How to Write a Book
Writing a book is a process both simple and complex—simple in that there only a handful of steps, and complex in that each step requires a great depth of thought and effort.
This article discusses what comprises a work of fiction, how to tell whether your idea needs to be a short story or a novel, and what it takes to write a book.
Elements of a work of fiction
When you want to compose something fictional, you must first decide how you’ll cover these basic parts:
Point of view
The point of view (POV) you choose is the perspective by which readers will experience the story.
First person tells the story as experienced directly by a character. This can provide an in-depth outlook, vibrantly colored by a character’s thoughts and opinions. There is also a great deal of fun to be had if the narrating protagonist’s flaws make them miss or overlook things. Second person is not often used, but done correctly really puts the reader in the shoes of the protagonist. Third person is most commonly used, allowing for easier navigation from one character’s perspective to another as well as including wider details for the reader’s perspective.
Whichever you choose, try to be consistent lest you confuse and alienate your readers.
Having a protagonist (or two or three) is vital to a story. It provides not only the lens through which your readers perceive the story’s world, events, and people but also an emotional connection between you and your readers. If you have multiple protagonists, make sure they have different backgrounds and outlooks. You can even have a villainous protagonist. The “hero of the story” doesn’t necessarily have to be a hero, as long as they’re relatable.
The core of any story is conflict, the clash between what is and what the protagonist wants. Conflict creates drama and tension, drives actions and decisions, and imposes obstacles upon the protagonist.
Conflict comes in many forms, usually described as one or a combination of:
- Man vs. Man - the protagonist struggles against another person or being with goals and objectives that run contrary to the protagonist’s.
- Man vs. the World - the protagonist struggles against circumstances, societal pressures, and the status quo. There is no single enemy or foe to defeat or outthink, but obstacles nonetheless to overcome.
- Man vs. Self - the protagonist struggles against themselves, their inner demons and their flaws. The outcome of such a conflict is often self-realization and personal growth.
Beginning, middle, and end
What distinguishes fiction from other genres is having a beginning, middle, and end—in other words, a plot. There are variations, but ultimately any story has these three components:
- The protagonist and the problem the protagonist must solve are introduced.
- The protagonist struggles to resolve the problem while faced with opposing forces (an antagonist, societal forces or personal flaws, or perhaps a mix of all three).
- The conflict has been resolved chiefly due to actions and decisions of the protagonist. If you want, you can imply a larger problem that caused or was caused by events in the story.
Should you write short stories or a novel?
Now, you might be wondering whether you have a novel-length idea or a story that can fit in 1,000 to 10,000 words. However, the difference between a short story and a novel is more than the word count.
What drives your story?
Think about the complexity of the story. If you’re covering a single event, it’s probably a short story. If you’re dealing with multiple plot threads, you’ll need more room; 50,000 to 70,000 words usually does the trick.
Do you need to lay down an extensive backstory, or do you want to explore a theme?
If you’re writing a historical piece or building a brave new sci-fi world, you might need more time (i.e., more words) to ease your readers into the fictive dream. If you’re interested in an overarching theme but uninterested in a five- to six-digit word count, you can try writing several pieces—enough to fill a nice little anthology.
Are you using a single character or a whole cast?
Novels usually feature a cast of highly developed characters, while short stories can function at a minimum of a single character.
The general writing process
While there are no hard and fast rules of writing, and each writer has their own preferences for doing things, here are 5 steps of the writing process to serve as guidelines for any prospective author.
Step 1: Ideation
Every book, from memoirs to self-help, from poetry to sci-fi, from children’s tale to fantasy epic, began as an idea. Perhaps your idea starts with a setting or a character. Perhaps there is a topic or subject you feel can be explored in a way that’s uniquely yours. Perhaps there are certain story conventions you feel have been overused, and you want to see what kind of story you create when you flip those conventions on their heads.
Step 2: Prewriting
Explore your idea. Free-write as much as you can. Explore your idea as far as possible; see if it can be expanded enough to be a story. Write down all the elements, concepts, themes, and specific scenes you can come up with. Do your research. Find out if this is material you feel you can write about. See what others have said or written about your chosen subject. Even if you are writing fiction, research can help further shape your thoughts. Later on, you can arrange your ideas and outline your story.
Step 3: Drafting
With your ideas for your story, the research you’ve done, and an outline to guide you, it’s time to start writing. Try to get into the habit of writing regularly and constantly. If you ever hit a wall, take a short break… and then return to writing even if you don’t like what you write at the time. This is only the first draft; perfection comes later. If you’re writing an anthology, repeat steps 1 to 3 until you reach your desired number of short stories.
Step 4: Revision and editing
After completing your manuscript, you must revise and edit. This can be the hardest part of the entire book writing process—even harder than finishing the manuscript. While this step involves surface-level stuff like correcting grammatical and spelling errors, it’s so much more than that. There will be sentences, paragraphs, even whole chapters that you loved putting into writing… that you will have to cut out of the story for a variety of reasons. You will need to include new lines and segments to enrich and enhance what is already there, or even outright replace what had to be removed.
At this point, you would be reaching out to literary agents and sending manuscript samples in hope of getting represented and having someone to help you tighten up your manuscript. If you take the self-publishing route, you can start looking for a company that offers editorial services. Here at iUniverse, we offer publishing packages that include editing, although you can also purchase evaluation and editorial services separately.
It is vital to get at least one person other than yourself to review your first draft. Even the best authors need others to look over their work to find mistakes or complications they themselves have missed or overlooked. Perhaps even multiple reviewers will be needed, each one focusing on a different aspect of the manuscript such as narrative or grammatical.
Step 5: Finalization
After your manuscript has undergone multiple rounds of revision and editing, it’s time for your final draft. Your agent pitches your book to countless publishers while you hope for a contract offer. If you’ve decided to self-publish, this would be the step where you contact one of our publishing consultants who will guide you through our publishing process.