How to Write a Book: From Idea to First Words

This post is part of First Time Author, a series of blog posts in which I share my journey going from having an idea for a book to (traditionally) published book. Learn more here.

How do you go from having an idea for a book to actually writing a book? I’m sure there are about a million different ways to go about it – with no single one always being better than the others. How you should go about it depends a lot on how you like to work, how you think, how you plan and structure things and what your book is about. But here is how I went from idea to first words.

Creating space in my life

I've been writing since my teens, but it has been very on and off. There've been times where I wrote daily journals or regular blogs, and there have been other times where I hardly wrote anything for months.

Over the last two years, the role that writing plays in my life changed significantly. It all started with the desire to explore life off the beaten track, which inspired me to start a blog called Life Done Differently. Pretty quickly, I realised I didn't want to just THINK about what life could be like if you don’t want to follow the traditional path. I wanted to EXPERIENCE it. So I left my well-paying full-time job, moved into my campervan and set out to explore life of the beaten track, working part-time (mostly remotely) and using the rest of the time to explore and be free.

I went from living a hectic and often stressful life to having time and freedom. Time and freedom to really experience things and time and freedom to think and contemplate life. It's this lifestyle change that gave me the head space I needed for the idea for my book to form itself.

An idea takes shape

I didn't decide I want to write a book and then went looking for the idea. Instead, the idea came to me and slowly, bit by bit, took on the form of a book in my head.

It all started with reading yet another self-help book (a bit of a passion of mine) and, while finding it very interesting and insightful in many ways, also feeling a bit frustrated with the one-size-fits-all approach many of these books tend to take. I’ve long been a big believer in individuality and in there being many different ways to live a good and happy life – all of which working really well for some people but not for everyone.

Over many weeks this simple frustration started to turn into an idea in my head. I began to think about how you could take what researchers and experts suggest makes us happy and put that in the context of our individual personalities, value and preferences.

For many weeks, it was just in my head. I wasn’t even really thinking about it as a book I might write. I was just an issue I wanted to find a solution to.

I’m going to write a book!

Hamilton’s Gap, where I first had the idea for my book

I still remember the three days over which this changed and the idea turn into a structure for a book.

I was staying in a very remote, beautiful part of New Zealand without cell phone coverage and nothing but beautiful scenery and nature. Being in such a calm and peaceful place helped clear my head, and suddenly, I found myself thinking about it in the shape of a book. I started to write up ideas and the different things I would want to cover on pieces of paper. I just scribbled all over it, crossed things out, added more and started to put things in order. Until I had a rough structure for a book, a book about living life your way by learning about what may or may not make us happy in the context of who you are and what matters most to you.

Brainstorming

A couple of weeks after this weekend in the wilderness, I started housesitting for friends for a few weeks. This gave me a chance to brainstorm ideas and flesh out the content on a larger scale. I took over a large window front and turned it into my brainstorming wall. I made sections for each chapter I envisioned for the book and then started to write ideas, facts and insights on post-it notes. During this time, I was doing a lot of research, reading lots of books and even more articles. Whenever I came across something I thought might be relevant, I wrote it on a post-it and then added it into the section where I thought it might fit. I then started to create sub-sections within chapters and started to put an order to all the things I wanted to cover.

My post-it wall when I was about half way through. In the end, there where about 3x as many post-is (unfortunately I didn’t take a photo of that)

I loved my post-it note wall. I'm sure there are dozens of good ways to come up with the initial structure and outline of a book, but for me, this way was definitely the best. I loved having everything right there in front of me. I loved how easy it was to move things around and try a different order, quickly being able to 'see' how it would flow. I also loved that it meant reading and researching was regularly interrupted by getting up and adding new notes I'd written onto my wall (usually at the end of a chapter or after finishing an article). Going back to my wall regularly, made sure I stayed on track and reconnected with my idea and storyline. As a result, when I would read the next chapter or article, I would easily know what is relevant and what isn't. And it was also good to have a reason to get up and move (writing can be very sedentary work).

For several weeks, I was just researching and writing post-it notes, and my wall grew and grew. It probably would have gone on much longer if I hadn’t had to move out of the house when my friends came back from their trip. But in hindsight, that deadline was a good thing. It forced me to stop brainstorming and turn my post-it note wall into something that would survive the move back into my campervan.

And that's how I typed the first words. I started by copying the chapter headings and sub-headings from my post-it wall and then started fill in the gaps. Most of it was just bullet points of the things I would want to cover with some facts and references to sources thrown in. Mostly, it was just an MS Word version of my wall (but much less colourful).

What’s next

Once I had this first rough outline, the real work began. Over the next 4 months, I would write over 90,000 words to go from rough sketch to first full draft – something I will talk more about in my next post. Sign up if you want to be notified when new posts are published.

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