So, You Want To Write A Book...

One thing I’m not going to tell you in this post is how to write. I’m going to assume you know that already, and there are a lot of excellent resources elsewhere that can guide you along your way. What I’m going to cover instead is the process of getting it to publication, and sustaining a work rate to see you through an extended period, and to establish a firm release schedule. That is perhaps one of the most important elements of publishing as it stands today, especially self-publishing - consistent releases. The other I’ll get to in a minute, as it is one of the ‘little secrets’ I’ll be talking about.

A great piece of advice I received some time ago was that you should write your first draft as if it was your last - which means correcting as you go, going back and making changes and alterations. I will stress here that it does not mean that you don’t go over it again after you’ve finished - but rather than giving yourself a very boring week or two going over all the changes you’ve noted down as you went (and if you are like me, struggling to decipher your month-old handwriting) do it as you go. It saves an awful lot of time in the later drafts. While you are writing, make sure that you have a clean manuscript - keep formatting to the absolute minimum - which will save you even more time at the end of the process, when it comes to formatting your book for publication. It’s a lot easier to not add lots of extraneous stuff in the first place, rather than having to get rid of it later.

Another good piece of advice I had - one nugget from an otherwise terrible book - was to write what is on your shelves already. Don’t write to a niche, don’t write to a market, write what you like to read. If you enjoy military science fiction, write that. If you like werezebra romance, write that. (And by tomorrow, someone will have, if they haven’t already.) The reason for this is simple - you’ll already know what works and what doesn’t. You know what you like, you know what people expect, you know what has been done before and whether you should do it again. If you pick something you don’t know - you’ll struggle, and if you try and write something you don’t like, you’ll almost certainly fail.

Series sell. That’s rule number one of publishing today. I’m not saying that stand-alone novels do not sell, or that they are necessarily a bad idea, but I am saying that you will have a greater likelihood of success in the current market as it stands with a series concept. Furthermore - series are easier to write. There, I said it. When you write a book, there is always a ‘thinking time’ beforehand, coming up with plots, characters, setting. If you are writing a series, you can carry over substantial parts of the last book into the new one, without having to reinvent the wheel each time. Characters should and must evolve and change, of course, but they’ll be doing that based upon the plots of each book. You will always need to add new elements, of course, and that’s part of the fun...but the further you go, the easier it is to write a character you know about. You don’t need to spend hours working out names for locations.

It might, I suppose, be suggested that such a series concept could be too limiting. That’s certainly possible, but the key thing here comes right at the start - the concept should be designed to give room for different stories, different ideas, new locations. Leave blank spaces on the map to come up with new concepts, make sure that there is the capacity to add new missions. If you are doing ‘Seal Team Nine’, don’t tie them down to a very specific operation - give them a wide-ranging brief, so they can go on anti-terrorist missions against different targets all over the world, rather than spending all their time hunting down one man in Kazakhstan, with all their skills and talents focused on that specific task. Keep it open, and keep it flexible.

There are some problems, I freely admit. You need to be careful that you don’t copy, well, yourself. Something I watch for very carefully is duplication of plot or storyline, or even accidental reuse of names. (I did it once in one of the early books, with a pretty prominent character in both occasions - on that instance, I opted to actually work the shared name into the story, but that was only because I caught it in time. Keep notes - or at least lists of names - for future reference. A character and location database will make things a lot easier later on.)

Set a realistic target. This will not be your first book - I know most people write several novels before they get something they are willing to show other people; I did myself. (Don’t throw them away, though, even if you don’t think you can revise them. You never know what you might be able to steal - I used a character name from a rediscovered short story I wrote when I was fifteen not long ago, and I managed to lift the core plot of an old novella - with a lot of changes, tweaks and additional subplots - for Malware Blues, the last Alamo novel.) By now, you should know what you are capable of doing in a day, or a week, or a month. Set that target, and make sure you allow room for maneuver. (Currently - though on occasion I’ve done 10k days - I aim for around 3k a day, as an example, about three hours of writing.)

If you don’t have a firm idea yet, it doesn’t matter, because the next thing I’m going to talk about is a concept I borrowed from the world of the webcomic - the buffer. Don’t be in a position - and we’ve all done it - where you are needing to get a book finished for release in a few days time. (Yes, you can always postpone it, but we’re talking consistent schedule here.) Have at least one, maybe even two, books already written, before you start. With Alamo, I finished the second novel before I released the first. (That day, as I recall.) That means you already have a head-start, and it is worth maintaining. If you have a new series in mind - write the first one, and go as fast as you are comfortable doing without compromising quality. Say you can manage a thousand words a day? That’s a seventy-thousand word book in seventy days. Add twenty for editing, and that’s four books a year. See how it adds up?

So, you have your book, and you’re ready to move to the next step. I’m going to assume that you opt to self-publish, rather than going on the agent/publisher route, simply because I have no experience at that. When I decided that I wanted to do this for a living, I knew that I wanted the control and the higher royalties I would get by taking that route. Speaking purely personally - I have never had any regrets about taking that decision. I will say - make sure you are getting the best deal you can get, and don’t necessarily take the first offer that comes along.

Here’s a secret. If you’re written a book, you’ve done the hard part already. It gets a lot easier from here. You don’t need anyone to hand-hold you through the publishing process, though there are a hell of a lot of, frankly, scammers who will try and convince you otherwise. That doesn’t mean you should do everything yourself, of course, but it does mean that you should make all of the decisions. Really, it breaks down into three areas. The first is something you should not do yourself, the second is something you can do yourself, and the third is something I would recommend you definitely do yourself.

The first is the cover. This is surprisingly important; you might be thinking that your book is being sold electronically, that it is just a file on a computer, but the cover is still going to be the first thing that people see, and will be responsible for selling your book. Think of it as a chain. If someone likes the cover, they’ll take a look at the blurb. If they like the blurb, they’ll look at the first page. If they like the first page, they’ll read the first chapter, and at that point, you’ve probably got a reader. Look around for a good cover artist, take a look at their work, and find someone that suits what you want to do. I will, as ever, recommend Keith Draws, but there are many talented people out there. Don’t do this yourself unless you actually have the skills for it. The key test is that your cover must look to have the same quality as a book published by one of the bigger publishers. If your funds are limited, spend them here.

Then comes editing. You can go expensive or cheap with this one. It is possible to do it yourself - at least, to a degree - but you need multiple pairs of eyes on your manuscript, one way or another. Getting some beta readers is always a good idea, people who can take a look at your work and tell you what they think - as well as any typos they spot. Often, this is cited as something that a publishing company does well, but that isn’t always the case. Not that long ago, I picked up a copy of a book that had originally been self-published, later picked up by a bigger publisher, and was astonished by the errors they had managed to introduce. There are a lot of good people out there that you can hire - and that means that you remain in control of the process.

Now we come to formatting, and here, in my opinion, is something you should do yourself. If you can use a word processor, you can almost certainly format your own book. I use Alkinea to convert an Open Office file, and it’s never given me any trouble - I’ve got it down to about a fifteen minute process now. Just make sure to check it on a Kindle, as well as on your computer, before you upload. The trick here is to keep the formatting simple; less to mess around with, and with a novel, you aren’t looking at anything complicated anyway. Just page breaks, and possibly a map, as well as a table of contents. (Big tip here - put your TOC at the end. It’s always off-putting when it is the first page in a sample file, and Amazon at least doesn’t care where it goes as long as you put one in there. The reader will be able to instantly flick to it anyway, so he or she won’t mind either.)

The big benefit of formatting yourself is that you can make changes instantly. Maybe you spot a big typo, just after you launch - it takes a few minutes to fix. You want to update the book with details about a sequel? Easy. If you contract out, it slows you down and costs you more money each time you make a correction. Having said that, if you really want to, you can always hire someone to do this and there are plenty of people who do - and if you are doing something more complicated than a novel usually will be (purely in formatting, of course, not story or character) then it definitely is worth considering.

There’s a lot of debate over paperback copies of books, and there are different schools of thought on the issue. The one time I tried it, I didn’t even come close to paying what I spent on it, and it isn’t something I plan to repeat in the near future, for whatever that is worth. The ebook will almost certainly be your main seller in any case, so it is best to concentrate your main focus there, and treat anything else as an extra. I’d happily sign a print-only contract for Alamo tomorrow if anyone offered.

What I’m trying to say with this long semi-rant is that if you can write a book, then you can publish one. You don’t need anyone to hold your hand through the process - furthermore, we’re living in one of the best times for a new writer to break in. You have the ability to sell directly to the readers, and to let them make the decision whether they like your work or not. So, what are you waiting for?


  1. I have to admit to being curious - what did you end up spending doing a paperback book? These days with CreateSpace the upfront cost is pretty much zero unless you pay someone to do the formatting.

    My paperback formatting is done in Word, the same as my ebook formatting. It's not perfect, but its a solid B- as these things go. I don't get a lot of paperback sales (a little over 200 ever) but since the costs are so low I wouldn't not put one out.
    (It also gives my parents such a warm glow to have a physical book by me in their hands. Makes the whole thing more real for them)

  2. That one was a bit of a special case, but I've had it quoted at a couple of hundred pounds - for cover and book conversion. I've experimented with doing it myself and never really managed something that satisfied me. You've hit one nail on the head, though; it's something that is perpetually on my 'to-do' list for that reason - having a bookshelf of my books would be nice. I do have printed copies of some of my books, though - I often get ringbound versions from Lulu of my draft copies for editing. I just can't edit a book properly from a screen!

    1. Cover conversion is probably the part that would be expensive. We found converting a front to a wraparound was easily four or five hours. These days, the entire cover is actually designed in CS's wraparound template, so we skip that entire piece.

      Professional interior formatting is also pricey, which is why I've decided to be content with the solid B- of my later books :)

      If you'd need to spend money to create a product that would be satisfactory for you, you're probably right that its not worth it. I've probably sold eighty or so copies directly and a little over two hundred via CS, so the return really isn't there for any actual investment.

  3. Oddly enough, when I tried writing every manuscript as if the first draft would be my last, I got nowhere. Absolutely nowhere. When I started telling myself it was just the first draft and it didn't matter if I wrote utter shit as long as I wrote something because I just needed to know the story and could redraft, I finally started getting somewhere.

    I hate redrafting. It's grim. I'm currently doing a... not quite second draft, not quite first draft... on book 2. In places it's been a total rewrite - there's a bin with about 30k words I'll no longer be using. But it's getting there. It's working. And after I finish this, there's the third draft of the much delayed Eye of the Eagle to finish and that won't be much fun either but at least it will be finished.

    So... I think the counsel of perfection is to write everything as if it was the last draft, yes. Or maybe to write in the morning and edit straight away in the afternoon (or write drunk, edit sober, if one is not fond of clean living). Heavens knows that's an ideal I'm striving towards as I get a better feel for everything. But better counsel for general usage, imo, is "Find the way of writing that lets you finish books". Finishing is key. It becomes a habit. It doesn't matter how it's done and getting hung up on method can be dangerous.

    My two penn'orth.