Writing a Book: How to Get Started (and Keep Going)

By Sue Stoney, The Message Crafter

book writing

A little about how I came to be writing about writing a book

Just so we’re clear. In all my years of providing writing, editing and writing coach services in the corporate world and now as The Message Crafter, I’ve never actually published a book with my name in the by line – unless you count my Master’s thesis. I’ve been what you could call a ghost writer.

But in those years, I’ve curated content for an e-book at a company to be used to gain qualified leads for its sales force, and I’ve written proposals as a member of a proposal development team at three different companies. And now as the principal of my own company, I’ve provided story plans, book critiques and writing coach services to several individuals who themselves are writing and / or have published their own book.

So I know a lot about the creative process – about what it takes to get from point A (“I’m going to write a book.”) to point B (“Oh, my God, I’ve written a book.”) and all about what happens along the way between A and B.

What I’m focusing on today is the creative process – not on the publishing process.

Some important things I’ve learned about writing a book

What I know about writing a book is driven by that old adage – writers write because they have to. And what I know about it is also informed by my years of coaching others, during which I’ve always promised to help them find their inner writer.

I have a core belief that says: EVERYONE has an inner writer. We are all subject matter experts in something, and if we’re at all passionate about the content that comes out of that expertise, we will be impelled from within ourselves (and sometimes compelled by others) to write about it.

So, just for the record, all of you have an inner writer clamoring to get out. And I know that at least a few of you must write in your place of work – whether you want to or not.

Something called “content development” and sometimes “content marketing” and sometimes also “content management” has exploded onto the stage of the small business owner world from where it has traditionally resided – the publications world where PR people, newspaper and magazine publishers and others with degrees in English, journalism, marketing, or business communication have had to move over to make room for, well, you.

Just to prove I’m right about this, let me ask you this: How many of you believe you have a book in you?

Okay. Those who didn’t raise your hands – I’m curious: Do you have a website? Do you blog? Does your industry require you to write white papers (sometimes called “position papers”)?

If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, you have content for a book.

How about your personal life? Are you passionate about a specific cause? Is your life story or the story of someone you know interesting to others besides yourself? (Has anyone ever said to you, for example, “Hey, you should write a book!”?)

So really I’m saying that everyone has an inner writer and the makings of a book inside him or her.

And today, I’m offering you five tips for how to get started writing that book and how to keep the momentum going – especially when you feel stuck.

Tip #1: Begin with the end in mind

The 7 Habits author Stephen Covey said this. In writing, the end involves two important things – audience and purpose. Once you define those two things thoroughly, whatever you’re writing – blog, poem, white paper, book – almost writes itself.

Audience – For whom am I writing this book? One client of mine, who had been in the process of writing a book for a few months, said that when I asked her to clarify for herself who the readers would be, she suddenly had clarity regarding what to keep in and what to take out – how to get unstuck in the writing process. Remember that I said writers write because they have to – that’s the impelling part of it – the something in me that wants out.

The compelling part of writing involves someone else saying that I should put this out to the wider world – that it has something valuable to impart to others. So, while you may begin writing the book without clearly defining the audience, you will find that the process will have less fits and starts if you start with as clear a definition as you can muster. That does not mean that, as you write, you might not also discover that you need to adjust the definition. However, the degree to which you define audience up front is the degree to which you have a clear vision of the book’s path.

Purpose – The other important component to story planning is purpose. So, it’s not just “For whom am I writing this book?” but “Why am I writing this book now?” If some of you are thinking that you don’t have a book in you, you might want to consider what I said at the beginning – that we are all subject matter experts on something.

So, if you blog, you might have quite the collection of blog articles by now that you could turn into an anthology that you would then offer as an e-book to prospects in return for their information for your marketing purposes. If your blog articles are drawing people to you via the Internet, this means you’re establishing “street cred” in your field.

Something I discovered at an intelligent content conference just might help you think this through to the benefit of your company – the answer to the question, “Do we offer products and services OR do we offer content?” is “yes.”

In other words, it’s not OR but AND. In the process of providing products and services to your market, you had better have become an expert in what those products do for your customers, or you won’t have customers for long.

An e-book with collected free content is an excellent way to market your products to prospective customers who haven’t yet found you.

Tip #2: Get thee to an editor (or two)

This tip is NOT a plug for my services. It is a way of pointing to the value of a second and even third pair of eyes in the development of your book. Most graduate students, for example, when submitting their thesis, are required to have first, second and sometimes third readers. Sometimes, the graduate student gets to pick who the readers are; sometimes not. Because this is YOUR book, you get to choose.

This tip assumes that you know the writing process requires that editing review be folded into the writing process all along the way so that the finished product really sings (more about editing as a separate process later when we get to Tip #5).

Should you be one of the editors for your book? Absolutely! But if you’re not good at what I call the housekeeping chores (grammar, punctuation, spelling and syntax), you should not be focusing on those things when you edit review your book. Instead, your edit review should focus on your content and how it portrays you.

Find from among your associates – business and personal – professional readers. These people are passionate about all things story-related – language, plot, argument, tone, voice and placement of graphics (if any). And if one of your two readers has a solid background in those housekeeping chores of language I mentioned before (grammar, usage, punctuation and spelling), excellent. The editor at your publisher’s (if you’re fortunate enough to have one waiting in the wings) will love you. Just check with him or her as to what editing style guide the publisher uses.

One more thing: Find your readers before you even start writing. They will be both an incentive to begin writing and impetus to keep going when you get stuck. Schedule a first review by them at a given point in time and see how that fuels your enthusiasm.

Tip #3: Write a story plan

This tip relates to Tip #1 – even if you’ve already started writing, you’ve probably felt the need to do this. And if you’ve defined your audience and purpose as described in Tip #1, you have two of the most important components necessary to a good story plan.

Your story plan is the map that guides you all the way to publication. Pieces of the map may be fuzzy or lacking, but putting the plan together up front will help you see how you will get to the end goal – the compelling part of writing that says, “Hey, this is worth presenting to a wider audience.”

The destinations along the way on your map are all defined by what type of writing you’re doing. Is it a novel or novella – well, that’s fiction. Will it be one novel or a series? One client of mine was in the middle of book four in a series of seven novels and suddenly realized that he needed to adjust his story plan in a major way. My guess, based on the questions he asked, is that he didn’t clearly define his audience, if at all, before he started the series.

For fiction, you should sketch out plot and character definition in your story plan. Who’s who and how they relate to each other, as well as their character’s influence on the story’s forward action, all play a part. What motivates a character to be who he is, talk the way she does and do things in a specific way informs the voice of the storyteller – you.

Publishing mode is something I’ve discovered in supporting small business owners is extremely important to their bottom line and to the timeline for getting the book published. In your story plan, define whether you are going to monetize your first book or offer it free to people in exchange for their information to market to and so that you can establish your brand. e-book or paper book? Online or offline print?

Remember the power of “and” I spoke about earlier? When it comes to genre: Might a biography be something more like a novel? Yes. It’s called historical fiction. Do people publish in both e-book and paper – yes to that, too.

For an e-book that anthologizes or curates content, the story plan should probably include chapter titles for the categories into which the blog articles fall. And you might want to frame the whole book with a preface and possibly an introduction to each of the chapters with overarching themes that feature search terms people typically use to find you on the internet.

Start your timeline in your story plan from the end and move to the present. What day do you want the book published? Is it being published only as an e-book, only as a printed hard copy, or both? What steps in the process of writing and editing the content need to happen to be sure you’re satisfied with the content BEFORE you hand it over to a publisher? Allow for time toward the end to view the book as it will appear printed.

How are you going to market the book and where? That, too, goes into the story plan and is governed by whether you want to monetize it or offer it as free content.

If the book is an autobiography or biography, be sure that you can write it without getting too close to the blackboard as they say in the teaching profession. If you can keep your perspective objective enough to hold tight to your connection with your readers…you’ll stay true to the story. If turning the work into fiction from non-fiction gets you to the truth of your story more effectively, then go with that.

A story plan I developed with the Director of International HR at a cellular phone company mapped out the materials required for a mentoring program for young professionals coming back to the U.S. after holding long-term positions overseas. The plan included no less than 10 elements that constituted the communication pieces needed for the entire project. (And, yes, before you ask, the plan needed adjusting all along the way.)

Tip #4: Schedule time to write regularly

Okay. I’m not a purist about this. I’m a realist. Most people do not write for a living (that is, they don’t make money – or enough money to live on with their writing). So this tip is not about writing every day; it’s about scheduling writing time and, then, honoring the schedule.

And remember what I said earlier: Scheduling edit reviews of your draft versions with your chosen edit review readers will help you stay on track in the regularly scheduled writing department.

Tip #5: Wear two hats as you write (hint: one says “editor”) but don’t wear them simultaneously

I confess to a fair bit of prejudice regarding this tip for writers. My mentor describes me as someone “…who writes with an editor’s eye and edits with a writer’s keen grasp of language and its powerful effect on behavior.” I believe that this qualifies me to say with conviction that, not only do you have a writer in you, you have an editor, too. Sounds kind of crowded in there; doesn’t it? The fact of the matter is that writing and editing are two sides of the same coin. That means that they need each other for the process to work at its best.

If you start your writing with the intention that reviewing it at important junctures will be a part of the process, you will produce a good book – maybe even a great one. Remember that I said you should pick a couple of professional readers to help you in the editing review? Tip your hat to those people on the Acknowledgements page when you publish the book.

But don’t forget that the most informed reader of your book is always you. Get up and walk away from it once and a while. When you come back, take your writer’s cap off and put your editor’s cap on. Reread what you’ve written out loud to hear how it sounds. In fact, I recommend that people buy an inexpensive tape recorder (yep, they still sell them) or use their smart phone to record themselves reading the portions they’re reviewing out loud. This is especially important for dialogue in a novel. Speaking the words aloud will help you catch that, “Wait a minute. People don’t talk like that,” sound.

“That’s all” she wrote

That’s it. Obviously, many more things can be said about writing a book. I know that I’ve just scratched the surface of all the best practices for writing a book. I’m sure all of you have tips derived from your experience or the experiences of others you know. What I hope you’re taking away is a shot in the arm of your enthusiasm for finding the writer in you. Believe me: That writer is in there.