People often ask me, ‘Karen, how did you write three books in three years while holding down a job and looking after a family?’ And I usually reply that I had a plan for my writing. Most people are disappointed, imagining that writing a book is about waiting for the muse to strike and the words to just flow from my fingertips.
Perhaps it is like that for some writers, but not for me.
I’m a planner by heart and I knew it was the ONLY way I was going to be able to meet my publisher’s deadlines. In fact, without a plan, I don’t think I would have written two best-sellers and one award-winning book.
But this isn’t a post about whether you’re a planner or ‘pantster’ (flying by the seat of your pants). I just knew that I had limited time and energy and had to make the most of the time I did have. Planning my books also gave me a sense of control and while some may argue it can stifle creativity, for me, I found the opposite to be true. Because I wasn’t stressed about whether I was going to make a deadline or not, I had more headspace. It also helped deal with a writer’s deadliest enemy - procrastination. When you know you only have an hour to work on something, you get it done.
Studies show that becoming an author opens up new opportunities, increases your visibility, and even generates more clients. Not forgetting of course, the thrill of seeing your name in print. How would these benefits impact your life in terms of your career and finances?
That’s why I’m sharing my 12-month plan to help you achieve your 2022 goal of writing (and finishing!) a book. In this post, I’ve broken everything down for you into bite-sized chunks so each month, you’ll know exactly what you need to do. I’ve kept the daily writing goal small and achievable (just 333 words a day!) and even included a short break so you can recharge your creative juices.
I’ve also included a free checklist so you have the satisfaction of ticking off the milestones.
So if you’re ready to become an author and change your life, then follow my 12-month guide which includes all the steps I’ve taken with my books. As Desmond Tutu said, the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.
January to February: PREPARATION
Before I start typing my novels, I always make sure that I have a solid foundation from which to build on. You can do this by following the six steps below:
STEP 1: Mindset and Environment
It’s easy to underestimate the power of your mindset and environment, but as I always say, writing a book is 50% talent and 50% sheer mental willpower. Follow these steps in the first week of the month to get organised:
Collate all your notes / documents / files in ONE place. Create three documents labelled research, manuscript, outline. That’s it. Use the programme you’re more familiar with, so if that’s Word, use that. This isn’t the time to start learning a new software. Keep it as simple as possible. I would recommend Google Docs / Spreadsheets so that you can access everything from different devices. I often jot down ideas on my phone and having that research document accessible keeps everything together and organised.
Clear your desk or, if you don’t have one, create a dedicated writing space, even if it’s a small corner somewhere. Make sure you have all your tools handy such as laptop or pen and paper and bookmark useful sites such as thesaurus.com and grammargirl.co.uk so you can refer to them when necessary. An emotional thesaurus is also useful; if you don’t want to buy one, you can access here: https://onestopforwriters.com/emotions
Now it’s time to address your mindset; you can do this by answering one simple question; WHY do you want to write this book? Is it for prestige? Is it a legacy to leave for your children? Is it to increase clients for your business or a tribute to your own personal family history? Is it to help you process difficult emotions? Whatever it is, write it down and place it somewhere visible in your writing space. This will be your motivation on those days where you don’t feel like writing.
STEP 2: Developing your big idea into a premise
Lots of people tell me they have an idea for a book, but if it doesn’t translate into a story, you’re wasting your time. In other words, your big idea needs to be crafted into a premise; a concise statement which includes the three most basic elements of story-telling - a protagonist, a new situation the protagonist finds themselves in, and the protagonist’s goal.
If you’re unsure about your idea and whether it’s enough to sustain a full book, you can test it here using these four ways to test your book idea. If you’re still struggling to come up with ideas, then this post shows you eight ways to brainstorm one.
When I coach my private students, many of them are tempted to skip crafting a premise because they’re excited about their idea and impatient to get on with it. The danger is that you write 25,000 words and realise your idea doesn’t work or you’re heading in the wrong direction. With a solid premise acting as your guide, you can save weeks of re-writing time.
STEP 3: Understand Your Main Character
You will spend a lot of time with your main character over the next few months so make sure you know as much as you can about him or her. Open up your research document and add these four headings:
Brainstorm your character under each heading. For example, physical would include hair colour, clothing style, body shape and so on. Under emotional, describe their base-line personality - are they easy-going and relaxed or moody and unpredictable? Intellectual - what areas are they strong in? What areas are they weak in? What talents do they have? Under the philosophical heading, write about your main character's beliefs and values - especially important as these will be the drivers of your character’s actions. Go into as much detail as you can but also be aware that much of your character will develop as you’re writing. The more you know about your main character, the easier it will be to do the next step.
STEP 4: Develop Your Outline
Many story-tellers will be familiar with the narrative arc, but this also applies to non-fiction writers too. In fact, publishers and agents will require an outline in your non-fiction proposal.
Use the below framework to map out your book’s beginning, middle, and end. This three-part structure will help you break your work down into scenes, making it much more manageable to write as well as ensuring a good pace for your reader. You can learn more about the three-part structure here but here is a visual representation (sourced from The Framework Bank):
STEP 5: Do Your Research
Even if you’re writing fiction, readers will demand accuracy in your writing so now is the time to research any technical, historical, or geographical areas so you don’t have to interrupt the writing process. While there is a lot to be said for creative licence, mistakes will break the trust with your reader.
My three novels to date are all set in various parts of the UK where I’m either from or have lived. My current work-in-progress is set in Italy where I also used to live. I also make sure I have sources on the ground to fact-check. Living in the Internet age is also a huge bonus - just ensure your sources are credible.
STEP 6: Writing Schedule & Deadline
Depending on the length of your book, you will need to do some simple number crunching to work out your schedule. For the purpose of this article, I’m using a word count of 80,000 over 8 months and breaking it down into a daily or weekly word count. For example:
8 months x 30 days = 240 days.
80,000 words ⁒ 240 days = 333 words per day.
You can either write each day or time block into one, two or three sessions per week. Either way, put the sessions in your diary and depending on how busy you are, accept that you may have to give up some of your leisure time. Are you prepared to give up your hour of Netflix each night? To get up an extra hour earlier? Forgo your weekend brunch?
Writing a book takes effort but consistency is what will see you through to the end, so find the writing schedule that works for you.
March to October: WRITING
When people ask me where to start, I always say start at the beginning. Open your laptop, type Chapter 1 and off you go - it really is that simple. Remember you’re aiming to write just 333 words a day - a few paragraphs only. Over the next few months, your goal is to write a first draft following your outline.
Get the words down on paper without editing or extensively re-reading your work. Here are a few techniques to apply during each of the three sections:
1. Write a compelling opening
Arguably one of the most important paragraphs you will write, your opening should be powerful, surprising, and engaging. It’s the first thing the agent, publisher, and ultimately the reader will see and in my digital course, Kick Start Your Book With Karen, we spend a lot of time looking at different ways to do this but for now, here are some examples to inspire you:
“I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.”
Bill Bryson, Neither Here Nor There
“I was born twice: first as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
2. Introduce your protagonist
Your main character should be included as early as possible. Refer back to your character notes to do this but make sure it’s done in an interesting or surprising way. In my award-winning novel, The Good Mother, I opened with a letter that introduced both the protagonist and the antagonist.
15 August 2010
My name is Catherine and I am a volunteer with the charity Friends of Inmate Rehabilitation. I hope things are as well as they can be.
When I was asked to correspond with you as part of the charity’s efforts to help prisoners, I was initially apprehensive. However, I reminded myself that we have a duty to help those less fortunate than ourselves, and I hope that through these letters I can give you a little insight into the outside world.
The only information I have about you is your name and offence and I’m aware that you have spent over ten years in prison already. The charity informed me that you will soon be up for parole, which I’m sure you’re looking forward to. As a result, they assign people like me to help you prepare for life outside through letters…
3. Set the tone for your work
If you’re writing a horror story, make sure your writing reflects this. If you’re writing comedy, ensure your beginning includes a few laughs. If you’re writing self-help, you may want to include a tone that’s helpful and optimistic.
4. Establish time and place
When and where is your book set? Does your writing reflect that? A book set in post-war Britain is going to be very different to 18th century China for example.
1. Create conflict and tension
Again, this applies to both non-fiction and fiction and having your outline to hand will help enormously with this. Very few people want to read a story where everyone is happy all the time. Conflict and tension propel the reader to want to know more, to keep turning the pages; the secret is to do this in a well-paced manner so there’s a rhythm to your story.
This is a literary technique used to give an indication or hint of what is to come later in the story and is used across all types of genre. For example, in the fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood, the mother is concerned for her safety and that foreshadows the appearance of the big bad wolf.
Symbolism is often used for foreshadowing too. This might be a lone animal like a black crow or bad weather such as storm clouds, both signaling danger. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, witches are an omen of future bad things.
Foreshadowing is a great tool to prepare your reader emotionally for big reveals. For instance, if an abrupt revelation or twist ending is not adequately “set up” via foreshadowing, your reader may come away from your story feeling annoyed, disappointed, or confused, rather than surprised and satisfied.
3. Balance dialogue and narrative description
You need to maintain a good balance between the two, varying the two types of writing. Dialogue can break up lengthy descriptions and backstory and vice versa. A quick tip is once you’ve written a chapter, use a highlighter to mark the narrative description leaving the dialogue unmarked. This will give a visual representation of balance so you can adjust accordingly. If you’re writing non-fiction, you can break up instructional / informative text with dialogue with the reader. Questions, exercises, and checklists are all great ways to dialogue and ensure a good balance that keeps the reader engaged throughout.
For more literary devices to use in your writing, check out this post.
1. Write an electrifying ending
Just like the beginning, your ending has to work really hard so that it leaves the reader feeling fulfilled and rewarded. Make sure all loose ends are tied up and there are no unanswered questions. Evey reveal here should have been set up in the preceding chapters so it doesn’t feel like it’s come out of nowhere.
2. Don’t rush
After writing for many months, it’s tempting to speed-write the ending but resist the urge and take your time. Endings can be complex to write and the falling action has to be well-paced culminating into a pay-off for the reader. Whether your ending is a full-circle, happy-ever-after, or cliff-hanger, remember to cross-check all your main points from your outline to ensure you’ve covered everything.
3. Take time out
At this point, the finishing line of your first draft is in sight and once finished, I would strongly advise taking a few days off to recharge. You’ve accomplished a huge task so well done!
November & December: EDITING, BETA READERS, & PUBLISHING
It’s time to switch hats and put yourself in the role of editor. Writing and editing use different areas of the brain which is why it’s easier to write a first draft and then edit rather than trying to do both skill sets at the same time.
If editing seems like a lot of work, you could always look into hiring an editor but for those of you looking to edit your own work, I would suggest following a similar process to that of editors who work in publishing houses; a developmental edit, a copy edit, and proofreading. However, usually in a publishing house, these edits will be done by different people, whereas you will be doing all three yourself.
Here’s how to do it:
1. Developmental edit
When reviewing your manuscript, you’re editing for big picture elements such as plot, character, and narrative arc. If you’ve done a good job on your planning and outlining, this part shouldn’t take up too much time, but if there is an issue, it’s best to identify it earlier rather than later.
2. Copy edit
Now that the framework of your book has been edited and rectified, it’s time to look at the technical side of your writing which includes grammar, style, readability, accuracy, and fact checking. Focus on revising your material to improve readability and suitability for its purpose, as well as ensuring that text is free of grammatical and factual errors.
A final proofread is always required to catch anything that was missed out in previous edits. At this point, I will always send my book to a printer and get them to print and bind it and then do the edits by hand. This is a personal thing and I can’t really explain why it’s different to editing on a laptop, just that the tangibility of pen and paper helps me focus word by word, line by line.
Editing can be overwhelming and you probably have more questions, many of which can be answered here.
One more tip I’d like to share is this: make sure you’re 100% happy with your manuscript. If something is bothering you, then it’s likely to bother others. This is your opportunity to get your book into the best possible shape before letting others see it so don’t waste it! Once you’re happy it’s time to let others read it. We call these readers beta-readers and they will review your book as a reader - NOT an editor and are an invaluable part of the process offering fresh perspective and unbiased feedback.
Where can you find beta-readers?
Writing communities, such as Good Reads or your own writing group are often a good place to start. A mentor or coach is also a good option. Feel free to reach out to friends and family but choose carefully - remember, you need someone unbiased which is not always the case with loved ones. Also consider the profile of your book - if you’ve written a novel for young adults aged fourteen to eighteen, then you need to find beta-readers that match that demographic.
How many do you need?
I would suggest five beta-readers but it’s up to you; however, too many and you’ll get overwhelmed, too few and you won’t see any feedback trends. Once you’ve identified them, set a deadline so you have time to review and incorporate their feedback (where appropriate).
While you’re waiting, it’s a good time to start researching publishing options. A good starting point is this post, How To Decide Which Publishing Option Is Right For You.
Once you receive the feedback, take a deep breath! This is an exciting if slightly nerve-wracking time and I share all my tips on this here. Don’t feel pressured to include all the feedback, but if all your beta-readers are saying the same thing, then it’s probably worth considering.
And that’s it!
By following this guide, you will achieve what 99% of aspiring authors fail to do - FINISH writing a book! To make it even easier for you, I have created a check list of all the steps which you can download and print out. Click here to access it.