how to write a book, captivate

Do you want to write a book? Do you know how to write a book?

Eighty-one percent of respondents to a recent survey said they have a book in them.

This statistic used to surprise me. And then I published a book. (The paperback just launched!) It did great. And now it feels as though everyone I meet tells me about the secret book project they’ve always wanted to write.

Here’s how it usually goes:

Friend: “Oh, you wrote a book!”

Me: “Yup! It was great.”

Friend: “So….can I ask you something?”

Me: “Sure, shoot.”

Friend: “I know this sounds crazy, but I have always had this secret desire.”

Me: “Sounds juicy.”

Friend: “Well, I have always had this idea and I thought it would make a great book. You see, it’s all about…”

I’m fascinated by this exchange! And it now happens on a weekly basis. Every party. Every networking event. Even in emails and text messages.

The best part? I can never guess what idea someone will share with me.

I’m constantly surprised by the book idea someone has lurking inside. The most common ideas I hear:

  • A quasi-autobiography about a crazy childhood, traumatic moment or weird life experience that has taught someone a lot.
  • A sci-fi novel or dystopian fantasy, usually inspired by Ender’s Game, Ready Player One or The Hunger Games.
  • A unique children’s book, usually the one they wish they had had growing up or the one they can read to their kids.
  • Historical-fiction or Romantic-drama loosely inspired by their favorite historical time or fashion period.

Having written a few failed books and one decently successful one, I’m not going to try persuading you not to write a book, like this guy. But I would love to share some hard-earned lessons. Heck, maybe I just met you at a party and promised I would send you some advice. Here it is:

The advice I wish I had been given before writing Captivate:

#1: Does it really need to be a book?

Before we go down the book path, please ask yourself, ‘Does my idea really need to be a book? Should it be a long article? A screenplay? A short story? A blog? A podcast?’ My first book absolutely should NOT have been a book. It wasn’t long enough, it wasn’t meaty enough. Frankly, I didn’t know enough. It should have been a series of in-depth articles that I pitched to magazines. Instead, I spent a year agonizing over it, trying to sell it to publishers, failing at that and then just self-publishing a piece of work that I wish I could unpublish. Questions to ask yourself:

  • Are you thrilled to write 80,000 words about this topic?
  • Can you easily compose 80,000 words without repeating yourself?
  • Are you excited to think about this, talk about this and pitch your ideas on this for three years straight?
  • If people say they hate it, will you still be happy you put it out there?
  • If you only have one shot to write a book, is this it?
  • Should this be a screenplay? Do you need visuals?
  • Will this book need to be updated a lot? Should it be a podcast or blog?

Remember, you always can start with something that is NOT a book and graduate to a book down the line.

#2: Calculate the amount of time you think you will need. Now multiply it by five.

The biggest question I often get from potential authors is: “How long did it take you to write?” This is the wrong question. And it’s almost impossible to answer. Well, okay, not totally impossible. If I had to quantify actual time writing, I would say it took this long to get the first draft (of 12):

7 months of writing

5 hours a day

5 days a week

=700 hours of writing time

This does not take into account the other 19 hours a day of thinking and dreaming (yes, I dreamt about chapter outlines) about what I would write during my five hours. Or the number of hours researching and interviewing so I would be able to fill my chapters. Or, of course, the three years of planning to write it. And then there was the marketing, the editing, the selling…

#3: Writing the book is 30 percent of the effort.

I used to think the hardest part about writing a book was the actual writing part. Boy, was I wrong. I was prepared for the writing and the researching, but what I didn’t expect was how much time everything else took! So many things go into a book, such as:

  • Creating, testing and debating the title
  • Writing the marketing materials for the book
  • Writing the back cover
  • Designing the cover
  • Asking everyone you know to pre-order it
  • Doing podcasts for the book
  • Doing media interviews for the book
  • Writing blog posts about the book
  • Writing guest posts about the book
  • Gathering testimonials for the book
  • Sending early review copies to fans
  • Calls with the publisher
  • Hiring a PR agent
  • Developing a social media ad campaign
  • Taking and choosing author shots
  • Creating a book promo. Mine here:
  • Asking everyone you know to buy it again. Speaking of which…may I ask for a favor? The paperback of Captivate just came out. I would be honored if you would consider buying a copy (or two, or three) on Amazon, right here.
  • Doing a book tour
  • Trying to sell the book to companies
  • Doing speaking events for the book
  • Filming videos for the book (at the bottom of this post, I embedded just a smattering of the many videos we wrote, filmed, edited and published to sell the book…no joke!)
  • Asking everyone you know to buy it again
  • And then…editing. I was told my book required about the average amount of editing and it still took 12 rounds of editing over 8 months. And there were literally solid red comments on every page of the 200-page manuscript, with calls before, during and after each round.

Now, you don’t have to do all of these things, but they did work. I learned this the hard way. For my first three failed books, I didn’t put enough into the editing, designing and marketing of the book. For Captivate, I did everything above and probably more that I am forgetting. Captivate hit the Wall Street Journal and USA Today Bestseller Lists in the first week it came out. Three weeks later, I was asked to give my first TEDx Talk. A month later, I was asked to speak at Google, Facebook and LinkedIn about the book.

Bottom Line: Was the work worth it? YES. Undoubtedly, yes. Captivate and all that came along with it fundamentally changed the trajectory of my career and has been a dream come true.

Are you still on board to write a book? Ok cool, now do this…

#4: Write 15,000 words this weekend.

Seriously, you should be so excited about writing that at least 15,000 words should just flow out. These don’t have to be the first 15,000 words (introductions and first lines are notoriously difficult), but just write the 15,000 words you are most excited about. Ready? Go.

Did you make an excuse?

Are you too busy?

Are you not ready?

Was it too hard?

If you can’t pound out 15,000 words you are excited about, then you will not be able to get through 80,000, much less months and months of editing, marketing and writing. Don’t do anything else on the book, don’t talk to anyone about the book, don’t invest in the book or take meetings about the book until you write those 15,000 words.

#5: Can you NOT not write it?

How did it feel to write those 15,000 words? Did you have trouble stopping? At least in the beginning of your book adventure, you should not be able to not write it. In other words, you should be dreaming about your book, re-organizing sentences in the back of Ubers, daydreaming about chapter titles in meetings. Your book should be bursting from you. You should be itching to write and write and write. It should be easy to get up early or stay up late for this book. Sacrificing a little sleep or some friend time should feel like a privilege. If it doesn’t, you do not want to write it badly enough. I say this because if you don’t start with this burning excitement, you will have nothing to get you through the tough times:

  • The mountain of edits
  • The writer’s block
  • The rejections
  • The bad reviews — yes, there are always bad reviews

#6: Let’s get real about Author Ego.

It’s not alter-ego, it’s your author ego. If you want to write a book, you have to get ready to have an author ego. I think one of the main reasons people want to write a book has nothing to do with writing and has everything to do with being an author. Telling people you are writing a book sounds so glamorous. Working on a book feels so adventurous. The ‘author’ title on your LinkedIn would look so great, right? But let me tell you…writing a book is not as glamorous as it sounds. It’s creative and challenging, but it’s not sexy when you are on the fiftieth draft of the same sentence and still only on Chapter 2. And saying you are an author can be great IF the book does well. I was an author of three failed books before Captivate and it was torturous having this conversation:

Friend: “I saw on your LinkedIn that you are a published author!”

Me: “Yup.”

Friend: “That’s great! How’s the book doing?”

Me: “Well, it’s been a process.”

Friend: “Oh. So not doing too well, huh?”

Me: “It wasn’t as easy to sell it as I expected.”

Friend: “That’s too bad…”

Awkward.

Get real with yourself — do you really have something to say or do you really want to be able to say you are an author? Is your author ego okay with all of these titles?

  • Author of a bestselling book
  • Author of a mediocre book
  • Author of a failed book

You never know what’s going to happen, so you have to love your topic and love writing so much that the outcome doesn’t matter.

#7: The Cover is EVERYTHING.

The title is important, the content is important, but the cover…well, that might just be the most important. I wrote a long post about picking the perfect cover and how we chose the cover for Captivate right here. Watch the video to hear the story along with it:

#8: Read these first.

To be a good writer, you have to be a good reader. I found these books exceptionally helpful before writing:

#9:  If you are going to self-publish…

Do not skimp on anything. If you are going to self-publish your creative brain child, you want to overcompensate for not having a publisher by hiring (yes hiring!) an outstanding:

  • Editor
  • Book Designer
  • Cover Designer
  • Book Marketer

At the very least. Yes, have your spouse, amazingly well-read friend and grammar queen friend edit the book for you. And then hire an actual editor. Not just a grammar editor, a content editor. And most importantly, your book needs to look like a real book. The spacing on a page of a real book looks nothing like a Word document. You need kerning and page layout. If you don’t know what that is, please hire someone who does! I highly recommend my friends and colleagues:

#10: Don’t let dreamkillers in.

Dreamkillers are those people who pooh-pooh every idea. They have snide things to say, judge your creativity and discourage you at every step. They absolutely DESTROY creativity. I know who the dreamkillers are in my life — and they are great when getting feedback on titles or covers. They are not great during the dreamstorming, outlining and creative writing process. Find dreambuilders. Get a writing group together. Hire an amazing writing coach. Get a writing or research buddy.

I would love to take a moment to thank my biggest dreambuilders for their help with Captivate: Scott Edwards, Danielle Baker, Lauren Freeman, David Fugate, Niki Papadopoulos, Chris Guillebeau and my parents.

This article was meant to be a dreambuilding article for you. I know it had some tough love, but I want you to write the book inside you! Just make sure it is the right time and you have the time. Be sure to send me the final copy when it’s out!

To your success,

Vanessa

PS- Yup, it’s about that time again for me to ask you to buy a copy of Captivate. It’s really great. I know you will love it. I promise.

And here are just a few of the videos we filmed for Captivate…this probably took an extra month of my team’s time scripting, editing, doing graphics for and setting up the studio to film these.

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and human behavioral investigator in our lab.

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