Writing Books

How to Write a Book

Language skills

You can write in any language you want; it depends on your best choice. One of the stupidest comments I have heard from some book buyers is, "Oh, I don't like to read books in translation." Meaning: I only read books written in English! How provincial!? Are you going to ignore all books in other languages, then? All 7000 of them? Please, show some respect. Stories can be told in any language.

I have the most tremendous respect for translators. They have some of the most challenging jobs and are fantastic at them. (Okay, some could be better. I don't need to drop names, but would any Anglophone reader have known the works of Kafka or Dostoevsky if not translated? Translations are better than originals that you can't read! And some translations are even better than the originals! As Christopher Maclehose (once of Harvill Press) once told me: all translations must be approached as originals. (Google him.)

One major prerequisite is clear and concise language, regardless of your choice. It's surprising how often authors, in their excitement, get carried away and fill up pages and pages with unintelligible verbiage. Indeed, it's possible to come back and edit your work later, that is, if you can still understand what you have written.

  • Keep asking yourself, what are you trying to say? Is your sentence clear? Can you understand your meaning? Never mind the reader. Examine your word choices and pick the simplest, most suitable one. It would be tempting to go through a thesaurus and choose the most difficult word, but do you know its exact meaning? Remember: the most specific word is best. Always. (Unless you want to "mati-mati", choose the difficult word. (Example: only use "parthenogenesis" if "virgin birth" doesn't quite cut it)
  • Remember the KISS principle: Keep it simple, stupid. Are you using too many words? Too few? Use the exact number of words you need to make your meaning clear. Not too many, not too few. If in doubt, choose less. If one word can do the job, why do you need two or three? The more unnecessary words you use, the more difficult it becomes for the reader to navigate. The meaning of every sentence, word and phrase needs to be precise. Words must be necessary and sufficient to describe what you want to say.
  • One more fact: the reader cannot read your mind. Authors will have all sorts of things going on in their minds, all rushing to get onto the page. Yes, you think you can edit this later, too. That is provided you can read what you have written. Unfortunately, you may not remember what you tried to say while writing the passage. A lot of good writing happens inside you head first, where you turn ideas over and over as you wash, clean, walk, and jog. It's also actual that many authors prefer to write long hand; this slows down the writing process and allows thoughts to be formed more thoroughly before being committed to paper.

In summary

  1. Start with a clear and straightforward idea: Begin with a central idea that is easy to understand and build from there. Try to avoid tackling complex or abstract concepts in your first book.
  2. Use simple everyday language. Avoid using jargon or complex vocabulary.
  3. Break down complex ideas. Make it easier for readers to grasp the concept.
  4. Keep your writing short and to the point. Avoid using excessively compound sentences and long paragraphs (until you reach the level of Saramago). Stick to the most critical information.
  5. Be patient: remember that readers may need more time to understand a concept.
  6. Finally, edit and revise your writing to make it clear and easy to understand. Read your work aloud, or have someone else read it to ensure it flows smoothly and is easy to follow.

But before that ...

  • Do you have the time, discipline and mental energy for the task? Are you willing to stick to a daily writing schedule and sacrifice other pursuits? It is a huge commitment. It is like pregnancy, except it could take more than nine months when almost all your thoughts should be on the baby.
  • You may think you have some excellent language skills, but writing a book will expose all your strengths and weaknesses, and a reasonable amount of time will be devoted to refining them. Don't hesitate to look up the most straightforward words and facts. You may think you know, but you need to be sure. Accuracy is critical.
  • You need to have more than a basic grasp of your main characters, plot and subject matter. You should know everything about all your characters, like you know your best friends and you'll love them all, even the most dastardly ones. The plot can evolve, but your scenes will not. Visualise the entire scene. As for the plot and subject, you don’t need to have it all worked out, but it’s helpful to have a reasonable idea of the direction of your book. (Sideline trivia: In The Name of the Rose (the book, not the movie), the protagonist is having a conversation with someone (can't remember who) as they walk towards the abbey's 'forbidden' tower. Umberto Eco said he counted the steps the two would have taken to reach the tower entrance and tailored the conversation accordingly. Now, that's a craft!

Are you still committed?

Once you know what's required, let the book writing begin.

  1. Do you have a consistent writing space? If you’re going to write a great book, you’re going to need a great space. Well, it doesn’t have to be soundproof, with a stunning view. You'll need a quiet space free of distractions where you can consistently write. It could be your home office, couch, or coffee shop, where you can focus and work uninterrupted for hours if needed.
  2. Zero in on your book idea. You may already know precisely what your book is about, but you’re tossing about a thousand pictures in your mind. Maybe all you have is an outline. In any case, ask yourself: What is my book about? Why is my story exciting or essential? Is it unique? Is it different? Why would anyone want to read my book?
  3. Outline your plot, characters and scenes. All writers spend plenty of time outlining. Outlines can be detailed chapter outlines and sections. Outline every scene. Imagine you're making a movie. Make liberal use of props. Use visual maps as a graphic representation of your book. Regardless of which method you prefer, you must have a clear roadmap.
  4. Do your research. Research is essential for writers. If you’re writing a non-fiction book, spend plenty of time learning everything about your subject in libraries and archives. Go travel to learn about the locations. Same for fiction writers. Provide context for the time and character archetypes in your book. Read, read and read.
  5. Start writing and stick to a routine. Don't procrastinate. Commit to consistent schedules and writing habits. Treat your writing like your full-time job. Try setting daily word count targets. Mark out writing in your calendar so you won’t skip it. Ask a friend or fellow writer to hold you accountable by sending them updates on how much you’ve written that day.
  6. Finish your first draft. You may encounter self-doubt, lack of motivation and writer's block. That’s normal. Try returning to your outline or research for inspiration when you feel stuck. Try to manage your expectations as well. Your first book will likely not be a generational masterpiece or bestseller, but that’s okay. Don't do yourself a disservice by comparing yourself to literary greats. Just keep writing till the end.
  7. Revise and edit. Every good book goes through many rounds of revisions. You may undertake the first editing process yourself, but if you're too familiar with your work to find any holes in it, you could ask a friend or professional editor to help. It would be best if you had an honest and ruthless editor. (If your editor tells you how wonderful your story is, get someone else.) Eye your writing critically so know what needs re-working. Avoid tropes and cliches and other overly familiar descriptions. In writing fiction, determine character inconsistencies, plot holes or gaps in logic. Develop a system to keep track of your edits.
  8. Write your second draft. Now you can go ahead and apply your revisions and edits. It’s also a chance to consider more significant questions that have been revealed after you've completed your first draft. Does your book have a consistent tone? Is there a theme that can be developed and strengthened? Are there weak parts of the book that can be cut entirely? The second draft is also a chance to ask more detailed questions. Does the book have a strong opening hook? An impactful ending?
  9. Finally, believability. I have heard writers say, "This is only fiction, what? It doesn't have to be believable." If that's what you think, stop writing immediately, no matter your work. Have you read Tolkien's trilogy? Do you think he wrote factual history? It was total fantasy. But was it believable? You're damn right it was. He made us believe Middle Earth existed and some people lived there. We loved and hated characters passionately. We tried to imagine the scenes: castles, palaces, landscapes, battles ... everything, even though we knew they were all made up.
  10. Great writing is magic. All literary greats are magicians like David Copperfield, who can make aeroplanes appear and disappear. They use literary tricks and create magic with words. To be a literary great, you'll have to learn the spells. Would anyone be able to teach you? Nope. But it can be learned. Yes. The only way is by constant practice and reading. Read the masters repeatedly, line by line, word by word ... see if you can spot how the illusions are created with words, phrases and sentences. Most literary geniuses are made, not born. (Talent helps, though.)

    It's like training for the Olympics ... total dedication.



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