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Writing and Publishing a Book: What are the Steps?

Updated on November 18, 2017
Michael Ttappous profile image

Michael has been an online freelancer and writer for many years and loves discovering and sharing about new experiences and opportunities.

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You’re thinking to yourself... “I’ve been through some intense stuff; stuff that people will love to read and will be inspired by.” That might be true. While most people won’t actually doubt or question the motivational nature of your story, it’s important to find the people who will ask you, “So, how will you get it published?”

I guess I was naïve when I started trying to publish my own book, thinking that I could merely write on my computer and then snap my fingers to make it magically appear in my hands. I had thought that it would be a simple process: Write, edit, and land a deal. It turns out that after first figuring out how to write a book, I then had to start figuring out how to navigate the publishing industry in a way that would make me successful. Sometimes, having a vision is not enough when you need to navigate through a world that you’ve never seen before.

The Hard Truth

“What happens when you finish your book?” that reliable friend will one day ask you. The cold truth is that, if this is the first time you’ve ever done some writing, that question will freak you out. It will send a shiver down your spine that makes the whole project seem and feel pointless. Writing it is not enough. But, that doesn’t mean you should stop. Nothing worth doing is easy, and just because you don’t know how the race is going to end doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start running.

There’s a reason this article is not titled ‘publishing your first book’. What I’ve found when writing my first book is that there are two entirely different trades to learn and to navigate when trying to get a paperback book, written by you, in your hands. The first one is obviously the writing.

When I started writing extensively, it was about things that heavily influenced my life or that caused me a lot of pain or happiness. I had no previous experience in writing, and I didn’t even understand the reason behind why I was doing it. I just wanted to do it. I had no idea how much investment anything of this scale would require, and in some ways I didn’t want to know. At the beginning, all I wanted to do was write without thinking about how pointless it would be if the work went nowhere. So I focused on just getting the story on paper.

Learning the Curve

I tend to be the kind of guy who has a plan when delving into something. So, when scribing out the heartfelt stories of my past, I created a layout in Microsoft Word (adjusting the page size, text size, font and spacing) and I separated chapter headings with page breaks in order to create the structure to my story before I even began it—and this was because I decided to write a memoir. I’m certain that with a novel this would have been much harder to do because of the content-creation involved, but for this project I had a historical time range in mind that I was going to write about, which is what got me started.

I say that there’s two parts to writing my first book because I first had to learn how to become a writer. I had to learn the specific rules of grammar that forced me stop every other sentence when trying to accurately express something in words; I had to spend countless hours rephrasing sentences to create better structure and fluency throughout the chapter; and I had to spend days confirming my facts and researching and implementing different methods to vary my sentences. The writing itself started to become more of a consequence to learning how to write properly, and that, sadly, took a lot of the joy out of writing my first book and penning my own story.

Soon enough, I found myself weary of opening up my draft and getting new material down. I came to prefer editing the work I had already committed to and locating the areas where I had made mistakes rather than trying to complete it. Editing is, of course, an essential step, but it’s normally something I wait to the end to do to avoid distractions—and doing it from early on started throwing me off. Because of my OCD in the inspecting department, it took me a very long time to make headway towards the end of the story, and I’m not even sure I’m there yet. But what I’m trying to stress is that the book writing process, as stressful as it is, has a learning curve all to itself that plays a very different and separate role from the trade of trying to get published.

Preparing for the Submission

At the beginning, I was ecstatic that I finally finished my draft. I had gone over it and over it multiple times in ‘edit’ mode and finally reached that point where I was ready to take the next step: Of changing from my own, random page layout & style to the industry way of manuscript formatting. Below you will find a helpful checklist for how to format your completed book for it to look as professional as possible when trying to get it published. However, you should always check the submissions guidelines for the publishers and agents that you are going to query—they may very well have completely different requirements to what I have laid out ahead, so please use these as a guide only.

I had no idea what a manuscript was supposed to look like when I first started writing my memoir. I just slapped some chapter headings across a few pages, copy-pasted some of my small journal entries into those sections, and created the ambition to write the rest from start to finish. Over 100,000 words and many, many drafts later, I found that there were a few things that made me feel the draft was ready for readership. So, here is my ‘final draft’ checklist and how I became satisfied with it:

  • Have a strong opening section for each chapter. The start of the chapter needs to draw readers in and give them anticipation for what’s going to happen next. Having a tendency to create surprises in the middle of the chapter adds to the desire to finish it and move on to the next one.
  • Have a strong closing for each chapter. The reader was kind enough to make it all the way through, so they need to be rewarded with closure. Give enough details on what happens to fulfil that demand, but still leave unanswered questions that spill over to the next section.
  • Mix up the chapter lengths. A mixture of longer and shorter ones adds another element of surprise.
  • Stay within the maximum and minimum word boundaries for your genre. You should be aware of how long the average book is in your genre, and be careful not to be too boisterous. When I crossed 100,000 words in my memoir, I felt ecstatic that I had reached that milestone. But, I quickly learned this was outside the range for new authors and would likely get me rejected solely on those grounds. I had to cut out a lot of what I thought should’ve stayed in throughout the process in order to keep the word count down. But, the great upside to this is that it tightens-up your text and forces you to eliminate things that you find are the least interesting.
  • Eradicate spelling mistakes. The hardest part of a project of this length is checking the grammar and punctuation, but if you are serious about publishing your work you need to ensure that these mistakes are very rare.

  • Delete unnecessary words and phrases. When I went back over my draft to cut down the word count, I dreaded having to delete parts that I spent months writing and perfecting. But I found the perfect trick: Cut out instances of ‘very,’ ‘that,’ ‘start to,’ ‘really,’ and ‘in order to,’ and increase your use of contractions. It was something that I thought couldn’t be done without really changing the meaning of my sentences, but it can; I cut out over 2,500 words this way.
  • Use a fair amount of section and scene breaks. Nobody quite enjoys seeing 6000-7000-word chapters without any pauses for the reader. Give them a chance to catch their breath before the chapter ends.
  • Remember that most readers love description. The five senses play an important role when setting the scene.
  • Listen to what you write. Read it, but also read it aloud. You have to hear some of the nonsense you write to understand that it is nonsensical. Even better, invest in a program that reads your writing for you and sit back while you listen (or dictate).
  • Invest. Get dictation software that helps you record your story, and write as you think.

  • Bring the story full circle. Don’t lose focus on where the story started and where it ended up. Remember that readers need closure. Try to answer all their questions.

Ultimately, be happy with what you’ve written. Don’t force things into your work that you don’t want to and don’t leave things in there that you don’t really want to share. It’s your story, so share it your way. This is the checklist I followed to make sure that I was on the right path to my final draft, and it has brought me a long way from the few empty pages that I started with.

Have a close friend read through your work as well and encourage them to be as honest as possible with you about it. And, once you’re satisfied with your final draft, it will be time to format your manuscript for submission to agents.

Baby Steps

The initial action in my attempt to get published was to read (a lot of) online information. I searched and looked up the next stage of the process and quickly found that most publishers don’t even bother with unsolicited manuscripts. I first needed to find a literary agent to represent me. So, I searched online for agents, and this took a lot of time itself. I had to find agents who were accepting submissions in my genre of memoir, and then I had to see exactly what type of memoir books they were representing—which meant doing an analysis of every potential agent’s portfolio. The Writer's Market and books like it were an invaluable resource in these areas though.

Once I had narrowed down on my agents, the time came to write query letters. These are a particularly difficult but important process because they require you to write, within one page, a very brief breakdown of your story and its potential audience, a short biography of your writing experience and your ability to promote the book, and to add a unique spin to your letter that helps it stand out from the remaining million queries that they receive. Oh, and you have to make sure that you get all the factual details in there that they’ll want to see as well.

To put it shortly, it’s not fun. You have to take on the job of a marketer trying to sell a product to anybody and everybody in the world who will listen. And the worst part is: it’s your product. After all the sweat, tears and finger blisters that resulted from your passionate writing, you have to now become a transformer and take on the publishing industry just as you thought you’d cracked the writing one. And preparing your query letters is only part of it…

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Making the Transformation

Initially when writing my book, I set up my own style design in Microsoft Word that was closer to what a real book looked like (I even measured and counted the words per page in a real book!). Getting tens of thousands of words into my story, I started to realize that my own personal style probably wasn’t going to fit in with how others wanted to see it. And being different is not a good thing. So I read multiple sources online and I still couldn’t get a consistent set of answers on how to format my manuscript properly. I had to come to my own conclusions on what worked best according to authors who had published works before. So this is it: my manuscript formatting checklist that I use for submissions:

  1. Use 1” margins all around your text, use double spacing, and use a page size of ‘letter.’
  2. Edit your paragraphs in Word’s Line Spacing options to indent 0.5” on the first line. Do not use spaces to create a new paragraph. However, the first—and only the first—paragraph after a chapter title or a section/scene break does not need to be indented because there was already a pause from the break.
  3. Use a Page Break at the end of every chapter and leave 3-6 lines (not spaces) empty before the next chapter heading.
  4. Use Word’s Find and Replace function to replace two empty spaces next to each other with one space.
  5. Do not include acknowledgements until you are asked to do so.
  6. Stick with a 12-point font and Times New Roman for safety purposes. It is the most common combination and will guarantee that you don’t get rejected because of the font.

There are tens of little niggles to watch out for when formatting your manuscript. My advice would be to get a trustworthy and reliable source with many formatting guidelines. Having this near you as a reference is always valuable.

First Impressions

The first thing that will meet an agent’s eye, besides your query letter and the first page of your story, will be the cover page of your finished manuscript. When formatting the cover of your manuscript, I recommend using 12-point font and Times New Roman. And you should indeed use this for your entire manuscript. There is no need to try to impress anybody with fancy colors, sizes or fonts. The whole piece should be double-spaced and colored black.

In the top left corner of your first page you should have your full name (press enter), address (press enter), city, country and postal code (press enter), cell number (press enter), email address (press enter), and word count.

In the middle of the page, you should have your title. This should be center-aligned and with a larger font size—at around 20. The title is the only text that is this size.

Three-quarters of the way down the page, you should have the type of book (e.g. A Novel), press enter, then ‘by’ (press enter), and then your pen name (or your real name). This should also be center-aligned. An example is shown below.

At the end of the page, you’ll want to insert a section break instead of the usual page break. This is so that you can start numbering the manuscript from the second page onwards and not from the first page (your cover) onwards. Then, in the header of the second page (which is now also the second section) you’ll need to write some details and align them to the right: Surname / Title / Page Number. Use a shortened version of your title if possible.

Your manuscript cover should now have the standard format. However, to have a more industry-worthy layout you should always read the submissions guidelines on agents’, publishers’, or editors’ websites and have a reliable source to use as a reference.

A Thousand Thoughts before the First Step

The intention of this article is not to stress, demotivate, or turn you away from writing. On the contrary, the point is to help you see what you may not have been able to see before. The world of writing is challenging, but in the same way that you get to the end of your first chapter, you can get to the end of your first query letter; to the end of your draft; to the end of your manuscript formatting; and to the start of your publishing contract.

Don't let the challenge send those chills down your spine--let them send shockwaves to your fingertips to write even faster. Because, no matter how difficult it may be, there's always a way to achieve your dreams.

© 2016 Michael Ttappous


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