How to Write a Book (and Actually Finish It) in 5 Steps
There are a ton of reasons why you might consider writing books. You might want to prove your expertise on a given topic or create a funnel for your business. You might need a book in order to establish yourself as a public speaker or professor. You might simply have a story that you need to tell.
But where do you get started on writing that story? Figuring out how to write a book with a beginning, middle and end can be daunting when all you have is an idea and a blank page.
Just as with anything in life and business, the answer to learning how to write a book is to find a good teacher — people who have accomplished what you’re trying to do. If you want to know how to write a business book, and you’re trying to work out how to approach the style of your writing, you could try reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People again. If you want to write a memoir, you might check out Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog.
But when it comes to the straightforward act of writing books — actually starting a project and finishing it — perhaps the best role models are novelists of epic-length fantasy books like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. These writing pros know how to write books and series that span thousands of pages and over millions of words, and the processes they use can be informative to help you write books of your own. Not only can we access the end result of their work — their books — but these epic writers often love to offer a roadmap to others hoping to walk the same path.
I spend the hours from 9 to 5 in the Entrepreneur offices writing about business and entrepreneurship while collaborating with our contributor network. But in my personal time, I love reading fiction like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones. When I decided to write a book of my own, then, I chose to emulate the fiction stories I grew up reading.
I began, buoyed by the knowledge that I could succeed and even huge successes often had doubts along the way … and still continue to have doubts while writing books today. Here’s Joe Abercrombie, whose newest book just debuted at No. 15 on the New York Times Hardcover bestseller list:
Oh God will people like my new book >— Joe Abercrombie (@LordGrimdark) September 22, 2019
Early readers seem to like my new book but who knows >
Book is getting good reviews but that could all change >
Book has gone down great with everyone hurray! >
Oh God will people like the second one.
I learned that it’s okay to dislike a section, a chapter, even the whole book at times. It’s okay to make mistakes, to struggle. In the end, only one thing really matters when it comes to writing books: finishing. Creating a product you can be proud of despite whatever obstacles, doubts or frustrations might arise during the process.
So, if you want to know how to write a book and actually complete the thing, here are the five steps I used to finish mine — each one inspired by epic authors who’ve been there and done it on the biggest stage.
1. Figure out how to start your book.
I don’t just mean figuring out how to write Chapter One of your book. No, I mean, “What is the driving force behind your book?” This could be anything — a theme, a storyline, an idea. This thing will act like a seed, from which the rest of your book will grow, or a spine to give it its shape.
George R.R. Martin was writing a different book when he figured out where to start A Game of Thrones. In a 60 Minutes interview with Anderson Cooper, Martin claims, "One day, the first chapter of 'Game of Thrones' came to me: the scene where they find the direwolf pups in the summer snows."
It’s important to note that, technically, the scene where the Stark children find their wolves isn’t the first chapter of the book. Instead, the story opens in a different place, with other characters, before pivoting the Starks. However, as Martin notes, that one scene created such an intense image in his mind, and the characters felt so real to him, that he had to continue to ask questions and eventually develop a world around a single scene. A Game of Thrones started from one sentence.
“I knew right from the beginning,” Martin told Cooper. “I mean, that single sentence: ‘They found the direwolf pups in the summer snows.’ I knew they were the summer snows, so this was a place where it snowed even in summer. So, what could result in that?”
“One weekend after flat hunting, I took the train back to London on my own and the idea for Harry Potter fell into my head,” J.K. Rowling told Urbanette. “I had been writing since I was six, but I had never been as excited about an idea as I was for this book. Coincidentally, I didn’t have a pen and was too shy to ask anyone for one on the train, which frustrated me at the time, but when I look back at it was the best thing for me. It gave me the full four hours on the train to think up all the ideas for the book.
“A scrawny, little black-haired, bespectacled boy became more and more of a wizard to me. He became more real. I think if I might have slowed down on the ideas and began to write them down. I would’ve stifled some of those ideas. I began to write ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ that very evening. Although, the first couple of pages look nothing like the finished product.”
The last bit of Rowling’s answer — “the first couple of pages look nothing like the finished product” — is just as important as anything else. We often think of great writers as naturally gifted, creative people who are inspired in ways that most simply can’t be. Perhaps that’s true because both Martin and Rowling were gripped with incredibly detailed images of the story that they would one day turn into bestselling books.
However, it’s crucial to note that when they started writing their respective books, Martin was able to use the first pages he wrote and Rowling wasn’t. Sometimes, the perfect words will come and sometimes they won’t. The key is to bring the story back to its foundation eventually.
After all, no one can say Rowling failed to write a great book about a “scrawny, little black haired, bespectacled boy” on a train, even if her first attempt wasn’t perfect. Rowling changed and refined the words describing her vision over time, but the image and inspiration for the book remained.
“I knew right from the beginning. I mean, that single sentence."
— George R.R. Martin on the inspiration for 'A Game of Thrones'
Chapter One is important, too.
As the old saying goes, you only get one shot at a first impression. If you don’t want to self-publish, your first impression is hugely important. In order to get attention from a traditional publishing house, you’ll typically need to get a literary agent first. In order to get a literary agent, you’ll typically need to impress that agent’s assistant.
That agent will typically read only a small portion of your book or book proposal — say, five to 15 pages — before deciding whether you really know how to write a good book. If you fail to grab their attention in those first few pages, you probably won’t have a chance to show them what you can really do later.
That doesn’t mean you need to spend all of your time and energy on making Chapter One perfect. In fact, spending too much time on the first chapter will be unproductive — the 80/20 rule applies in writing, just as it does in business. After a while, the return on your time investment simply won’t make sense.
You don’t need to show off everything you can do on the first page of your book. A blockbuster movie typically doesn’t use its whole budget on the first scene, and you shouldn’t feel like you need to do the equivalent in your book. If you can create a strong hook, interesting characters or thoughtful insight to draw in the reader, that’s enough. Just make sure the writing is as clear and concise as possible, showing a competency with language that creates confidence with your audience.
Just as you want to show up well-prepared for a pitch meeting, you should try to prove you know your business. Here are three basic tips that can help when writing the start of your book:
- Use active language. Rather than say something like, “The secrets of knowing how to write a book are becoming clear to me,” you ought to say, “I am learning how to write a book.” This active word choice creates a more personal and direct feel.
- Don’t repeat the same words over and over. If you’re talking about something highly technical, this may be unavoidable. Otherwise, try not to use the same words or phrases if the repetition doesn’t serve an obvious purpose. Not only does this repetition throw off the rhythm of your writing, but it might make the reader believe you simply couldn’t think of anything else to say.
- Get to the point. Sportswriting great Tim Layden once told me that the first sentence of each paragraph often helps the writer transition his thoughts but isn’t necessary for the reader. People are busy, and they don’t have time for extra words. In my own writing, I like to begin sentences with logical connectors — “First,” “However,” “Instead,” and so on. I also like to end sentences with the word “though.” When I write now, I try to be conscious of those tendencies and simply cut them out.
The most important aspect of nailing Chapter One actually has nothing to do with the chapter itself. The more important part is understanding how the beginning fits with your big idea, how it allows you to transition to the middle and end flawlessly.
You simply can’t build a good foundation if you don’t know what you’re building on top of it. I’m not an architect, but I doubt you’d use the same fundamental structure for a skyscraper and a seaside cottage. The same goes for writing books. That’s why, before you start writing your own book, you need to …
2. Figure out how to end your book.
You need enthusiasm to undertake the project of writing a book, but in my experience, it’s folly to get too carried away and simply start writing the book without a plan. Just as Rowling’s first pages of Harry Potter never made it to the book, your ideas are bound to shift over time — either because you think of new great ideas or because you realize the ideas you had to start aren’t as great as you believed.
You might not have believed in outlines during your school days, even for a 20-page essay. However, writing a book is like writing 20 different 20-page essays, all of which should work cohesively to complement and further that basic theme or idea you began with.
Sometimes it is okay to wing it. As Brandon Sanderson writes, planned writing can help you with foreshadowing or planning a series, while more spontaneous writing allows you to tell jokes and add humor in places when the opportunity arises.
“There’s no one perfect way to do this,” Sanderson says. “George R. R. Martin described some of the extremes in terms of ‘Gardeners’ and ‘Architects.’ Gardeners grow a story, without a firm idea of where they are going. Architects tend to build an outline as a frame and work from it.
“I’m (usually) an architect. I’ve found that the best way to get the kinds of endings I like. I have to know where I’m going before I start.
“That said, an outline has to be a living thing of its own. I need the flexibility to knock out entire sections of it and rebuild them; I do that frequently.”
Two important notes here: The first is that no one is (or ought to be) entirely either a gardener or an architect. Sanderson describes himself as an architect, but he admits that he needs the freedom to let the outline grow the way a gardener would. Martin is probably more of a gardener, given how he grew the series from a single sentence, and yet in his 60 Minutes interview, he talks about creating histories, maps and structures for his series. He even has a Game of Thrones expert to consult with whenever he has questions about continuity.
You can choose your own balance. I typically prefer writing the book to outlining, but there’s nothing more frustrating than realizing you need to pivot, rendering the first 200 pages of your book useless. I had to rework major sections of the book due to my lack of foresight, leading to months-long delays that I might have avoided if I had spent a few days, or even weeks, figuring out how to write the book ahead of time.
The more complex your book idea, the more time I recommend you spend planning how to write your book. For example, my story involved two narratives alternating and intertwining in various ways. Changing something in one storyline affected the other, meaning that every alteration was sort of like a game of Jenga — the whole book could fall apart if I pulled out the wrong building blocks.
Take a look at Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives series — a 10-book epic covering dozens of characters, storylines and times that could be as many as 4 million words — and you’ll see why his outlines are more complex. Here’s an image of one Stormlight book’s format.
“You see, Stormlight books have a kind of strange format,” Sanderson writes. “I plot them in this bizarre fashion that likely makes sense only to me.”
Sanderson also creates written outlines, detailing scenes, images, names and phrases he wants to include. You can check out an early version here.
Rowling also created a spreadsheet-style outline when writing Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The outline explains when each chapter in the novel takes place, the title of the chapter and what happens in that chapter. She then explains how the plot of the chapter advances the six fundamental subplots of the book.
Try Rowling’s outline or Sanderson’s. Try the Snowflake method. Come up with your own style on how to stay organized, but an outline and a plan will help you see the bigger picture. Just as you want to stay on-brand with your business offerings, you should use the backbone of your book to create a cohesive story all the way through.
3. Write the book.
Helpful, right? It might seem basic, but it’s the truth — writing a book takes time and effort, and there’s no getting around it. It doesn’t matter if you know every tip or trick on how to write a book, at the end of the day, you actually have to just do it.
I have always loved this exchange between Neil Gaiman and one of his readers:
Hi. My name is Jonny...
There is just one question for you, and if I dont receive a reply I'm not going to be all bent out of shape about it, but, how do I finish a story that I believe is going to be great? My problem is that I start what I belive is going to be a good story, and I can never finish it. I have dozens upon dozens of unfinished short stories that I know would be good reads, but I just cant seem to finish them. If you have any input for me, it would be greatly appreciated, and I would also be honored to hear back from you.
My best regards,
How do you finish them? You finish them.
There's no magic answer, I'm afraid. This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it's done. It's that easy, and that hard.
Read the stories over that you've left unfinished, pick out the one where you know what happens next, and write that down, and keep writing until the story's finished. Then finish the next one, or start a new one and finish that.
You may find that you need to have more of an ending in mind before you start.
I always used to know I was finishing something because instead of worrying about how it was going to end I was now worrying about how the next thing was going to start.
Most people can start a short story or a novel. If you're a writer, you can finish them. Finish enough of them, and you may be good enough to be publishable. Good luck.
Knowing how to write a book means knowing there are no shortcuts. The book is going to be as long as it needs to be. Fortunately, you can optimize your time while writing.
Minimize your distractions.
Want to know how to write a book faster? Avoid spending five minutes staring at a blank Google Docs page before scrolling through Twitter for half an hour.
In order to avoid the distractions that come with modern technology, I personally choose to write everything by hand … including this story. Here's a part of the outline:
It’s slower than typing, of course, but using a good-ole-fashioned notebook and pen’s great for several reasons:
- I reduce the potential for distractions. No internet means no YouTube, no social media, no email or news alerts.
- I can’t erase or delete my words. Rather than waste several pages by scratching outlines, re-writing over and over, using a pen forces me to keep moving forward, limiting the chances I’ll get stuck in the minutiae.
- I can see the progress with my own eyes. For me, writing in a Google or Word Doc can be frustrating — every time I finish writing a page, another simply appears just below it. It’s impossible to reach the end or see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. It’s more satisfying for me to flip a page, to fill up a notebook and keep going.
- I can do my first round of edits when I input the handwritten pages into the computer.
I wrote first 2 Potters by hand and typed them on a 10 yr old typewriter. All a writer needs is talent & ink. https://t.co/oK30qfcVZK— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) August 23, 2016
Gaiman also prefers writing his books longhand. He told BuzzFeed: “I started with Stardust: It was (in my head) being written in the 1920s, so I bought a fountain pen and a big notebook and wrote it by hand to find out how writing by hand changed my head.
“And it did, it really did. I was sparser, I would think my way through a sentence further, I would write less, in a good way. And when I typed it up, it became a very real second draft – things would vanish or change. I discovered that I enjoyed messing about with fountain pens, I even liked the scritchy noise the pen nib made on the paper.”
Martin, meanwhile, told Conan O’Brien he uses a DOS computer, which isn’t hooked up to the internet. It’s such an old machine that O’Brien asks if Martin “carved it out of wood.”
Martin explains, “It does everything I want a word processing program to do, and it doesn’t do anything else.”
If you prefer to work on your laptop, you can limit your distractions in other ways. Find a great place to work — Rowling recommends a cafe, others have dedicated writing rooms or separate offices dedicated to working on books.
Find a great playlist that helps you focus. I listen to a lot of coffee shop-style music while I write, which I find soothing. Others prefer classical, electronic or even silence. Figure out what works for you and stick to it.
Don’t try to write the whole book in one sitting.
You’ll fail, and then you’ll get discouraged. Unless you’re writing a small booklet (say, fewer than 10,000 words), you probably won’t be able to finish in a week or even a single month. The key to finishing a book is committing to making consistent progress.
I’m a big believer in keeping track of your word count, both on a daily basis and overall. The daily word count keeps you accountable, while the overall number allows you to get a bigger picture. The average book has about 250 words per page, so you can easily keep track of how long your book will be by thinking that every 1,000 words is equal to four pages.
When writing the first draft of my book, I aimed for 1,500 words per day, inspired by the fact that Stephen King tries to write six pages every day. I wasn’t perfect, of course, but I was able to finish a 118,000-word draft (a little short of 500 pages) in about five months.
It’s realistic for everyone to write 1,500 words per day. You might have a day job, a side hustle, a family at home or a hundred other things that take away from the number of hours you can spend sitting alone at a writing desk or cafe table. Just create a goal for yourself and be mindful about hitting that goal as often as you can. In my experience, it’s the surest and most efficient way of writing books.
If you get stuck, move to a different part of the book. Try editing something you wrote earlier, or jump to a different scene. Do research for the chapters you want to write next. Just keep writing and moving forward.
4. Edit the book.
When I was in school, I hated to go back and edit my writing. It was boring because I had finished creating and needed to shift my brain to a more technical, objective mode of thinking. More than that, it was disappointing, because the words never looked as good on the page as they had felt while I wrote them.
That disappointment is exactly why it’s critical to edit your work. Novelist Sam Sykes posted on Twitter (only somewhat jokingly) that there are seven stages of writing a book:
- This is good.
- This is okay.
- This is bad.
- I am bad.
- I am the worst.
- Holy crap, kill me.
- This is okay.
You’ll probably never feel as good about your book as you do while writing the first draft. That doesn’t mean that your first draft is the best — remember, Rowling remembers precisely the first time she started writing Harry Potter, even though those pages didn’t make the final version.
It’s only upon reflection that you can see that the execution of your idea doesn’t quite measure up to the grand image you had in your head. You can get closer to that vision only through dedicating yourself to improving and edits. There are plenty of resources you can use to learn more about editing, and each case will probably be different.
When I wrote my book, it took four drafts before I felt confident enough to submit the work to literary agents. Here’s what I did with those drafts:
- Write the book, beginning to end. I didn’t have a very good story just yet — the beginning didn’t match the ending that I eventually settled on, and the characters didn’t seem quite real yet. But, I worked out the plot and how the important characters ought to interact with one another. I figured out the format of the book and how the separate narratives would eventually merge over time. My first draft weighed in at approximately 118,000 words.
- Fill out the book and create more detail. Whenever I got stuck or frustrated during the first draft, I chose to move on and leave a section or chapter blank. I had a particularly difficult time working out how to convey an important confrontation — I simply didn’t know enough about my characters and the book I was trying to write during the first draft. Going through a second time, I better understood my goals, and that understanding allowed me to write with more confidence. I filled in all of the blank places, creating a complete but overly long story. This draft was approximately a whopping 190,000 words.
- Cut and sharpen the book. Now that I had the full story on the page, all I had to do was tell it more precisely. Like a sculptor chiseling away at stone, I got rid of my filler words. I killed my darlings — those bits of the book that I found clever but didn’t add to the story. I went chapter by chapter, line by line, and cut 55,000 words (about 220 pages), which I put into a separate document (don’t just delete words, you might need them later). I finished the third draft at 135,000.
- Show others the book. No matter how good you are at writing books or editing books, it’s crucial to get feedback from other readers. These readers will point out things you would never have thought of — parts that seem obvious to you might actually be confusing, sections that you meant to sound comical only come off as annoying. My fourth draft was very similar to the third, both in content and in length, but it was a better story because of others’ help.
5. Accept the book.
This can be the toughest step of all. So many entrepreneurs are perfectionists who want to get their product or offering exactly right before they send it to market. If you want your book to be published at a traditional publishing house, and you don’t already have a big following or previous book experience, you will need to wow your audience.
That said, going over the same sentence over and over again probably isn’t going to make a difference. Making big changes means big-time commitments, and it’s simply unproductive to try to re-work the same concept 100 different ways. You’ll wear yourself out on stuff that doesn’t make your book significantly better, and then you’ll burn out.
Understand that your book probably isn’t going to be perfect. Not everyone is going to like every part of it. As King said in his book, On Writing, “You can’t please all of the readers all of the time; you can’t please even some of the readers all of the time, but you really ought to try to please at least some of the readers some of the time.”
You already understand that your business has a niche, your book ought to have one, as well. If just one percent of the U.S. loves your ideas enough to buy your book, you’ll make it to No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.
How to write a book in five steps
Here are the five steps I recommend on how to write and finish that book idea you’ve been thinking about for a while now.
- Figure out the start of your book. What is its backbone, the thing that you just have to get out and share with other people? Grow the story from there.
- Figure out the end of your book. How are you going to turn that seed of an idea into a full-fledged book? Try an outline or organize your thoughts some other way, and you’ll have to do less revising later.
- Write the book. Minimize your distractions. Set daily word goals for yourselves and meet them. Keep moving forward.
- Edit the book. I used four drafts to complete my book. Yours may take fewer. Just don’t think your first attempt is going to be magical and perfect. That’s rarely how writing works.
- Accept the book. If you’ve done all the hard work of actually completing a novel, then take that final leap of faith. Allow yourself to believe in what you’ve done and be proud of your work.
Writing a book isn’t easy, but it is simple. The truth is that you probably already know how to write a book, it’s just about actually doing it. So do it. You got this.