Discover Online Classes in Writing and Publishing
Creative writing, copywriting, content marketing, and more.
So you want to write a book. Great! How do you get started?
You Google “how to write a book,” get overwhelmed, then cry.
The idea of writing a book if you’ve never done it before—and a lot of the time, even if you have done it before—can be daunting. But as with anything, there’s a tried and true process many authors use, and following those basic steps can make things a tiny bit easier.
Can you just start writing a book without knowing what genre it is? Sure! But chances are, you’re going to make things more difficult for yourself down the line.
Yes, there are books out there that “transcend genre”—meaning they can’t easily be classified as a thriller, a romance, or a fantasy. But they’re the exceptions, not the rule.
Most books fall within a specific genre. And it’s important to know which genre you’re writing because there are certain expectations that must be met, such as hitting an appropriate word count or including specific elements that readers (not to mention agents and publishers) will expect to find in your manuscript.
Genres (and Sub-genres)
First: are you writing fiction? Nonfiction? Memoir? Decide, then go from there.
Second, if you’re writing fiction: what fiction genre are you writing in?
A non-exhaustive list of fiction genres:
- Mystery / Thriller
- Contemporary Fiction
- Literary Fiction
- Historical Fiction
- Science Fiction
Along with genre, you’ll want to identify your age category. When it comes to novels, these can usually be broken down into:
- Middle Grade, where the main character is a preteen, and the story is targeted toward preteens
- Young Adult, where the main character is a teen, and the story is targeted toward teens
- Adult, where the main character may or may not be an adult, but the story is targeted toward adults
There’s also the term “New Adult” floating out there, but its definition can be nebulous. Is it simply books with college-aged protagonists? Books targeted toward people in their early twenties? No one’s sure. So for now, to keep it simple, generally anything in which your main characters are older than teenagers can be classified as adult.
Setting Reader Expectations
Why do age category and genre matter? First, readers generally want to know what to expect when they’re reading a certain type of book.
For example, if you’re writing a romance novel, the expectation is that by the end of the story, the main character and her love interest get together and live happily ever after. If they all die at the end—well, that’s not a romance novel.
A fantasy novel is going to have some fantastical elements in it, like a magic system or a second world, while a horror novel is going to feature some scary stuff.
How can you familiarize yourself with all these genres? Read them! As Stephen King says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”
Read widely across the genre you want to write in to familiarize yourself with its styles, its tropes, the things you like about it, even the things you don’t like. Take notes. Then, when you’re ready to write your own book, you’ll already be an expert on the genre.
The other thing that matters about defining what genre you’re writing in? Word count.
How long should a book be? If you Google it, you’ll get several different answers—which may make you throw up your hands and say, “it’ll just be however long it is.”
But say it with me: Word count is important.
If you tweet this, almost inevitably you’ll get some dissent. “A book takes as many words as it takes” or “I don’t pay attention to word count, only how good the story is” or “some of those Outlander books are over 1,000 pages!”
Yes, there are exceptions to word count rules. But they’re almost exclusively made by well-established authors. If this is your first novel, and you’re hoping to publish it and garner reader attention, it’s in your best interest to learn the recommended word count of your genre and age group.
And if you’re planning on traditionally publishing and hope to query an agent, staying within the word count limits is a BIG must-do. Some agents won’t even read a query where the word count is too high or low.
Some general word count guidelines:
- Memoirs: 65,000 to 100,000 words
- Nonfiction books: 50,000 to 75,000 words
- Middle grade novels: 30,000 to 60,000 words
- Young adult novels: 60,000 to 80,000 words
- Adult novels: 70,000 to 110,000 words, with differences between genres. For example, fantasy generally runs lengthier than romance or contemporary.
Look up the word count expectations for your genre, and plan accordingly.
With that said, you don’t need to stress about hitting this word count goal exactly on your first book draft. Some people are underwriters, meaning their drafts will end up too short. That’s okay; you can beef up your novel in revisions. And others are overwriters, meaning their drafts will end up too long. That’s also okay—you can cut in revisions.
Now that you’re familiar with your genre’s expectations and word count norms and have done a fair amount reading in that genre, you’re ready to set writing goals.
Some writers like word count goals when drafting; for example, during NaNoWriMo, writers set a goal of 50,000 words in one month, which works out to 1,667 words per day.
Some prefer hourly goals, like averaging three hours per day on your project. That way, you’re not just banging out words to get words down; you’re doing your best to get the right words down. That could mean thousands of words one day, a few hundred another, or none on days you’re researching and outlining.
Progress is still progress. The important thing is having goals and doing your best to meet them.
Outlines: do you need one? It depends on you, the writer.
In general, writers fall into three categories:
- Plotters: Those who outline
- Pansters: Those who do not outline; who “fly by the seat of their pants”
- Plantsers: A combo of these two
How do you figure out what kind of writer you are? By seeing what works.
You may not be a plotter—but the only way to know this is by trying to plot. That generally involves creating an outline.
Many writers find outlines to be incredibly useful. It can be exciting jumping in and seeing where the story takes you, but without a roadmap, you may write yourself into a corner at some point. An outline gives you that roadmap. And it’s important to remember it’s not set in stone. Your outline can change the more you discover about your characters and world.
Now, how do you create this outline?
There are a lot of methods out there. The Save the Cat beat sheet is a popular one because it’s a clear structure and yet is flexible enough that it can be applied to almost any story in any genre.
There are also more specific outline templates out there, like Romancing the Beat for romance writers or thriller beats for thriller writers. Some people use a four-act structure instead of a three-act one. The only way to know what works best for you and your story is to try them out and see!
Next up: research.
The amount of research you’ll do will depend on what kind of book you’re writing.
Nonfiction? Obviously, this will involve an extensive amount of research on the subject on which you’re writing.
Historical fiction? You’re in for a good amount of research here, too. You’ll have to find out everything you can about the time period you’re writing in: social norms, speech, dress, customs—the whole nine yards.
Fantasy? It depends. A lot of fantasy writers base their worlds on real-life countries and time periods, like George R.R. Martin did in Game of Thrones with medieval England, or Leigh Bardugo did in Shadow and Bone with imperial Russia. It’ll all depend on where you set your story and what tools you need.
Contemporary romance? Again, it depends. You may have to Google about hot air balloon rides or what time the sun sets at a certain time of year, and that may be all. Or you may have to do more to create an authentic sense of place. Or you may not have to research at all.
The important thing is doing what serves your story—and doing a good job of it.
How do you research a book? It’ll depend on what you’re writing. Sometimes all you’ll have to do is spend some time on the internet. Other times, you might have to visit a place, or go to a library, or have an experience (like that hot air balloon ride) to be able to write about it authentically.
Now it’s time to pick a time and place to write.
Many of us are busy with full-time jobs, families, or social obligations. Most likely, a mix of all three. So finding time to write can be difficult.
But chances are you can always make yourself “writing pockets” here and there, whether that means getting up early, staying up late, or taking your laptop or notebook with you on your lunch break.
Some people like a daily writing schedule. Some prefer a weekly one. Some days are busier than others, and on the days you can’t squeeze a lot in, you can make up for it on the days you have more time.
You have all your pre-writing stuff done—your genre chosen, your research done, your outline started, your goals set, your time to write carved out.
Now it’s time for the easy part: write!
Sitting down to a blank page (or empty writing software) can be incredibly intimidating, even with all the preparation you’ve done. You may be tempted to read another writing craft book, or watch another YouTube video, or tweak your outline some more.
But at some point, to get your book written, you need to actually write it.
Start writing. You don’t have to start at the beginning. Write a scene in the middle if it’s calling to you. Some writers even prefer writing the ending first. Jump around, write slowly, write poorly, write derivatively—just write.
Your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be there—so you can go in later and fix it.
You did it! You finished your first draft! Now what?
Don’t go hitting “publish” on your piece of brilliance just yet.
Generally, it helps to take a break before you dive in to fix your draft. You need a little distance from your work in order to gain some objectivity. So, stay away from it as long as you can stand—ideally at least a month.
If you get the itch to keep writing, work on something else. A short story, another book idea, or something else entirely. This has the added bonus of not only keeping your mind off your book, but potentially helping you develop a brand new one.
Once you’re ready to dive back in, start with list-making.
Consult your outline, making sure you’re hitting the right beats at the right moments. Check your word count and see if you need to add anything in or take anything out. Look at your character arcs. Make a list of the things you want to change, from big picture to small potatoes.
And then—dive in and get to work!
Keep in mind, though, that editing is not generally done once. It’s done several times over. You can take a few passes on your own, but at some point you’re going to want to move on to the next step: critique partners.
What’s a critique partner? Another writer who can read your work and give you feedback. Ideally, it’s a mutual situation, so you’re doing the same for them. You can find them in writing groups, or individually, but the important thing to remember is they are essential. And not just for their company.
A writing critique partner will be able to spot the issues with your manuscript that you’re unable to spot yourself—even with breaks and distance. As the author, you’re never going to be as objective toward your work as someone else can be.
They can also be incredible cheerleaders! There’s nothing better than getting back a critique from another writer gushing about the things they love.
But of course, a good critique partner is going to offer critique. They’ll give you substantial, actionable writing feedback that you can use.
You’ve got notes back from critique partners. Now it’s time to edit again! Make more lists, then tackle each item as it comes up. Fix that character, then that plot hole. The minor things (this word choice doesn’t work, that paragraph is too long) are best saved for last.
You should go through the editing and critiquing process a few times with a few different critique partners. Having fresh eyes on your work is always a good thing.
But at some point—it’s time to finish up!
Go through your notes again. Make sure you’ve fixed everything you want to fix. Ideally, take some more time away from the manuscript. Then look at it again, this time searching for spelling errors (don’t rely on spellcheck), grammatical mistakes, punctuation—all the little things.
You want your work to be the most polished it can be before your next step: sending it to literary agents or self-publishing.
What Will You Write?
Writing a novel is an overwhelming, exciting, and involved task. But it’s also an incredibly rewarding one. Take the steps outlined above, and you’ll be well on your way to your first novel in no time.
Start Your Novel
A Writer’s Toolkit: 6 Steps to a Successful Writing Habit