A friend recently asked for advice on how to get started writing a book. I often get that question. You might have an idea for a book, and all the writing skill you need, but how do you go from idea to implementation? It’s a deceptively difficult step.
Part of the problem is that writing a book is the loneliest job in the world, and an immense amount of work. It’s hard to get started on a project so daunting. My new book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life, took two years to write. For most of that time, no one but me saw any part of it. My publisher and I have a long history, so he lets me run free after the general concept for the book is nailed down. I probably worked for 18 months without anyone else seeing a word of it.
Ask yourself if you could work on a project for 18 months without a single positive word of encouragement, and without really sharing with anyone the thing you have been immersed in day after day. Sure, I often mentioned the book project to friends and family. And I often talked about topics I planned to include. But usually I got blank stares in return. The thing with a well-designed book is that it only works in full form. Any chapter or topic out of context just lays there. I wanted to talk with friends about my writing, but doing so was impractical because it required a book-length explanation.
For nearly two years I plugged away on a collection of ideas around my theme and I have to say that none of it worked until the next-to-last round of edits. With my layered writing process, success tends to be binary. The book is a lifeless bunch of ideas until the moment it isn’t. As a writer, you hope that moment comes, but you can never know for sure. This is yet another case in which my natural inclination for optimism comes in handy. I tell myself I can smell a book before I can see it. I know it’s in me; I just need to write until I find it. I’m not entirely sure if I am intuitive or irrational, or even if those things are different.
If you’re planning to write a book, ask yourself if you are the type of person that can spend that much time completely alone, doing unpleasant work, while receiving nothing in the way of encouragement or positive feedback along the way. You won’t even know if anyone will read your book when you’re done. If you answered “Yes, I can do that,” I recommend these steps:
Step 1: Open a Word document and give it a name. If you don’t have a title yet, choose a working title. Close your empty document and walk away. You have successfully completed step one. It’s important to feel a sense of progress. I start every book exactly this way.
Step 2: You’ve probably been thinking for a long time about the content for your book, and more ideas will come to you. Take notes in bullet form. Every few days, add those notes to your document. Just get them on paper. If your topic is interesting, at least to you, this step will energize you and get the ideas flowing. Your notes should be coming faster and faster over the next few weeks as the ideas build on each other.
Step 3: Once you have several pages of brief notes, start separating them into logical groups. Those groups might become chapters later, but for now it’s just a way to keep ideas organized. When you add ideas, put them in the groups they belong or start new groups.
Step 4: In about a month, one of two things is likely to happen. You’ll either lose interest in your own book idea, because your collection of ideas isn’t as compelling as you hoped, or you’ll feel a compulsion to start writing. If you don’t feel the compulsion after a month of compiling notes, walk away. I only write a book when the urge to communicate its message becomes stronger than my desire for leisure. Writing a book is terrifically hard work with no guarantee of a payoff. You can’t drag a book into existence; the book has to drag you.
Once you’re committed to writing the book, you need a process that works for you. Every writer is different, but I’ll tell you my process as a starting point. I write in layers, roughly like this:
1. Layer one (first draft) involves writing as fast as I can and getting the ideas in sentence and paragraph form. My first drafts tend to be dry and descriptive, and full of redundancies and broken logic. That’s okay for the first draft.
2. Layer two is where I start connecting the logic, putting topics in the best order, removing redundancies, and identifying my most powerful themes. At this point, the draft starts to make sense.
3. Layer three involves writing and rewriting the first chapter until I have the voice and tone I want for the rest of the book. I might rewrite my first chapter thirty times. And when the book is mostly done, I go back and rewrite it a few more times. In terms of importance, both to the writer and the reader, the first chapter is about ten times more important than any other.
4. Layer four involves engineering the wording throughout the book to produce the right sort of emotional response in the reader. At that point I might rewrite nearly every sentence in the book, keeping the meaning the same but changing how it feels when you read it. My latest book is about the topic of success so I packed it with words and concepts that are energizing by their nature. Every sentence in a book needs to have a consistent flavor and feel. When I write humor, I try to make every third sentence a light or funny payoff. And I avoid downer words such as the names of diseases while packing in lots of inherently funny words such as yank, buttocks, Satan, squirrel, and the like.
5. Layer five is when the editors get involved. The first time my editor sees the book, she makes high-level comments about which chapters work better than others, how the ordering of topics is working, how the tone feels, and that sort of thing. No one cares about grammar or sentence structure yet. Once I make the editor’s suggested changes, or in some cases argue them away, this is generally the point at which the book becomes alive. For the first time, I can reread it and say, “This actually works.” That’s a good day.
6. Layer six happens after my editor is happy with the basic flow of the book. Now a second editor – a copy editor – goes over the writing in detail and fills my pages with notes and corrections. It’s a humbling process. After I make those changes, the book is generally done.
All writers have their own process. Now you know mine. The only other thing I would add is that for most people, writing works best in the early morning or late night. I’m writing this piece at about 5 AM. If you aren’t a morning person, try the late night approach.