First, there is The Want.
This might sound a little obvious, but the importance of it cannot be overstated:
To write a book, you must want it with all your heart and soul. You must make it the most important thing in the world.
Because without any doubt, the hardest part of writing a book is the actual doing thereof.
And so this follows:
Second, there is the discipline.
You must develop the ability to do the work, day-in-day-out.
The process is not complicated. It’s not mysterious. But it is challenging:
It’s challenging because it takes a great deal of focus and effort, and very often you’re required to maintain that focus and effort over long periods of time, which in turn requires an uncommon amount of self-motivation.
There is, however, a way to ease the process, and I’ll elaborate more on that in a moment.
Third, before you begin writing, decide what your book is going to be about.
Every good book, whether fiction or non-fiction, has a theme.
Theme in fiction is the core meaning that the events of your story add up to.
In non-fiction, it is the core thesis of your book.
For instance, the theme of of Anna Karenina is adultery and marriage in 19th Century Russia.
The theme of the movie Rocky is the triumph of the human spirit.
The theme of the movie Bladerunner is human life and the constant struggle against death, which is what gives life meaning.
The theme of Outliers is the nature of human achievement.
I urge you, therefore, to write down in one sentence the central argument of your book, and map the rest of it around that central thing: because one of the greatest threats to your book is the threat of your over-complicating it.
Having a clear idea of your book’s core meaning is in this way invaluable to keeping your book streamlined and your writing process focused.
Fourth, before you begin writing, know your beginning, middle, and end.
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing fiction or non-fiction.
It doesn’t matter how literary you are.
It doesn’t matter in what genre you write.
It doesn’t matter if your focus is primarily stylistic, or plot-driven, or any number of cross-combinations.
What matters is that before you start writing you figure out – even if it’s just in very general terms – your beginning, middle, and end.
You need not even write any of it down or put it into a formal outline (although you certainly can if you prefer).
You need only establish it in your mind.
The reason this is so critical is that it will give you focus and that, in turn, will help you maintain your motivation.
I personally spent over a decade of my writing life writing myself in circles – and throwing away thousands of pages – precisely because I didn’t map out a beginning, middle, and end.
Fifth, write for twenty minutes straight two times a day, without ever going back and rewriting anything you’ve already written.
I know this sounds rigid and overly structured and even a little formulaic, and I myself rebelled for years against such processes – because I was an artist, you see, thereby sending this “artist” into interminable divagations that lasted, coincidentally enough, the exact number of years that I spent doing it: i.e twelve.
It is the thing I mentioned earlier that will ease the process.
Sixth, plan to write a short book.
Plan it to be approximately 20,000 or 25,000 words, which is about the length of The Old Man and the Sea or The Red Badge of Courage or Of Mice and Men – all of which were written in weeks, not years, as was Animal Farm, The Red Pony, Anthem, Brave New World, and many, many other timeless books.
The reason I so strongly recommend it is that it’s less daunting and keeps the end in sight, which will give you fuel.
Longer books can be written after you’ve finished one or two shorter.
Seventh, don’t rewrite until you’ve finished drafting a book that contains your beginning, middle, and end.
I alluded to this in step number five, and I come back to it now because if you can train yourself to write in this way, it can make all the difference in whether you finish or not.
I spent years, once again, rewriting instead of moving forward, and I can tell you for a fact that, if you’re not careful, it is entirely possible to spend your whole life rewriting and not finishing a single book.
I know a number of excellent writers personally – excellent from a stylistic standpoint – with exceptionally refined sensibilities and literary tastes who have nevertheless grown old rewriting and not completing any of their planned books.
This is a tragedy.
And yet it’s a fact that most books go unfinished.
The reason yours won’t is that you’ve pared-down the process and streamlined it, and you’ve mapped out your beginning, middle, and end, and you’ve developed a habit of writing in simple short bursts, twice a day.
And you, like me, were amazed that, after everything — after all the years and all the thought and all the frustration and discouragement — it truly was that easy, in the end.