How to Start Writing a Book (For Real This Time)

How to Start Writing a Book (For Real This Time)

“Oooh, you’re a writer? So have you written a book yet?”

This question features right up there with “Where do you see yourself in five years?” and “Where should we go for dinner tonight?” on the list of questions I really, really don’t want to answer. 

And as a full-time freelance writer, it’s one I get a lot. 

But fairly recently — that is, as of this past February — I’ve been able to honestly answer it with, “No, not yet. But I’m in the process.”

How to get started on your book idea

Although I’ve been putting words into sentences for as long as I’ve known how to form them, part of me honestly thought I’d never be able to write a book. (And, full disclosure, I still haven’t published one.)

But I do have a complete first draft of a manuscript: more than 36,000 words worth of work I feel pretty darn confident about.

I’ve always watched super-prolific authors who crank out volume after volume in total awe, wondering where they got their superhuman powers. I didn’t know how on earth to even start one book, let alone produce dozens.

And given that publication is still on the distant horizon — if it even happens at all — I’m certainly no expert on getting your book inside a cover. But if you are, like I was just months ago, sitting on an idea that you obliquely refer to as “a longer thing” and can’t seem to get moving on, I can shed a teeny tiny ray of light. 

Here are the keys I found that made it possible to finally get started on my book.

1. Yes, you need an outline

Depending on the kind of writer you are, your reaction to this piece of advice might be, “Uh, doy,” or, “Ugh, no, you can’t make me.” I am very outline-resistant and fall firmly into the latter camp, but I must also tell you: creating an outline was the missing link that made it possible for me to finally start drafting this thing.

I’d had a lot of thoughts circulating around the book — lines and scenes that would occur to me that I knew were relevant, but wasn’t quite ready to flesh out yet. I started by just adding them all into one Google doc, which eventually grew massive…so one day, I took the time to sit down and move those dissonant chunks into something like an order. 

Slowly, an outline emerged: I could begin to see sub-groups forming which eventually became the skeleton of a chapter structure. Once I had that, the narrative arc and purpose of my book as a whole began to shine more clearly. It also helped me create separate docs for each chapter to serve as slightly-more-organized repositories as those one-off lines or scenes came to me over time.

In short, even if you’re not the type to tackle a writing project with a tidy outline right from the start, it’s still possible to cobble one together — and doing so will give you a framework that feels a lot less overwhelming than one giant document. I know for a fact I wouldn’t have been able to come as far as I have in my draft without my outline, so if you haven’t yet, I highly recommend making one.

2. And yes, you need to make time for it

Okay, this post is starting to look more like a list of how I’ve historically failed as a writer. 

But I have to admit it: I’m definitely not one of those idyllic get up and write for three hours every morning before I even have breakfast people. Honestly, I prefer to go to the gym before I do anything else; turning my brain off and sweating for an hour or two tends to quash my anxiety and amplify my creativity.

But I’m also a full-time freelance writer (hi, I took a break from my book to write this post) and have to expend some of that creative energy on work stuff. And that means if I want to consistently make progress on the book, I have to, well, book it — which means trading the crosswords I usually do over my pre-gym morning coffee for opening a chapter and staring at it until a few hundred words come out.

I won’t pretend I’m awesome at doing this every single day. But I will say that on the days I make an effort, I usually get at least a little bit of progress in return. Maybe each and every day is too much for you, and maybe you do need to take a break from thinking about it every once in a while. But if you want to write a book, you have to make time to sit down and actually write it at some point.

3. Pick an audience of one

It’s important to think about your audience while you’re writing. But it’s a balancing act, too. If you’re so concerned with what-ifs and trying to pen something “publishable,” you could wind up paralyzed, watching that blinking cursor in abject horror. 

Figuring out how to mold my narrative into something — shudder — saleable left me in a state of perpetual writer’s block for years. So this time, I did something different: I decided I was writing the book for my mother. So long as I finish it and she reads it before she dies, I will have succeeded. This tactic is way more motivating than any pre-publication book deal or advance could ever be.

As in all things writing advice, your mileage with these tips may vary. You have to figure out the process that works for you. Maybe you *do* show up to every project with a picture-perfect outline and spend blissful mornings tap-tap-tapping away before you’ve even had your coffee. If so, congratulations; the rest of us will be over here trying not to hate you.

But if you’ve got something inside you that you know the world needs, don’t let these everyday obstacles keep you from producing it. Find a way to let the words out. You deserve it — and so do we.

Photo via Lstockstudio/ Shutterstock 

Filed Under: Craft
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