The Secret Behind Every Bestseller
The #1 Problem Facing Most Writers Today
What is the biggest problem facing writers today?
ItвЂ™s not figuring out how to finish your book. ItвЂ™s writing something worth reading вЂ” and buying вЂ” in the first place.
Write a Bestseller is a simple but proven framework that will help you identify a winning idea for a nonfiction book, get it written, and launch it into the world.
The Secret Behind Every Bestseller
When you said to yourself, вЂњIвЂ™d like to write a book some day,вЂќ did you also say, вЂњbut I hope it doesnвЂ™t sell any copiesвЂќ?
Of course not! That would be ridiculous.
Many people want to write a book at some point in their lives, and quite a few of them end up doing so. However, very few of those authors end up selling more than 100 copies of their book.
These days, there is no shortage of people dishing out advice for authors. Especially regarding what it takes to sell your book.
- Hack the media
- Build a platform
- Join this social network
- Chase that fad
YouвЂ™ve probably heard it all and more.
But what if I told you that before you could launch a bestseller, you first had to write one?
What if you all you needed to do was write a great book? I mean, really?
How to Write a Bestselling Book Like the Pros Do
See if this sounds familiar:
You come up with an idea that you think other people need to hear. Maybe youвЂ™ve experienced a groundbreaking change or tragedy in your life and you want to share your story.
You tell your friends, maybe even your family, and they all say you should write a book.
So you do. Or at least, you try. You write a little here and there and spend months, if not years, chipping away at this book.
Maybe you actually end up publishing this new book and sharing it with the world. But at this point, youвЂ™re too exhausted to talk about it. Plus, you wouldnвЂ™t know where to start.
You struggle to know how to talk about it and worry that you donвЂ™t have what it takes to be an author. You conclude that successful, bestselling authors must have gotten lucky, and resign yourself to the idea that this will never happen to you.
But what if I told you there was a way to write books just like they do?
The Write a Bestseller Framework
The world’s most successful authors don’t just write what they want and hope people pay attention. They write a relevant and compelling book for a specific audience. And as a result, their messages spread.
Why? Because they had a clever marketing plan? No way. Because they shared a message worth spreading.
You can do the same.
As the bestselling author of five books, IвЂ™ve learned that to be a successful author, you can’t just write any old book. You have to write a book worth selling. And that requires a very specific writing process.
Which is why I created the Write a Bestseller Program.
In this online video course, I walk you through my writing process, which has led to national bestselling books that continue to sell copies every day. This was a process that I borrowed from countless bestselling authors.
And in this course, IвЂ™ll teach you exactly how it works so that you, too, can write a bestseller.
Here’s what you’ll learn in the course:
- How to nail your big idea before you start writing so you know the book will sell
- What it takes to identify your core audience and use those early fans to help your message spread
- The secret process to getting the words down fast without running into writer’s block
- The system I use to edit a draft to excellence and make the book as shareable as possible
- How to actually launch the book once itвЂ™s written
How the Program Works
HereвЂ™s how the program works. Write a Bestseller is a 90-day journey that will take you from rough idea to a final draft thatвЂ™s ready to publish. The course is broken up into three parts:
- Month 1: Prepare to write your book by coming up with a killer idea.
- Month 2: Write the first draft of the book in 30 days or less. This is an ugly first draft, not your final work. The goal is to get words down on paper.
- Month 3: Edit your work and get it ready to publish.
Beat the Odds and Become a Success Story
Over 80% of people want to write a book someday, but without a plan, most never will.
This course is a way to beat those odds. Not only will you learn the steps it takes to write a great book. You can then take it and publish it with confidence, knowing it will sell well. And you’ll have me as your guide to walk you through the process.
10 Ridiculously Simple Steps for Writing a Book
Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.
The hard part of writing a book isnвЂ™t getting published. It’s the actualВ writing. In this article, I offer 10 steps for writing a book along with 10 bonus steps. To download them all, click here.
As the bestselling author of five books, I can tell you without hesitation that the hardest part of a writer’s job is sitting down to do the work. Books donвЂ™t just write themselves, after all. You have to invest everything you areВ into creating an important piece of work.
For years, I dreamed of being a professional writer. I believed I had important things to say that the world needed to hear. But as I look back on what it really takes to become an author, I realize how different the process was from my expectations.
To begin with, you donвЂ™t just sit down toВ write a book. That’s not how writing works. You write a sentence, then a paragraph, then maybe if youвЂ™re lucky, an entire chapter. Writing happens in fits and starts, in bits and pieces. ItвЂ™s a process.
The way you get theВ work doneВ is not complicated. You take one step at a time, then another and another. As I look back on the books IвЂ™ve written, I can see how the way they were made was not as glamorous as I once thought.
How to really write a book
In this post, I’ll teach you the fundamental steps you need to write a book. I’ve worked hard to make this easy to digest and super practical, so you can start making progress.
And just a heads up: if you dream of authoring a bestselling book like I have and you’re looking for a structured plan to guide you through the writing process, I have a special opportunity for you at the end of this post where I break the process down.
But first, let’s look at the big picture. What does it take to write a book? It happens in three phases:
- Beginning: You have to start writing. This sounds obvious, but it may be the most overlooked step in the process. You write a book by deciding first what youвЂ™re going to write and how youвЂ™re going to write it.
- Staying motivated: Once you start writing, you will face self-doubt and overwhelm and a hundred other adversaries. Planning ahead for those obstacles ensures you wonвЂ™t quit when they come.
- Finishing: Nobody cares about the book that you almost wrote. We want to read the one you actually finished, which means no matter what, the thing that makes you a writer is your ability not to start a project, but to complete one.
Below are 10 ridiculously simple tips that fall under each of these three major phases plus an additional 10 bonus tips. I hope they help you tackle and finish the book you dream of writing.
To download a quick reference guide for all 20 writing tipsВ click here to get them all for free.
Phase 1: Getting started
We all have to start somewhere. With writing a book, the first phase is made up of four parts:
1. Decide what the book is about
Good writing is always about something. Write the argument of your book in a sentence, then stretch that out to a paragraph, and then to a one-page outline. After that, writeВ a table of contents to help guide you as you write, then break each chapter into a few sections. Think of your book in terms of beginning, middle, and end. Anything more complicated will get you lost.
2. Set a daily word count goal
John Grisham began his writing career as a lawyer and new dad — in other words, he was really busy. Nonetheless, he got up an hour or two early every morning and wrote a page a day. After a couple of years, he had a novel. A page a day is only about 300 words. You donвЂ™t need to write a lot. You just need to write often. Setting a daily goal will give you something to aim for. Make it small and attainable so that you can hit your goal each day and start building momentum.
3. Set a time to work on your book every day
Consistency makes creativity easier. You need a daily deadline to do your work вЂ” thatвЂ™s how youвЂ™ll finish writing a book. Feel free to take a day off, if you want, but schedule that ahead of time. Never let a deadline pass; donвЂ™t let yourself off the hook so easily. Setting a daily deadline and regular writing time will ensure that you donвЂ™t have to think about when you will write. When itвЂ™s time to write, itвЂ™s time to write.
4. Write in the same place every time
It doesnвЂ™t matter if itвЂ™s a desk or a restaurant or the kitchen table. It just needs to be different from where you do other activities. Make your writing location a special space, so that when you enter it, youвЂ™re ready to work. It should remind you of your commitment to finish this book. Again, the goal here is to not think and just start writing.
Phase 2:В Doing the work
Now, it’s time to get down to business. Here, we are going to focus on the next three tips to help you get the book done:
5. Set a total word count
Begin with the end in mind. Once youвЂ™ve started writing, you need a total word count for your book. Think in terms of 10-thousand work increments and break each chapter into roughly equal lengths. Here are some general guiding principles:
- 10,000 words = a pamphlet or business white paper. Read time = 30-60 minutes.
- 20,000 words = short eBook or manifesto. The Communist Manifesto is an example of this, at about 18,000 words. Read time = 1-2 hours.
- 40,000вЂ“60,000 words = standard nonfiction book / novella. The Great Gatsby is an example of this. Read time = three to four hours.
- 60,000вЂ“80,000 words = long nonfiction book / standard-length novel. Most Malcolm Gladwell books fit in this range. Read time = four to six hours.
- 80,000 wordsвЂ“100,000 words = very long nonfiction book / long novel. The Four-Hour Work Week falls in this range.
- 100,000+ words = epic-length novel / academic book / biography. Read time = six to eight hours. The Steve Jobs biography would fit this category.
6. Give yourself weekly deadlines
You need a weekly goal. Make it a word count to keep things objective. Celebrate the progress youвЂ™ve made while still being honest about how much work is left to do. You need to have something to aim for and a way to measure yourself. This is the only way I ever get any work done: with a deadline.
7. Get early feedback
Nothing stings worse than writing a book and then having to rewrite it, because you didnвЂ™t let anyone look at it. Have a few trusted advisers to help you discern whatвЂ™s worth writing. These can be friends, editors, family. Just try to find someone who will give you honest feedback early on to make sure youвЂ™re headed in the right direction.
Phase 3: Finishing
How do you know when you’re done? Short answer: you don’t. Not really. So here’s what you do to end this book-writing process well:
8. Commit to shipping
No matter what, finish the book. Set a deadline or have one set for you. Then release it to the world. Send it to the publisher, release it on Amazon, do whatever you need to do to get it in front of people. Just donвЂ™t put it in your drawer. The worst thing would be for you to quit once this thing is written. That wonвЂ™t make you do your best work and it wonвЂ™t allow you to share your ideas with the world.
9. Embrace failure
As you approach the end of this project, know that this will be hard and you will most certainly mess up. Just be okay with failing, and give yourself grace. ThatвЂ™s what will sustain you — the determination to continue, not your elusive standards of perfection.
10. Write another book
Most authors are embarrassed by their first book. I certainly was. But without that first book, you will never learn the lessons you might otherwise miss out on. So, put your work out there, fail early, and try again. This is the only way you get better. You have to practice, which means you have to keep writing.
Every writer started somewhere, and most of them started by squeezing their writing into the cracks of their daily lives. ThatвЂ™s how I began, and it may be where you begin, as well. The ones who make it are the ones who show up day after day. You can do the same.
The reasonВ mostВ peopleВ never finishВ their books
Every year, millionsВ of books go unfinished. Books that could have helped people, broughtВ beauty or wisdom into the world. But they never came to be. And in one way or another, the reason is always the same: the author quit.
Maybe you’ve dealt with this. You started writing a book but never completedВ it. You got stuck and didn’t know how to finish. Or you completed your manuscript but didn’t know what to do after. Worse yet, you wrote a book, but nobody cared about it. Nobody bought or read it.
I’ve been there before.
In fact, the first couple books I wrote didn’t do that well at all — even with a traditional publisher. It took me years to learn this, but here’s what nobody ever told me:
Before you can launch a bestseller, first you have to write one.
What I mean by that is so many writers sit down to write their masterpiece, assuming that’s all there is to it. Just sit down and write. But as I’ve studied the world’s most gifted and successful authors, I’ve noticed this is not what the masters do. They are far more intentional than simply sitting and letting the words flow.
Every great writer needs a system they can trust. You and I are no different. But an author’s system for how they produce bestselling book after bestselling book is not always the easiest thing to access. So, as a matter of survival, I’ve had to figure it out for myself and createВ a clear book-writing frameworkВ that works. This is what I call the “Write a Bestseller Method” which helps meВ get aВ book written and ready to launch.
This is the part that I never learned in any English class. Producing work that sells is not just about writing what you think is good. It’s about finding an idea that will both excite you and excite an audience. It’s about being intentional and thinking through the whole process, while having proper accountability to keep you going.
In other words, the writing process matters. It matters a lot. You have to not only finish your book but write one worthy of being sold. And if you want to maximize your chances of finishing your book, you need a proven plan.
Writing books has changed my life. It helped me clarify my thinking, find my calling as an author, and has providedВ endless opportunities to make an impact on the world and a living for my family.
Bonus: 10 more writing tips!
If you need some help staying motivated, here are another 10 tips to help you keep going in the process:
11. Only write one chapter at a time
Write and publish a novel, one chapter at a time, using Amazon Kindle Singles, Wattpad, or sharing with your email list subscribers.
12. Write a shorter book
The idea of writing a 500-page masterpiece can be paralyzing. Instead, write a short book of poems or stories. Long projects are daunting. Start small.
13. Start a blog to get feedback early
Getting feedback early and often helps break up the overwhelm. Start a website on WordPress or Tumblr and use it to write your book a chapter or scene at a time. Then eventually publish all the posts in a hardcopy book. This is a little different than tradition blogging, but the same concepts apply. We created a free tool to help you know when your blog posts are ready to publish. Check outВ Don’t Hit Publish .
14. Keep an inspiration list
You need it in order to keep fresh ideas flowing. Read constantly, and use a system to capture, organize and find the content youвЂ™ve curated. I use Evernote, but use a system that works for you.
15. Keep a journal
Then, rewrite the entries in a much more polished book format, but use some photocopies or scans of the journal pages as illustrations in the book. You could even sell вЂњdeluxeвЂќ editions that come with photocopied versions of the journal.
16. Deliver consistently
Some days, itвЂ™s easy to write. Some days, itвЂ™s incredibly hard. The truth is: inspiration is merely a byproduct of your hard work. You canвЂ™t wait for inspiration. The Muse is really an out-of-work bum who wonвЂ™t move until you do. Show her whoвЂ™s boss and that you mean business.
17. Take frequent breaks
Niel Fiore, the author of The Now Habit, says, вЂњThere is one main reason why we procrastinate: It rewards us with temporary relief from stress.вЂќ If youвЂ™re constantly stressed about your unfinished book, youвЂ™ll end up breaking your schedule. Instead, plan for breaks ahead of time so you stay fresh: minute breaks, hour breaks, or even multiple day breaks.
18. Remove distractions
Try tools like Bear or Scrivener to let you write in a totally distraction free environment. That way, email, Facebook, and Twitter wonвЂ™t interrupt your flow.
19. Write where others are writing (or working)
If youвЂ™re having trouble writing consistently by yourself, write where other people are also working. A coffee shop or library where people are actually working and not just socializing can help. If youвЂ™re in a place where other people are getting things done, then youвЂ™ll have no choice but to join them.
20. DonвЂ™t edit as you go
Instead, write without judgment first, then go back and edit later. YouвЂ™ll keep a better flow and wonвЂ™t be interrupted by constant criticism of your own work. And youвЂ™ll have a lot more writing to edit when itвЂ™s time to do so.
It’s not just about the writing
Most books go unfinished. That’s the reality. And those that do get finished quickly fade into anonymity amongst the hundreds of thousands of new books that are published every year.
If you want to be different, you’re going to need a plan. I’ve tried to share that with you in this post. But maybe you want to not only get your book done, but you want to make sure it’s somethingВ worth selling. You want a proven plan, something you can trust — checklist that ensures you will get the work done.
Remember: Before you can launch a bestseller, you have to write one. Fortunately, I’ve broken down my process piece by piece — this is what I’ve learned from publishing five books and from talking to many of the world’s bestselling authors.
In this program, I share with you exactly what it takes to write a bestselling book and why this is something you need to be thinking about from Day 1. This quick but thorough online course will help you:
- Figure out how to come up with a compelling idea for a book and turn it into something people will want to read
- Finally finish that book manuscript you’ve been playing with for years
- Follow a proven plan to write not only a good book but one that will continue to sell
To learn more about that and have meВ walk you through eachВ step of writing a best-selling book,В click here.
You can also download a quick reference guide for all of theseВ writing tips here.
What do you want to write a book about? What is your best writing advice? Share in the comments.
How to Capture Ideas Faster Using Evernote
From Jeff: This is a guest post from Ethan Waldman. Ethan helps people live and work in harmony with technology at Cloud Coach. Right now, many people are using his Inbox Zero Training Program to liberate themselves from email hell. You can follow him on Twitter @ethanwaldman.
I spend more time in my email inbox than I do pretty much anywhere else on my computer. It is the heart and soul of communications for my business. So, it should come as no surprise that I get great ideas while I’m reading, writing, and responding to email.
Since I use the Pomodoro Technique (where I only focus on one task at a time for 25 minutes each), I don’t want to break my concentration by switching to the Evernote app or website.
Photo credit: Jason Mrachina (Creative Commons)
A few months ago, I explained how Evernote is a great tool for capturing your ideas in written, spoken or visual form from pretty much any platform.
And since that time, my blog has grown, I’ve developed a course, and have planned a large bicycle trip.
I have come to rely on Evernote even more to support all those activities. There’s one Evernote feature in particular that has been especially valuable. This is a feature that I didn’t mention in the last article that I’d like to share with you now.
Post by email
Did you know that you can get a secret email address from your Evernote account settings page, and that anything you send to it will become a new note?
Check out this video to learn how to find it:
Or, if you’re not a video person, here are the steps:
- Go to Evernote.com and login to your account.
- Choose settings from the top right corner.
- Scroll down; here you will find your private Evernote email address; copy it and add it to your email address book(s) as “Evernote.”
- Start sending email notes to Evernote. Your subject will become the subject of the note, and the body of your message will become the body of the note.
Even better, you can tell Evernote which notebook to put it in, and add tags right from the subject line.
- Use @Notebook Name to specify which notebook your new emailed note goes to. If you don‚Äôt specify one, it will go to your default notebook.
- Use #tag to tag your note with anything you like. I‚Äôm a fan of using #blogpost #idea for when I have an idea for a new post.
Creative ways to use this
- If I’m writing an email to someone that I think could be turned into a blog post, I BCC my evernote account on the email.
- When I’m on the go, I find it a lot easier to access evernote from my iPhone then it is to find messages in my Gmail. So, if I have some info in my email that I’ll need (like someone’s address if I’m going to the post office), I’ll just forward the email to my Evernote.
- Forwarding recipes, movie recommendations, and restaurant recommendations — all things that I keep in respective Evernote notebooks.
- Maintaining a list of people I’d like to network with. When I contact them, I simply BCC my Evernote notebook “@Networking” so I can keep a record of the conversation.
- I’ve been known to write full blog posts in an email when inspiration strikes. These get forwarded to my “@Cloud Coach” notebook with the tags #blogpost and #complete.
Getting things done is all about speed.
My Gmail is about the speediest thing around, so if I can quickly fire a note or two into Evernote straight from email, I can capture my great ideas when they strike without breaking my concentration or leaving what I’m doing.
What’s a creative way you capture ideas? Do you use Evernote by email?
I’d love to hear about some new ways you’ve put this to use. Share in the comments.
So You Want to Write a Book? Here’s 10 Things You Need to Know to Get Published
Note from Mack: This post was written in 2012 while I was writing my book Think Like a Rock Star. The goal of this post was to provide helpful advice for others, especially my many friends in consulting that were curious about the entire process of writing their own book.
However, I am not in the publishing business, I am not in contact with literary agents, and I really can’t help you secure publication of your book other than what I’ve shared in this post. I work as a digital and content strategist to help companies with their content and digital marketing as well as helping them build programs that better connect my client with their customers. These can include blogger or influencer outreach or brand ambassador programs. Here’s where you can learn more about what I do and some of the results I’ve achieved for my clients. Thanks for reading and good luck with your writing!
1 – Figure out what you want to write about. This sounds very easy, but it’s not. You need to figure out what book YOU were meant to write. The book that no one else could write. Four years ago I was approached by an editor to write a book on marketing on YouTube. Remember this was 2008, and there were very few social media books at the time. I was really excited at the prospect of having my own book for about 5 mins, till I realized that I wasn’t really interested in writing a book about marketing on YouTube. And I also didn’t want to tour the country speaking on the topic. I was pitched on a couple of other book ideas over the next couple of years, but I finally decided that Think Like a Rock Star was the only book I wanted to write.
2 – Figure out why your book is unique and fills a market need. Once you figure out the topic of your book, you’re then going to realize that your book’s already been written several times. You need to figure out what you bring to the table that hasn’t been discussed before. For me, there’s plenty of books on why companies should connect with brand advocates and evangelists. The ‘Rockstar’ analogy helped me differentiate Think Like a Rock Star, but even that didn’t make the book completely unique, as there’s been a few other books written on what companies can learn about branding and marketing from the music industry. I had to go deeper, and when I release the full outline of the book in a few weeks, you’ll see why Think Like a Rock Star is different. But the point is, you’ll need to figure out what your ‘hook’ is. What are you going to bring to the table that’s unique, but that will still have value for your readers?
3 – Find 3-5 books that you think are similar to your idea. For each book, you need to explain what your book offers that the competing title misses. And try your best to pick newer titles. If you propose that your book idea will be competing against 5 books that were all written in the mid 1990s, that tells the publisher that your idea is dead, otherwise someone would have written about it in the past 15 years!
4 – You need to create an outline and table of contents for your book. This is where it starts to get serious, and we find out if you really want to write a book, or if you are just toying with the idea. This will be a lot of work, but you’ll have to show this to a potential publisher, plus it will make the writing process much easier once you have a gameplan to follow. It will also be incredibly beneficial to you because it will force you to flesh out your idea into several chapters, which will help you better structure your book’s message.
5 – Write the first 1-3 chapters. This is another good test to prepare you for the process. If you can hand a publisher a solid proposal for the book that includes 1-3 solidly-written chapters, you’re making an excellent case for why your book needs to be published. And writing those chapters will give you a great idea of how long it will take you to write the entire book. For example, if it takes you 3 months to write the first chapter, that could be a big red flag.
6 – Create a proposal for the book. Thankfully, you’ve already done a lot of this by simply completing the first 5 steps. You’ll need to tell publishers who the market is for this book, why YOU are the person to write it, what it’s about, competing titles, etc. You’ll also need to include the table of contents and any of the chapters you have written. Also, you’ll need to explain to the publisher how you will market the book. This is where you want to mention any speaking you will be doing on this topic over the next year, as well as your online profile, your following.
7 – Having a killer idea trumps your online presence every single time. When I started talking to publishers about writing Think Like a Rock Star, I assumed that my ‘online footprint’ would be a big plus for me. It wasn’t. Most of the publishers I and my agent talked to had no idea who I was, in fact most of the rejection letters we got started ‘We think Mark has a great idea, but…’ If your idea is great and publishers think it will sell, that’s far more important than how many Twitter followers you have, so don’t think you need X number of followers/friends before you can talk to a publisher.
8 – Figure out if you need a literary agent, or want to go it alone. I’ve been talking to publishers about Think Like a Rock Star since 2010. For the first year, I didn’t have an agent, then I realized that I was spinning my wheels and needed to get one. There’s only a few publishers whose editors are actively trying to connect with potential writers in this space. If you can get a suitable deal with one of them, fine. I could not, and decided to go with an agent.
There’s a couple of obvious differences in going with an agent. First, you’ll have to pay an agent, typically a cut of any money you get from the book, including your advance, royalties, etc. The huge immediate benefit is that you get access to several dozen publishers and these are publishers that the agent works with regularly. The agent can also look over any contract you are offered, and help you with the terms.
9 – If you go with an agent, you will likely get a LOT more rejection letters. This makes sense, if your proposal is going out to 30 publishers, expect to hear ‘No’ a lot. For me, while a bit disappointing, this was also a big help. Because most of the publishers would explain WHY they turned down the book. Maybe they didn’t think the book covered something that it actually did, or maybe they didn’t understand the actual focus of your book. As long as they explain WHY they are saying no, that gives you something to work with when you send it off to the next publisher.
10 – Don’t expect to get rich from writing a book. You’ll likely get an advance of $5,000-$10,000 if a publisher accepts your book. Remember this is an ADVANCE, which means you’ll have to pay this money back to the publisher.
EDIT: I should have been more clear here, your advance is against the money you will make from royalties on the book. So if your publisher gives you a $5,000 advance, you have to pay that back first from your royalties. Which means you won’t get any royalty payments until you’ve covered your $5,000 advance. If you never sell enough to cover your advance, then you don’t get any royalty payments. But either way, you keep the $5,000 advance. Thanks to Andrew and Don for the clarifications.
So in closing, if you are serious about writing a book and getting a publisher’s attention, absolutely kill the first 6 steps. If you can hand a publisher a well-organized and written proposal detailing what the book is, who will buy it, and with 1-3 well-written chapters, you’re in great shape.
UPDATE: Before you email me asking how you can get your book idea published or leave a comment here asking the same, read this post. This is the best advice I can give you on how to get a book deal.
NOTHER UPDATE: I continue to get many touching and heartfelt emails from people that have read this post and want to write a book, typically based on their life. Let me be perfectly clear: I am not an agent, I am not a publisher. So I am not the person to be emailing about your book idea because all the help I can give you is in this post. I’d love to help you more, but I simply cannot.
How to Write a Book: Everything You Need to Know in 20 Steps
So you want to write a book. Becoming an author can change your life—not to mention give you the ability to impact thousands, even millions, of people.
However, writing a book is no cakewalk. As a 21-time New York Times bestselling author, I can tell you: It’s far easier to quit than to finish.
When you run out of ideas, when your own message bores you, or when you become overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the task, you’re going to be tempted to give up.
But what if you knew exactly:
You can do this—and more quickly than you might think, because these days you have access to more writing tools than ever. The key is to follow a proven, straightforward, step-by-step plan.
My goal here is to offer you that plan.
I’ve used the techniques I outline below to write more than 190 books (including the Left Behind series) over the past 40 years. Yes, I realize averaging over four books per year is more than you may have thought humanly possible. But trust me—with a reliable blueprint, you can get unstuck and finish your book.
This is my personal approach to how to write a book. I’m confident you’ll find something here that can change the game for you. So, let’s jump in.
How to Write a Book From Start to Finish in 20 Steps
Want to save this 20-step guide to read, save, or print whenever you wish? Click here.
Part One: Before You Begin
You’ll never regret—in fact, you’ll thank yourself later—for investing the time necessary to prepare for such a monumental task.
You wouldn’t set out to cut down a huge grove of trees with just an axe. You’d need a chain saw, perhaps more than one. Something to keep them sharp. Enough fuel to keep them running.
You get the picture. Don’t shortcut this foundational part of the process.
1. Establish your writing space.
To write your book, you don’t need a sanctuary. In fact, I started my career on my couch facing a typewriter perched on a plank of wood suspended by two kitchen chairs.
What were you saying about your setup again? We do what we have to do.
And those early days on that sagging couch were among the most productive of my career.
Naturally, the nicer and more comfortable and private you can make your writing lair (I call mine my cave), the better.
(If you dedicate a room solely to your writing, you can even write off a portion of your home mortgage, taxes, and insurance proportionate to that space.)
Real writers can write anywhere.
Some write in restaurants and coffee shops. My first fulltime job was at a newspaper where 40 of us clacked away on manual typewriters in one big room—no cubicles, no partitions, conversations hollered over the din, most of my colleagues smoking, teletype machines clattering.
Cut your writing teeth in an environment like that, and anywhere else seems glorious.
2. Assemble your writing tools.
In the newspaper business there was no time to handwrite our stuff and then type it for the layout guys. So I have always written at a keyboard.
Most authors do, though some handwrite their first drafts and then keyboard them onto a computer or pay someone to do that.
No publisher I know would even consider a typewritten manuscript, let alone one submitted in handwriting.
The publishing industry runs on Microsoft Word, so you’ll need to submit Word document files. Whether you prefer a Mac or a PC, both will produce the kinds of files you need.
And if you’re looking for a musclebound electronic organizing system, you can’t do better than Scrivener. It works well on both PCs and Macs, and it nicely interacts with Word files.
Just remember, Scrivener has a steep learning curve, so familiarize yourself with it before you start writing.
Scrivener users know that taking the time to learn the basics is well worth it.
So, what else do you need?
If you are one who handwrites your first drafts, don’t scrimp on paper, pencils, or erasers.
Don’t shortchange yourself on a computer either. Even if someone else is keyboarding for you, you’ll need a computer for research and for communicating with potential agents, editors, publishers.
Get the best computer you can afford, the latest, the one with the most capacity and speed.
Try to imagine everything you’re going to need in addition to your desk or table, so you can equip yourself in advance and don’t have to keep interrupting your work to find things like:
- Paper clips
- Pencil holders
- Pencil sharpeners
- Note pads
- Printing paper
- Tape dispensers
- Cork or bulletin boards
- Reference works
- Space heaters
- Beverage mugs
- You name it
Last, but most crucial, get the best, most ergonomic chair you can afford.
If I were to start my career again with that typewriter on a plank, I would not sit on that couch. I’d grab another straight-backed kitchen chair or something similar and be proactive about my posture and maintaining a healthy spine.
There’s nothing worse than trying to be creative and immerse yourself in writing while you’re in agony. The chair I work in today cost more than my first car!
If you’ve never used some of the items I listed above and can’t imagine needing them, fine. But make a list of everything you know you’ll need so when the actual writing begins, you’re already equipped.
As you grow as a writer and actually start making money at it, you can keep upgrading your writing space.
Where I work now is light years from where I started. But the point is, I didn’t wait to start writing until I could have a great spot in which to do it.
Part Two: How to Start Writing a Book
3. Break the project into small pieces.
Writing a book feels like a colossal project, because it is! But your manuscript will be made up of many small parts.
An old adage says that the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.
Try to get your mind off your book as a 400-or-so-page monstrosity.
It can’t be written all at once any more than that proverbial elephant could be eaten in a single sitting.
See your book for what it is: a manuscript made up of sentences, paragraphs, pages. Those pages will begin to add up, and though after a week you may have barely accumulated double digits, a few months down the road you’ll be into your second hundred pages.
So keep it simple.
Start by distilling your big book idea from a page or so to a single sentence—your premise. The more specific that one-sentence premise, the more it will keep you focused while you’re writing.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before you can turn your big idea into one sentence, which can then be expanded to an outline, you have to settle on exactly what that big idea is.
4. Settle on your BIG idea.
To be book-worthy, your idea has to be killer.
You need to write something about which you’re passionate, something that gets you up in the morning, draws you to the keyboard, and keeps you there. It should excite not only you, but also anyone you tell about it.
I can’t overstate the importance of this.
If you’ve tried and failed to finish your book before—maybe more than once—it could be that the basic premise was flawed. Maybe it was worth a blog post or an article but couldn’t carry an entire book.
Think The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, or How to Win Friends and Influence People. The market is crowded, the competition fierce. There’s no more room for run-of-the-mill ideas. Your premise alone should make readers salivate.
Go for the big concept book.
How do you know you’ve got a winner? Does it have legs? In other words, does it stay in your mind, growing and developing every time you think of it?
Run it past loved ones and others you trust.
Does it raise eyebrows? Elicit Wows? Or does it result in awkward silences?
The right concept simply works, and you’ll know it when you land on it. Most importantly, your idea must capture you in such a way that you’re compelled to write it. Otherwise you’ll lose interest halfway through and never finish.
5. Construct your outline.
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Starting your writing without a clear vision of where you’re going will usually end in disaster.
Even if you’re writing fiction and consider yourself a Pantser* as opposed to an Outliner, you need at least a basic structure.
[*Those of us who write by the seat of our pants and, as Stephen King advises, put interesting characters in difficult situations and write to find out what happens]
You don’t have to call it an outline if that offends your sensibilities. But fashion some sort of a directional document that provides structure and also serves as a safety net.
If you get out on that Pantser highwire and lose your balance, you’ll thank me for advising you to have this in place.
Now if you’re writing a nonfiction book, there’s no substitute for an outline.
Potential agents or publishers require this in your proposal. They want to know where you’re going, and they want to know that you know. What do you want your reader to learn from your book, and how will you ensure they learn it?
Fiction or nonfiction, if you commonly lose interest in your book somewhere in what I call the Marathon of the Middle, you likely didn’t start with enough exciting ideas.
That’s why and outline (or a basic framework) is essential. Don’t even start writing until you’re confident your structure will hold up through the end.
Did you know it holds up—with only slight adaptations—for nonfiction books too? It’s self-explanatory for novelists; they list their plot twists and developments and arrange them in an order that best serves to increase tension.
What separates great nonfiction from mediocre? The same structure!
Arrange your points and evidence in the same way so you’re setting your reader up for a huge payoff, and then make sure you deliver.
If your nonfiction book is a memoir, an autobiography, or a biography, structure it like a novel and you can’t go wrong.
But even if it’s a straightforward how-to book, stay as close to this structure as possible, and you’ll see your manuscript come alive.
Make promises early, triggering your reader to anticipate fresh ideas, secrets, inside information, something major that will make him thrilled with the finished product.
While you may not have as much action or dialogue or character development as your novelist counterpart, your crises and tension can come from showing where people have failed before and how you’re going to ensure your reader will succeed.
You can even make the how-to project look impossible until you pay off that setup with your unique solution.
Keep your outline to a single page for now. But make sure every major point is represented, so you’ll always know where you’re going.
And don’t worry if you’ve forgotten the basics of classic outlining or have never felt comfortable with the concept.
Your outline must serve you. If that means Roman numerals and capital and lowercase letters and then Arabic numerals, you can certainly fashion it that way. But if you just want a list of sentences that synopsize your idea, that’s fine too.
Simply start with your working title, then your premise, then—for fiction, list all the major scenes that fit into the rough structure above.
For nonfiction, try to come up with chapter titles and a sentence or two of what each chapter will cover.
Once you have your one-page outline, remember it is a fluid document meant to serve you and your book. Expand it, change it, play with it as you see fit—even during the writing process.
6.Set a firm writing schedule.
Ideally, you want to schedule at least six hours per week to write.
That may consist of three sessions of two hours each, two sessions of three hours, or six one-hour sessions—whatever works for you.
I recommend a regular pattern (same times, same days) that can most easily become a habit. But if that’s impossible, just make sure you carve out at least six hours so you can see real progress.
Having trouble finding the time to write a book? News flash—you won’t find the time. You have to make it.
I used the phrase carve out above for a reason. That’s what it takes.
Something in your calendar will likely have to be sacrificed in the interest of writing time. Make sure it’s not your family—they should always be your top priority. Never sacrifice your family on the altar of your writing career.
But beyond that, the truth is that we all find time for what we really want to do.
Many writers insist they have no time to write, but they always seem to catch the latest Netflix original series, or go to the next big Hollywood feature. They enjoy concerts, parties, ball games, whatever.
How important is it to you to finally write your book? What will you cut from your calendar each week to ensure you give it the time it deserves?
- A favorite TV show?
- An hour of sleep per night? (Be careful with this one; rest is crucial to a writer.)
- A movie?
- A concert?
- A party?
Successful writers make time to write.
When writing becomes a habit, you’ll be on your way.
7. Establish a sacred deadline.
Without deadlines, I rarely get anything done. I need that motivation.
Admittedly, my deadlines are now established in my contracts from publishers.
If you’re writing your first book, you probably don’t have a contract yet. To ensure you finish your book, set your own deadline—then consider it sacred.
Tell your spouse or loved one or trusted friend. Ask that they hold you accountable.
Now determine—and enter in your calendar—the number of pages you need to produce per writing session to meet your deadline. If it proves unrealistic, change the deadline now.
If you have no idea how many pages or words you typically produce per session, you may have to experiment before you finalize those figures.
Say you want to finish a 400-page manuscript by this time next year.
Divide 400 by 50 weeks (accounting for two off-weeks), and you get eight pages per week. Divide that by your typical number of writing sessions per week and you’ll know how many pages you should finish per session.
Now is the time to adjust these numbers,while setting your deadline and determining your pages per session.
Maybe you’d rather schedule four off weeks over the next year. Or you know your book will be unusually long.
Change the numbers to make it realistic and doable, and then lock it in. Remember, your deadline is sacred.
8. Embrace procrastination (really!).
You read that right. Don’t fight it; embrace it.
You wouldn’t guess it from my 190+ published books, but I’m the king of procrastinators.
Don’t be. So many authors are procrastinators that I’ve come to wonder if it’s a prerequisite.
The secret is to accept it and, in fact, schedule it.
I quit fretting and losing sleep over procrastinating when I realized it was inevitable and predictable, and also that it was productive.
Sound like rationalization?
Maybe it was at first. But I learned that while I’m putting off the writing, my subconscious is working on my book. It’s a part of the process. When you do start writing again, you’ll enjoy the surprises your subconscious reveals to you.
So, knowing procrastination is coming, book it on your calendar.
Take it into account when you’re determining your page quotas. If you have to go back in and increase the number of pages you need to produce per session, do that (I still do it all the time).
But—and here’s the key—you must never let things get to where that number of pages per day exceeds your capacity.
It’s one thing to ratchet up your output from two pages per session to three. But if you let it get out of hand, you’ve violated the sacredness of your deadline.
How can I procrastinate and still meet more than 190 deadlines?
Because I keep the deadlines sacred.
9. Eliminate distractions to stay focused.
Are you as easily distracted as I am?
Have you found yourself writing a sentence and then checking your email? Writing another and checking Facebook? Getting caught up in the come-ons for pictures of the 10 Sea Monsters You Wouldn’t Believe Actually Exist?
Then you just have to check out that precious video from a talk show where the dad surprises the family by returning from the war.
That leads to more and more of the same. Once I’m in, my writing is forgotten, and all of a sudden the day has gotten away from me.
The answer to these insidious timewasters?
Look into these apps that allow you to block your email, social media, browsers, game apps, whatever you wish during the hours you want to write. Some carry a modest fee, others are free.
10. Conduct your research.
Yes, research is a vital part of the process, whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction.
Fiction means more than just making up a story.
Your details and logic and technical and historical details must be right for your novel to be believable.
And for nonfiction, even if you’re writing about a subject in which you’re an expert—as I’m doing here—you’ll be surprised how ensuring you get all the facts right will polish your finished product.
In fact, you’d be surprised at how many times I’ve researched a fact or two while writing this blog post alone.
The last thing you want is even a small mistake due to your lack of proper research.
Regardless the detail, trust me, you’ll hear from readers about it.
Your credibility as an author and an expert hinges on creating trust with your reader. That dissolves in a hurry if you commit an error.
My favorite research resources are:
- World Almanacs: These alone list almost everything you need for accurate prose: facts, data, government information, and more. For my novels, I often use these to come up with ethnically accurate character names.
- The Merriam-Webster Thesaurus: The online version is great, because it’s lightning fast. You couldn’t turn the pages of a hard copy as quickly as you can get where you want to onscreen. One caution: Never let it be obvious you’ve consulted a thesaurus. You’re not looking for the exotic word that jumps off the page. You’re looking for that common word that’s on the tip of your tongue.
- WorldAtlas.com: Here you’ll find nearly limitless information about any continent, country, region, city, town, or village. Names, monetary units, weather patterns, tourism info, and even facts you wouldn’t have thought to search for. I get ideas when I’m digging here, for both my novels and my nonfiction books.
11. Start calling yourself a writer.
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Your inner voice may tell you, “You’re no writer and you never will be. What do you think you’re doing, trying to write a book?
That may be why you’ve stalled at writing your book in the past.
But if you’re working at writing, studying writing, practicing writing, that makes you a writer. Don’t wait till you reach some artificial level of accomplishment before calling yourself a writer.
A cop in uniform and on duty is a cop whether he’s actively enforced the law yet or not. A carpenter is a carpenter whether he’s ever built a house.
Self-identify as a writer now and you’ll silence that inner critic—who, of course, is really you. Talk back to yourself if you must. It may sound silly, but acknowledging yourself as a writer can give you the confidence to keep going and finish your book.
Are you a writer? Say so.
Part Three: The Writing Itself
12. Think reader-first.
This is so important that that you should write it on a sticky note and affix it to your monitor so you’re reminded of it every time you write.
Every decision you make about your manuscript must be run through this filter.
Not you-first, not book-first, not editor-, agent-, or publisher-first. Certainly not your inner circle- or critics-first.
If every decision is based on the idea of reader-first, all those others benefit anyway.
When fans tell me they were moved by one of my books, I think back to this adage and am grateful I maintained that posture during the writing.
Does a scene bore you? If you’re thinking reader-first, it gets overhauled or deleted.
Where to go, what to say, what to write next? Decide based on the reader as your priority.
Whatever your gut tells you your reader would prefer, that’s your answer.
Whatever will intrigue him, move him, keep him reading, those are your marching orders.
So, naturally, you need to know your reader. Rough age? General interests? Loves? Hates? Attention span?
When in doubt, look in the mirror. The surest way to please your reader is to please yourself. Write what you would want to read and trust there is a broad readership out there that agrees.
13. Find your writing voice.
Discovering your voice is nowhere near as complicated as some make it out to be.
You can find yours by answering these quick questions:
- What’s the coolest thing that ever happened to you?
- Who’s the most important person you told about it?
- What did you sound like when you did?
That’s your writing voice. It should read the way you sound at your most engaged.
That’s all there is to it.
If you write fiction and the narrator of your book isn’t you, go through the three-question exercise on the narrator’s behalf—and you’ll quickly master the voice.
14. Write a compelling opener.
If you’re stuck because of the pressure of crafting the perfect opening line, you’re not alone.
And neither is your angst misplaced.
This is not something you should put off and come back to once you’ve started on the rest of the first chapter.
Oh, it can still change if the story dictates that. But settling on a good one will really get you off and running.
It’s unlikely you’ll write a more important sentence than your first one, whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction. Make sure you’re thrilled with it and then watch how your confidence—and momentum—soars.
Most great first lines fall into one of these categories:
Fiction: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” —George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
Nonfiction: “By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree.” —Elizabeth Gilbert, The Last American Man
Fiction: “They shoot the white girl first.” —Toni Morrison, Paradise
Nonfiction: “I was five years old the first time I ever set foot in prison.” —Jimmy Santiago Baca, A Place to Stand
Fiction: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Nonfiction: “It’s not about you.” —Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life
Fiction: “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon. —James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss
Nonfiction: “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’” —Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
15. Fill your story with conflict and tension.
Your reader craves conflict, and yes, this applies to nonfiction readers as well.
In a novel, if everything is going well and everyone is agreeing, your reader will soon lose interest and find something else to do—like watch paint dry.
Are two of your characters talking at the dinner table? Have one say something that makes the other storm out.
Some deep-seeded rift in their relationship has surfaced. Is it just a misunderstanding that has snowballed into an injustice?
Thrust people into conflict with each other. That’ll keep your reader’s attention.
Certain nonfiction genres won’t lend themselves to that kind of conflict, of course, but you can still inject tension by setting up your reader for a payoff in later chapters. Check out some of the current bestselling nonfiction works to see how writers accomplish this.
Somehow they keep you turning those pages, even in a simple how-to title.
Tension is the secret sauce that will propel your reader through to the end. And sometimes that’s as simple as implying something to come.
16. Turn off your internal editor while writing the first draft.
Many of us are perfectionists and find it hard to get a first draft written—fiction or nonfiction—without feeling compelled to make every sentence exactly the way we want it.
That voice in your head that questions every word, every phrase, every sentence, and makes you worry you’re being redundant or have allowed cliches to creep in—well, that’s just your editor alter ego.
He or she needs to be told to shut up.
This is not easy.
Deep as I am into a long career, I still have to remind myself of this every writing day. I cannot be both creator and editor at the same time. That slows me to a crawl, and my first draft of even one brief chapter could take days.
Our job when writing that first draft is to get down the story or the message or the teaching—depending on your genre.
It helps me to view that rough draft as a slab of meat I will carve tomorrow.
I can’t both produce that hunk and trim it at the same time.
A cliche, a redundancy, a hackneyed phrase comes tumbling out of my keyboard, and I start wondering whether I’ve forgotten to engage the reader’s senses or aimed for his emotions.
That’s when I have to chastise myself and say, “No! Don’t worry about that now! First thing tomorrow you get to tear this thing up and put it back together again to your heart’s content!”
Imagine yourself wearing different hats for different tasks, if that helps—whatever works to keep you rolling on that rough draft. You don’t need to show it to your worst enemy or even your dearest love. This chore is about creating. Don’t let anything slow you down.
Some like to write their entire first draft before attacking the revision. As I say, whatever works.
Doing it that way would make me worry I’ve missed something major early that will cause a complete rewrite when I discover it months later. I alternate creating and revising.
The first thing I do every morning is a heavy edit and rewrite of whatever I wrote the day before. If that’s ten pages, so be it. I put my perfectionist hat on and grab my paring knife and trim that slab of meat until I’m happy with every word.
Then I switch hats, tell Perfectionist Me to take the rest of the day off, and I start producing rough pages again.
So, for me, when I’ve finished the entire first draft, it’s actually a second draft because I have already revised and polished it in chunks every day.
THEN I go back through the entire manuscript one more time, scouring it for anything I missed or omitted, being sure to engage the reader’s senses and heart, and making sure the whole thing holds together.
I do not submit anything I’m not entirely thrilled with.
I know there’s still an editing process it will will go through at the publisher, but my goal is to make my manuscript the absolute best I can before they see it.
Compartmentalize your writing vs. your revising and you’ll find that frees you to create much more quickly.
17. Persevere through The Marathon of the Middle.
Most who fail at writing a book tell me they give up somewhere in what I like to call The Marathon of the Middle.
That’s a particularly rough stretch for novelists who have a great concept, a stunning opener, and they can’t wait to get to the dramatic ending. But they bail when they realize they don’t have enough cool stuff to fill the middle.
They start padding, trying to add scenes just for the sake of bulk, but they’re soon bored and know readers will be too.
This actually happens to nonfiction writers too.
The solution there is in the outlining stage, being sure your middle points and chapters are every bit as valuable and magnetic as the first and last.
If you strategize the progression of your points or steps in a process—depending on nonfiction genre—you should be able to eliminate the strain in the middle chapters.
For novelists, know that every book becomes a challenge a few chapters in. The shine wears off, keeping the pace and tension gets harder, and it’s easy to run out of steam.
But that’s not the time to quit. Force yourself back to your structure, come up with a subplot if necessary, but do whatever you need to so your reader stays engaged.
Fiction writer or nonfiction author, The Marathon of the Middle is when you must remember why you started this journey in the first place.
It isn’t just that you want to be an author. You have something to say. You want to reach the masses with your message.
Yes, it’s hard. It still is for me—every time. But don’t panic or do anything rash, like surrendering. Embrace the challenge of the middle as part of the process. If it were easy, anyone could do it.
18. Write a resounding ending.
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This is just as important for your nonfiction book as your novel. It may not be as dramatic or emotional, but it could be—especially if you’re writing a memoir.
But even a how-to or self-help book needs to close with a resounding thud, the way a Broadway theater curtain meets the floor.
- Don’t rush it. Give readers the payoff they’ve been promised. They’ve invested in you and your book the whole way. Take the time to make it satisfying.
- Never settle for close enough just because you’re eager to be finished. Wait till you’re thrilled with every word, and keep revising until you are.
- If it’s unpredictable, it had better be fair and logical so your reader doesn’t feel cheated. You want him to be delighted with the surprise, not tricked.
- If you have multiple ideas for how your book should end, go for the heart rather than the head, even in nonfiction. Readers most remember what moves them.
Part Four: All Writing Is Rewriting
19. Become a ferocious self-editor.
Agents and editors can tell within the first two pages whether your manuscript is worthy of further consideration. That sounds unfair, and maybe it is. But it’s also reality, so we writers need to face it.
How can they often decide that quickly on something you’ve devoted months, maybe years, to?
Because they can almost immediately envision how much editing would be required to make those first couple of pages publishable. If they decide the investment wouldn’t make economic sense for a 300-400-page manuscript, end of story.
Your best bet to keep an agent or editor reading your manuscript?
You must become a ferocious self-editor. That means:
- Omit needless words
- Choose the simple word over one that requires a dictionary
- Avoid subtle redundancies, like “He thought in his mind…” (Where else would someone think?)
- Avoid hedging verbs like almost frowned, sort of jumped, etc.
- Generally remove the word that—use it only when absolutely necessary for clarity
- Give the reader credit and resist the urge to explain, as in, “She walked through the open door.” (Did we need to be told it was open?)
- Avoid too much stage direction (what every character is doing with every limb and digit)
- Avoid excessive adjectives
- Show, don’t tell
- And many more
When do you know you’re finished revising? When you’ve gone from making your writing better to merely making it different. That’s not always easy to determine, but it’s what makes you an author.
And Finally, the Quickest Way to Succeed…
20. Find a mentor.
Get help from someone who’s been where you want to be.
Imagine engaging a mentor who can help you sidestep all the amateur pitfalls and shave years of painful trial-and-error off your learning curve.
Just make sure it’s someone who really knows the writing and publishing world. Many masquerade as mentors and coaches but have never really succeeded themselves.
Look for someone widely-published who knows how to work with agents, editors, and publishers.
There are many helpful mentors online. I teach writers through this free site, as well as in my members-only Writers Guild.
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