Becoming an author: The lessons learned about writing a book
A few years ago, I got the idea that I had a book in me. I had reached a point in my career and my life that seemed worthy of sharing. My mentor nudged me along this path. Those who know me can appreciate that once I get an idea in my head, I’m not about to give it up easily. What I didn’t grasp was the challenge of becoming an author. For those of you who are contemplating this venture, I’m offering the lessons I’ve learned about writing a book.
Lesson #1: It’s not about the money.
I’m not alone in this idea. In 2018, about 1.7 million books were self-published in the U.S. (out of four million total), according to Bowker, the industry source for the publishing industry. That’s an increase of 264% in five years. It has become more “user-friendly” to publish your book, but getting to that point is much more difficult.
That statistic didn’t bother me. I had no visions of sitting at Barnes & Noble autographing my book while a long line of adoring fans waited excitedly while clutching multiple copies of my book. (It WILL make a great gift though.)
There’s not a lot of money to be made in publishing a book. Whether you self-publish or use a conventional publisher, the chances of you having a bestseller is incredibly small. Even if you are accepted by a book publisher, they don’t put much promotional effort behind a first-time author.
What I learned: Writing a book is a labor of love for writers. You do it to satisfy your need to put your message out there, not because you think you’ll be the next J.K. Rowling.
Lesson #2: You’re not as big a deal as you think you are.
I have a friend who works with authors like me—people who have a dream but need an editor/coach to make it happen. She told me it’s almost inevitable that, when she mentions what she does for a living, people tell her they have a great book idea that will be a bestseller.
“I nod my head, smile politely, and do my best to contain my eye-roll,” she told me.
What I learned: Every one of us has a unique story. That doesn’t mean hundreds or thousands of people want to read about it. Ask yourself why someone would invest the time in reading your book. Use the “WIIFM” evaluation. Be honest with yourself. Just because your mother and best friend think it’s a bestselling, award-winning idea doesn’t make it so.
Lesson #3: Start with a plan.
Once I decided to write the book, I had to figure out my strategy. I never approach anything without evaluating the mission in front of me. That’s the lasting impact of military training.
Because I had no experience in writing a book, I asked around. My mentor gave me the contact information for the editor/coach I mentioned. Sue and I talked a few times about my idea, my objectives, and the process. I asked a lot of questions, like “How long does it take?” and “Where do I start?” When I was ready to push the button at the Go-No Go step, we moved forward.
We worked out a plan—using the Critical Path method that tracked every step and built in accountability. Before a word was written, I could see the plan, the process, and the timeline.
What I learned: You will only have one shot at writing and publishing your first book. First impressions matter. Before you dive into writing a book, understand the process. Talk to someone who has written and published a book. Ask about the challenges of writing a book and seek their advice for a first-time author.
Then, be honest with yourself. Are you really ready to write? Just because you want to write a book doesn’t mean you’re ready to do it. The journey will take you to places you didn’t expect to go. I waited three years from when I first knew I had a book “in me”. I’m glad I did, because I accumulated more experiences with more people and gained knowledge that contributed to, I think, a better book.
Lesson #4: Know your target.
You’re not writing a book for YOU to read. You already know the ending.
Books have specific genres, starting with fiction and non-fiction. Within each, there are dozens and dozens of sub-genres. For example, in non-fiction, there’s self-help, true crime, biography, religion, politics, culture, philosophy, sports, travel, and hobbies, to name just a few. Each genre attracts its own readers.
In order to talk to your reader in your writing, you must first know who that is. If you want to hold their attention, you need to know what sparks their interest. Think like a profiler when identifying your target reader. Who is it? How old are they? Where are they in their life? What pain points influence them? Why should they read your book? What are you going to tell them that they don’t already know?
What I learned: Get outside your own perspective when you’re writing. Picture the person you’ve envisioned as the right match for your reader profile. As you’re writing a chapter or even a paragraph, ask yourself, “Why should the reader care about this?” Make no assumptions that they share your vision. Speak TO them, not AT them.
Lesson #5: Get organized.
You don’t sit down and start writing on day one. There’s a writing process that must be followed. You start by organizing your thoughts and making notes—lots of notes. Writing a book without a clear outline is like building a house without a blueprint. You’ll make mistakes that will weaken the entire structure.
I built a rough outline for starters. Then I pondered it and reworked the content and organization. I added chapters and saw where I had gaps in information that needed research. I think I revised the outline at least three or four times before I started writing the book. After I had a workable outline, I pulled together notes for each chapter. I made lists of people to interview, research that would be needed, and specific points to be covered in each chapter.
What I learned: The more time you invest in building a strong outline, the easier the writing will be. From my notes, I could see the flow of the book that had been living only in my head to that point. Write everything down. Examine your outline. Does it match your objective? Is it telling the targeted reader something they will be compelled to read? Have you clearly presented the differentiator that makes your book worth reading? Does the content flow smoothly from one chapter to the next?
Lesson #6: Writing isn’t a random process.
That book isn’t going to write itself. It takes commitment and discipline to write a book. When you don’t have a publisher nagging you about submitting chapters, it’s easy to procrastinate. Some writers start their day with as little as an hour of writing. Others I’ve spoken to said they write at least three hours a day—or at least sit at their laptop for that long. There will be days when the words flow freely and others where you are taunted by the unmoving cursor on your computer screen. That’s normal. Keep at it.
What I learned: If you don’t commit to writing time, you’ll never do it. Put it into your schedule, daily or weekly. And stick to it. Also, make a timeline for your book. Create weekly milestones so you can hold yourself accountable.
Lesson #7: Trust the pros.
There are always people out there who CAN do a job for you, but I prefer to go to someone who does it for a living. After all the time invested in writing my book, I’m not skimping on the rest of the journey.
With the help of my professional editor, I finished the first draft of my manuscript. I sent it to a professional proofreader. Then I sent it to a few people whom I can trust to give me honest feedback. They’re not friends or family, but acquaintances who match the target reader for my book. Once I weighed their feedback, I made revisions.
I’m also using a professional book designer to do the cover and the book’s interior. There’s an art and science to cover design, and I want to get it right.
What I learned: Before you decide to entrust your book with the friend of a friend or someone doing a side hustle, be clear about what you’re spending and what you’re saving. By the way, you can find very affordable and talented people on sites like Fiverr.com.
The next step
It has been an incredible experience to write a book. At this point, I’m looking forward to holding a copy in my hands, but I have learned more about myself during the process than I ever expected I would. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, it’s personal. You challenge your thoughts and test your resolve. You push yourself outside of your comfort zone, which is always a good thing to do.
I expect to publish my book in a few months. And I feel certain there will be more after that, because the process of writing a book is a challenge that has taught me many valuable lessons.