Do you have a great idea for a book but are not sure where to start? Does the thought of putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, stop you dead in your tracks? Fear not, this guide is designed to help turn that germ of an idea into a successful book. It is a practical guide primarily aimed at fiction writers but non-fiction writers should find it useful too.
Developing Your Idea
Every new book starts with an idea and your first task is to flesh it out. Mull it over in your mind for a few days, pulling and pushing it in every direction by asking, ‘what if I change this,’ ‘what happens when I do that,’ ‘what if I add this?’ When your idea has some shape and form, write it out as a one or two-page summary.
If you start writing now, the book will lack direction and consistency and the daunting task of facing a blank page every day will eventually put you off. To avoid this, expand your summary into the shape and style of a book by fleshing out the story chapter-by-chapter. This can be done linearly with a list of chapters, starting with chapter 1 and finishing at say, Chapter 40. Into each chapter add an outline, short or long, as to what the chapter will be about. Don’t worry if you can’t fill in all the blanks, as it is unlikely you will know everything about your new book at this stage, and once you start writing, the order and content will inevitably change.
If a list doesn’t appeal, try something spatial and for this you could use Mindmaps or index cards but whatever method you choose, a chapter-by-chapter guide will provide essential, on-going help. It will not only tell you what you need to write when you come to write, it will also keep track of plots and sub-plots, characters and threads and at a glance, show you the balance of your novel; between action and inaction, how often a character appears, the number of fight-love-tension scenes, the length of each chapter, and much, much more.
In the same way as you set about developing chapters, you now need to do the same with characters. Write a detailed bio for each one and get to know them as intimately as you would do your friends. This helps to maintain consistency throughout the novel and will avoid the situation of an ardent non-smoker, later found to be enjoying a cigarette, or a non-driver jumping behind the wheel of a car to escape a pursuer.
At this stage, many authors stop writing and begin their research, as the chapter-by-chapter approach will highlight the areas of your novel where you need to visit locations, understand how to use certain equipment, talk to professionals in the field, or read articles and books in a library or on the web. Not every author will do it this way as some are writing about an area of expertise with which they are familiar and needing little research, while others will start writing and conduct research when the narrative demands it. One word of caution. The temptation to include all your research is strong – don’t. It is there to provide colour, credibility and texture to your narrative; it is not an end in itself
Can You Write?
It is discouraging to think it requires about 100 hours to become proficient at anything new and in book terms, this equates to about a million words. What about all those successful ‘first-time’ authors, I hear you say? This is marketing hype, as many of them wrote half a dozen novels before they were published or previously worked in writing-based jobs, such as journalism or editing. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and it’s not hard to find authors who have not written a word since leaving school – just look at E.L. James.
Will It Sell?
I often hear lofty authors say they don’t care if their book sells or not, they just want to see it published. If you feel this way too, you will find there is nothing more dispiriting than discovering your book, unloved and un-reviewed at number 350,000 in the Amazon sales charts, while other similar novels are riding the crest of a sales wave, supported by dozens of great reviews.
Some points to consider:
- Is your book aimed at a particular segment of the market, be it romance, crime, paranormal? Good, because crossover books, e.g. vampire detectives and horror romances rarely work as they are difficult to target to a particular audience. Also, it is best to avoid tired and over-supplied segments, e.g. misery memoirs and another ‘girl on the train.’
- How will it be marketed? This is one of the most crucial questions you can ask. After spending months writing, editing and re-editing your book and finally seeing it published, you can expect to sell around 35 copies, mainly to family and friends. To sell more, you need to think about PR and advertising, but if it all sounds too expensive, there are some things you can do without breaking the bank. In short, copy the good habits of successful authors. This means having a thoroughly proofread and well-edited script, an eye-catching cover with an exciting back-cover blurb, a professional website, and an established presence on social media. If the thought of using social media fills you with dread, take a look on Twitter or Facebook and you will find a plethora of authors, many of whom are signed to large publishing houses with a professional marketing department behind them, using it regularly.
Are you planning only 1 novel? That’s a pity, as nothing sells a first novel like having a second. If the author of say, five or six books undertakes a piece of advertising or an article about them appears in a newspaper, it may tempt new readers to look at their books. If the reader buys the advertised book and likes it, they will come back and buy a number of the author’s earlier titles – voila, more sales.
There is a huge amount of information available about book writing, grammar, editing and marketing a novel in books, courses, websites and blogs. Take a look at your favourite authors’ websites as many of them offer book writing guides and if you can afford it, attend a couple of writing courses as they provide a good opportunity to meet other people in a similar position as yourself.
It has been said by other commentators before, but to develop yourself as a writer you must keep writing, whether you think it’s any good or not. The next day you might see a way of making it work but if you don’t, you can always remove it and write something else.