How to write a book (in 10 steps)

A super-simple step-by-step guide for new writers

Are you writing a book? Maybe you’re starting out for the first time? Our guide to writing fiction is designed for those new at the game and looking for first steps to writing a book, but this will help experienced writers, too. Read on, have fun and get writing!

1. Take one fabulous idea

If you want to write a successful book, it’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of your concept. Stephenie Meyer writes competent prose, but it’s her concept that turned Twilight into a cultural phenomenon. Dan Brown, Stieg Larsson, Stephen King are similar. They’re decent writers blessed with stunning ideas.

Agents know this, and – no matter what your genre – a strong premise is essential to selling a book. Given any two broadly similar manuscripts, agents will almost always pick the one with the strongest central concept.

How, then, do you get your genius ideas? The answer is that you probably already have them. Your killer idea may be germinating in your head right now. It may arise from a passion of yours; it may come out of a book you love.

It’s not about the seed of the idea. It’s how you develop it that counts.

The idea generator

Get better ideas faster, with this simple guide.

2. Build yourself a blistering plot

The next essential for any novelist is a story that simply forces the reader to keep turning pages. Fortunately, there are definite rules about how to achieve this.

The three crucial rules are:

I) Give the protagonist a major life challenge very early in the book and don’t resolve things till the very end.

II) Make sure that the jeopardy increases. By the final quarter or third of your novel, your protagonist needs to feel that everything hinges on the outcome of what follows.

III) If a chapter doesn’t advance the story in a specific way, you must delete that chapter.

Sounds simple?

Well, the principles aren’t that hard to understand, although executing the advice can a wee bit trickier. Meantime, we suggest you go into the subject in a bit more depth via our free plotting advice, plus guest blogger Gary Gibson’s suggestions about what to do when you hit a plot problem.

3. Add an unforgettable character or two

Long after a reader has forgotten details of a plot, the chances are they’ll remember the character who impelled it. The two things you absolutely must bear in mind when constructing your characters are:

I) Make sure that the character and the story bounce off one another in interesting ways. If, to take a stupid example, your character has a fear of spiders, the chances are that your story needs to force your character to confront those fears. You must bring your character into their zone of greatest discomfort.

II) Make sure you really, really know your character. It’s so often little things, subtleties that make characters seem human (e.g. Amy has a passion for Manhattan in winter; she collects a shell from every beach she’s ever visited.) If you want to check if you know your character well enough, we suggest you use our ultimate character builder.

One more thing that matters is where you place your camera. Do you write in the first person? The third person? Do you have one viewpoint or two or ten? These can be quite tricky issues and we recommend that you read more free tips on writing points of view.

Also (and this is a bit more advanced), do peek at Emma Darwin’s (one of our editors) sage advice on psychic distance.

4. Don’t forget to give your character inner life

One of the commonest problems we see is when a character does and says all the right stuff, but the reader never really knows what he or she thinks or feels.

If you don’t create that insight into the character’s inner world, the book will fail to engage your reader, because that insight is the reason why people read. After all, if you just want to watch explosions, you’ll go to a Bond or Bourne movie. If you want to feel what it’s like to be James Bond or Jason Bourne, you have no alternative but to read Ian Fleming’s or Robert Ludlum’s original novels.

This character insight is one of the simplest things for a novelist to do. You just need to remember that your protagonist has a rich inner world, and then you need to tell us about it. Not just the bland everyday things (e.g. “he felt hungry, so he sat down to eat”), but the things that make him different and unique. Get more character development advice.

5. Add drama

Your job as a novelist is to show action unfolding on the page. Readers don’t just want a third-hand report of what has just happened. That means you need to tell things moment-by-moment, as if you were witnessing the event. Consider the difference between this:

Ulfor saw the descending sword in a blur of silver. He twisted to escape, but the swordsman above, a swarthy troll with yellow teeth, was too fast, and swung hard.

(This form of narration is “showing”.)

And this:

Ulfor was badly injured in a swordfight.

(This form of narration is known as “telling”.)

The first snippet sounds like an actual story. The second sounds like a news report.

Obviously, you will need to use the second mode of storytelling from time to time. Telling can be a simple way to convey facts and speed things up, but for the most part, your tale needs to consist of scenes of dramatic action, glued together with bits of sparse narration. If in doubt, look up our free tips on the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule.

6. Write well

It sounds obvious, but it’s no good having a glowing idea and a fabulous plot if you can’t write.

Your book is made up of sentences, after all, and if those sentences don’t convey your meaning succinctly and clearly, your book just won’t work.

Almost everyone has the capacity to write well. You just need to focus on the challenge. So think about the three building blocks of good writing:

I) Clarity. You need to express your meaning clearly.

II) Economy. Never use ten words when eight would do.

III) Precision. Be as precise as possible. This normally means you need to see the scene in your head before you can describe it clearly to a reader.

Once you’ve done that, be sure your novel has a strong sense of place. And that your dialogue sparkles. And that your manuscript is well-presented.

7. What if I’m writing for children?

Same rules apply, no matter the age or genre you’re writing for, but we’ve put together a collection of our best tips for children’s authors, including help on how to get a literary agent who’s right for you and your work.

Whatever else, write clearly and economically. If your style isn’t immediate and precise, children won’t have the patience to keep with you. If a chapter doesn’t drive the story forwards, you’ll lose them. If in doubt, keep it simple. Write vivid characters to an inventive plot. Write with humour and a bit of mischief.

Oh, and don’t forget that you don’t have to go it alone. We have a great course led by a successful children’s author, which will allow you to learn in company of other writers like yourself.

8. Revise your first draft (with care)

Nearly all first drafts will have problems, some of them profound. That’s okay.

A first draft is just your opportunity to get stuck in on the real business: which is refining and perfecting the story you’ve just told yourself. Now is a pretty good time to go back over these tips and check (and we mean really check) your manuscript.

(You’ll find that a lot of these things are circular: you’ll use the same advice again and again, but make better use of it each time round.)

We’ve seen hundreds of new manuscripts every year, and we’re pretty good at recognising common problems. We’ve even got a checklist of recurring issues we find. Most are fixable, so you don’t need to worry too much if some of those apply to you.

The thing is simply to figure out what the issue is, then sit down to address it. Remember that all successful novelists started the same way as you did: with a bad manuscript.

The difference between success and failure is, as often as not, little more than hard work and persistence. And there’s always our self-editing course, too. If you’ve finished (or are close to finishing) your novel, then this course is a brilliant way to learn vital editing skills.

9. Get editorial feedback

Writing a book is hard work. It’s lonely. Those around you are seldom equipped to offer expert feedback and advice – and, of course, this is a difficult road. Most first novels do not get published.

So please don’t try to go it alone.

If you’ve finished your novel (and finished editing), then the most direct route to improving is to consider editorial advice on what’s working, what isn’t yet working, and what to do to fix it. This kind of feedback is invaluable to your writing, and since our editors are professionals themselves, they know how to add value. Nothing helps improve a novel more than meticulous, constructive editorial advice before it’s sent to agents.

10. Get a literary agent and a book deal

Literary agents only take about one book in a thousand, so before you take this final step, we do suggest that you’ve completed numbers 1 to 9 properly. That said, if your novel is good enough, you will find it easy enough to secure representation. Just follow these steps.

A) Select your target agents. We have a complete list of literary agents and you can filter all data by genre, agent experience and more. It’s the most complete source of its kind.

B) Choose about 8-12 names. You’re looking for agents keen to take on new writers. If they happen to represent authors you love, so much the better. (More advice on how to start your agent search.)

C) Write a fabulous covering letter, using this advice and this sample letter.

D) Write a good, clear synopsis. A process that terrifies most writers, but this is easier than you might think. Just follow these tips.

E) Get your stuff out there.

And there you have 10 steps to get you started writing that novel.

Best of luck!

The idea generator

Get better ideas faster, with this simple guide.