How to Write, Format, and Self-Publish the Next Great American Novel

How to write, format, and self-publish the next Great American Novel
How to Write, Format, and Self-Publish the Next Great American Novel
That idea isn't worth anything if you never get it on paper.

At this very moment, you've got a story burning inside, just waiting to be told. You have an idea about a boy who ran away from home only to be taken in by Alabama backwoods folks who raise pet raccoons and teach him how to trust again—the next Great American Novel.

Well now, thanks to me (I'd better be in those acknowledgments) I'm going teach you how to write a book.

In the Beginning

An idea strikes you; you commit that idea to a sheet of paper. It’s a good idea in theory, but it needs more. Several years later, you witness something tragic or funny and you put that idea on paper. Years later, you find the two papers—separate ideas from different times in your life that gel quite nicely. You’ve got your story!

Now get to work. A lot of writers will tell you: Sit down and start! Let the story write itself. You can try that, but I don’t like to write that way. I like to write this way …

Notes circled and highlighted

That photo reveals the first thirteen pages of my book on one little sheet of paper.

I use an outline. I create the story in my head, flesh out ideas, change my mind, tweak things, add dialogue, and talk out loud. To myself. I write the entire book in bullets first.

Highlight what might need revisions and draw an arrow to the place where you want to move the scene.

Once your outline is completed, all you have to do is fill in the blanks. Totes easy.

Figure Out What Template You Need Before You Start Writing

Download the Word template before you start writing your book; write it in the template you’ve downloaded. That way, it’s ready to go when you’re done and you won’t have to do any reformatting.

If you write a novel in a basic Microsoft Word document page, you will have to cut and paste your novel into a 5 x 8 template if that is the book size you select. Furthermore, you will have to add stuff on the left facing page like the dedication (to your loving Grandma, of course), the setting (“New York City, 1973”), etc. You’ll have to add a left facing header on every page (“Author Name”) and a right facing header on every page (“Title of the Book”) and the page number at the bottom of each page.

So you download yourself a template and you notice, as you’re writing, that the text on the left facing pages isn’t lining up with the text on the right facing pages. You didn’t do anything wrong. This is done to factor in how close the text is to the interior spine of the book.

Everything lines up nicely when you’ve got a printed book. You can read nicely uniformed paragraphs where text doesn’t bleed into the book’s spine.

Graphical user interface showing tabs

In a novel, there are absolutely no white spaces between paragraphs. The only indicator of a new paragraph is the indent. The photo below, my first proof, was incorrect. I had to delay the publication of Roman by two weeks because I had to manually pull up each paragraph and resubmit the manuscript for review and wait for the proof to be mailed.

close up of novel text

You’ll want to be cautious of orphans and widows, since you are publishing this by yourself and your self-publisher won’t do the best job relaying all of the pertinent formatting information. Orphan and a widow? A single word or sentence (not quote) on the top or bottom of a page or all by it’s lonesome, like this:

Close up of novel page

Formatting all of this after the fact will inevitably cause formatting issues, so it’s best to start writing your book in the 5 x 8 template from the jump.

Rough Draft Final Copy Newest Final Copy FINAL Final Copy

Congratulations! You’ve completed your first draft. It looks great. Actually, it might look like crap. But that’s okay. Your first draft isn’t supposed to be ready for publication. You’re going to go through innumerable rewrites.

You might take a hiatus; let your brain breathe, only to return to your book to discover that you no longer want the story placed in Alabama. You relocate to upstate New York. You rewrite entire scenes, changing the way people talk, removing southern charm (of backwoods folks from Alabama …), and replacing Alabama points of interest like Noccalula Falls Park (toootally had to Google that) with Niagara Falls.

Version control is critical. With several manuscript copies on your desktop, you could lose track of your latest one. Wouldn’t it be a shame if you were on version three of your book, but spent a lot of time editing version two by mistake?

So what do you title your endless stream of edited manuscripts? It’s simple and requires only a few things: Two folders, one letter, and one number: V1.

Every time you junk an old manuscript, place it in a file entitled, “Hell.” Can’t you just delete it? No. You may need to refer to an older draft. You thought you added the funny story to V3, but after a read-through, it wasn’t there. Refer to V2 to locate that funny story for V3.

Your latest manuscript will live alone in a folder entitled, “CURRENT VERSION.” I didn’t do that. Wouldn’t it suck if you accidentally uploaded an old version to the publishers by mistake because you didn’t have version control? That almost happened to me. Which is my latest version? You tell me:

Folder on computer with novel documents


Editing as you go will save time. But you cannot edit alone, because frankly, after a while your eyes will turn into Krispy Kreme donuts, glazing over as you sit on your sofa in your boxers robotically turning pages.

If you’re going to self publish, which I imagine you will unless Stephen King is your uncle, you’re going to have the option of paying for an editor. This is a valuable service. If you’ve got a highly educated literary friend, forgo the expensive fees and offer your buddy a couple hundred bucks to edit your work. Or offer to take him to Cook Out next time you’re in North Carolina (Southerners, is this place awesome or what?).

You’ve got a self-imposed deadline in mind, but you haven’t shared that with your friend. Big mistake. Friends are busy. Make sure your friend has the time before you turn over your manuscript. Tell him you need it back in one month and if it’s not done, you understand, but he won’t receive payment and you will move on to someone else.

If you don’t have any friends who can edit your book, it will cost you a pretty penny, but it’s worth it because your name goes under the title. The cost of an editor depends on three things: The level of editing your book needs, the size of your book, and whether or not you decide to employ your self-publishing company’s editor. CreateSpace’s comprehensive copyediting costs $210 for the first 10,000 words and then .021 cents per additional word. It adds up.

Once you’re done writing, editing, reading, paying an editor, making the changes, and reading it again, then, and only then, should you let a friend read your precious work. This fresh pair of eyes is necessary before publication. After final changes, it’s go time. Sorta’.

Finding a Publisher

Writing a book can take years, including editing and self-publishing. If you use the traditional route, plan on adding several more years to the process. Why? Because you’ll have to find an agent. Finding an agent requires writing query letters (specific rules for these letters—Google ‘em). This is where you brag about writing for Primer Magazine.

If you want to take a stab at finding an agent, searching for one is pretty simple: Google “Literary Agents.” You will typically see a bio of every agent the agency employs. Scroll through until you find the one that specializes in erotic vampire chick lit if that’s your genre.

Agents are very specific in their guidelines for submission. Or they will flat out tell you that they are no longer accepting submissions. Do not waste your time. That’s not some secret publishing lingo to weed out the unmotivated people. Not taking submissions means you’re wasting your time reaching out to them; you will receive a rejection letter.

You might have to include the first three chapters. Plan on getting rejected 100+ times from agencies. They don’t work with your genre. Your book seems interesting, but it’s not for them.

If you’re lucky (or gifted) an agent will pick you up. Now the agent has to shop your novel to publishing houses. More time.

If this process is too long for you, self-publish. Among the many options, there is only one worth paying any attention to: CreateSpace. They’re owned by (surprise).

When I wrote my first book, I used iUniverse. It cost me more than I ever made. CreateSpace offers higher royalty payments and the same services as the other guys with no up front fees. All you have to is buy an ISBN number, and if you suck with formatting and graphic design, some basic services.

Learn from my Mistakes

In 2011, when I had the idea to write Roman, it was just notes on a piece of paper. By 2012, I had a first draft completed.

Roman was situated in Paris, 1973 until a literary friend read it and asked, “Why Paris? You don’t know anything about Paris.” I rewrote the book, moving it from Paris to Manhattan and Washington, D.C. (More to the point, my friend advised using a familiar setting).

I was seeking a publication date of October 2013. But my editor took longer than expected. I could have moved onto a different editor, but his initial feedback was so insightful, I felt the extra time would prove more valuable.

I reached out to CreateSpace in November, educating myself about their process. My cousin began designing the cover page; another friend helped craft a press release.

While editing, I paid attention to the big stuff: Flow, character development, eliminating repetition, eliminating repetition. Now it was time to sweat the small stuff. My girlfriend patiently listened as I read the final copy out loud. Four times. In a row. She offered the nitty gritty critique. We caught several errors, some typos, some content related.

Research everything. There’s a scene when Roman drinks from a juice box. Research revealed that the juice box wasn’t invented until the 1980s, seven years after Roman takes place.

It was ready. I held it up in my hands like this:

Lion King lions

The final process took longer than I planned due to formatting issues with the cover design. The template provided to me was not adequate, which caused the text on the back of the cover to be cut off.

Each error extended publication by two weeks because I had to review a physical copy every time a change was made.


Primer readers are familiar with them interwebz. Goodreads allows you to have giveaway contests. Buying ads on Facebook for direct marketing is a good start, but that won’t guarantee big sales. You’ll go crazy hashtagging the words #book and #novel.

What you need is a press release (Google lengthy instructions, but remember: Keep your press release under a page and get all the good stuff out of the way in the first paragraph) and a few hours of free time to gather email addresses from every newspaper and magazine in the country. Spend countless hours emailing press releases to everyone. Be personable. Be succinct with your cover letter.

When someone agrees to review your book, run every red light to the post office. Overnight it and save your receipt. In fact, hold on to every receipt for tax purposes. Once you start making money off your book, your taxman can do something with your expenses. I’m not sure what, exactly, because taxes?? What are those?

Rely on friends to get the word out. Send everyone you know an email, but send them in bunches of five so the recipients will feel all warm and special on the inside. “Hey guys! I need you, my closest friends in the world, to help get the word out. Tweet about my book. Facebook about it. Send carrier pigeons.”

Make bookmarks. If you take public transportation and see people reading books, hand them a bookmark. If you have friends who own a small business, ask them to host a book-signing event. Ask local bookstores to sell a few copies. Write an article for Primer about how to write a book and reference your book several times, providing links for readers to buy it. Oh. Wait …

Lion King that shit. Hold it up in the air and say, “My brain made this!”

Kenneth Suna

Kenneth Suna is a writer and self-employed stock trader who lives in Washington, D.C. His novel, Roman, was recently published. He is the founder of, an online magazine which features human interest stories and social commentary. Follow him @KennethSuna