Writing Your First Book: 10 Painful Truths

Writing you first book Can we keep this between you and me?

Writing a book for the first time is hard.

I’ve been there.

Over the past few years, I’ve written and self-published several non-fiction books. Before that, I wrote a collection of short stories.

While writing these books, I made a lot of awful mistakes.

Through writing and self-publishing these books on Amazon Kindle and other stores over the years, I discovered 10 painful writing truths that I wish I knew when I decided to become an author.

If I’d known these painful writing truths, I could have written my non-fiction books faster and saved myself a lot of stress and disappointment.

Let me explain:

1. Lots Of People Talk About Writing A Book, Only A Few Do It

Have you ever heard someone say, “I’ve got this great book idea”?

And then, they never actually do anything about writing it.

I talked like this for a long time.

When I was a teenager, I was playing football (badly) in a field near my house.

After the match, one of my friends produced a marijuana joint and asked If I wanted some.

I told him, “Words get me high!”

You see, I wanted to write a book ever since I was 12-years-old.

I first tried to write a book when I was 19, but I couldn’t get past page five.

I didn’t understand how to keep a story moving or even how to sit in a chair for more than 30-minutes and write about one thing.

Now, that didn’t stop me from boring friends to death in the pub about my ideas for short stories, novellas, and non-fiction books.

It’s a lot easier to talk about becoming a bestselling author than writing a book.

I always liked the idea of writers waiting for their muse or divine inspiration to strike and then filling the blank page in one, white-hot writing session.

But, those moments never came. And I didn’t write much at all.

So, I spent most of my twenties figuring out that successful authors start writing their books even if they’re not quite ready.

2. Self-Doubt is Normal

Many top authors like Stephen King struggled with self-doubt at various points during their careers. When King wrote the first draft of his best-seller, Carrie, he read it and then dumped the draft in the bin.

Later on, his wife fished the draft out, leafed through it, and told him he had a good book idea. Some hard work lay ahead, but her encouragement taught King to trust the writing process.

And the result?

A New York Times bestseller.

So accept self-doubt as an inevitable part of the writing process. If you lack an essential skill, hire someone to help, like an editor, or take an online writing course.

3. Fight Writer’s Block

Many new writers complain about having no good ideas or not feeling inspired. They complain about writer’s block and say they can only write once a good idea arrives down from heaven or the muse.

But here’s the thing:

An electrician doesn’t avoid a job because he doesn’t have any great ideas for the task at hand.

A doctor doesn’t skip operating on a patient because she’s not feeling it today.

Writing a book isn’t that different, despite some myths people claim about the creative process. You can beat the writer’s block with the right strategies.

Professional authors turn up every day. They keep to a consistent writing schedule, even if they’re not feeling inspired. They work towards their daily word-count and accept they can fix messy mistakes during the editing process.

4. A Daily Word-Count Matters

Professionals hold themselves to account. A good sales rep tracks how many calls he makes or clients he pitches. A manager notes how many teams his or her team wins. And a business executive tracks profits.

Writers need some way of holding themselves to account, particularly while working on a painful first draft. Break your book down into small targets or writing goals. Then, tick them off, step-by-step. For example:

  • Set a word-count for your book.
  • Break that word-count down into smaller word-count goals for each chapter.
  • Calculate a target word-count for your daily writing sessions.
  • Keep track of your daily output in a spreadsheet or use the target word-count in writing apps like Scrivener.

All of this information will help manage hard work and write that first book faster.

4. Study The Writing Processes Of Other Authors

You’re not the first person to face problems like writer’s block, wonder about revising, or self-publishing. The work of other authors holds the answers to your questions.

I’ve always loved to read, and if you’re a writer, you probably do too. But, when I was training to be a journalist, I preferred reading mostly fiction.

That’s fine, but…

I didn’t spend much time reading non-fiction subjects outside my comfort zone.

Now, reading an easy book is okay for somebody whose career doesn’t involve moving around words and creative writing ideas, but it’s poison for an ASPIRING AUTHOR.

Here’s a simple truth:

If you’re going to become an author, then reading and research is part of your job.

You must spend time reading outside of your comfort zone, reading the work of authors you admire and the works of authors you detest. It counts as writing time.

You must take notes, write down, and learn to arrange your ideas before starting your book.

If you fail to feed your mind, don’t expect it to serve you quality creative writing ideas when you next sit down in front of the blank page.

5. You Need A Solid Writing Routine

Try and write at the same time every day, in the same place for the same duration, in a quiet room in your house, in the library, or a coffee shop. That way, it’s more likely to become a daily habit that you follow without thinking.

Benjamin Franklin's daily routine
Benjamin Franklin’s daily routine

Here’s my dirty secret:

I like to put things off, procrastinate, and say it will keep till later.

And this confession is from a guy who wrote a book about productivity for writers.

I’ve often woken up, checked email, bought books on Amazon, phoned the cable company about my bill, arranged meetings, and done everything else but write 500-1000 words.

The day goes on, and if I’m lucky, I’ll have an hour left to write just a little.

So, I tried looking at myself in the mirror and telling myself, ‘Don’t be lazy, just work harder.’

Self-talk is nice. Here’s the painful truth:

More often than not, when I put creative writing last, it’s unlikely to happen at all.

It took me years to figure out that it’s the most important thing I need to do every day (apart from looking after my family) when I’m writing a book.

So, it’s my job to reduce interruptions and put writing first.

Before email.

Before social media.

Before the news.

And even before breakfast.

When was the last time you put writing first?

6. Writing At the Weekends Isn’t Enough

Sitting down on Saturday or Sunday and trying to write a book in just a few hours is difficult. What’s more, if you miss one of these writing sessions, it’ll be another week before you turn up again.

When I was in my early 20s, I had a lot to learn about writing a book (and what to wear). At the time, I worked in a career that had nothing to do with words or writing.

I struggled to find some time outside of work to write every day. I tried writing late at night after the kids went to bed, but I found it hard to get up the next day, go to work, spend time with the kids all-the-while keeping my eyelids open with matchsticks.

So, I told myself my book would keep till tomorrow and write at the weekend. Here’s the problem with that kind of thinking:

When I finally had the guts to sit down in front of the blank page and do my work, I could barely remember where I left off or what I wanted to say.

It just took too long to pick up from where I left off the previous weekend.

What’s more, if I missed a weekend writing session because of, you know, life, that meant I went an entire week without writing my book.

I would have had more luck pulling out my teeth with a set of rusty pliers.

I needed a daily writing routine to fit in around my job and my family, but I didn’t have it.

7. First Drafts Suck (That’s Ok)

The job of a first draft is to exist. That’s why they call it the vomit draft. You can fix common grammar mistakes, spelling mistakes, and clunky creative writing ideas while revising.

Once, I wrote the first draft of a book chapter that smelt so bad, I had to open up the office window while reading it. I felt like tearing it up, pressing delete, and beginning again.

It took me a long time to learn the job of a first draft is to exist… and it’s ok if the writing is lousy. It’s a good thing that my first drafts are for me alone, and yours should be too.

When you sit down to write the first draft, you may lack confidence or feel uninspired by what you’re about to do.

You may feel like you’re writing with a crayon in your mouth, and that’s ok. Most successful authors rarely experience white-hot inspiration and perfect prose while working on their first drafts.

A lot of writers doubt themselves and think about pressing delete too.

They don’t, though.

Instead, there’s a determined (and over-caffeinated) soul plugging away at his or her manuscript one sentence at a time, looking at their word-count or the clock and all the while thinking:

‘It’ll do for now,’ ‘I’m almost there,’ ‘I can fix this later.’

You can fix it later too, but you’ve got to finish your first draft first.

You’ve got to reach The End.

And it would help if you had a plan for getting there.

8. The Editing Process Is Hard

It takes self-discipline and good writing habits to sit down every day and work on a first draft until it’s done. However, when you hit your target word-count for a book, more work likes ahead.

A great book only emerges from subsequence drafts. So, take a deep breath… and then get started. Now, you have a chance to refine your writing style and fix all of those messy mistakes.

Revising your own work without help is challenging, though. You are unlikely to spot every mistake because you’ve worked on it for so long.

Good writers work with structural editors who fix the structure of their book. They collaborate with line editors and copyeditors who improve sentence structure. And they hire proofreaders and fact-checkers to check their book for typos and other mistakes.

The editing process isn’t that different for those who care less for traditional publishing. 

Anyone self-publishing can’t afford to skip these steps. Writing and publishing an entire book is a big project. You might not earn a return as a full-time published author for a few years. But, keep at it until you improve your craft and figure out what readers want. 

9. Critical Feedback Hurts

Perhaps a top Amazon reviewer left a negative rating, and a reader emailed to say they didn’t like it or your editor rejected the book in question. Rejection is part of the creative process.

I used to show my early drafts of my book to friends and family, and they’d tell me:

“It’s great, Bryan; you’ve got talent.”

And I’m like, “Wow, thanks. Writing a book is my dream.”

Their well-meaning feedback about my book writing skills was unhelpful.

Here’s why:

The first time I sent a piece of writing to a professional editor, she emailed me back a word document with dozens of annotations and almost all of my draft rewritten or crossed out.

“It’s ok, Bryan-” we both knew it wasn’t “-But you’ve got a lot of work to do before it’s ready to publish.”

I almost vomited on my keyboard.

This was the first time I’d face the fire of professional editorial feedback.

I’m not going to lie.

Even today, getting editorial feedback is difficult. So, don’t let it overwhelm you because it’s also part of the job and key to becoming an author.

10. One Book Is a Beginning

Your first book might not become a best-seller, let alone attract many readers. You may not earn much money, and it could be a few years before you can write full-time. It happens. But you can find success through writing and publishing more books.

Here’s a short list of things at which I’ve failed as a writer:

Bryan Collins
In my early 20s, I’d a lot to learn about writing a book (and what to wear)

I failed to build a career as a news journalist. I was so bad, one editor threatened to fire me, and another editor let me go.

I failed to hold down a well-paying contract with a magazine too. I didn’t spend enough time researching my articles, so my editor got a better writer.

I couldn’t blame her.

And my biggest failure?

I didn’t write and publish a book before I was 30 (a life-long goal) because I didn’t feel like I was good enough to do it.

On good days, I felt restless, and on bad days I felt devastated by my lack of progress.

Writing a book for the first time is tough work.

It’s not something you can fake or dial-in. If you want to reach The End (or even publish on your blog once a week), you’ll fail many times before you get there.

The trick is to learn from these private failures and get better at your craft.

You can do it too.

Writing Your First Book: The Final Word

In my early twenties, I was an amateur trying to figure out my way around the blank page.

I was struggling to learn how to write a book for the first time. Even today, I make embarrassing mistakes. I recently spent two months rewriting an old book when I should have concentrated on publishing my new book, but that’s okay.

Sure these painful writing truths are tough to learn, but now I use my experiences to fall forwards instead of falling down.

Because that’s what successful writers do.

They study their craft. They do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. They have a roadmap for going from the first page to the last page.

In my flagship course, Write Your Book, I explain the common mistakes aspiring authors make when writing a book for the first time (and how you can avoid them).

I also offer you a new formula for writing every day without having to listen to superficial advice like ‘Don’t be lazy’ and walk you through some simple steps for book writing.

If you’d like to learn a little bit more about my approach, check out this companion article: How to write a book.

When you’re done…

Soon, you, too, can publish your book. I’ll show you how!

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21 thoughts on “Writing Your First Book: 10 Painful Truths”

  1. Thanks for all ten points spoke to me. I particularly have to step out of my comfort zone to read writers whom I detest. This one spoke volumes to me because it’s something I have never really done.

    1. Reading writers you dislike is an interesting way of testing your boundaries and figuring out what you don’t want to write. If the writing is of poor quality, it’s also instructive.

  2. Hi Brian

    I loved your blog. It certainly resonated, you could be describing me to a tee. I am mazed at my capacity to do all kinds of ‘necessary’ items instead of writing. thank you for your absolute honesty. I am looking forward to reading your subsequent posts and hope to develop the correct habit which is to write every day.

    All the best

    Barbara

    1. Hi Barbara,
      Good to hear you liked the post. Procrastination is natural to writers at all levels, it’s how you deal with it that counts!

  3. Heather Erickson

    What a great post! I think many people see writing as glamourous. I know that there is a perception that we have a lot of time on our hands. The ability to craft something people will benefit from, plus have it interesting and “error-free” is time-consuming. I appreciate your candidness, and the great content you share.

  4. Hey Brian,

    Great thoughts here. Journalism turned me off right away, so I never considered doing it, but I do resonate with many of the points here.

    I hate to admit it, but I have a hard time editing my work. I love to express ideas. Some writers love the tightness of their prose and perfect grammar. I have to struggle to edit my work multiple times, but I know it’s necessary.

    Maybe I ‘ll try grammarly like you suggested in a previous post.

    Off to share!

  5. Hi Ayodeji,
    Editing is tough but if you struggle you could always hire an editor. Sure you have to pay a little upfront but you’ll learn a lot about writing and speed things up.

    Yes, Grammarly is a nice app. I use it most days.

    Thanks for stopping by (and sharing) again.

    Kind regards,
    Bryan

  6. Love all points except #9. There is no failure in writing. Only the absence of writing.

    I think you’re right that you can’t fake it, but you certainly can dial it in. At least, it’s better to type out jibberish than nothing at all because so much of writing is just the movement. Keep moving and you will move to better ideas. But stand still and you can rust really fast.

  7. This is an excellent post, Bryan. One thought – and maybe this is a bit out there – does anyone else think that writing is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself? That is, writing is part of the process of creating something else, rather than an end goal or an end value in itself. If I can use an analogy, it is a bit like washing the dishes. Nobody sets out to wash dishes simply because they enjoy washing the dishes. But, doing that is a part of the process of something worthwhile, which may be providing good meals for family, or providing an appealing home environment, or having friends over for dinner. So, perhaps we need to look at writing as part of the process of communicating ideas, of providing enjoyment to other people in having a book to sell, or in earning income to provide for family.

    1. HI Neale,
      If you’re writing with a purpose in mind, it depends on what you want to achieve: money, fame or impact?

      Otherwise, you can write for yourself first or just simply practice.

  8. Hi Bryan

    Thanks for writing in an open and honest way. I found your list of mistakes easy to relate to.

    I’m a part time blogger with a full time job and making time to write every day is my current goal. I use an iPhone 7 plus, iPad and iMac with every app under the sun and I still fail to get it done.

    When I do hit ‘publish’ it’s hard to know if the low response is due to poor writing, poor marketing/networking or both. (Obviously hoping it’s the latter).

    Thanks again.

    Alan

  9. This post rings true. The points you’ve made are so true, especially the procrastinating part.

    I am also with you on the issue of giving work piece to family to read. They will always want to make you feel better, so much it would affect their answers. In my case some real critique can do the job, before I even send it to an editor.

    For the past weeks I started visiting this site, I am happy I did.

  10. Great article Bryan. I am now on my second book. My first one is still waiting on me to finish it. Procrastination is my worst enemy. I am almost past that point and just flat out lackadaisical about my work, although in fact I rather like my characters and they call me to the keyboard often. When they do, I tell them I have a thousand things to do, while channel surfing and checking FB. Your true confessions have stirred up a couple more chapters so here I go. Thanks.

    Barry

    1. Hi Barry,
      Ah procrastination, the bane of every writer’s live. Good to hear you’re on your second book though.

  11. Before, I would write and edit at the same time. It got so bad that I was paralysed. Now I’m good to go knowing that the first draft is really going to suck. All the pressure for perfection is gone, maybe I might even reach “the end”.

  12. I’ve only just started my writing career and I’m 41! I was told I had talent, but pursued other things instead. I didn’t believe I could do it to be brutally honest and my family always wanted my to do something “practical”, but I’m not a practical person! HA! I know I have a long way to go and a lot to learn and I can only do my personal best. Instead of writing for fame or money, for the moment I am going to be content just for writing for me. It keeps me “grounded” knowing that we all struggle at times, no matter what our level. Thank you for your inspiring and realistic words in your blog…

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