Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

How to Write a Book in Three Easy Steps

My book, Design for Community, has just gone out of print. It lives on as a download, but it’s just not the same. There’s just something special about those dead trees.

After I finished writing the book, back in 2001, I wrote a little story about what it was like. It was published online in a couple places, both of which are dead and gone now. (No wonder I feel like the last man standing all the time.)

So on the occasion of my book’s passing from one medium to another, I’m reprinting this little How To here. If you’ve ever considered writing a book, I hope it helps you in your long, masochistic journey.

How to Write a Book in Three Easy Steps

I have just finished writing my first book. At least, I think I have. All my files have been sent away to my editor, the barrage of “how’s that new chapter coming?” email has stopped, and I’m almost sleeping regular hours again.

Of course, I can’t be sure, because I haven’t actually seen the book yet. I’m told it will come out in September. After years of writing on the web, the dead tree publishing biz seems slow, almost quaint. Maybe, when I hold the book in my hands, it will feel finished.

I spent nine months writing a book about designing community websites. The length of time seems appropriate. All those metaphors for writing books being like having children are right on target, as far as I can tell. And though I’ve never had a child, I have a new appreciation for those who have.

I made, by all accounts, every mistake a first-time author makes. I freaked out, doubted myself, questioned my sanity, freaked out again, lost friendships, became a recluse, freaked out some more, and then, somehow, made it out the other end with the wild idea that I might just do this again.

The other similarity between writing books and having children, that it’s so painful you swear you’ll never do it again, but then you want to, anyway? That one’s true, too.

Over the course of my nine months, I realized that there are three trimesters to writing a book, too. Call them “steps” if that seems more approachable, of if you’re simply tired of the metaphor. I present them here to you as a simple guide of what to expect if you, too, decide to write a book.

Step 1: “I am writing a book.”

You begin by doing what you’ve always dreamed of doing: telling everyone you’re writing a book.

You sign a contract that gives away all your rights, quit your cushy job, and settle in to do all those important things that one has to do before actually doing any writing: formulating the Table of Contents, doing research (surfing the web in your underwear), and picking the font for the body text.

And, of course, telling everyone you are writing a book.

This is the step when your parents will tell you how proud they are of you (after making sure you’ve got some way to pay the rent). Your friends will smile, amazed, and tell you about the secret book they always wanted to do, but never have. The people on the bus will be impressed, if a little on guard, at the news. Your hairdresser, landlord, and local grocery store clerk will all express an interest.

This step will last about three months, during which time you will write at most one thousand words, none of which will ever be used in the book. When the joy of seeing people ask about your book slowly begins to be replaced with the secret dread of knowing that you actually haven’t started writing it yet, you know you’re on your way to the next step.

Step 2: “I’m about half done.”

Step two is marked by the sudden realization that you’ve completely blown your schedule and everything you’ve written so far is crap. You will decide to pitch your first three month’s work and start over. “I have a renewed focus,” you will tell your editor, who will be supportive, if cautious. And you may be almost convinced of this.

All the people you’ve told about your book will now ask you about it when they see you, their faces full of hope that you will succeed where they did not. And every time you will get a new knot in your stomach. You will say one thing, and one thing only, when they ask: “I’m about half done.” And every time you will rationalize this to be true.

During step two, you will begin a list called “things to do when the book is done.” This list will keep track of everything you’ve given up in order to work on the book. Sample entries to this list are: “be social,” “earn money,” and “leave the house.”

Do not quit or start smoking during step two. You should not break up with your girlfriend if you have one, nor get back together if you’ve broken up. This would also be a lousy time to move, go to Europe, or get new pets. (I did most of these things, so trust me, I know.)

This is the step when you will have your first Big Disagreement with your editor, as your new tentative chapters come back doused in red ink. You will look at the page-count you promised, and the amount you’ve written so far, and suddenly every word will seem like a piece of art, not to be disturbed.

This is the step when you call your proud parents, after months of telling them that everything is going so well, and beg them for money, which you will repay in a month or two, you swear.

This step will last about three months, too. You know you’re approaching the next step when you disagree with your editor, stating your point clearly and easily, and the editor actually agrees with you.

Step 3: “I’m almost done.”

In step three, something clicks in your brain. You realize that, while there may be something cool about seeing your name on the spine of a book, there is nothing remotely cool about writing one.

Writing is a job, like plumbing is a job. There are days when all you do is screw words together like pipes, make the joints as tight as you can, and then flush shit through it to see if it leaks.

And worse, there’s nothing even remotely special about books. Books were always elevated to that Special Place in your mind, as something High and Holy. After all, the Bible is a book, right? The Torah is a scroll, which is another kind of book. Books were special because they were written by Authors, and Authors were Not You. Suddenly it dawns on you that you are an author, because you’re writing a book! And if they’ll let you write a book, how special can books really be?

This moment is also known as Finding Your Voice. Treasure this crash of ideals. It’s truly a beautiful thing.

When the guy at the grocery store asks you about the book, you will not feel that proud glow you did in step one, or that primal loathing from step two. Now it will be like somebody asked you about your day at the office. You will consider it and say wearily, “I’m almost done.”

You will say this countless times to everyone who asks, over the final three months. And it will be a lie every time, except the last. Because the real end of writing a book sneaks up on you. It’s as if you’ve been driving in a tunnel, gradually increasing your speed, until the roar of the engines is all you hear. Suddenly you will explode out into broad daylight, going faster than you’d ever imagined, and see the tunnel receding like lightning in your rearview.

Congratulations, you’re done.

Now all you have to do is wait for your book to appear, so that you can hold it in your hands, mail it to your parents with a note about repaying that loan soon, and remember what it was you loved about books in the first place.

← Back to Home

Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.