in your mind. That doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable, but the process is immensely challenging, especially if it’s your first go around.

0. Take a Course

When I first started self-publishing, guides like this one did not exist. It was very much a 'guessing game': constantly browsing forums and online communities to get the help you needed in various phases of the process. 

However, one day I got an email promoting a new course, specifically aimed at self-publishers. Not surprisingly, it was (and is) called Self-Publishing School. After some hesitation, I decided to take the plunge: to this day, I have never regretted my decision. 

The course was an incredibly-effective, proven plan from zero to published author. It basically cut my learning curve in half, and I highly recommend it for someone who is just starting out. If you want, you can read my review of SPS here

1. Create a Writing Space

Having a dedicated writing space will make it that much easier to form the writing habit. Now, you don’t need to create an entirely separate writing space—something as simple as your kitchen table will do.

The more private and comfortable space you can create the better. But, don’t let not having the “perfect” writing space let you procrastinate from actually writing.

Find a space in your home, or make a table at your local coffee shop your dedicated writing space as you work through your book.

With more practice and experimentation you’ll realise what kind of environment is most conducive to getting words down on the page. 

2. Choose Your Writing Tools

Technically, to write your book all you need is a pad of paper and a pen.

Some authors prefer to handwrite their first drafts, then transfer their drafts to the computer as they edit and clean up the draft.

The process you choose is up to you.

However, if you’re going for speed, then utilizing a computer, a good keyboard and select writing software can make the writing process much more efficient.

The standard word processor is Microsoft Word. So, if you’re looking for simplicity, then going with this stock word processor can work.

But, if you’re looking to give yourself an advantage, then there are two pieces of writing software you may want to consider investing in.

The first is Scrivener. It works on both Mac and PC and will help with book organisation, research, and help give you an overarching view of your book as you write it.

Another great tool that came out recently is Storyshop. This tool was developed by and for professional authors. It’s similar to Scrivener, but it’s incredibly intuitive and has additional sections, like character development, and built-in story outlines. If you’re writing fiction, this tool is a must-have.

3. Give Yourself Permission to Write Poorly

When you first start writing you must give yourself permission to write poorly.

Like, Anne Lamott says in her brilliant book on the writing, Bird by Bird, “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.”

Your first draft should be awful. The job of your first draft is to get the words down on the page. It isn’t to create a great work of art the first go around.

Your book will improve and come through in the rewriting process. Like Hemingway said, “The only kind of writing is rewriting.”

Your only job for the first draft is to finish.

Your first draft should be awful. The job of your first draft is to get the words down on the page. It isn’t to create a great work of art the first go around.

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4. Remember to Read

Let’s take a bit of advice from ultra-bestseller Stephen King:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

Before you begin the writing process it can be helpful to have an understanding of the other books in your space. This means actually reading the competing books in your market to get an idea for that readers are looking for, so you can better craft a book that meets reader expectations.

Reading should be a central activity in your life as a writer. If you don’t have time to read, then you probably don’t have time to write either.

Some writers even like to begin their writing session by reading works of their favorite fiction, or even copying a few lines or paragraphs to get themselves in the right mindset.

The Preparation Phase

Now that you’re equipped to write your first book, both with the proper software, writing space, and mindset, it’s time to start the pre-writing process.

You can jump right into your novel and begin writing, but setting some time aside to plan your book will not only make the writing process easier; it’ll also help you avoid getting stuck and abandoning the process altogether.

The tips below will help you get a general sense of your book, and the direction you need to take to write your first book as fast as possible.

5. What’s Your Book About?

A great book needs a rock solid idea. You must be passionate about your idea in order to make it through the slog of writing a book. If you’ve tried to write a book in the past and ended up giving up, it could've had something to do with the core idea of your book.

Your idea must be compelling and drive you to write everyday.

It needs to be something that you’re passionate about, and will allow you to bring excitement to the page everyday.

Once you’ve settled on the core premise of your book you’ll want to expand this, so you have a better idea of what you’re actually writing.

The following questions will help you clarify your book’s main idea, so you can better expand this into a working outline:

  • What’s my overall goal for this book?
  • What’s the big idea or message I’m trying to convey?
  • What makes my book different than existing books?
  • Why would someone want to read my book?

The questions above may be more difficult to answer if you’re writing fiction, as it can be harder to quantify exact tangible benefits for novels. But, it’s still worthwhile to spend time defining the why behind your idea and expanding its usefulness in relation to your readers. The greater understanding, commitment, and passion you have for your idea the more likely it’ll light a fire within you every day and motivate you to write.

Have a cool idea for a book? Let's see if it's going to fly or flop... take the quiz below!

6. Consider a Shorter Book to Start

If you’re a first time writer, then writing a 400-page masterpiece can be intimidating.

To make it easy on yourself and learn the important skill of finishing a book, consider a shorter project.

Just because a book is short doesn’t make it any less valuable. Overall, your book should only be as long as it needs to be.

By taking on a smaller project, you’ll not only increase the chances of finishing your book, but you’ll give yourself confidence that you can finish longer projects in the future.

How to Write your first book

7. Outline Your Book

In the writing world, you have two different camps of writers: pantsers and plotters.

Pantsers sit down to write with nothing more than a general idea of what they’re going to say. They literally write by the seat of their pants and let the story figure itself out as they’re writing.

Although this method of writing does seem drenched in the magic of the creative muse, there is another approach that can help you produce better work, faster.

The approach of the plotter.

A plotter will outline their novel and spend time researching, getting to know their characters, and working out any structural details before they get started. Although you don't necessarily have to follow your outline word-for-word, it does give you an idea of where you're going and can be beneficial for first-time authors. 

There are countless books out there that help you outline: choose a way that suits you and go with it, without getting info-overload on the various techniques. 

8. Fill in Gaps With Research

With a basic outline constructed, it’s time to dive into the research phase to fill in any gaps. The goal of research is to make the overall writing process much more fluid.

Instead of having to stop and take in-depth research breaks during your writing, you’ll have some knowledge to work from, and fewer gaps to fill in later.

The amount of research you do will also depend upon what you’re writing. Overall, fiction will require less research, unless you’re writing historical fiction, and need to get other world-building or scientific elements of the story correct.

Other genres like memoirs will require research to establish the truth of certain facts and events that your story is based upon.

Finally, if you’re writing non-fiction, then the research phase will probably be much more extensive. One effective method is to mind map your entire book before you begin. This will not only give you a better picture of your book, but you’ll be able to spot any holes in your existing knowledge that you’ll need to spend time researching.

One word of warning

Research can help you build more confidence in your book, but research can reach a point where you’re just procrastinating doing the writing.

Get your research to a “good enough” point and then start writing.

9. Break Your Book Into Smaller Pieces

Writing a book is a long journey.

One way to keep your spirits and momentum high throughout the writing process is to give yourself milestones you can celebrate.

For example:

  • Have you written 5 days in a row?

  • Did you finish your first 10k words?

  • Are you putting in your daily writing time, even though you’re in the tough middle?

  • Did you have a day where you tripled your word count goal?

  • Are you honouring your daily writing time?

Keep your morale high by celebrating often. There are all kinds of micro-moments you can celebrate throughout the writing of your first book.

10. Schedule Daily Time to Write

Finishing a book is all about making daily progress. Sure, writing 500 words a day might not seem like a lot. But, if you stick to your plan your book can be finished in a matter of months.

Plus, as you build the writing skill it’ll become easier and easier to hit higher word count goals day in and day out.

The beauty of writing is it doesn’t actually require a ton of time every day to sit down and write. It depends on how long your book is, but you can probably get by on an hour of focused time per day.

If your schedule is extremely busy, and you don’t have daily time to write, then try to set aside a few blocks of time per week. Hopefully, as your book progresses you’ll start to look forward to these writing blocks every single week.

11. Create a Daily Word Count Goal

We touched on word count above, but it’s important to hammer home the point.

Some writers are able to hit incredible daily word counts—we’re talking ranges of 10,000 plus words per day.

These types of figures can be inspiring, but it’s important to not judge yourself too harshly. Instead, start small and build up your word count muscle in time.

By setting too audacious of a daily, or session-based, word count goal you’ll only stress yourself out and increase the likelihood of procrastination.

How much easier and fun does, “I’m going to write 200 words per day”, sound? Compared to, “I’m going to write 5,000 words per day”?

Start small and build the writing muscle. In time, you’ll be hitting multiple thousand word count days with ease. 

(if you're the techie type, there are numerous word-count tracking apps for you to play with)


The First-Draft Phase (Doing the Work)

By now you’re prepped. Your book is ready to write. Your goals are set.  Now there’s only one thing left to do—the work.

The tips below will help you throughout the actual writing of your first book.

12. Don’t Wait for Inspiration

It can be tempting to get caught up in the illusion of waiting for the muse to show up. “I’m not procrastinating, I’m just waiting to be inspired.”

Well, I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but inspiration doesn’t come if you sit back and wait for it.

Inspiration is a byproduct of sitting down and doing the work.

Commit to a weekly word count and stick to it. You’ll find that the more committed you are to writing the more often the muse will show up.

Inspiration is a byproduct of sitting down and doing the work.

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13. Write First, Edit Later

The writing process involves two different types of minds. The writing mind, and the editing mind.

Try and use both of these at the same time, and you’ll only make the writing process that much more difficult.

When you’re writing your only job is to get words down on the page. Focus, hit your word count goals, and move on.

The goal of your first draft is to give you something of substance you can then refine throughout each successive draft.

This also helps to take the pressure off of writing the perfect sentence, or flawless prose the first time around.

If you’re struggling with turning off the internal editor, then try the following:

  1. Open up your writing software of choice to the day’s chapter, or scene.

  2. Read a little of your past day’s work to remember where you left off.

  3. Set a timer for your allotted time.

  4. Turn down your monitor so your screen is black.

  5. Write until the timer goes off.

Don’t worry you’ll still be putting words down on the page. But, without the visual cue of seeing your words, you may find it much easier to continue writing, instead of stopping and editing each sentence as you finish it.  

14. Remove All Distractions

With the number of distractions that exist today, it’s a surprise we ever get anything done.

If you’re going into your writing session with multiple browser tabs open, and your phone by your side, then you’re making it much harder for yourself.

The world will be fine for the next hour.

Your only job when you’re writing that first draft is to write. It’s not to get distracted by research, or checking email, or scrolling through your phone.

Remove every distraction you can when you sit down to write. Leave your phone in the other room and unplug the wi-fi if you have too.

Having less, or zero, distractions will make it that much easier to get into the writing zone. You’ll get more done, and you may find that the quality of your work improves.

15. Create Deadline Pressure

f you’re having trouble with motivation, then consider committing to a hard deadline.

This isn’t a deadline that you commit to internally, but something that you take seriously. Like it’s life or death.

Commit to an achievable deadline and share this deadline publicity, or with friends or family who you know will hold you accountable.


The Polishing Phase

With the first draft of your book finished we’re going to start digging into the rewriting and editing phase.

Before we jump in it’s important to congratulate yourself. You set out to finish your first draft and now it’s complete. You accomplished something that a lot of people set out to do, but never finish.

Here’s what you need to do to clean up your first draft.

16. Get Reader Feedback

Since you’ve spent so much intimate time with your work it can be difficult to spot any glaring errors that are either grammatical or structural in nature.

One way around this is to use beta readers. These readers will see the earliest drafts of your book and give you feedback to raise its quality.

When seeking out beta readers it’s important to find readers that are going to be very honest with your work. Sometimes you can find them in family and friends, but be careful of having beta readers who are more concerned with not hurting your feelings, than improving the quality of your book.

17. Learn to Self-Edit

Self-editing can be another hard thing to do on your own. Still, it is possible.

Just make sure you keep the phrase, “kill your darlings” at the front of your mind throughout the entire editing process.

First, we’ll start with more large-scale structural edits. It can help to clean these up first before getting into the nitty-gritty of grammar.

When doing a big rewrite keep the following questions in mind to evaluate any changes that need to be made:

  • Does my introduction grab the reader and start with an event that’s compelling?
  • Could I back up any of my points with better research?
  • Do all of my stories work or do they fall flat?
  • Are there any sentences or entire chapters that bore me?
  • Are there any weak points in the book?
  • Are my characters real and compelling?
  • Is there action and conflict within every chapter and scene?

Honestly answering and working through the questions above will help to elevate the quality of your work.

Once large-scale changes have been made you can then start cleaning up grammar, sentence structure, adverb and adjective usage, and any other common mistakes.

Instead of doing all this yourself, you can use an online editing tool to speed up the process

What Can I Use?

How To Use Hemingway App

Hemingway App

Best features:

-Use it on the web or as a desktop-app

-Readability grade levels

-Text formatting


Writing a Book With Grammarly

Grammarly

Best features:

-Plagiarism checker 

-Vocabulary enhancements

-Citation suggestions


Writing a Book with ProWriting Aid

ProWriting Aid

Best features:

-Contextual thesaurus 

-Advanced Reporting

-Integrates with Scrivener


Now, you don’t need to use every tool above, but they’ll greatly help to elevate the quality of your work.

18. Hire an Editor

With honest self-editing and rewriting, feedback from beta readers, and edits from an online editing tool the quality of your book should be light years better than your first draft.

But, if you want to up the quality even more, then it can be helpful to get the feedback from an experienced editor.

Depending on the type of editing you need and the experience of your editor, this could be a costly investment. But, it can be an outstanding way to elevate the quality of your work, while learning a ton in the process.

The main types of editing are structural editors who look at the overarching narrative, or concept of your book, and give feedback that’ll help you improve the quality of your story. Next, you have proofreaders who will look for any grammatical errors you’re committing.

Whether or not you make the investment in an editor is up to you, but if this is your first book, just know that the investment can be a great way to improve your craft.

The Shipping Phase

By now you’ve gone through multiple rewrites and extensive edits. You feel your book is rock solid, so now it’s time to ship.

You’ve finished the marathon, or maybe the Mt. Everest climb, of writing a book for the first time.

Although it’s time to celebrate, you should also start thinking about the future.

19. Commit to Shipping Your Book

Your book is done. What good is it if it just sits on your hard drive for the rest of your life?

Books are meant to be read, not languish in the shadows.

Set a launch date and start planning it out. Executing a launch effectively is a lot of work. But, like writing the book itself, something you’ll get better at in time.

20. Perfection is a Pipe Dream

It can be tempting to continue tweaking your book forever. Continuing to upgrade your sentences and add new elements.

But, even if you spend the rest of your life tweaking this book, it’ll never be perfect.

Instead of obsessing over every little detail, it’s time to get to work.

Call it good enough, and ship your book.

Then, take the next step…

21. Write Your Next Book

Now that you have the experience of writing and releasing your book, it’s time to move onto the next one.

Most author’s end up being ashamed of their first book’s. It’s totally alright. With each book, you publish your skills and knowledge of craft will grow.

Each book you publish will improve upon the rest until you can accomplish exactly what you want to do with the written word.

Every author had to start somewhere. Make this book your starting point for a successful author career.

Hopefully, you have a deeper and useful understanding of the process behind writing your first book. Good luck on every step of the journey.


Do you have any questions related to the process of writing your first book? Ask away in the comments below.

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