So, You Want to Write a Book?

by Jan Geronimo on August 14, 2009

Holly JahangiriIt’s easy, if you love to write. If you’re like many aspiring authors, you don’t really love to write: You would love to have written. If you dream of six-figure advances, keep dreaming. But if you dream of seeing your book on book store shelves, attending the occasional literary festival and rubbing elbows with other published authors, and signing your books for readers at a table in the local grocery store, keep reading.

The best writing advice I ever got came from Tom Clancy. He had just done an online chat, where he fielded questions about writing and publishing and finding agents and selling books from people who had yet to commit one word to paper. “Just write the damned book,” he said. In other words, there’s no point in worrying about finding an agent or a publisher until you have a tangible product to sell. Once you’ve proven your ability to produce a product, you might get contracts for a series of unwritten books. But first, you have to prove you’re serious – about writing, not about having written. Or, as Rick Hautala says, “You’re only as good as your last ISBN.”

The work doesn’t end with the words, “The End,” either. Next comes painstaking proofreading – wherein you read the work from cover to cover, backwards and forwards, fixing the typos, eliminating unnecessary words, adding missing words, crafting effective transitions from though to thought, and making sure you haven’t changed your heroine from an innocent blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty to a raven haired, green-eyed vixen. If you’re reading this and muttering, “Isn’t that what editors are for?” then you’ve never seen the bill for editing services or worked with a good editor. The sad truth is, if you don’t do this part yourself, your work won’t make it past the acquisitions editor’s trash bin.

Say you choose to self-publish. There’s a cost involved with that, too. Paying printing costs isn’t the same thing as paying a vanity press for flattery. Paper, ink, binding, shipping, storage, and distribution – these things cost money. It’s a realistic cost of doing business, if you’re going to be your own publisher. But even if you go through print-on-demand service like, where all printing, production, storage, and distribution costs are built into the unit price of each book, you may want to pay for an ISBN number and services needed so that you can sell your book through or one of the many brick-and-mortar book stores out there. So you have to learn to look at publishing as a business – not just a starry-eyed dream.

Are you doing this just to hold your own book in your hands? Or do you want to share it with readers who think the book is worth buying? If it’s just for you and your family, then the only buyer whose opinion and price point matters is you. But if you want a wider audience, you’ll have to look at your book with an impartial buyer’s eye. If you hadn’t written it, would you – honestly – pay money to buy it? How much money? This is not to say you should throw your inner critic a party and buy her dinner – your inner critic exists solely to tear you and your fragile ego to shreds. She ought to be locked in a cage and fed table scraps. But you should be practical and you should be respectful of your readers’ hard-earned money.

On the other end of the spectrum, loved ones and close friends should never be put in the position of having to say, “Don’t quit your day job.” Buyers are people who don’t care about you one way or the other; they just expect good value for the money they pay. They don’t hate you like your inner critic does, but they don’t love you like your family and friends do. So if you need help simulating the buyer’s viewpoint, ask a friendly acquaintance to read your book and to tell you, honestly, if it’s something they might buy. If not, why not? Perhaps they’re not interested in the subject (in which case, you should find a friendly acquaintance who is also one of your target buyers), but if they are interested – what’s holding them back? Price or quality? Listen to these people. Next time you send your work out the door, make sure it is as polished and professional looking as it can be, and make sure it meets your readers’ and buyers’ expectations.

The actual work of writing a book is nothing compared to the work involved in getting it polished, published, promoted, and sold, so that readers can enjoy it.

Holly Jahangiri is a professional writer with over twenty years’ experience in technical writing, freelancing, fiction, poetry, and editing. She blogs at It’s All a Matter of Perspective: Mine (

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  • Why do I get 56 comments on your blog, and like...four? on mine?
  • I'm schooled in the ancient art of arm twisting, Holly. If my readers don't
    deliver for me and my guest writer.... :)
  • Ahhhhh, I see. So they respond better to arm-twisting than to abject begging?
  • I once tried writing a novel when I was a teenager. After I finished the first three chapters, I got lost in my story. And I don't know where my notebook is right now, and i forgot what the story was all about.

    But maybe, I can just start compiling my short stories, or start with an ebook perhaps with my dozen or two teen fans at church. I also think (correct me if i'm wrong) it will only take one good book to get noticed.
  • ceblogger, it takes one good book after another. What's the point of getting noticed? Presumably, to publish AGAIN.

    Here in the U.S., short stories and poetry are not what you'd call a commercial success. I find that amazing, given that so many readers have the attention span of a small insect with a three-day lifespan (that includes me, many days). I LOVE short stories and poetry - I love writing them and reading them. But they don't seem to sell well.

    Now that we've gotten that out of the way, if you have a day job and aren't worried about where your next meal will come from, you shouldn't focus too much on commercial success. Write what you enjoy writing. Write what holds YOUR interest long enough to finish it. Most likely, there will be readers out there who share that interest, and readers can always tell if you put your heart and soul into your writing, or you just threw some words on paper. If you have to choose between telling a good story or writing great literature, opt for storytelling. No one will say "he wrote great literature" until you're dead, so where's the fun in that? But they may say, "Man, that's a GREAT story! I couldn't put it down!"
  • "No one will say "he wrote great literature" until you're dead, so where's
    the fun in that? But they may say, "Man, that's a GREAT story! I couldn't
    put it down!"

    Oh, Holly, you are the Oscar Wilde of blogging. Here's saying that in
    reference to your wit, and not that you'd likely end up in a gaol. ahehehe.
  • Well, thanks for clarifying that, Jan. I'll take that as a compliment, and try to be witty without running afoul of the Morals Police.
  • great tips, holly! i like the storyteller role. literary success does not always equal commercial success. i want to improve in my storytelling.
  • The story telling part is one that I'd like to master, too, Novz. It's so
    easy to write a list post. No sweat. But to tell a story that sustains the
    readers interest till the last sentence? That's a challenge. :)
  • Novz, you've got a blog - what better way to launch whatever book or ebook
    you have in mind? Wait, there's something better - the combined power of
    your blogging buddies. We're not Influenza Bloggers for nothing.

    And I'm damn proud you've not turned your back on your initial love -
    creative writing. It's still there, right? Not smothered at all with your
    preoccupation with SEO and all that jazz? :)
  • I can imagine a book--the story takes place some time during the Clone Wars--with my name on it... Nah, too high. Let's set it a bit lower. lol
  • Let's help you brainstorm, Luke. But only if you need to. We must give
    that wonderful Star Wars franchise some Asian perspective. That will be
    wonderful, right? Here comes Hollywood. Ahehehe
  • Yeah, Asian perspective. Like for instance Anakin took an Asian padawan or something during the Clone Wars. But he already has Ashoka as a padawan. Oh, well. Back to the drawing (writing) board.
  • The Asian market is huge - big enough to sustain the moribund Hollywood cinema. Shall I call George Lucas now so we can make a pitch? lols
  • Well Holly, That seems to put the whole darned thing in a nutshell. Sage advice all the way around.

    I just wrote a post titled, Calm Down - It's only a book. Like Mr. Clancy says, Just write the damned thing.

    Thanks for having Holly here, Jan. Good choice!

  • Calm down - it's only a book. What a superb title. I love it already,
    George... About Holly guest writing here: what can I say except I have
    this unerring nose for exquisite writers. :)
  • Thank you, Tumblemoose! I'm off to take a look at your blog - that sounds like a fun read.
  • Ive tried writing a book before but it didnt materialize...maybe it was not my cup of tea but maybe some other other, who knows i might continue what i have started before.
  • That's just it, Crisiboy:

    1. Not everyone really wants to write a book - and that's REALLY okay.
    2. It will never "materialize." Books are born of the very unglamorous act of applying butt to chair and ink to paper (or pixels to screen). You're in charge. The shoemaker may have had elves; most writers don't.
    3. The Muse is symbolic of inspiration, ideas, and the ability to synthesize thoughts in new, original ways. "She" isn't really an entity; we're all blessed with this, but can only develop it through practice, practice, and more practice.
    4. Writing isn't always "fun.
    5. It's easy to begin, but not so easy to KEEP the butt glued to the chair (or at least make sure it returns to the chair every @#$% day) until we reach "The End."
  • lol @ Holly - i think the teenagers now use the term "effing" instead of the elaborate symbols - which by the way are missing a few characters. hahaha!
  • yikes. i didn't mean YOU should use it. haha. that would be less than humorous. i wonder though if it can be used it Scrabble?

    "Fine" suits that sentence: "...returns to the chair every fine day..."

    Is your son my age? :p
  • Oh, dear - I wasn't paying close enough attention. H., shame on you!! (I assumed she meant the part that ought to be glued to the chair, Jan.)
  • @jan - I don't know, why? (Actually, you can Google that just as well as I can; what's it got to do with writing?)
  • Now, Rey, there are other words - less vitriolic - that have four letters. Or perhaps that was a sarcastically spluttered "fine" - as in "It's a fine day to be stuck indoors with my behind glued to this damned chair...

    Do I look like a teenager, Rey? I don't think now's the time to start talking like one, either. My son wouldn't appreciate that at all.
  • Holly, what is a bajingo? Please enlighten me.
  • Excellent advice, Holly!

    I like the bit about your friend with an imaginary reader. Perhaps you should write a book about writing? Keep on truckin'!
  • You know what I always say, H - writing on writing is what we do in between...writing. I liked the imaginary reader idea, too. Fits right in with all my other imaginary frien--er, characters in my head. ;)
  • *gulp* ;-)

    You are probably right. (As usual. ) But do keep in mind that you offer a fresh perspective. A lot of writers are head-in-the-cloud type dreamers. You are a unique and mystifying combination of dreamer and practical nuts and bolts gal. Your sound advice is a wonderful complement to the other approaches I've encountered thusfar. (And by thusfar, I mean in the two weeks I've been studying writing. So don't get your head all a'puffin.)
  • In reply to \/...

    It's like you can read my mind! Seriously, you've got to kick that inner critic in the bajingo.
  • You have a delightful natural voice and style, H. And I know that was just your tactful way of saying I'm a confusing, if practical, nut who occasionally bolts in order to indulge in a good daydream.
  • thanks for sharing. nice blog :)
  • have you written a book, jan? they said it is one of the things that one ought in one's lifetime. but i don't know what to write about plus the thought that people might not buy my book gives me the creeps. and the critics too. plus the costs. the other day, the editor told me that the research we did last summer where i was one of the case writers would be published with ISBN. that was news to me although not everyone could share my glee. so yeah, i would love to see my own book someday.
  • fifi, if you have no desire to write a book, and no idea what you'd write about, why worry about what "they say"? That's somebody's idea of a bucket list, but it doesn't have to be on yours. Try parasailing, instead - it's less scary. ;)

    And you're right - whatever you write, not everyone will love it unconditionally. Writers need to have a thick skin, but also the ability to cull out the bits of critique that are actually helpful and discard the ones that are just...critical. You get that with your research, yes? And you say that your writing is being published already, so even if you're not the lead writer, even if you don't get a byline - if your work is published, you're published. So, now you're over that hurdle already, and can work on your SECOND book. ;)
  • hi holly. useful tips you got. in the academe, there is a lot emphasis on getting published, not really a book but on academic journals, just an article but it's really a tough feat.

    as to the book, yes, i hope to have a book myself but that may not be too soon.

    i'm so scared of critics because i am such a pleaser. i'd be crying rivers if i get criticized. i remember defending my research findings in a small group and i could wring the neck off the critic who wanted to change my findings so as to not to put their organization in a bad light. how do you fend that off in the case of book publication?
  • fifi, that's a whole different world. "Publish or perish," as the saying goes. I know what you mean, and I know how harsh the critique can be. You cannot change scientific research findings to suit an organization. It would be a huge disservice to your colleagues and others who may rely on the information you publish. It seems to me that you have to fight harder, against harsher critics, than a novelist or a children's book writer or a technical writer.

    BUT, given what you've said here, that you're a pleaser who would be "crying rivers" if you were criticized, it can still be difficult. A really excellent editor will make your work shine, but until you've worked with a mediocre (or, heaven forbid, a bad) one, and a really good one, you may not recognize the difference, unless you are already very confident in your abilities. It's teamwork, and you have to be open to criticism (CONSTRUCTIVE criticism, not DESTRUCTIVE criticism - one helps you to improve, the other makes you feel like crawling into a dark hole).

    Once the book is published, you need to remember two things: Someone thought it worth publishing and believed in it enough to pay money to publish it - and second, not everyone likes even the most popular bestselling novelist of the moment. Not everyone likes all the enduring classics in literature, either. You simply CANNOT please everyone, so you concentrate on pleasing yourself and SOME others, and trust that it's enough.
  • flamindevil
    so anybody can really write a book?

    suggestion lang kuya jan. what if icompile mo lahat ng entries mo sa blog mo, tapos gawin mong book. pwede rin yun di ba?

    and if you're able to do that, penge namang complimentary copy.hehe
  • Yes, Rye. Anybody can write a book. Try it - you lead an exciting life. You travel a lot, meet lots of interesting people.

    Thanks for the suggestion, Rye. I'd do that. I'm just waiting to have a significant number of posts. As you can see, my body of work is not much. But when I've written a lot more, I'd work on it. And you're one of the first to get a copy. :)
  • Hi Holly, that was very informative. Thank you. Was this article directed to me? (winks) Jan, come to think of it, ...ehem...Okay.

    Roy, how right you are.

    This publishing, indeed costs a fortune, too expensive for my pockets. But I've found a remedy. The end product would not be as glossy as the one from the bookstores, but hey, it would just be to test the waters, so to speak.

    I have my August deadline and it's looming nearer....I have to go and finish printing it myself. Yes - you read it right.

    The good thing is that we would be able to proofread it again and make it perfect .

    Good luck to me.
  • No, Jena - this one's for you. LOL!
  • "On the other end of the spectrum, loved ones and close friends should never be put in the position of having to say, “Don’t quit your day job.” Buyers are people who don’t care about you one way or the other; they just expect good value for the money they pay. They don’t hate you like your inner critic does, but they don’t love you like your family and friends do."

    Great point, Holly. Sound advice, this.
  • As for me, I wanted to write a Novel, a tale of my fantasies. But I just can't get a start.
  • Try starting in the middle. Imagine a scene from your novel and let the characters dictate the action and dialogue to you. You can rearrange everything once you get it all into the word processor. Just start writing - doesn't matter where you start.
  • Thanks Holly. Will give it a try :D
  • Roysville
    I once asked a friend who has a printing business (they have published a number of books, according to him) for advice regarding my ambition to have my poems be published in a book.

    Instead of getting an answer about what I should do, all I got was discouragement, throwing me out of the window with all those technicalities and stuff. Finishing with the insinuation that I won't be able to afford the cost of publishing a book.

    Next time I know better, I should ask an author instead of a printer operator.
  • Hi, Roysville! That's a shame, that all you got was discouragement. I try to paint a realistic picture, so that no one will get discouraged the moment they find out it's not as easy as "send manuscript to publisher, publisher cuts check for six-figure advance, author becomes famous overnight - yippee! champagne's on the house!" Doesn't work like that. It's wonderful to see your work in print, but it's not all glamour, riches, and fame. The real pleasure comes from the sense of accomplishment you feel when you go from wishing and dreaming to holding a physical book in your hands, and then from connecting with readers who've enjoyed your book.
  • zorlone
    Now I really want to get my hands dirty with ink from editing my own book. I don't know what to write first. hehehe A collection of poetry? Or stories from my experiences? Maybe sci-fi or fantasy, those are definitely up in my alley.

    That would be my first step, writing a book! Then, the big screen! Wow! Good thing wishful thinking is free. so, let me off the hook cause I might be able to be the next JRR Tolkien. ;)

  • JRR Tolkien? Awesome! But you have to invent a new Trollish or Eleven language first. lol :p
  • We've been very supportive of your dreams, Doc Z. So let's pin down some ambiguities here first. The big screen? As what? Screenwriter maybe? Is it acting for the big screen?

    Are you getting sidetracked? From internist to gynecology isn't in the cards anymore? :) Anakin would love an autographed copy of Zorlone's poetry. There - I have said it.
  • zorlone

    Thanks for voicing out your support for me. Yeah, from book to big screen
    and preferably the writing and directing part. LOL. Well, I wouldn't be able
    to become an OBGYNE unless I would take another specialty training.

    About the collection of poetry, well see if I have enough to work on. he he
    he. Of course I can always make more.

  • People always ask how on earth we can find time to write, blog, work, raise a family - there's an old saying, "If you need something done quickly, ask a busy person to do it." I think few people outside the medical profession really appreciate how many years of training it takes - first, to become a doctor, then to specialize. It doesn't strike me as odd, this combination of doctor and poet. Creative people need creative outlets; something that provides a break from work, a little recreation in the truest sense of the word.
  • Pshaw, Doc Z. You're great company online and offline. And a very supportive friend to boot. Friends do make blogging less of a drag and more of an adventure... Your Influenza blogger friends will make great security escorts when you have your book of poetry or short stories published. You know, book signing and speaking engagements can be a nightmare without warm bodies to protect you from the ladies. I will of course handle the committee on food, drinks and videoke. lols
  • Daydreaming and wishful thinking are free, but sharing your daydreams on paper could result in a bestseller! Don't ever think it's not work, though, and mostly it's not all that glamorous or lucrative. Most writers don't earn enough to support themselves from book sales alone, and most novices are surprised by the fact that they don't have a devoted team of editors and publicists to do all the hard work of promoting the book after they've sold it - even if they are traditionally published, rather than self-published. Self-publishers know, but sometimes underestimate the work involved or overestimate their ability to do it. Most skills can be learned, but editing, book layout, cover art, prepress, and marketing are all things you have to know in order to successfully self publish, or they are services you ought to pay for.

    Doc Z, did you know that Tolkien's books were stories for his children? I think some of the best books start out that way - not as "I'm going to write a book" but "here's something I want to share with..." and the author has a clear idea of the reader he's sharing with. I read a post yesterday from someone who has an imaginary reader - a very detailed persona and profile, complete with a name and backstory. Whatever works best for you!
  • zorlone
    So be it, the age of writing and hours of editing shall arrive soon. Nobody
    has to read the story first, it could just be myself. Once I have arranged,
    organized, or reviewed my plot, then, that might be the right time to have a
    friend or two read it. hehehe.

    This is going to be a good hobby and I do hope to finish it. There are
    several things I would want to write about actually, more of the things that
    I dream and the things I imagine. Such are the thoughts of this self
    proclaimed poet.

  • Z, I don't normally let anyone read work in progress. Then, I give it to someone whose judgment I trust, and try to forget about it for a little while. Then I reread it, after time and distance make me more objective, and I begin the editing. When you get suggestions from friends, try to discern what's really useful and what's just a matter of friendship or a difference in taste.

    But to have a book, the first thing you MUST do is write it.
  • Great insight Holly. I've toyed with the idea of writing a book, even though I don't think I have much talent in that department heh heh. (I'd rather sing :p) but it's nice to imagine being published.

    Considering how much work really actually goes into writing and publishing a book, how was it like when you published your very first one?
  • The ones I self published, or Trockle?

    I have to tell you, there's something heady about a publisher coming to you and saying, "Did you ever publish that children's story you showed me?" and when you say no, to hear them ask, "May I publish it?" I suspect that anyone who tells you they don't care about that kind of validation is lying, or has never experienced it.

    It took about a year from contract signing to illustration to launch - maybe a bit more. It can take up to two years, I think, with most larger publishing houses - and there, an author doesn't get as much say in the illustrations or in various aspects of production. (That's not a bad thing, just a data point. The publisher has every reason to find the best illustrator, if it's a children's picture book, because they don't make money if the book doesn't sell.) Trockle was launched at the North Texas Book Festival, and I'm thrilled I was able to make the trip in person (travel is at my own expense). It can actually cost you time and money, as an author, until you have a good following and it begins to show in sales.

    But if what you're really asking is "what was it like, holding that brand new book with its brand new book smell in your hands for the very first time," of course the answer is "absolutely fantastic!" Even better is to see a child's face light up at the sight of Trockle - to see a babe in arms reach out to read it, or a middle schooler (arguably much older than my target audience) enjoy reading it (to a younger sibling, of course! :) as a bedtime story.

  • hey hey! kinky? the kids are reading this. lol!

    that's amazing holly - i can relate the feeling to when I'm singing and people in the audience start crying, and I'm like - "why are they crying? is it that bad?" lol. joke.

    It's a great feeling indeed.

    ps. i meant when I used to sing
  • Yes, kinky. And YOU tease. I keep hearing about you singing, but I have yet to hear it. I don't sing anymore, either.
  • I have this thing about the smell of new books, too. This fascination I have not seriously given much thought though. Maybe because that familiar smell is a promise of delicious assignation with the author? After all, what can be more intimate than curling up in bed with a good book, right?

    Imagine the smell of new published book, sniff it, caress the wonderful binding, turn it over - lo and behold it bears your proud name. Fantastic.

    You're a provocateur, Holly.
  • What a way to describe it! That sounds amazingly...

  • It sounds kinky? Ahehehe.
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