A friend recently asked for advice on how to get started writing a book. I often get that question. You might have an idea for a book, and all the writing skill you need, but how do you go from idea to implementation? It's a deceptively difficult step.

Part of the problem is that writing a book is the loneliest job in the world, and an immense amount of work. It's hard to get started on a project so daunting. My new book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life, took two years to write. For most of that time, no one but me saw any part of it. My publisher and I have a long history, so he lets me run free after the general concept for the book is nailed down. I probably worked for 18 months without anyone else seeing a word of it.

Ask yourself if you could work on a project for 18 months without a single positive word of encouragement, and without really sharing with anyone the thing you have been immersed in day after day. Sure, I often mentioned the book project to friends and family. And I often talked about topics I planned to include. But usually I got blank stares in return. The thing with a well-designed book is that it only works in full form. Any chapter or topic out of context just lays there. I wanted to talk with friends about my writing, but doing so was impractical because it required a book-length explanation.

For nearly two years I plugged away on a collection of ideas around my theme and I have to say that none of it worked until the next-to-last round of edits. With my layered writing process, success tends to be binary. The book is a lifeless bunch of ideas until the moment it isn't. As a writer, you hope that moment comes, but you can never know for sure. This is yet another case in which my natural inclination for optimism comes in handy. I tell myself I can smell a book before I can see it. I know it's in me; I just need to write until I find it. I'm not entirely sure if I am intuitive or irrational, or even if those things are different.

If you're planning to write a book, ask yourself if you are the type of person that can spend that much time completely alone, doing unpleasant work, while receiving nothing in the way of encouragement or positive feedback along the way. You won't even know if anyone will read your book when you're done. If you answered "Yes, I can do that," I recommend these steps:

Step 1: Open a Word document and give it a name. If you don't have a title yet, choose a working title. Close your empty document and walk away. You have successfully completed step one. It's important to feel a sense of progress. I start every book exactly this way.

Step 2: You've probably been thinking for a long time about the content for your book, and more ideas will come to you. Take notes in bullet form. Every few days, add those notes to your document. Just get them on paper. If your topic is interesting, at least to you, this step will energize you and get the ideas flowing. Your notes should be coming faster and faster over the next few weeks as the ideas build on each other.

Step 3: Once you have several pages of brief notes, start separating them into logical groups. Those groups might become chapters later, but for now it's just a way to keep ideas organized. When you add ideas, put them in the groups they belong or start new groups.

Step 4: In about a month, one of two things is likely to happen. You'll either lose interest in your own book idea, because your collection of ideas isn't as compelling as you hoped, or you'll feel a compulsion to start writing. If you don't feel the compulsion after a month of compiling notes, walk away. I only write a book when the urge to communicate its message becomes stronger than my desire for leisure. Writing a book is terrifically hard work with no guarantee of a payoff. You can't drag a book into existence; the book has to drag you.

Once you're committed to writing the book, you need a process that works for you. Every writer is different, but I'll tell you my process as a starting point. I write in layers, roughly like this:

1. Layer one (first draft) involves writing as fast as I can and getting the ideas in sentence and paragraph form. My first drafts tend to be dry and descriptive, and full of redundancies and broken logic. That's okay for the first draft.

2. Layer two is where I start connecting the logic, putting topics in the best order, removing redundancies, and identifying my most powerful themes. At this point, the draft starts to make sense.

3. Layer three involves writing and rewriting the first chapter until I have the voice and tone I want for the rest of the book. I might rewrite my first chapter thirty times. And when the book is mostly done, I go back and rewrite it a few more times. In terms of importance, both to the writer and the reader, the first chapter is about ten times more important than any other.

4. Layer four involves engineering the wording throughout the book to produce the right sort of emotional response in the reader. At that point I might rewrite nearly every sentence in the book, keeping the meaning the same but changing how it feels when you read it. My latest book is about the topic of success so I packed it with words and concepts that are energizing by their nature. Every sentence in a book needs to have a consistent flavor and feel. When I write humor, I try to make every third sentence a light or funny payoff. And I avoid downer words such as the names of diseases while packing in lots of inherently funny words such as yank, buttocks, Satan, squirrel, and the like.

5. Layer five is when the editors get involved. The first time my editor sees the book, she makes high-level comments about which chapters work better than others, how the ordering of topics is working, how the tone feels, and that sort of thing. No one cares about grammar or sentence structure yet. Once I make the editor's suggested changes, or in some cases argue them away, this is generally the point at which the book becomes alive. For the first time, I can reread it and say, "This actually works." That's a good day.

6. Layer six happens after my editor is happy with the basic flow of the book. Now a second editor - a copy editor - goes over the writing in detail and fills my pages with notes and corrections. It's a humbling process. After I make those changes, the book is generally done.

All writers have their own process. Now you know mine. The only other thing I would add is that for most people, writing works best in the early morning or late night. I'm writing this piece at about 5 AM. If you aren't a morning person, try the late night approach.

Good luck!
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Sep 27, 2013
Nice work, Scott. I've written some novels in the last few years and I like your numbered list. There are a couple things I can toss around with my editor. You can always learn from someone's thoughts. Thanks!
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Sep 27, 2013
Aha! Maybe that's why so many books are being written these days. A lot of people feel isolated - have become accustomed to it. And a lot of people are not getting any kind of positive feedback these days - being un/under-employed and all. (Not meaning to trivialize what is required to write a book. It's just that I can come up with about 100 times in my life and 100 people that I know that can satisfy being accustomed to those conditions.)
Sep 27, 2013
Just what I needed.

<Closes Internet Explorer>

<Opens Word>
Sep 26, 2013
And if you can't interest a publisher in your stuff, there's always the madness of vanity publishing (or self publishing as it's now called in the world of e-books.)

This fellow seems to offer some good advice.....
Sep 26, 2013
@Phantom II

Advice on how to get published:

I've heard that the trick is in not trying to find a publisher yourself, but to get somebody else to recommend you to a publisher.

If you know anybody who has written a book on similar subjects, you should try to get him to suggest your name to his publisher (he should subtly suggest to the publisher that you have immense knowledge in xyz subject and that he (the publisher) can ask you whether you are willing to write a book. If he (the publisher) can get you to agree, he (your friend) is sure it will a great piece of work,etc, etc.) Then you've got some credibility and the publisher will come to you.

Publishers are like women. Running after them directly does not help. But once they are led to believe that you have what they want, they will come after you.
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Sep 26, 2013
"...while packing in lots of inherently funny words such as yank, buttocks, Satan, squirrel, and the like."

This made me snort out loud. Although I have no intention of writing a book, I am inspired by this post. My goal for today is to use 'Satan' and 'squirrel' in the same sentence in as many meetings as possible.
Sep 26, 2013
As an engineer, I'm used to working long hours alone with active discouragement from management so this sounds ideal. I did write a book and I found the method you detail was the one I'd used which is really encouraging for me. Thanks.
Sep 25, 2013
I go for a combination of pants and plot - make a really rough plan, don't think too much about it but use it to, at least, give you some kidn of structure so that when you're just running at it, you will have some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. Then write as fast and hard as you can to get to the end of your first draft. Then re-write, and re-write and re-write and so on.

As pointed out by others, the hard is bit is getting anyone to read your stuff afterwards. I'd suggest including the link to buy your ebook on a popular cartoonist's blog - it might drum up some sales. Who knows, if enough Dilbert readers bought it and reviewed and plugged it to all of their pals it might go viral and how cool would that be!


(The Royal Wedding from Hell by Richard Barnes - it's awesome, honestly..)

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Sep 25, 2013
> Scott left out the most important part: no one is paying you while you write the book.

So you should be either independently wealthy, like Scott, or not quit your day job.

One of the best writers I know, Sandra ODell, wrote a collection of Christmas stories called "The Twelve Ways of Christmas" which is a very different look at that time honored meme. But I bet none of you have every read it or even heard of her. Expect the same of your own work.
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Sep 25, 2013
Scott left out the most important part: no one is paying you while you write the book.

And as several others have pointed out, once complete there is no guarantee that a publisher will take on the risk of an unknown author. You might have written the best thing since Shakespeare, but no one will ever know. Self publishing is a way to mitigate that, but then you run into what still others have pointed out: you need to advertise and market your work so others will know of it's existence and want to purchase it.

finally, expect a lot of this:
Sep 25, 2013
Thank you for this post Scott. It gave me goosebumps as I've just begun my search for an editor. The process you described is very similar to what I also experienced. The first chapter of my book is an illustrated story.
Does your editor accept new authors?
Sep 25, 2013
"Ask yourself if you could work on a project for 18 months without a single positive word of encouragement, and without really sharing with anyone the thing you have been immersed in day after day. Sure, I often mentioned the book project to friends and family. And I often talked about topics I planned to include. But usually I got blank stares in return. The thing with a well-designed book is that it only works in full form. Any chapter or topic out of context just lays there. I wanted to talk with friends about my writing, but doing so was impractical because it required a book-length explanation."

That accurately sums up being a web developer, just replace book with website.
Sep 25, 2013
All writers have their own style. Scott's style may work for some, but it won't work for everyone. There have been successful authors who wrote one paragraph at a time, not moving on until each was final-draft-complete. Others wrote almost complete drivel and then spent all their time distilling it down to brilliance (think Ken Kesey).

Months and years without feedback? Tons and tons of hard, hard work? That, I think, is the same for everyone, no matter their writing style.
Sep 25, 2013
Neal Stephenson wrote his Baroque Cycle trilogy longhand with a fountain pen.

Sep 25, 2013
An interesting post. However, it should have been titled, "How to write a book once you already have a publisher."

In my case, writing it wasn't the problem. Getting it to rise above the noise level with an agent is. I haven't approached publishers yet, which perhaps is a mistake, but one has to start somewhere.

I have read that there are two kinds of novel authors: pantsers and plotters. Plotters work out the plot before they start writing; pantsers (meaning, "seat of the pants writer") start writing and see where it goes. Scott's approach seems to lean toward the plotter approach. His books, though, appear to be a group of vignettes united by a common theme, rather than a standard novel with beginning, middle and end. So while his method would certainly work for his kind of book, it wouldn't fit everyone's writing style.

I'm a pantser. So in writing my first novel, I forced myself to be a plotter. I did it, and then started to write. It was a chore. It was work rather than fun.

So I said, "screw it" and started a second novel, which began with a single idea; one very unusual event. I wrote it from there, letting it, in a sense, develop itself. It took me about three months to complete the first draft; 118,000 words. I found, surprisingly, that I was able to pull characters and situations from the first (plotted) novel into the second. I didn't plan it that way; it just fit like a pre-cut puzzle piece.

Finding my plotted novel characters/situations added a lot of depth and complexity to pantser novel number two. Successive rewrites have it down to around 102,000 words, which (IMHO) is still too long. But that's not the point.

While I appreciate Scott's advice, I would assume he already had a publisher waiting for "The Dilbert Principle" before he started to put it together. I'm looking for some good advice on how to interest an agent. I've already done the "QueryShark" site on writing a query. No results so far, but still hopeful.

Scott has done a great job, and his success is an inspiration. I appreciate his advice; I just wish he was able to advise us on the next step.
Sep 25, 2013
@Atlantadude, try that on a Blackberry whilst riding the NYC subway every day.
Sep 25, 2013
For anyone who really wants to get into writing a book, and who can't take the 18 months of intrinsic-only motivation, try NaNoWriMo, which is National Novel Writer's Month. It starts November 1, which isn't that far away. They help you get started, get you involved with a group and provide support to each other. Go to http://bit.ly/1eH8qFr if that strikes your fancy. Your goal will be to write 50k words in a month.

I also want to comment on the choice of MS Word for writing a book. Don't. Use Scrivener instead. You'll thank me later, repetitively. Dogbert uses Scrivener, even if Scott doesn't. It used to only be available on a Mac, but now it's available for Windows too. You can find it at http://bit.ly/1eH8DIE.

Lastly, Scott is exactly right about not worrying about grammar or exact phrasing until way later. If you spend too much time there, you'll never get to first base. Once you do get to first base, I highly recommend working the hardest on the first 5 pages next. While that not only engages the reader the most, it also gets your book published. Noah Lukeman even wrote a book about it, http://bit.ly/1eH97i6. I also like the book _Spunk and Bite_ by Authur Plotnik, which is a great name for an author.
Sep 25, 2013
That was helpful, thanks. Sounds kind of daunting.

Imagine trying to do all that back in the days of the typewriter, or worse, the quill pen.
Sep 25, 2013
My problem is not writing a book, but getting other people to pay to read it. I'd appreciate advice on that, especially if it doesn't involve being famous or having a public forum to promote my book.
Sep 25, 2013
I've been tinkering with a few novels for the last decade. My "best one" is about 120 pages long in MS word, and I've been on it for 8 years. The story is complete, but it's too short. I'm in between Layer 2 and Layer 3 per your process. Nobody has ever read any part of it, and the first page is a message to anyone who stumbles across it saying "go away, this isn't ready for consumption"

Having read "how to write a book" blogs, interviews, essays, and such from a couple dozen authors, your process looks very much like the one offered by other successful writers. You've chosen different words than most authors, though. Is that intentional? Step 1-4 is usually "how to write your outline" and your layers are usually referred to as drafts and revisions.
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