So you want to become an author…
Well, I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news.
The bad news first:
Writing your book won’t be easy. If you’re in the middle of that process, you’re nodding right now.
But here’s the good news:
All that work is a small price for the amazing possibilities it can open to you:
- Getting published
- Enjoying a career you love
- Impacting people with your writing
- Media attention
- Royalty income
In this extensive guide, my goal is to give you an honest look at how to become a writer—using lessons I’ve learned from 40+ years working with some of the top publishers in the world.
Having written 21 New York Times bestsellers myself, I’m confident these lessons will help you in your writing journey.
Ready? Let’s do it.
What You Will Learn
Here’s the short version of everything I cover in this complete, step-by-step post:
- …Studied the Craft and Polished Your Skills
- …Written Things Shorter Than a Book
- …Plugged Yourself into a Community of Writers
- Create a Writing Schedule You Can Stick to
- Research and Plan
- Keep Your Day Job
- Become a Ferocious Self-Editor
- An Overview of Self-Publishing
- How to Set Your Book Apart
- Choosing the Right Self-Publishing Company
- The #1 Killer of Self-Published Books
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1. DON’T Try to Become a Writer Until You’ve…
I get it. You’re antsy. You’re ready to pen your bestseller right now. You’ve read or heard of writers who had never written a thing before and yet scored with a million-seller on their first try.
Throttle back. Those stories become big news because they’re so rare. Don’t bank on winning the lottery. If you want your book (and your message) to go anywhere, make sure you’ve:
…Studied the Craft
There’s no need to write a compelling story by trial and error anymore. Others have already done it for you—and written books about it. So your best bet is to follow proven methods.
Great writers are great readers. So here’s a list of my favorite 12 books on writing to get you started.
The competition has gotten so fierce, you’ll do yourself a favor if you learn how successful authors write before you try to get a second look from a publisher. Take the time to learn what you’re doing. You’ll thank yourself later.
…Written Things Shorter Than a Book
A book shouldn’t be where you start any more than you should enroll in grad school when you’re a kindergartner. A book is where you arrive.
Start small, learn the craft, hone your skills.
Do some journaling. Write a newsletter. Start a blog. Get articles published in a couple of magazines, a newspaper, an ezine. Take a night school or online course in journalism or creative writing.
Publishers are looking for authors with platforms (in short: audiences, tribes, followers, fans). So start building yours now. Any of the pieces above will start building steam behind your writing, and boost name recognition for you as a writer.
If you’re planning to start blogging, check out this post on creating an author website.
Bottom line: Work a quarter-million clichés out of your system, learn what it means to be edited, become an expert in something, build your platform, and then start thinking about that book or novel.
…Plugged Yourself into a Community of Writers
Think you can do it alone?
Then you’re a better writer than I.
Almost every traditionally published author I know is surrounded by a helpful community. How else would they deal with things like:
- Wanting to quit
I’ve written over 185 books, yet I often wonder whether I can finish the next one.
At this stage for me, community means knowing I can be encouraged by colleagues whenever I need it.
When you’re starting out, another pair of eyes on your work can prove to be invaluable. Ten pairs of eyes are even better.
Join a writers’ group. Find a mentor. Stay open to criticism.
One caveat with writers’ groups: make sure at least one person, preferably the leader, is widely published and understands the publishing landscape. Otherwise you risk the blind leading the blind.
2. Writing Your Book
Surprisingly, most people never get this far. Whether it’s fear or procrastination or something else, few writers ever make it to the first page.
To avoid becoming part of this sad group, you need a plan.
So regardless your personal writing method, be sure to cover these bases:
Create a Writing Schedule You Can Stick To
When you’re an author, writing becomes your job.
So treat it that way. Show up and do the work whether you feel like it or not. Writer’s block is no excuse. In no other profession could you get away with getting out of work by claiming you have worker’s block. Try that and see what it gets you—likely a pink slip.
Find at least six hours a week to write. Well, find is the wrong word, of course. You won’t find it, you’ll have to carve out the time. Lock these hours into your calendar and keep them sacred.
If you can’t think of what to write, then edit. If you can’t edit, plan. You’ll be astonished at your ability to get stuff done when you finally plant yourself in your chair.
Challenge: Don’t move until you have scheduled at least six hours.
Research and Plan
To give your manuscript the best chance to succeed, skip this step at your peril. Excellent preparation will make or break your book.
Two main ways you should be preparing:
Regardless how you feel about outlining, you need an idea of where you’re going before you start. If you’re writing a novel, you’re either an outliner or a pantser—those who write by the seat of their pants. (If you’re writing a nonfiction book, an outline is a given.)
On the fiction side, the definition of an outliner is obvious. You plan everything beforehand. But pantsers write by process of discovery—or as Stephen King puts it, they “put interesting characters in difficult situations and write to find out what happens.”
Neither is better or worse. But most writers are one or the other (a few are hybrids, largely one over the other but doing a little of both). But, depending on which you are, you’ll approach the planning phase completely differently.
If you’re a hardcore outliner (and a novelist), you’ll enjoy my friend and colleague Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. But if you’re a pantser, check out this post for non-outliners. It’ll teach you how to work within a structure while staying free enough to write on the fly.
2. Do the research.
All great stories are rooted in solid research. If your research stinks, your storysinks.
If your character drives 10 miles east out of the Chicago Loop, he’d better be in an amphibious vehicle, because he’ll be in Lake Michigan. (And you thought I was joking about sinking.)
To avoid such embarrassing errors, do your research. Immerse yourself in the details of your setting. Make sure no characters are wearing ski jackets when it’s 95 degrees outside.
Two online research tools that will help you avoid mistakes:
Don’t Quit Your Day Job
I didn’t become a full-time freelance author until I had written and published nearly 90 books. I had been advised by a veteran author that my freelance income ought to be around three times what I made at my job before I considered going solo.
I was stunned. Why so much more?
He started listing everything I would have to pay for on my own. Insurance, retirement, all my benefits. I had always been careful to separate my writing and my office work, but during my off hours on business trips I might do some research.
No more. Any travel would be on me.
Your day job doesn’t have to keep you from writing your book. You might not like this, but I recommend you keep it and spend your after-hours time writing your book. Why? Two reasons:
- You’ll have steady income—one less thing to worry about—while trying to build your writing career.
- The structure will force you to be more productive with fewer hours.
So, yes, you can have your cake and eat it too—without sacrificing time with family. You lose three hours per night for what, TV? How big a sacrifice is that for your writing dream? How badly do you want to become an author?
Become a Writer Ferocious About Self-Editing
This section is so important that it has the power to determine whether your book makes a huge splash with readers and publishers—or slides into the editor’s reject pile after the first page or two.
Get serious about self-editing.
Editors know from the first page whether your manuscript is publishable. I know that doesn’t sound fair or even logical. You’re thinking, It took me months, maybe years, to write hundreds of pages and you didn’t even get to the good stuff!
How could they do that to you? Why did they?
First, the good stuff ought to be in the first two paragraphs. And if they see 15 adjustments they need to make on the first two pages, they know the cost of editing three or four hundred pages of the same would eat whatever profits they could hope for before even printing the book.
To avoid the dreaded “Thank you, but this doesn’t meet a current need” letter, your manuscript must be lean and mean, besides being a great story and a great read.
Here are my 21 rules of ferocious self-editing:
- Develop a thick skin.
- Avoid throat-clearing.
- Choose the normal word over the obtuse.
- Omit needless words.
- Avoid subtle redundancies, like: “She nodded her head in agreement.” Those last four words could be deleted.
- Avoid the words up and down—unless they’re really needed.
- Usually delete the word that. Use it only for clarity.
- Give the reader credit. Once you’ve established something, you don’t need to repeat it.
- Avoid telling what’s not happening.
- Avoid being an adjectival maniac.
- Avoid hedging verbs like smiled slightly, almost laughed, frowned a bit, etc.
- Avoid the term literally—when you mean figuratively.
- Avoid too much stage direction.
- Maintain a single point of view (POV) for every scene.
- Avoid clichés, and not just words and phrases, but situations.
- Resist the urge to explain (RUE).
- Show, don’t tell.
- People say things; they don’t wheeze, gasp, sigh, laugh, grunt, or retort them.
- Specifics add the ring of truth, even to fiction.
- Avoid similar character names. In fact, avoid even the same first initials.
- Avoid mannerisms of punctuation, typestyles, and sizes.
3. Trying to Land a Publishing Contract
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I’m not going to sugarcoat it—this isn’t easy. But if you have a solid plan (and if you’ve followed the guide), you’ve got as good a chance as any.
This section will show you how to become an author by revealing the options available. These best practices can vastly increase your likelihood of getting published.
How to Get an Agent
Your first step in trying to land a traditional publishing deal should be to land an agent—which can be just as difficult, as it should be.
There will seem a dichotomy here, because you are likely writing for altruistic reasons—you have a mission, a passion, a message, something burning inside that you must share with the world. Yet agents or publishers will appear to base their decisions solely on the bottom line.
If they see sales potential, they will accept it; if they don’t they won’t.
But don’t despair. That doesn’t mean they don’t share your passion. It simply means they must make a profit to stay in business—even faith-based publishers who are all about ministry.
Though it’s hard to find an agent, it is possible to get traditionally published without one. Most will not consider unsolicited manuscripts, though some will.
Check The Writer’s Market Guide and The Christian Writer’s Market Guidefor publishers that don’t require agent-represented manuscript submissions. Some will allow you to submit at writers conferences or through other clients of theirs.
Be aware that it’s not unheard of to submit an unsolicited manuscript to dozens of publishers without success.
An agent can make your life a lot easier.
A plethora of new doors open because of your agent’s connections.
Besides the instant credibility of an agent’s approval and the knowledge that your writing has survived a vetting process, you also get valuable input and coaching on how to fashion your query and proposal from someone who understands the publishing industry, knows the players and who’s looking for what, and has experience successfully pitching publishers.
Obviously, there are good agents and bad agents. How do you know whom you can trust? The credible agent welcomes scrutiny. So find reviews. Check with other clients. Ask:
- How did their book turn out?
- Did they feel taken care of? Were they pleased with the results?
Feel free to ask agents:
- What kinds of books have they succeeded with?
- Have they succeeded in your genre?
Once you compile a list of agents who seem to be a good fit, follow their submission guidelines. They’ll likely ask for a query letter, synopsis, proposal, and perhaps a few chapters.
If any ask for any sort of reading fee or other payment up front, eliminate them as candidates and do not respond.
Before you do anything else, check out these submission guidelines from three agents I’m familiar with. I’m not necessarily evaluating or endorsing them, except to say that I know them to be ethical and trustworthy and find their guidelines helpful and sound.
Their pages will give you a good idea of what typical agents are looking for.
Two things you may be asked for—and which some writers struggle with:
1. A query letter
This is an easy way to reach out to an agent, but many prefer more—like a full proposal, which we’ll get to.
Most agents prefer submissions of any kind to be electronically submitted as an attachment, not as part of the body of your message. Avoid snail mail.
Make your query letter crisp and short. The shorter (while saying what you need to say) the better.
A query letter is just what its name implies—it queries the interest of the agent in your book idea. So make it stimulating and intriguing. Remember, you’re selling your book to the agent.
Four essential parts of an effective query letter:
a. Your elevator pitch
This is a summary of your book’s premise, told in the time it would take for the editor to reach his floor if you happened to find yourself in the same elevator car. So it has to be fast and convincing.
Here’s the elevator pitch for my very first novel:
“A judge tries a man for a murder the judge committed.”
b. Your synopsis
In a paragraph, tell what your nonfiction book is about and what you hope to accomplish with it. Or tell the basic premise of the plot of your novel. The synopsis would naturally go beyond the elevator pitch and tell what happens and how things turn out. (Note: Almost any plot, when reduced to a one- or two-paragraph synopsis, sounds ridiculous.)
c. Your target audience and why they’ll enjoy your book
Agents need to believe they can sell it before they’ll ask you for more. Help them envision how to pitch it to publishers, but be careful not to oversell. They know the business better than you do and will not be swayed by your assurance that “everyone will find this amazing.”
You can say that your audiences have been enthusiastic or that beta readers have expressed excitement.
d. Your personal information
Sell the agent on yourself. What qualifies you to write this book? What else have you published? What kind of tribe have you built? Where can they read your blog? Of course you’re including all your contact information.
Other query letter tips:
- Keep it to one page, single-spaced, and 12 pt. sans serif type.
- Don’t sell too hard—let your premise speak for itself.
- Follow the agent’s submission guidelines to a T.
- Proof your letter before sending. Any typo on such a short document makes you look like an amateur.
Here’s a great example of a query letter, with a breakdown of why it works, by Brian Klems of Writer’s Digest.
2. A book proposal
You’ll find that for most agents, this is the most important document they want to see. Some want only this. Succinctly and completely describe the details of your idea and make them want to read your manuscript in its entirety as soon as it’s ready. Leave nothing out. For nonfiction, include every major issue you’ll cover and the basics of what you’ll say about it. For fiction, rough out the entire plot in a few pages.
With a proposal, your query letter becomes a cover letter.
Resist the urge to write a long cover letter. Allow your proposal to do the heavy lifting.
Three trusted colleagues have produced masterful works on how to write book proposals, so check out what they have to offer:
(Jane also has some great material on query letters, so search her site for that, too.)
Proposals can contain any number of possible components, such as:
- Elevator pitch
- Target audience
- Chapter synopses
- Marketing ideas
- Your analysis of competing books, and where yours fits
- Up to three sample chapters
More book proposal tips:
- Tell why you think your book can succeed.
- Every page in your proposal should make them want to flip to the next page.
- Despite that a proposal is longer, keep it tight and terse, as short as you can without cutting crucial information.
Every word should be designed to pique an agent’s interest, your goal being to be asked to send your entire manuscript.
Which should I choose, query or proposal?
The competition is so fierce these days, I would lean toward a full proposal almost every time. The only instances when I might fire off a query would be if an incredible opportunity fell in my lap and I thought an agent could help me jump on it before I had time to craft a proposal.
For instance, if a major celebrity wanted help with a book and chose you to write it, a fast letter to an agent might get a quick response. Otherwise, take the time to put together a professional proposal that shows an agent you know how to work and can be thorough.
But know this: If you spark an agent’s interest, they will immediately ask for more information. So you’ll need a proposal at some point. Keep that in mind and be ready to get busy.
Connecting with the Right Publisher
Regardless whether you secure an agent, there are five guidelines for submitting your proposal and/or manuscript to publishers:
- Follow their submission guidelines to a T.
- Customize your cover letter to each.
- Know what the publisher wants, and tell them why you believe your book is right for them in light of that.
- Let it show in your attitude and tone that you realize how few manuscripts are chosen for publication each year, and by the fact that you have done your homework and covered all the bases to ensure you’re giving the publisher everything they need to make a decision on your manuscript.
- Avoid gushing and flattery, like adding the obvious sentiments, “I’ll do anything you say, make any changes you want, meet any deadline…” Just present your complete proposal and professionally express that you look forward to hearing from them.
A rule of thumb for first-time authors:
If you’re writing fiction, while some publishers may ask you to send your completed manuscript after reading your proposal, synopsis, and sample chapters, it’s highly unlikely they will actually offer a contract before they see that completed manuscript.
That’s because many people can come up with great ideas, and some can produce promising starts to novels. But few can see their way through to the end. So you’ll have to prove you can do it.
If you’re writing nonfiction, you might be able to secure a publishing contract before you have finished your entire manuscript, though that is also rare.
Should it happen, the publisher is likely to offer a lot of guidance and input for shaping the rest of the writing—and you’ll have a much better chance of success if you work nicely with your editor.
Regardless your genre, publishers won’t take a second look at your manuscript unless it’s presented professionally. Use these submission guidelines:
- Use Times New Roman font (or at the very least avoid sans serif fonts).
- Use 12-point type.
- Left-justify your page. (This means your text should be aligned at the left margin, but not the right. This is also called “flush left, ragged right.”)
- Double-space your page with no extra space between paragraphs.
- Each paragraph should be indented one-half inch.
- One space between sentences.
- Microsoft Word .doc or .docx file format.
- 1” top, bottom, and side margins (or whatever is standard in your Word program).
Editing Your Book Like Crazy (Again) with an Editor
By the time you get to this point, you’ve already spent hours editing your own work. You’ve rearranged, improved, and cut things that hurt to cut.
Be ready to do more.
Once a publisher agrees to take your manuscript, you’ll be assigned an editor to make your manuscript the best it can be.
This editor will suggest changes, maybe major ones—especially if it’s your first book.
Don’t get touchy. Writing is not a solo. It’s a duet between the writer and an editor.
Sometimes you’ll have to kill sentences that took hours to write. It’ll feel like disowning your children.
Remember, the editor is on your side. Throw a private temper tantrum if you must, but then cool down and listen. Let them to do their job. You can push back respectfully if you feel strongly that they’ve missed your point on something, but do this only when the sting of criticism has worn off and you’re thinking rationally. Keep an open mind and be easy to work with. They’ll remember.
4. Should You Self-Publish?
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If you can score with a traditional publisher, do it.
Exhaust your efforts to traditionally publish before resorting to self-publishing. Even honest self-publishing executives will give you this advice. Why? Because with traditional publishing, the publisher takes all the risks, and you’re paid an advance against royalties and royalties based on sales. So nothing comes out of your pocket.
With self-publishing, however, you pay for everything from design to editing. Packages can cost upwards of $10,000.
Back when self-publishing was referred to as “vanity publishing,” you could always tell a self-published book from a traditionally published book due to the lack of quality.
Schlocky covers, boring titles, the word by before the author’s name on the cover. Too much copy on the front and back covers. Poor typeface and interior design. Lousy writing, editing, and proofreading—sometimes clearly nonexistent.
But the game has changed.
Publishing your own book is vastly different than it used to be. Your end product can now look much more professional, and your price per book is much more reasonable.
Print-on-demand technology now allows for low-cost printing, so you can order as few as two or three books at a time for the same cost per book as you would pay if you were buying hundreds.
So, you no longer need to store countless copies in your garage or basement. And self-published books look nicer these days too, because writers have demanded it.
How to Set Your Self-Published Book Apart
If you resort to this route, realize that you are the publisher now. You have to advertise, promote, and market your own book. But because you’re earning the profits after expenses, not just a royalty, a successful book will net you more money per copy than a traditionally published one.
Admittedly, selling enough self-published copies to actually net you more money than you would make selling more traditionally at a lower royalty rate is rare, but it happens.
It’s also rare that a self-published book finds its way to bookstore shelves outside the author’s own town.
(The hard truth is that it’s not easy for even traditionally published books to place their books in bookstores. Experts say as few as one percent of all published books can be accommodated by bookstores and that the rest must be sold through other channels like the Internet, direct mail, and by hand.)
To give your self-published title the best chance to succeed, you need to invest in:
- A great cover, which will involve purchasing a photo or artwork, type design, and layout
- Inside layout, type design, and typesetting
- Editing (resist the urge to use a relative who majored in English or even teaches English; book editing is a specific art)
- Proofreading (same caveat as above; friends and loved ones who are meticulous spellers are not enough; there are myriad style matters to deal with)
Each of these elements will dramatically increase the professional look of your final product and, thus, your hope of selling more books. Do NOT skimp on them.
If you’ve ever built a house without a contractor, you have an idea of how complex this will be if you do it right.
So despite the fact that many self-published authors swear by it and believe it’s fairer to the author than traditional publishing, I maintain that traditional remains the ideal for authors—except for those unique titles that are targeted to deserving but very limited audiences.
Choosing the Right Company to Self-Publish Your Book
More than 400,000 books are self-published every year in the United States alone. So there are many companies to choose from. But sadly, many are wolves in sheep’s clothing.
They’ll let you create a poor product and tell you it’s great.
They’ll “award” you a contract, telling you their publication board has “evaluated” your manuscript and “found it worthy” to be published.
They’ll tell you that they’re “not a subsidy publisher” or “not a self-publisher” or “not an independent publisher.”
But they’ll use another euphemism to justify the fact that you’re paying “only for promotion” or “only for [this many] copies,” or “only for…” something else, when the fact is that the fee will cover all their costs and will include their profit.
They’ll imply they can get your title before the eyes of every bookstore owner and manager in the country. They might even give examples of a few titles of theirs that have sold into some stores or even made some bestseller list.
But they can’t guarantee your title will be sold into any store. Because that list your title is on that is “available” to every store owner and manager is merely a master list of all the books on some distributor’s Internet site of every title in their catalogue. That means your book will get no personal attention from a salesperson and no more emphasis than any of the tens of thousands of other titles on the list.
Such companies are using you as little more than a content generator, pretending to have “chosen” your book from among the many they have to choose from, when the fact is they would publish anything you send them in any form, provided your accompanying check clears the bank.
Be wary of any company that:
- Doesn’t take seriously the editing and proofreading of your book
- Lets you commit embarrassing typos such as spelling foreword as forward, foreward, or forword
- Allows the word by before your name on the cover
- Over-promises what you should expect in the way of personal sales representation, public relations, marketing, distribution, and advertising
That said, when you do need to self-publish, legitimate companies with proven track records are ready to assist you. Do your homework and go beyond an Internet search, which will likely turn up beautiful websites for countless companies putting their best foot forward.
So find previous customers and ask about their experience. You want a company who will answer every question straightforwardly and without hesitation. If you feel hard-sold, run.
A litmus test question for the publisher: Ask if they would advise you to exhaust your efforts to traditionally publish first. I asked this of the head of WestBow Press™, a division of Thomas Nelson and Zondervan, and he said he always advises customers that this is the ideal route.
That kind of refreshing honesty bodes well for a company.
The #1 Killer of Self-Published Books
When writers run out of money to invest in their book, too often the first place that suffers is the content itself.
Writers may understand that they are not experts in cover design, layout and typesetting, marketing and promotion, warehousing, distribution, and sales. But they overrate their writing and editing and proofreading abilities.
So, they invest in those other services and cut corners on editing and proofreading.
What they wind up with is a handsome product that looks like a real book but reads like the manuscript that made the rounds of the traditional houses and was rejected.
You must determine what will set you apart in a noisy marketplace.
That certain something that will set you apart is what it has always been:
Having been in the writing game for 50 years and the book business for 40, that is something I am able to tell you.
To use an ancient adage, cream rises. That may sound like something scratched on a cave wall. But it simply means that readers recognize quality.
You or your agent may be looking for a deal from a traditional publisher. Or you may have chosen to self-publish online, in print, or both.
Regardless, you want your manuscript to be of the highest editorial quality you can make it.
What does that mean?
It means you must:
- Learn the craft and hone your skills. Rigorously study writing, do exercises, write stories. It can all pay off. Just as with physical exercise, the more the better, but anything is better than nothing.
- Recognize that writing well is much harder and more involved than you ever dreamed. If you thought writing was merely a hobby, this realization could crush you. So, to push through, remember why you wanted to become a writer in the first place: You have a message, and people need to hear it.
- Don’t trust friends’ and relatives’ flattery. Sure, they’re great for keeping you from quitting. But when you need solid input on your writing, their enthusiasm won’t translate to sales.
- Accept criticism and input from people who know what they’re talking about. Find an experienced writer or editor who’ll offer honest feedback on your work. Join a writers group. Attend writers conferences. Get a mentor.