How do authors come up with the ideas for their books? What does it take to pen a bestseller? Is it about inspiration, genius, writing style, luck or routine and discipline? When it comes to writing a book, is there a silver bullet?
We asked well-known published authors to tell us how they really write their books – from the nitty-gritty of their daily writing process through to what it is they love most about writing. The results may surprise you!
How to write a book – our published author survey
In support of Book Aid International, we agreed to donate five books for every author’s response to our survey, and we canvassed authors whose books are published by the major publishing houses worldwide including Penguin Random House, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan and HarperCollins. While we can’t reveal their individual responses (shush!) the authors polled were the writing coach authors of The Novelry and published authors from all genres of fiction including: Katherine Arden, Jenny Colgan, Claire Douglas, Louise Doughty, Katie Fforde, Mike Gayle, Patrick Gale, Tess Gerritsen, Hannah Gold, Kate Hamer, Alix E. Harrow, Janice Hallett, Veronica Henry, Imogen Hermes Gowar, Paula Hawkins, Ruth Hogan, Erin Kelly, Clare Mackintosh, Jill Mansell, Yann Martel, Beth Morrey, Abir Mukherjee, Lauren North, Laura Purcell, Katherine Rundell, Samantha Shannon, Emma Stonex, Rosie Walsh, Catriona Ward, Rosie Walsh, Sarah Winman. It has been wonderful to see the entire book writing community come together to support this great cause.
Read on to find out how to write a book the way published authors really write theirs, and find out how to get started writing yourself!
How to write a book – the top line
Most published authors…
- Write before noon daily
- Write for less than 5 hours a day
- Write every weekday
- Write from home
- Write a first draft on a computer
- Write a brief story plan or outline before they start
- Don’t show their first draft to friends
- Write at least one novel before they get published
- Enjoy writing the first draft more than any other part of the process
- Take a creative writing course
What time of day do you write?
The writing session is all done and dusted by noon for almost two-thirds of our writers. Less than 5% will even attempt to start their writing sessions in the evening or late at night.
So if you want to crack on with writing a book, it seems it’s best to follow in the footsteps of most writers and rise early for your writing sessions. Begin writing with fresh ideas top of mind and before self-doubt sets in; finish writing before lunch, leaving the afternoons free for research and the evenings for drinks with fellow writers and other literary types, of course.
How long do you write for, daily?
Forget the myth of the New York Times bestselling author slaving away in the attic from dawn to dusk writing the entire book in a matter of days. Over 90% of our writers spend less than 5 hours a day writing a book.
When it comes to the book writing process, the routine of a writing schedule trumps the slog. Good writers dodge writer’s block by going regularly and quickly! Writing time is less than two hours a day for almost 40% of our successful writers.
Do you write every day?
Writing a book is a day job, right? Yes, indeed. All that's needed is a quiet writing space and a daily book writing schedule it seems. Less than 5% write only at weekends. Most of our published authors observe a Monday-to-Friday book writing routine. 92% have a writing space at home with just a few heading out to write in the coffee shop or a public space.
A writer’s job is a vocation and a lifestyle it seems, as just over 40% give writer's block the swerve and get on with the job to write every darn day.
How do you write the first draft of your book?
Well, we all know what Hemingway said about the first draft (ahem!) and our published authors are dropping their first drafts into a Microsoft Word document on the computer with 8 out of 10 of these cats preferring to write a book with the keyboard, and less than 4% attempting to pen their entire first draft.
How do you plan your book?
Here’s a plot twist. Almost 20% of our professional writers say they don’t plan writing a book at all before the actual book writing process begins, with close to another 20% saying they merely produce a one-page outline.
But over 40% go to the trouble of a novel outline of a few pages or more with just over 10% of those doing a rough draft in detail.
How do you edit your book?
Writing a book to publishing standard is all about the edit. When it comes to the editing process, almost 10% of our professional writers heading towards traditional publishing will turn to book writing software again to edit, but the majority (over half) carry on at that computer to edit their entire manuscript. Just over 12% have very obliging editors or literary agents who take that first draft towards the next step in the publishing process.
Before you got published, how many books did you write?
Chin up! Even experienced professional writers have abandoned manuscripts in the desk drawer.
Almost two-thirds abandoned an entire manuscript at some point. What’s more over half of our authors (57%) submitted to more than three literary agents before they bagged theirs, with over 30% submitting to more than ten and 7% submitting to more than fifty.
Who reads your book first?
The literary agent gets first dibs on their new book for over 28% of our professional writers.
The relationship between author and agent is one of the most sacred when it comes to the future of their own book, closely followed by that with the trusty editor at the publishing house for almost a quarter of authors. But 30% will turn to a friend, a group or a writing group for first thoughts on that final draft.
Do you read reader reviews?
Hell no? Not so! Less than 20% say so.
Most of our professional writers are interested in what their readers think of their books, and over a quarter are so gripped they can barely tear themselves away. (So that’s what writers do with their afternoons!)
The death of Twitter seems much exaggerated for the serious writer as 85% have an active Twitter account to satisfy any reader’s interest, two-thirds can be found on Instagram grabbing a reader’s attention with a sassy book cover reveal, with less than 8% daring to bust a move on TikTok.
They are a fairly tech-savvy lot, and almost two-thirds have designed their own website.
Creative writing courses?
Of course! Over half of our professional writers (53.8%) took a creative writing course for writing fiction to pack some exciting writing tools, find their writing voice, and go beyond writer's block day daily, turning a book idea into a writing habit.
At The Novelry, we help writers begin their writing career in less than a year. Start writing your book with our courses, live writing sessions and coaching from published authors!
What is the best part of your writing life?
So here it is, the cherry on the cake.
Why do they love to write fiction? What is it about the actual writing of a book that has them writing daily? For love, for fame, for glory or for hard cash?
We’ve got another twist in store for you: they do it for the love of writing a first draft.
So if that’s where you are right now, know that these are the golden times and treasure every moment; it’s all there for the taking from the first few pages.
Only 1.4% of our professional writers said they wrote for the financial rewards, and less than 1% for the fame or public standing.
As a proud partner of Book Aid International, The Novelry has made a donation of over 1000 books to the charity, gifting five books for every author who took part in our survey.
This means the charity can send more books to the communities where they’re needed most. A single book can transform dozens of lives – offering joy, inspiration and hope.
I have already read all the fiction in the library – there are not enough now! We need more so we can keep learning. For me, I am going to be a writer, so I must keep reading.
How to write a book? Our top tips.
We take beginners and experienced authors all the way from an inkling of an idea to a book in a year and on towards self publishing or traditional publishing with literary agency representation.
1. Why you should write a book.
Storytelling is as close as we get to creating magic. A book connects one stranger to another in an intimate relationship in which we walk in other shoes, travel places we have never been and experience a full range of emotions as we turn the pages to find out what happens next.
Writing a book is easier than you think. If you love reading, you can learn to write a book. We know this to be true because at The Novelry, we are all published authors who have done it.
Writing a book brings magic to your life daily. Think of your writing time as an everyday vacation. In less than an hour a day, you will be spending precious time with yourself, writing what you need, and leaving something behind you for posterity too. Start writing today! Little by little, you’ll get there. You don’t need a dedicated writing space. When it comes to writing a book, just need to set aside some writing time daily. Try a daily word count goal but don’t fret how many words that is, just show up!
2. How do you begin writing a book?
Ever wondered how authors come up with a book idea? Here’s a quick tip for how to come up with yours. Take five books you love (or movies) and write down the back-of-jacket copy or the movie story descriptions. What do they have in common? Is it a type of story? A kind of main character? The events? The place?
Authors take something familiar and beloved and give it their own unique twist.
Now mix and match your favorites to find a combined storyline. Then, add a main character who is based on someone you know whom you admire or respect. Maybe a grandparent. Locate the story in a place you’d like to go. You might create a new location or world entirely. It’s your book. Write what you need.
3. What makes a story interesting? Things change.
A story is all about change. No change, no story. Stories begin with a person or a character with a problem about to go through momentous change.
So, once you have your main character, your story begins when their everyday life takes a new turn. Maybe they leave town, or someone new comes to town. Something changes, and it sets in motion more change. It’s change that brings a book idea to life for the writer and the reader, and by ensuring things change every time you sit down to write, you'll power through writer's block. When it comes to writing prompts to guide you, just think about what would make your main character's life harder!
At the end of the story your main character will be different. That’s called a character arc. But you know how people are! They won’t change unless they have to. So your plot is all the terrible – and good – things that need to happen to push them to change. You won’t give them what they want; you’ll give them what they need.
4. Becoming a writer
To write a book, whether you want to be a self published author or a traditionally published writer, you’re going to need to do two things: first, to read books and second, show up to write. Flex those writing muscles, daily, just for an hour. No more, no less.
Writing a book does not require education or privilege. It’s not about the words. Nobody ever stayed glued to a book for the complexity of its vocabulary. The story doesn’t happen to you; you happen to the story. You don’t need to be wise or have all the answers. Stories are about questions. One question after another. What happens next? Why did she do that? What will he do to escape? You won’t see all the way to The End today, but tomorrow you’ll see what happens next. When you write fiction at a first draft, you write to tell yourself the story. Writing is about storytelling, and readers and publishers want stories. And here’s a secret – storytelling can be learned. Hey, guess what? You might just be very good at it. Why not find out?
5. Living the life
Writing is not a god-given gift or innate talent. It’s not something you are born with or can or can’t do. It’s something you practice, just like anything. Writers learn how to write a book from other writers. Just like with any craft or trade, they most always take apprenticeships or courses and work with published writers.
At The Novelry, we’ll show you how to write a book with confidence. You’ll get expert lessons from an award-winning Booker-listed author to build your confidence and all the ingredients you need to cook up your own story with personal coaching from bestselling authors to stay on track every step of the way. You’ll enjoy live writing classes and make new friends with the lively worldwide community of writers that will enable you to finish writing your book among friends.
To write a book, you need to put story first. At The Novelry, your storyline will be signed off by your writing coach before you start the writing process meaning you can write with confidence.
Then, simply dip into the online lessons to guide you step-by-step to help you come up with your big idea, build and plan your story, and write it in small manageable chunks in each hour-long writing session. (We do the heavy lifting so that you can experience pain-free plotting.)
Lean on the one-to-one coaching sessions for advice specific to you and your story. The group classes and workshops are great fun where you will find you can be yourself, only more so. You’ll get a very warm welcome.
So, if you’d really like to write a book, sign up and start writing fiction with the world’s favourite writing school. Make today the day you start writing a new chapter of your life.
How to write a book: the most famous classics of all time
In The Classic Class at The Novelry, the first stage in our 3-stage program for fiction writers, we introduce you to the features of classic fiction books which have made them enduring favourites.
Let's take a closer look at fiction's bestsellers of the last hundred years to understand what makes one book sell millions and another thousands.
Not all of these three features need to be present in any given book, but in the all-time great books they're all there!
1. The Extreme Situation
- extreme locations or landscapes
- extreme dilemmas
- extreme danger, murder afoot
Commercial fiction, or achieving sales figures, starts here. The reader's experience is an edge-of-the-seat page-turning entertainment. ('Literary' fiction works the other way round and deposits an extraordinary person in a normal or 'normalized' situation - think Orwellian or Kafkaesque dystopian nightmares.) We have a whole range between classics and bestsellers best exemplified by The Bourne Identity on the one hand which has an extreme situation meet its match with an extraordinary person (bestseller) and John Le Carré's Smiley books or Graham Greene's books which are more literary by virtue of their hero-next-door, bespectacled, ordinary hero - in an extreme situation. There's a broad spectrum. The more 'super powered' or magical the hero, the more the story stacks up as a bestseller.
A fairy tale of transformation or a story powered by the semi-divine, superhuman, magical qualities and attributes of a character. The magic or charisma in a particular story is the agent of change and often you can locate it in the book title itself.
3. 'Walk in My Shoes'
This is a way of telling. It eschews rhetorical grandstanding, innovative techniques, stylistic flourishes, and poetic symbolism in favour of the more prosaic 'walk in my shoes.' The style is the substance of experience. We see through the narrator or character's eyes, we touch what they touch, eat what they eat, sleep when they sleep. From the outset of the book. We lose ourselves in the netherworld of another human life. It is the ultimate vacation or voluntary absence, a guided dreaming.
The Ten Bestsellers of the Last 100 Years.
1. The Lord of the Rings JRR Tolkein 150 million +
Continuing the story begun in The Hobbit, Sauron, the Dark Lord, has gathered to him all the Rings of Power – the means by which he intends to rule Middle-earth. All he lacks in his plans for dominion is the One Ring – the ring that rules them all – which has fallen into the hands of the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins.
In a sleepy village in the Shire, young Frodo Baggins finds himself faced with an immense task, as the Ring is entrusted to his care. He must leave his home and make a perilous journey across the realms of Middle-earth to the Crack of Doom, deep inside the territories of the Dark Lord. There he must destroy the Ring forever and foil the Dark Lord in his evil purpose.
2 The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho - 150 million +
The Alchemist was published in 1988, and it is about Santiago, a young Spanish boy who has a dream that urges him to go to Egypt. Before he sets out, he learns about the Personal Legend, which is something that someone always wanted to do with their life. If someone decides to follow their own Personal Legend, then the universe will try to help them. And the universe is a very powerful ally. If the universe will bend to help a person on their Personal Legend, then it’s possible to do the impossible, like alchemy, the process of turning lead into gold.
3 The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: 140+ Million
The Little Prince looks like a children’s book, but it actually has a lot of keen observations and insights regarding human nature and relationships. The book is about a pilot who crashes in the Sahara desert and meets a young boy with curly blond hair. The boy tells the pilot that he’s a prince that fell from a small planet called Asteroid 325; however on Earth we call it Asteroid B-612. The Prince left his home after he fell in love with a rose and he caught her in a lie, so he is traveling across the universe to cure his loneliness.
4. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone - JK Rowling 107million +
Harry Potter has never even heard of Hogwarts when the letters start dropping on the doormat at number four, Privet Drive. Addressed in green ink on yellowish parchment with a purple seal, they are swiftly confiscated by his grisly aunt and uncle. Then, on Harry's eleventh birthday, a great beetle-eyed giant of a man called Rubeus Hagrid bursts in with some astonishing news: Harry Potter is a wizard, and he has a place at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. (The other books in the series also feature in the top bestsellers of all time - hats off to JK - but I thought it would be tedious to list them here.)
5. The Hobbit JRR Tolkein 100 million +
The Hobbit is the story of Bilbo, a peace-loving hobbit, who embarks on a strange and magical adventure. See the video above for Tolkein's account of it's humble beginnings.
Bilbo Baggins enjoys a quiet and contented life, with no desire to travel far from the comforts of home; then one day the wizard Gandalf and a band of dwarves arrive unexpectedly and enlist his services – as a burglar – on a dangerous expedition to raid the treasure-hoard of Smaug the dragon. Bilbo’s life is never to be the same again.
6. And Then There Were None - Agatha Christie 100 m +
A group of people are lured into coming to an island under different pretexts, e.g., offers of employment, to enjoy a late summer holiday, or to meet old friends. All have been complicit in the deaths of other human beings, but either escaped justice or committed an act that was not subject to legal sanction. The guests and two servants who are present are charged with their respective crimes by a gramophone recording after dinner the first night, and informed that they have been brought to the island to pay for their actions. They are the only people on the island, and cannot escape due to the distance from the mainland and the inclement weather, and gradually all ten are killed in turn, each in a manner that seems to parallel the deaths in the nursery rhyme. Nobody else seems to be left alive on the island by the time of the apparent last death. A confession, in the form of a postscript to the novel, unveils how the killings took place and who was responsible.
7. Fifty Shades of Grey E.L. James 100m+
The first instalment in the Fifty Shades trilogy traces the deepening relationship between a college graduate, Anastasia Steele, and a young business magnate, Christian Grey. It is notable for its explicitly erotic scenes. The Fifty Shades trilogy was developed from a Twilight fan fiction series. 'The story is less a booster for bondage than a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. At the end of her saga, when all the whips have been sheathed and the harnesses have been unstrung, Anastasia Steele has tamed and wedded her beast, given birth to one of his children, and conceived another.' (New Republic.)
8. The Lion, The With and The Wardobe - C.S. Lewis 85 million +
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe takes place in 1940 and tells the tale of four English siblings who are sent to the English countryside because of the Blitz. While there, they discover a magical wardrobe that is a gateway to another world, Narnia, which is full of talking animals and magical creatures. When the children arrive, the world is in perpetual winter because the White Witch has cast a spell to keep Narnia frozen. To help their friends in Narnia, the children must work together to defeat the White Witch and break her spell.
9. The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown 80 Million +
A murder in the halls of the Louvre museum reveals a sinister plot to uncover a secret that has been protected by a clandestine society since the days of Christ. The victim is a high-ranking agent of this ancient society who, in the moments before his death, manages to leave gruesome clues at the scene that only his granddaughter, noted cryptographer Sophie Neveu, and Robert Langdon, a famed symbologist, can untangle.
10. The Catcher in the Rye. JD Salinger 65 million +
The hero-narrator of The Catcher in the Rye is an ancient child of sixteen, a native New Yorker named Holden Caulfield. Through circumstances that tend to preclude adult, secondhand description, he leaves his prep school in Pennsylvania and goes underground in New York City for three days. Holden Caulfield's voice is distinctive, the writing is great, and for three days the reader walks in his shoes. JD Salinger was a York Times bestselling author for 14 weeks in 1963 with The Catcher in the Rye.
Even if you are writing nonfiction, a grounding in storytelling and how it works can dramatically change your fortunes as a writer. It's the story within your nonfiction book that command's a reader's attention and enables them to process your message from inside out.
There are steps to telling a story, and we walk you through these in our storytelling foundation course, The Classic Course. Suitable for writers at all stages and perfect for those seeking to explore the art of storytelling, this is the fiction writing course created by a Booker Prize-listed award-winning author to help you bring to life a beautiful story, boldly told.
C.S Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were in a writing group called The Inklings. While both writers were working on fantasy novels—Lewis on Narnia and Tolkien on The Lord of the Rings—they met every Monday morning to talk about the writing process. Others started to join them, and soon the group swelled to 19 men, so they started meeting on Thursday evenings to share and discuss their work.
By finding and sharing a writing space, and working together in the coffee shops and pubs of Oxford, these writers went beyond a highly speculative first draft to write the all-time classic bestselling fiction books. It's just my opinion, but surely it's no coincidence they worked together? Working alone causes us to lose interest in a project. Working with other writers, we build on the shoulders of giants, dragons, monsters and magicians!
The Novelry is a writing environment designed to mimic this magical writing space, for aspiring writers who are hoping to eventually publish their works of fiction.
'Have achievable goals.' This was JK Rowling's advice to students at Harvard when she gave her address there.
Start small and keep it humble is my advice based on the Classic books we explore in your first course with us, the Classic Course. It's a cosy start that provides the sustenance for the big journey in the big Classics. From a cosy start we proceed to magic!
'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.'
(JRR Tolkien: The Hobbit.)
'Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.'
(CS Lewis: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.)
'Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.'
(JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.)
Magic is a series of sleights of hand, an improbable outcome from a highly choreographed multiply-layered set of manoeuvres and when cast as a spell of words, the effect on the reader is overwhelming. They are transported.
In the course, we share the elements needed and the order they're needed in to create an immersive and transporting reader experience, where science and magic shake hands in storytelling skills, whisking the reader out of body and out of time,
We share the techniques used by CS Lewis, Tolkien, JK Rowling and more. Yes there's method behind JK Rowling's magic and it's simple, but when you see it you see the virtue of planning.
You'll be consoled and encouraged by the simple 'one step in front of the other' method used by the authors of Neverland, Narnia, Wonderland, Hogwarts and Middle-Earth.
You will unearth some very surprising material by delving into the dustbins of your memory and combining it with the things you love and treasure, a combination that fuels our human super-power – imagination.
The fairy dust is in the ideas used in the Classics which it may seem to you that you knew before a long long time ago in a forgotten land. It's when you dig very deep, and go very niche, into the very personal, that you tumble down a tunnel into a universe we all share.
Write a book you'd love to read, build on the best story you ever came across, tweak it, change gender, change genre. Finish writing every chapter thinking - oh dear how am I going to get them out of this mess?
Join us to write your book from the very beginning with The Finished Novel Course.