Is writing a book your New Year’s resolution? Better read this first.
This is the year! 2019. Are you going to write a book this year?
If all you have is burning desire and willpower, you will fail. You need a plan.
This is that plan. (While this plan is designed for non-fiction, much of this advice may help fiction writers as well.)
Here’s what not to do: start writing. Writing without a plan is as useful as setting out a trip and driving in random directions — it’s unlikely to get you anywhere you really want to go.
Here are some steps I recommend taking — in order — if you want to successfully end up with a book people will read, value, love, and share.
1 Develop your idea
The idea for your book has been running around in your head for a while now. Maybe you’ve even written some ideas down. But for the book to be successful, the idea has to be simple and easy to spread — readers, reviewers, and social media posters need an attractive way to talk about it.
Even if you’ve already written some pieces of content, now is the time to put them aside and get some clarity on what you’re creating.
I suggest an idea development session. Your objective is to create a title, subtitle, and promotional copy. (Yes, you’ll write the flap copy before your write the book.)
Start with three or four people in a room or on a videoconference. In addition to yourself (and your coauthors, if any), include your editor or mentor and a third person — somebody smart who is unfamiliar with your concept to act as a proxy for your audience.
Start by explaining your concept to the audience proxy. The editor or mentor should listen for words that stand out. (This is how I help authors brainstorm titles and subtitles.)
At the end of a session like this, you should have a title, subtitle, and a start on flap copy. That becomes your north star for the book — you write to that objective. Now you know where you’re going.
2 Create a table of contents
What pieces will your book include, and in what order?
For example, a business book should include an opening chapter that scares the crap out of people, a chapter or two laying out the content, and then a structured look at the elements of your concept and how they apply in practical situations.
Your table of contents should be detailed, not just a list of chapter titles. For each chapter, lay out possible case studies and concepts.
Now you have a plan you can follow and, not coincidentally, one that will attract publishers.
3 Decide on a publishing model
How will your book get to readers? There are a lot more options than there used to be.
If you think your concept is big enough and you have serious promotional resources, you could pitch traditional publishers. They’ll get you bookstore distribution and an advance, but you won’t see books for a year and half.
If you want to get into print quickly, you can self-publish through Amazon and create a print-on-demand paperback and Kindle eBook. You won’t be in bookstores, and you’ll have to pay for things like editing and cover design — or hire a service to do those things for you.
There’s a third option: hybrid publishing. Hybrid publishers can print a hardback and get you into distribution just as a traditional publisher would, but you have to pay them. They’re faster than traditional publishers but slower than self-publishing.
Why decide your publishing model now? Because it’s going to affect your next steps and your schedule.
4 Write a proposal
Strictly speaking, you need a proposal only if you’re pitching traditional or hybrid publishers. But even if you’re self-publishing, it pays to think about some of the proposal elements listed here.
Your proposal should include the opening of the book, a list of your main ideas, why your book will stand out, the detailed table of contents from step 3, your bio, your marketing plan, and sample chapter.
The good news is that once you’ve done all that, you’ve done about one-fourth of the work to write the book. Writing the sample chapter is a great exercise — it will help you see what it takes to write the rest of the book.
A book agent can get your proposal in front of publishers, or you can send it directly to most hybrid publishers.
Why not do the proposal after you write the book? Because you’ll still have to wait a year and a half to see the book after you send out the proposal. And because it’s a lot more motivating to sell the book first, and then write it.
5 Do your research
Wow. We’ve already done a lot of work. Is it time to start writing yet?
Before you write a chapter, you need raw material. Unless you are rehashing other people’s content or writing completely from your own experience, you need content.
That means pursuing and conducting interviews as well as searching the Web for proof points and stories that back up your ideas (properly sourced, of course). Survey data is a great way to support your ideas, if you can get it.
You can write without research, but you’ll have to constantly stop and check things. Your writing will be dull without quotes from people you interviewed. You’re unlikely to achieve narrative flow.
Since you wrote the table of contents in step 2, you know what you’re building. The research gives you the materials you need to build with.
Finally. Time to put some words together.
One reason writers bog down is that they fail to do the previous steps. But even if you’ve done the planning, outlining, and research you need you may still have trouble writing.
Carve out time — evenings, weekends, or in a burst during time off. Figure out when and where you are the most productive at writing — is it 5 a.m. or 4 p.m., in your study or in a coffee shop? Write in bursts with short breaks.
Having done the necessary work to get ready and created the right environment, you should be ready to create. If you have a block, identify what the obstacle is — lack of ideas, lack of content, lack of motivation, or lack of talent — and fix it.
Don’t publish a first draft. Get an editor, get advice, and turn your drafts into finished prose.
The end of the draft is not the end of the process. Maintain concentration on quality through the fact checking, copy editing, and production processes and your finished book will live up to your vision.
Follow steps 1 through 8 and you may accomplish what you resolved to do in 2019 — writing a book.
But it won’t be worth much if nobody knows about it.
The end of the writing process is the beginning of the promotion process — the same one you laid out in step 4.
Do don’t relax. Connect and promote. Turn readers, reviewers, bloggers, and podcasters into advocates.
If all of this process seems intimidating, great. If you’re not up for this, don’t resolve to write a book in 2019 — spend your time on something more useful.
But if reading about this process excites you, go for it. I’d love to hear about your success — or help you get to your goal.
Josh Bernoff is an accomplished business ghostwriter and author of the book Writing Without Bullshit. This post originally appeared on his blog, Without Bullshit.