How to write a book

How to write a book | SusannahConway.com
Before I wrote a book I had no idea how to write a book. Over the years I’ve bought many books about the art of writing — developing character, storyline, writing proposals, creativity, prompts, inspiration, confessions, memoirs, all of it — but no where in that thick shelf of books did I find the answer to my real question:

How do I write MY book?

So for those who have asked, and for my sweet friend who is embarking on her own book-writing odyssey this summer, here is a breakdown of how I finally found my way into the first draft of my (non-fiction) book.

1. The proposal.

Even if you’re not planning to approach a publisher and intend to self-publish, think of a proposal as your book’s blueprint. As nice as it would be to just sit down and have a whole book flow out of you, you really do need a structure to give your thoughts and inspirations something to hang on. In the end I wrote two proposals, the second a refined version of the first that helped me really nail down what my book was about. I wrote an overview, a chapter breakdown and a sample chapter (along with the other bits and pieces my publisher wanted to see, including a PDF of design ideas). The sample chapter was written during the weeks leading up to the birth of my nephew, a time when I was living on the edge of my emotions as I supported my sister through her first pregnancy. If you’ve read my book (or indeed just hung out here for a while) you’ll know that Abby and I are extremely close, and as I was going to be her birthing partner along with Noah’s dad, I was on constant red alert waiting for the call. As it turned out this helped me focus my thoughts as I figured out what the sample chapter (chapter three, in the end) was all about.

2. Break it down.

I spent far too long on this stage, and when I start writing my next book (already planning for it, in fact) I’ll try to move through this stage faster. But it was essential, because even though I’d identified the chapters in my proposal, I still hadn’t fleshed them out. Sitting down to write a 50,000 word book (which is actually quite short when you consider novels are usually 80,000+ words) feels like such a mammoth task, you’re instantly paralysed by stage fright. I burned a lot of brain cells trying to figure out how long, and how many, chapters there should be. In the end I decided on nine chapters of 5,000 words each, with the last 5,000 split between the introduction and epilogue. Sitting down to write a 5,000 word extended essay felt so much more do-able than the alternative. This is how I began to write in earnest — one essay at a time.

3. Planning.

I started and discarded a number of notebooks at the beginning as it felt essential that I find the right notebook to house my notes. At one point I was using index cards on a pin board to help me plan out the contents of each chapter. Ultimately this was procrastination and wasn’t as helpful as I’d hoped it would be. Next I tried a huge A4 Moleskine notebook, its impressive size seemingly just right for the enormity of my task. Wrong again — I filled about eight pages before deciding it was too cumbersome. So it was back to a regular sized Moleskine I went, the same size I use for my journalling. And it was there I stayed, gathering all my notes, ideas, quotes and anything else even vaguely connected to the book all in one place. Strange as it might sound this made me feel safe. I might scribble thought-threads into other notebooks, but everything got collated back into the main Moleskine. It was my (not very original) way to make the intangible tangible. The notebook remained by my side for six whole months and now sits smugly on a book shelf. I’ll never throw it out.

This I Know | SusannahConway.com

4. Do the grafting.

My biggest mistake was thinking I had plenty of time — this, I now know, is a common rookie error. Deadline six months away? Well, I’ve got plenty of time then haven’t I? But after weeks of shuffling index cards and furrowing my brow as I stared at the wall, I realised that if I didn’t start writing soon I was going to blow the entire thing. This was when the writing turned into a job. I couldn’t wait for the muse to arrive on my shoulder — I had to sit my arse down in the chair and TYPE SOMETHING. Didn’t matter if it was any good or not, I needed words on the screen. Most days this really did feel like work — which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Embarking on an extended writing project takes a lot of stamina and focus. The scary spectre of a deadline (and occasional check-ins with my editor) kept the pressure on, which in turn kept me writing.

Some mornings I couldn’t quite believe that writing a book was my official job. Yet I’d still procrastinate for the next six hours (damn you, internet!). Mostly I did this because I was scared. What do I have to say? Who is going to want to read any of this? Fifty percent of writing the book was actually persuading myself that I was ALLOWED to write the book. That’s when writing becomes a mind game, where you must get out of your own way and focus on the stories you’re telling, suspending your doubts for long enough to get your 1,000 words done for the day.

Much of those 1,000 words began as notes scribbled in the Moleskine. I’d then type them into Scrivener (each chapter had its own file) and begin to add more words. Dancing between handwritten notes and typed sentences works best for me — I seem to be more honest when I write with a pen. The more words I wrote the more encouraged I became. I didn’t start at chapter one (that was the last chapter I wrote because it felt like the ‘easiest’) but instead began with the chapter I had the most notes for. There were weeks when I was adding to several chapters at once, fleshing out anecdotes and indulging in edits. Nothing was written in chronological order — I just followed where my inspirations pulled me. I wrote myself into a lot of corners, too, so when that happened I’d cut the section out and start again. TIP: keep all your cuts in a separate file. You never know when something that didn’t make sense a month ago can be recycled back in.

5. Avoid distractions.

Everything is a distraction when you’re trying to write. I downloaded an app to disconnect me from the internet for XX minutes at a time. I’d set the timer for 40 minutes and write as fast as I could, telling myself I could peek at Twitter and make a coffee when the time was up. And that, basically, was how I wrote the whole book — in 40 minute increments. Sometimes I’d catch an updraft and write for longer. Sometimes I’d be lying in bed and whole paragraphs would download into my head — I’d scribble them into the Moleskine and type them up the next morning. Sometimes I’d stare at the screen and want to cry (in those moments I tended to reach for a jar of Nutella and a spoon. The book-baby weight piled on, needless to say.)

6. Refill the well.

Pinterest and Instagram were how I kept my sanity. Switching to the visual was the perfect antidote to all the wordiness and helped me reset my brain when I was feeling overwhelmed (read: often). I didn’t go for as many walks as I could’ve done. I didn’t take as many breaks as I should’ve done. But somehow I got the work done.

7. Finish strong.

The last weeks of writing the book are something of a blur now, but the overwhelming feeling was one of SHEER BLOODY PANIC. I was obsessed with the word count and went back over the manuscript again and again as I found holes in the text that needed to be plugged: stories that didn’t go anywhere, anecdotes that made no sense. I burned through a few small trees printing out the chapters to read away from my desk; the really tangled sections I read aloud to help me see where the words didn’t flow.

There was also the not-so-small matter of selecting the Polaroids to accompany the words. While this was definitely the most intuitive part of creating the book, it still took time to figure out — some of the chapters in the first draft looked very different to how they do now.

In the end I pulled it all together as best I could with the time I had left. I drank a LOT of coffee in those last days.

What I would do differently?

Nothing, actually. It was written in the way it was meant to be written to be the book it has turned out to be. However, next time I will take better care of my health. The majority of the first draft was written during the winter months and I comfort-ate my way through the entire experience. Some of the key themes in the book — solitude, grief, creativity, renewal — required me to be in that exact space as I wrote. There was no way I could be out on the town with a date every night and then wake up the next morning to write about the importance of solitude. And so the writing of the book became the living of the book. And it makes me wonder if that’s how it will be as I begin to dig into book number two. Because This I Know has nine chapters and I’m ready to start writing the proposal for Chapter Ten.

Now read: Notes on editing a book

And then: leave a comment on this post if you’d like to win a signed copy of the book. If you already have a copy (thank you!) I can send the book to a friend of your choosing (or, you know, you can give them your copy and YOU get the signed book + some postcard-y goodness ;-)

To enter, simply tell me one accomplishment you’re proud of — big or small!

I’ll pick the winner’s name on Friday x The giveaway is now closed x

Posted on 20-06-2012
174 responses
  1. tara

    I applied for a year of leave without pay from a good job, even though I don’t have any idea what I might do as a next step. People think I’m crazy for leaving without having any next steps in place.

  2. Kathy A.

    I really love to hear about the book writing process. You are so generous to share with us want-to-be authors how it really is.

    My biggest accomplishment is being a stay-at-home Mom to 3 children for 18 years — it’s my biggest joy too!

  3. helenlehndorf

    I published my own first book last December – a volume of poetry called ‘The Comforter’. It took me 12 years to write because of what happened in my life in that time. Aside from my two children, it feels like my biggest achievement.

  4. jane

    this is great Susannah – thank you for the encouragement this provides… one thing i am proud of is the e course which is my first foray into online teaching and has been bloody brilliant!

  5. Noelle

    I trekked to the Valley of Flowers in the Himalayas, and I am proud of it. I am living the life of my dreams as much as I can if not fully yet, and I am proud of it. Thanks !

  6. Jessica

    I’ve started and stopped going to college four times now, all because I didn’t want to take college algebra and statistics. Well, I just finished taking both this past Winter & Spring and passed! It was an exercise in overcoming a belief that I couldn’t do it. But like you with your book, I broke it down into parts and believed in myself and made it happen. xo

  7. Jill Kane

    I’m proud of facing my current state of unemployment squarely in the face. I make goals for myself each day and think about crossing them off my mind’s list at the end of the day when I plop into bed. There are many, many moments (and I’m sure there will be many more) when I wish I could just stay in bed until I have reason to get up for gainful employment, but my head knows that isn’t how employment will happen. Baby steps. Thanks for this book, Susannah. It’s been a beacon to me these past few weeks. xoxo

  8. Rebecca

    Lovely! Thanks for sharing your insight. I would love a signed copy of your book… fingers crossed.

    Now to answer the question, an accomplishment I’m proud of is when I went back to university as an adult (in my 30’s!) and finished my bachelors degree. I was pretty proud of myself once I had that diploma in hand.

  9. Missie Sue

    I love that you give such a practical breakdown of something as shrouded with cultural mystery as “the writing process.” Thank you. In response to your prompt, I am proud of my ability to change and adapt in situations I feel inadequate to.

  10. Kimberly

    One accomplishment I’m proud of? Is that I continue to study everything I can and learn as I try to truly find myself. At 32, I would have thought I’d know who I am but I really just am getting there. This accomplishment has a long way to go…and that’s okay.

  11. Monia

    Thanks for that post Susannah!! Just have to print it to keep :-) I don’t plan to write a real book but wanna get into e-book writing and take all tips I get…
    My accomplishment right now really that I’m just now proud of is that I managed to get into some routine again with my little boy after hubby got back to work after more than a year at home… nothing big but still something… :-)

  12. Roxanne Galpin

    This post was so very helpful. Allowing myself to write the book, I am having difficulty getting past that. I guess I just need to stop dancing around it and get on with it … somehow.

    As for what I’m proud of? Standing on my own two feet, realizing that I’m complete in and of myself, and that pleasure and happiness are not one in the same.

  13. Verne

    What a fantastically helpful post! I’ve had a book in my head for years, it’s been desperate to escape into paper but I just can’t get my head around the mammoth task of creating it. This really gives me some great ideas and inspiration!! Thanks Susannah (again!)

  14. Britt Kee

    Great advice! I just found your blog, and I am so excited to start reading, and I already feel the inspiration :)

    Thanks ^^

  15. Joolz Benner

    i can’t explain how excited i am about just having the chance to win a signed copy of your book! my proudest accomplishments have to be my two wonderful girls, watching them grow and blossom into happy, confident young women. but most recently i’ve been very proud of the fact that i am totally comfortable with my decision to give up gluten and milk products in my diet. it was quite a struggle for a couple of months, lots of whining voices in my head moaning about how unfair it was that everybody else could eat sourdough bread with goats cheese and i couldn’t. but the compassion for my body has given me strength to hold to my decision and it’s paying off big style. thank you for this opportunity to post. have a beautiful summer solstice susannah! x

  16. Michele

    I’m proud that I never stop learning, and wanting to learn, about myself, the world and everything.

    Love this post, will bookmark it and refer back to it, I’m sure. Thanks for sharing, not just here but in your wonderful book also :-)

  17. Roslynde

    Hi Susannah, I’m not writing a book, I’m writing a Masters thesis, but as an engineer, 20 000 words is, at this point, truly overwhelming… and even though it’s only a technical paper, it feels like so much of me is being poured into it and so, in my own small way, I can really relate to your process. Thank-you for reflecting, I’ve walked away with a few extra help-me tools!

  18. Nina

    This post was really interesting – I love to read about the real practical nitty-gritty of various creative processes. One recent little accomplishment that I’m pretty proud of is putting up some shelves! We’ve been in this flat a whole year, and lived in another one for 16 months before that without unpacking most of our books and CDs. My mum’s kept offering to hire a handyman to put the shelves up but my boyfriend and I (total DIY novices) were determined to do it ourselves. We’ve put the first lot up without a problem (errr, unless they’re about to fall down) and are now marking up the walls for more! Yay!

  19. sherri

    I have been saying that I wanted to write and teach a very basic, beginners photography course. Have been saying that for nearly a year. Last week I got asked to teach a two week seminar on photography – so I finally sat down and wrote out a portion of the many thoughts and photo facts that were running around in my brain and last night I taught my very first 2 hour Photography Seminar. It wasn’t perfect, but it was fun and I did it and hope to do more of it! Now for week two. Thank God for deadlines!

  20. Vanessa

    I’m proud to be the Mama Bear to my four children.

    Good luck to you as you begin crafting Chapter 10!

  21. Mallory

    Thanks, as always, for sharing your inner journey! I am proud of graduating with my MSW, moving to Chicago with my partner on a whim, and taking steps to improve my health and well-being.

  22. renej

    Love all of your posts.
    I’m at a joyful place because at the age of 63 I picked up pen and paint and started playing in a Moleskine for the first time!

  23. becky

    What a WONDERFUL sharing of writing your book. I love it. :) Would also LOVE to receive a signed copy of it. Thanks for the chance….
    xoxo
    Becky

  24. Alli

    Thank you for sharing your book writing process. It’s a lovely post and so important, I think, to honour the processes we go through in life.

    The thing I’m pround of right now is that I have been bloggin for a month and today I was brave enough to tweet a post!!!! I’ve kind of avoided writing as I felt it exposed me and pinned me down. Starting the blog has kind of made me look at and own who I really am. It has been a full on and at times scary month, but something keeps drawing me into it and I’m proud of that courage.

  25. AnnikaChristine

    In 2010 I took one photo everyday, I picked up my camera every single day. Remembering this makes me really happy and also kind of pround. :)

  26. Javavenus

    I would buy your next book. For sure!

  27. Maria M

    I’m most proud of the last 6 months office move. I’ve never done it before and i managed to do it for a team of 8 without any problems having never done this type of work before! Thanks for sharing this is also a great post!!

  28. Roxanne

    Can one be proud of loving? Of having loved? Of still loving amply?

    Your book inspired even more expressions of love, and for that I’m grateful.

  29. Clare

    Susannah, this is gold. I’m saving it for the day that I start my first book!

    As for what I proud of…. surviving another day. C

  30. melissa

    one simple accomplishment…this week really sitting with and feeling the shame burning in me (vs. denying, avoiding, enlarging). the biggest ones have to do with loving fiercely.

    thank you for this generous and exquisite offering. love to you.

  31. Paul Farwell

    Wow Susannah! That’s really inspiring. I for one am always very easily distracted from the job in hand .. so I have the utmost respect for you. Something I’m proud of? Well cycling from London to Paris at the age of ‘slightly’ over 50 (!). I’ve never been particularly sporty and if you’d ask me to do the ride even 5 years ago I’d have probably said that I couldn’t do it! I’m seriously considering doing it all over again in 2013!

  32. Cee Lewars

    I have accomplished working a Seasonal Job in Alaska for the last 4 years. I always wanted to explore Alaska and working there is the only way I could do it. Home is always there no matter where we roam and for that I am grateful.

  33. Susie Main

    I am proud of attending college and graduating with an Associates Degree at the age of 50.

  34. Deborah Griffin

    I am proud of creating artwork that is meaningful to me and finding an audience that responds by wanting to hang it on their own walls.

  35. Jay

    I’m proud of my friendships although I can’t take all the credit! I often feel as though I neglect my friends but somehow we muddle through and find ways to connect….I am truly blessed to have such wonderful friends in my life!

  36. justin

    I am most proud of the fact that, after putting it off for a whole year (!), I finally submitted my grad school application essay. I had my interview today and start my program in August.

    Thank you so much for sharing your stories. I have had so many ah-ha moments reading your book and blog posts. Again…thank you!!!!!!

  37. Kateri

    Wonderful, helpful and real advice :) And I am loving your book. Not only the words, but the whole thing is just so lovely.

    My something to be proud of right now…both of my children are, as of Tuesday, far away across the oceans. Every now and again I get this feeling that creeps up in my throat, that crackles and panics me, that I am here alone, and they are so far away, alone. And then I remember the wings I gave them and why. And then I remember my own wings…and I’ve been okay. Not flying quite yet, but fluttering about and okay.

  38. Christine Pike

    Well. I’m proud of how we sent off Dad. Despite the run up to his funeral being emotionally gruelling, I felt the day was definitely one to be proud of. I felt proud meeting old and new faces from Dad’s life and talked from my heart to everyone I met. I felt proud to be his daughter and ultimately I felt an overwhelming proudness of him and what he stood for. It was a life changer XX

  39. kendra

    This is a beautiful post! The more I read about your book the more I want to read it.

    My biggest accomplishment so far is the little 7 week old boy sleeping in my arms right now :)

  40. Suzie Lambert

    I threw caution to the wind and created a new life for myself and my lovely children. I’m now in a new house (mine!), with a yard and a beautiful man at my side. Growing, changing and loving the universe….. Perfect!

  41. Lynn

    Finally calling a fertility specialist last week after trying to get pregnant for over 5 years. Scared as hell, but I did it.

  42. jessica loughrey

    going to school and getting my 90 hr. certification so that i can teach at the daycare center that i work at

  43. Erica

    After taking your Unravelling course last autumn, I was inspired to begin blogging in February this year. I am determined to follow my dream & am currently teaching a pilot art e-course to a group of wonderful women I met through your course! My goal is to grow this into my new career. Thank you so much for your inspiration :) x
    P.S. Am currently taking Blogging from the Heart & loving it!

  44. Jeannine

    My biggest accomplishment has been believing in myself even when others didn’t.
    I loved reading your post – thanks for sharing.

  45. tamara

    last weekend my daughter graduated high school…next weekend she turns 18. she’s gracious and considerate and kind. she can’t wait to go to college in september. she has dreams she talks about with me. i raised a nice person…wait a sec…WE raised a nice person. {it takes a village to raise a child.} i’m incredibly proud.

  46. Marija

    My dad was sad that I wanted to pursue literature and not music in college. I promised him music is not something I would ever abandon. When I gave him the ticket to my first opera performance during my freshman literature days, that was something he never forgot. I realised that truly, it is the little things that matter.

  47. AG

    I finished my first full length play and am hoping to find a house to produce it… It has gotten positive feedback and encouragement to pass it to the next level. I am so glad I attempted this project it was well outside my comfort zone for sure and produced during a harrowing time for me and my family… Continued success to you!

  48. Lisa

    I’m proud that I started a blog and have kept it up for a year now! That I have found away to keep my creative mind working in the midst of everyday life.

  49. sas

    she’s beautiful. a gift.
    beaming pride for you love xxx

  50. Farrell MaryBeth

    Hi Susannah
    I’m proud Ive posted at lest one photo to instgram everyday!
    Hope to see you stateside on your Beautiful Book Tour
    XO
    MB

  51. Toni

    WOW! amazing words Sus!
    I’m proud to say I’ve yet to give up my photography personal / business no matter how hard it can be :)

    PS you rock x

  52. Sketchofsenses

    I´m proud of after 16 years (i´m 32 and start at the age of 16) of being addicted to anti-depressions and ansiolitics and after some frustrated tries, I finally do it and I´m “clean” for 5 months. It´s being hard, my job makes me crazy and the family illnesses just tempt me to start “consuming” again, but I keep myself away from the drugs ( it feels go say this to someone)

  53. Deborah Jackson

    I’m reading your book at the moment Susannah and I could identify parts of my journey within your words, I’m reading it slowly because its the kind of book you don’t really want to finish because it is such a gift to read. I’m a student counsellor, this week was our last week getting together as a group, we were given an activity, to spend 1hr in the park by ourselves, we were not allowed to “pair up”, but spend an hour just being by ourself. I took photos and I got out my journal, in the seat of my pocket was an angel card with the word “understanding”….I reflected and wrote briefly about my difficult relationship with my step father – I looked at my story around him with understanding, and from that came understanding around myself, suddenly alot of things came clear to me. When we got back together as a group, I shared the truths that had been revealed to me, I felt vulnerable and very shaky but I spoke openly about something that has haunted me for as long as I can remember – I was proud of myself for sharing a truth. I would love a signed copy of your book Susannah as I want to give my current copy to my counselling tutor on Tuesday, she is leaving and I think it would be a beautiful leaving gift for her. Thanks for birthing your book baby, I’m sure it is giving many women inspiration to birth their own truths and stories xx

  54. Jesa

    I love reading almost anything you post because of your humor, the rawness of your writing, the motion and passion. Thank you for the insight.

    I’m proud of many accomplishments, but this very minute it is the blessing of the baby now in my womb. After struggling with two failed pregnancies I am thrilled and overjoyed that my baby is healthy an growing safetly. :)

  55. Shawna

    The first house I ever lived in that I owned myself I designed and had built when I was still single and in my twenties. It was the coolest project ever and I LOVED that house. It was hard to leave when I my husband and I decided to add a second child to the family and we outgrew my cool little 2-bedroom downtown space. I am still immensely proud of it.

  56. Meghan @ Life Refocused

    Thanks for sharing more about your process and how you came to birth your beautiful book. Can’t wait to see you in Portland at WDS. xoxo

  57. Karen C

    I finally invited people who know me in face-to-face life to read my blog and even though that kind of freaked me out, I’ve continued to write from my heart and not give in to fear. Thanks for your part, Susannah, in showing me how to keep doing that. What I learned during Blogging from the heart was a huge piece of that accomplishment.

  58. Astrid

    I loved reading this!

    Seeing the sights of Athens for 2 days on my own while hubby was working. Not been to another country in over 16 years let alone look around and eat out on my own on one occasion. Left me with so many mixed feelings x

  59. Trace Willans

    Wow I would love to win a copy of your book. My go to accomplishment when I need a boost is giving up smoking, nearly 13 years now, coz if I can do that I can do anything. x te

  60. Cecile

    Thanks for this giveaway – it would be a fantastic occasion to read your book after digging in your blog for so long !

    As for the accomplishment : I’m proud to have left my family and my country, first to backpack through Australia and New Zealand for nine months… then to take the leap and emigrate in New Zealand, although I’m deaf since birth.
    Nobody ever thought I’d manage that with the language barrier and my disability. But I did, and proved a lot of teachers and doctors (who said I wouldn’t ever be able to speak a foreign language) awfully wrong. It’s not yet sure whether I’ll be able to get permanent residency, but at least I’ll have tried; at least I dared to do what my guts told me to. And I’ll always be proud of this, no matter how it ends up.

    Forgot to mention I’m French… so not a native English speaker ! :D

  61. Amy

    This is very insightful. I have always wanted to write a book but never sure where exactly to start. Ive journal for years, I think I’ll go back to those and look for my inspiration. Thanks for the advice!

  62. kelly

    This is so, so helpful. I’m off to work right now but can’t wait to come home and read it again this evening.

  63. Kathryn

    this was incredibly interesting for me, I think you learn so much when you write a book. It makes me wish I could start my novel now, but experience has shown me it’s best to just study for now and wait. :)
    thanks for this post, Susannah!

  64. JoAnna

    Thanks for the advice! Writing a book seems like such a monumental task, and I’m not even sure how to wrap my head around it though I very much want to write a book. I appreciate you sharing your process.

  65. Natalie Holtz

    Thank you, Susannah! I’m a rookie, and it’s comforting to hear that sometimes it is work, that the muse isn’t always on your shoulder.

  66. David s

    Thanks for this article! I’ve had this story building in my mind for the last 13 years or so but never really had the drive or courage to write it down so I decided that needed to change and that is when I came across your article. It has helped me and gave me an idea of what I gotta do.

    Thanks again!

    David

  67. cheryl c.

    Thank you for the information on how to write a book…I might not want to write a book but I find writing information helps me with my blog…
    My biggest accomplishment is that 30 years ago this month…July 11, I reached a goal of losing 100 lbs…I still have 90 of those pounds off….added a few when I quit smoking and a few more when I went through menopause…but I don’t mind…
    Have a wonderful break.

  68. Gabby

    I can’t believe that there’s an app that will temporarily disconnect you from the internet on a certain amount of time!

    But I believe that the Internet is an effective time waster if you’re not vigilant with your time. Avoiding any kinds of distractions is a great way to get a flow of your writing.

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