How to self-publish step #1: write your book

The first thing, the very most essential thing, in publishing (self- or otherwise) is that you need to write a book. Oh, and by the way: once you publish a book, you are considered an expert on that topic. Yes, even if it’s a terrible book. So write it! All you need to do is make a plan, give yourself a writing schedule, and stick to both. Easy peasy.

Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s the important bit:

Start writing your book, and keep writing until you’re done.

Some of the other aspects of writing are to

  • avoid making rookie mistakes,
  • consider whether you need a ghost writer, co-author, or developmental editor, and
  • keep yourself motivated.

Note: This post is the second in a series of posts on self-publishing. Although the focus of this series is on self-publishing, any writer can benefit from it.

Avoid making rookie mistakes

A “rookie mistake” is a mistake that someone new to a skill makes. If we learn from our rookie mistakes (or from the rookie mistakes other people make), we get better, and soon are no longer rookies. (Though even seasoned people make rookie mistakes, and writers are no exception.)

As an example of a non-writing-related rookie mistake, I built my own computer last fall. It was my first time, so I read all the instructions carefully, then consulted them again and again as I built my computer piece by piece. I had a manual for the motherboard and a manual for the case. However, there was one step that neither the motherboard manual nor the case manual mentioned: install a faceplate in the back slot where the motherboard’s connections are exposed to the back. Long story short, I didn’t install the faceplate, and didn’t even realize it needed installing until after everything was together. Then it was too late; I would have had to take the computer apart to install it. Definitely a rookie mistake that I will never make again.

I could list any number of rookie mistakes that writers make, but the most harmful ones are

  • procrastinating
  • editing what you’ve written before you finish writing
  • letting your ego dictate to you

Rookie mistake number 1: procrastinating

Rookie mistake number 1 is to procrastinate by telling yourself you’re not ready to write, and that you need to learn new skills or do a lot of groundwork before you can start writing. For example, you might think you need to read a lot of books on writing before you can start writing. Or you may think you need to research aspects of your story. But while you’re reading or researching, you aren’t writing.

The key to being a writer is to write. If you are paralyzed by self-doubt or by fear that what you write isn’t good enough, write anyway. Write in a journal, or use a writing prompt every day to get yourself writing on something.

A writing prompt is a brief scenario that you use as a jump-start for writing; for example, “While on a walk, you meet a crow. Write 100 words about what happens next.” Writing prompts are a light, fun way to get started writing with no stakes or consequences. Using a writing prompt breaks the “blank page” barrier. Once you’ve started writing, chances are you’ll continue writing. You can find thousands of writing prompts online—just Google “writing prompts.”

One sign of a professional is to want to improve your skills, so I sympathize with the desire to read more on the art of writing. But you can get carried away and find yourself obsessively reading book after book on writing, telling yourself that “this book will be the magic bullet I need to become a better writer.”

The hard truth is that you’re only going to become a better writer if you write. Books can help you learn how to tell better stories, or create better characters, or improve other parts of your craft, but if you don’t write, all that knowledge is useless.

Recommended reading

Here are a few worthwhile books to read (while you’re writing, not before). Reading these, and only these (at first, anyway), saves you a lot of time trying to decide which books to read, and, I hope, puts your feet on a good road.

And buy a good style book; you can’t go wrong with Strunk & White’s Elements of Style.

Once you’ve established the habit of writing, you can then allow yourself to read more books, but keep writing.

Also, I highly recommend the Immersion screenwriting course, which, although focused on screenwriting, will teach you more about telling a good story than any number of books. I completed it in February 2017 and I already see a huge difference in my approach to writing fiction. (Though be warned: that course is an intensive, six-month commitment. And keep writing while you take the course.)

Rookie mistake number 2: editing before you finish writing

Rookie mistake number 2 is to start editing your material before you finish writing your book. You usually do this because you start to doubt yourself, and it’s easier to revise something you’ve already written than it is to write something new. In truth, this is another form of procrastination, and procrastination is usually rooted in fear. In this case, the fear is that you don’t have what it takes to be a writer, so you won’t let yourself finish a writing project. That way you never have to expose your writing to possible criticism.

You must learn to ignore the voice of your inner critic as you write.

One way you can ignore that voice is to give yourself permission to write an imperfect draft. Tell yourself that nobody will see this first rough draft, and that you’ll be able to fix mistakes and make it better after you finish the draft. Which is the truth: you can (and will) revise it later, but, and this is key: you won’t have anything to revise if you don’t write something first.

Even with this advice, I can guarantee that you’ll find reasons why you have to go back and edit something: you’ll change your story’s direction or your book’s scope, and you’ll tell yourself you just need to go back and revise that one chapter before you continue writing. Don’t. Grit your teeth and resist that urge. Keep moving forward; keep writing new material. Revisions can come later.

A cautionary tale about rookie mistake number 2

Many years ago, I worked with a writer who showed great promise. She was writing a fictional account of love and betrayal. Her initial chapters were gripping—I couldn’t wait to read the next chapter. I could see her book becoming a best seller.

I advised her to keep writing and to not go back over her old material. But, second-guessing herself, she started revising her earlier chapters instead of writing new ones. Then she re-revised those chapters. The more she rewrote them, the more her revised chapters lost the sparkle and urgency of her originals, and I think she sensed this. Her production slowed, then stopped.

Many, many years later, I am sure that manuscript sits in a file folder on her computer somewhere, unfinished and a point of guilt for her.

Don’t fall into this trap. Be strong. If you don’t believe in yourself, pretend that you do. Read The Big Leap and Learning to Love Yourself.

Rookie mistake number 3: letting your ego dictate your writing

The other side of the coin of doubting yourself too much is doubting yourself too little. Confidence is an excellent thing, but overconfidence comes from letting your ego run the show. Some writers tell themselves that they are the shit, and that everything they write is perfect. Their egos are dictating to them.

You must learn to be objective about your writing.

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “kill your darlings.” This does not mean kill off your characters, Game-of-Thrones fashion. Instead, it means you must be willing to delete anything, even (and especially) the parts you love the most. For example, say you’ve written something particularly well, but it doesn’t serve the story. You love a character you’ve created, or a passage or scene you’ve written, but neither character nor passage (or scene) is necessary to the story. To make your book better, you must delete that character or passage. (This goes for nonfiction as well.) The bottom line is that writers sometimes write something that’s interesting to them but that is just so much verbal baggage.

Emotionally, it’s super hard to remove an unneeded character or to delete unneeded material, but if you want to be a great writer, you have to be able to do so.

Your ego will argue that the character is needed, or that the passage or scene is needed. Your ego is always wrong. This is why you need to seek outside advice, then listen to and act on that advice. (Most of the time.) I cover more on this in my post on getting your material reviewed before you publish.

Consider whether you need a ghost writer, a co-author, or a developmental editor

Writing a book is difficult and requires a lot of different skills. Sometimes you have a story or a book idea, but you don’t have the skills to put it on paper. You might not be so good with the English, or you might not be able to organize your thoughts enough to create an outline, or any number of other things related to the skills needed to be a good writer. But none of those mean that you can’t create a good book.

Many people pay a ghost writer to write their book, or team up with a co-author. Either choice is perfectly legitimate. Many celebrities have used ghost writers to write their books, and many people have teamed up with co-authors whose strengths complemented their weaknesses.

A third option, for people who have the basics down, is to hire a developmental editor. A developmental editor gives you feedback and guidance while you write.

You’ll need to decide whether you need a ghost writer, a co-author, or a developmental editor. I go over each of these options in the following subsections. If you’re wondering which you need, ask someone you trust for advice.

Ghost writers cost money but don’t get credit

A good ghost writer will either take your very rough manuscript, which is possibly only partially written and/or is a disorganized mess, and they’ll whip it into shape. Or, if you can’t write your book at all for some reason (for example, because you don’t have the technical or verbal skills), a ghost writer will interview you and then write a coherent, well-written book based on your words.

A good ghost writer will keep your “voice,” so that the book sounds like you wrote it, but they’ll make it sound professionally written. The ghost writer is doing this as a work for hire, which means you pay them for their work and you keep the copyright on your book. You don’t put the ghost writer’s name on your book’s cover, and you keep all the glorious royalties to yourself.

A ghost writer can cost from $30 an hour and up, and you can expect the writing process to take anywhere from 600 to 1,000 hours or more. You pay the ghost writer before the book is in print, so a ghost writer is only an option if you have the money. (Personal plug: I’m an excellent ghostwriter, quite skilled at keeping your voice.)

Co-authors share the credit (and royalties)

On the other hand, a co-author teams up with you and helps you write the book. You plan the book together, you decide who is going to do what, you take the financial risks together, and you decide how to split the royalties. Depending on how much work the co-author does, your names on the book are “Your Name and Co-author’s name” or “Your Name with Co-author.” The primary author always goes first.

For example, if my friend Louise Nicholson approached me with a book idea, and we wrote the book 50-50, the title would be

A Fabulous Book


Louise Nicholson and Marina Michaels

On the other hand, if Louise had already written most of her book, and she only wanted me to write a chapter or two, or for some reason I ended up revising a lot of the book, the title would be

A Fabulous Book


Louise Nicholson with Marina Michaels

Editors come in several flavors; a developmental editor is one of them

Editors come in several flavors:

  • Proofreader. A proofreader reads through your manuscript looking for typos and punctuation errors. They pay no attention to how you word things or whether anything you’ve written makes sense or is accurate, but they are ferocious on typos and punctuation errors. You hire a proofreader when your manuscript is done.
  • Copyeditor. A copyeditor fixes typos, grammatical errors (including English as a Second Language errors), and unclear or awkwardly written sentences. Copyeditors use a style guide and make sure your writing matches that style. You hire a copyeditor when your manuscript is done.
  • Editor. An editor does everything a copyeditor does, but also digs deeper into your writing, and makes suggestions on reorganizing material. You hire an editor when your manuscript is done.
  • Developmental editor. A developmental editor helps you plan your manuscript from the start, gives you suggestions on organizing your material, gives guidance on storytelling (if you’re writing fiction), encourages you, and does her/his best to keep you motivated. A developmental editor might also do everything an editor does, but that varies. You hire a developmental editor at the start of your writing project, and, assuming it’s a good match, you keep working with them until your book is done.

I cover these flavors of editors in more depth in the post on getting your manuscript edited.

If you feel you need help putting your ideas together, consult with a developmental editor. Even a one-time consultation can save you a lot of time and trouble down the road. (And yes, you can hire me.)

Secret motivational tricks of successful writers

A book is hard work and will take longer than you expect to write. One secret to keeping yourself going is to write on a subject you passionately care about. If you don’t much care about the subject and you’re writing because you think it will make you rich, you’re going to find that it’s a lot of work for very little reward. But if you care passionately, that will push you through the hard parts of writing, re-writing, re-writing again, and again…

One of my jobs as a developmental editor is to keep my authors writing. I do what I can, but ultimately, it’s up to the individual author to decide whether he or she is going to finish that book. One of my authors told me that writing a book is like running a marathon. You start with lots of energy and enthusiasm and you make a lot of progress quickly. But if you don’t pace yourself, you run out of steam and slow down (or even drop out of the race). But even if you pace yourself, you reach a point where you are just putting one foot in front of the other. The end is too far away to even think about, and you just have to keep going. Toward the end, you see the goal looming, and your courage and enthusiasm re-spark. And then the golden moment arrives when you’ve finished the race and you hold a copy of your beautiful book.

Keep this race analogy in mind. Set yourself milestones and reward yourself for each one you meet. For example, set yourself a goal of writing 15 minutes a day, or of finishing one chapter a month. And keep your promises to yourself; if you promised yourself that you can buy a new book after you’ve written half your book, keep that promise. Buy that book. And keep writing.


What are you working on? Share it in the comments section!

Pro tip: the best way to get and retain people’s interest is to keep things short, crisp, and to the point. In your comment,

  • summarize your story in two or three sentences at most,
  • give a little background on why you wrote (or are writing) the book (again, just a few sentences), and
  • be polite.
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3 thoughts on “How to self-publish step #1: write your book

  1. Mary E Akers-Bell says:

    Hi, Marina! I am planning on returning to work on my high-fantasy school novel, Growing Up Green. Now that I’ve written a field study (90 pages of highly organized non-fiction text!), I feel like an accomplished writer, and ready to get back into fiction writing.

    My story is about a young orc who moved to an elfin metropolis and met an elf with special education needs (or just anxiety… I’m thinking about that). I’ve started to have visions of a trilogy, to the point where I can see the different focus of each novel. The first is about immigration, culture shock, and integration; the second about how to grow up in a society that tries to put you in boxes; the third is about fighting social injustices. I want to write it because I just finished my field study in second language acquisition, and I hardly ever see different languages posing a problem in fantasy novels. (I am totally down for reading recs on fantasy novels that do, though.)

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