First things first. Why? Is writing a book something you have always considered and have finally decided to try? Or do you want to create a saleable product, the cornerstone for a small online business? If it is the former, many of the points I make will not be relevant to your ambitions. But for the latter group, what I outline below are crucial steps in becoming a professional writer. To that end, your mantra is as follows: publishing is a business, writing is a product.
The next question is what? Before you type your first word you should already have a clear idea of where your book will sit in the marketplace. Is it crime, romance, horror? Visit sales platforms like Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, etc, and pay close attention to where various books are placed in terms of genre and subgenre. This will give you your main book categories (i.e. crime and thrillers), but there are also important sub-categories to identify which will help you get your book in front of the right audience (i.e. police procedurals, tartan noir). Big mistake #1: writing a book first and then trying to find a market for it. Find that market first, then write your book to fit into it as snugly as possible – because, remember, this is a business and what you are writing is a product.
Next comes how? Do you start with ‘once upon a time’ and see where it leads? Only if you are a hobbyist. If you want your book to sell, you need an outline, anything between two and five thousand words, that clearly maps out the plotline, story and character arcs. If it helps, treat the outline like a short story, then expand upon it chapter by chapter when the novel-writing process begins. This is for your eyes only but will help keep you on track to finish a book that fits the market audience you have identified. An offshoot of this question is how long? Novels of less than seventy thousand words tend not to sell, irrespective of genre (according to a recent Smashwords survey). But within genres average word lengths do vary, so do your research.
A quick but necessary aside about subject matter. My own philosophy is to give my audience what they expect but give it to them in a way they were not expecting. An example of this might be a story about white knights and dark lords, a damsel in distress and sword fights, an all-conquering empire, an epic struggle between good and evil, all set in the distant past. That sounds fairly predictable at face value. But set the whole thing in space and call it Star Wars and you have given your audience what they expect but in a way they were not expecting. Familiar but original, in other words.
Our fourth question is when? If you have a full-time job, family, home, etc, this is a problem. Some writers wake up at dawn and hit the keyboard whilst everyone else is sleeping. Patricia Highsmith, for instance, used to go to sleep as soon as she got back from her nine to five job and then act like it was another day when she woke up an hour later. Others write at weekends or last thing at night. But you need that uninterrupted slot in your diary. Trust me, it is there. If you can only write one thousand words a week, you will still make it, but the journey will just have to be longer. Persevere. And once you start writing, do not stop. Big mistake #2: Losing confidence ten thousand words in and going back to the beginning. Plough through to ‘the end’. If you do not, you will end up with three or four brilliantly written opening chapters but no book. As Ernest Hemingway once declared: all first drafts are crap. But at least when you reach the end, you will have something whole to work on when it comes to the second draft.
Next question is when will you know your book is finished? I typically write four or five drafts of a novel. Some write fewer, others get well into double figures. My rule of thumb is, stop when you start to get sick of it. Another useful habit is to use Microsoft’s ‘read aloud’ function. This will illuminate grammatical errors and clunky prose alike. The golden rule here is: if it sounds wrong, it is wrong. Alternatively, read the prose aloud yourself. This is not the end of the editing process, however. Next you have to find someone else to read and comment on the manuscript, preferably two or three people (these are called beta readers). Do not use close friends or family. Big mistake #3: receiving feedback from people more likely to tell you what you want to hear, as opposed to what you need to hear. If you have subscribers from an email server (which I will come onto next time), this can be a good place to find beta readers. And bear in mind, your biggest fans can also be your biggest critics. If you are serious about selling books, their opinion is more important than yours; after all, they are your audience.
One strategy whilst working on your manuscript is to read authors you feel are similar to yourself in terms of themes, style, language, sub-genre, etc. These are your competitors. As the old saying goes: keep your friends close and your enemies closer! Look at what things these successful authors have in common and adjust your writing style accordingly. A word of warning, here, however: guard against copying a fellow author’s style. Imitation is the antithesis of originality. If you are new to writing you may not yet have found your own individual writer’s voice. If you think this is happening, merely analyse your competitors’ work without reading it. Indeed, some fiction authors will only read non-fiction whilst they are working on their own manuscript.
Finally, if you can afford it or you can persuade someone to do the job for a favour, comes the final proofreading. Professional proofing can cost as little as £1 per page, but if your novel runs to four or five hundred pages that is quite a hit financially. Agreeing to proofread another writer’s work in return is one example of navigating this problem. Find a way to get the manuscript proofread somehow, though. Research suggests that readers will tolerate one mistake per thousand words, but anything more frequent will garner criticism and even negative reviews.
The actual technical side of e-publishing has never been easier. The internet, especially YouTube, is overflowing with how-to-guides to formatting, internal content linking and manuscript uploading. Online publishing platforms have their own guides. The guys mentioned below will be able to point you in the right direction, too.
In the next essay, I will talk you through marketing and branding. In the meantime, here is a list of useful writing gurus who can provide you with a ton of more detailed information than yours truly: David Gaughran, Derek Murphy, Tim Knox, Michael La Ronn, Reedsy, Kindlepreneur and Dale L. Roberts.
Good luck. And remember the golden rule:
Publishing is a business; writing is a product.
Gary is the author of seven eBooks. He was twice shortlisted for the Essex Book Festival Short Story Competition and his play ‘Walking Through Wire’ was staged (and filmed) in London in 2014.