Being a Better Writer: Some Advice for Starting Your First Book

Don’t forget, Unusual Events is now out!

So, this is it. The time has come. You’ve finally decided. You’re going to sit down and start that new book you’ve been waiting to write. You’ve done other projects before, short stories and the like, but this time, you’re going for the novel. Long chapters. A compelling plot. You can see the final scenes in your head. You grin with glee, sit down at your keyboard, and …

Nothing. You wait for the words to spring forth, but they aren’t coming. You’re paralyzed by indecision. Suddenly you’re aware what a huge project this is. You’ve never attempted something of this size before! Your fingers seem frozen.

Relax. It’s understandable. Starting a book is a big project, one that brings a lot of pressures and requests to the table. And it’s differentfrom a short story, fundamentally so. It’s going to take some alternative approaches to how you’ve worked before.

Maybe this is you. Then again, maybe it isn’t. Maybe you’ve sat down without any prior writing experience whatsoever and tried to write out a book only to realize you weren’t quite sure what you were doing. Maybe you’re struggling through it anyway and want some tips. Or maybe you haven’t started one yet, but you’ve been watching this blog like a hawk, thinking “Soon, my time will come.”

Well, today might be that time, because today?

Today we’re talking about what goes into starting a book.

Starting From Nothing

Look, the first thing you should know is that every book has to start somewhere, and it usually isn’t on paper (or a digital file, if you want to be specific). No, a book starts with an idea.

Note that I italicized “starts with.” That’s because that’s one of the first steps. An idea. An author might go through dozens, hundreds, or maybe even thousands of these on the path to starting their first book. I say this to dispel one of the first misconceptions that a lot of readers or would-be writers have about writing a book: that the idea you have first is the one you write.

It’s not true. In fact, it hardly ever is the first idea you have. In fact, in my time writing, with over a million words published across five different books (and more unpublished?), do you know how many first ideas have made it into a finished story without radical changes?

Maybe one or two. Maybe. Some of them are far enough back that it’s a little hard to remember, but even then I’d be willing to bet that those that seem close to what I remember did undergo some substantial changes when the time actually came to write them out.

And this is one of the mistakes that those who’ve never written a book before often make: coming up with an idea for a book and then refusing to let that idea be fluid and change as the story dictates.

Look, you need to come up with an idea, that much is obvious. If you don’t have any idea of what you’re going to write, not even something basic like “Jane rides the bus to work,” you’re not going to get much writing done. Before those words can flow out of your fingers, you need somewhere to start.

So, starting from scratch? A complete zero? Before anything else, come up with an idea, something for you to write about. Then, don’t be afraid to let that idea change.

A lot of new writers get this way. They get the one idea and they let it consume them. That idea is paramount in importance. They share it with no one. And they become so committed to that idea that they don’t let the idea change.

Don’t do that. As you come up with you idea, let it be flexible in your head. Let things bounce around, warp, and shift. Don’t stifle it, let it grow. Let it adjust, mold, and change around until it’s not just an idea, it’s a plot, or at least the beginnings of one.

Along the way it may have changed completely, to the point where it’s almost unrecognizable from the original idea. This is okay. You’re letting your brain distill things, weed out the stuff that wouldn’t make for as interesting of a story into something that’ll be a better idea.

Get your idea going. Let your brain percolate on it. Puzzle on it. Refine the edges.

Now, does this mean that you’re going to come up with a grand-slam of a plot simply by thinking about it? No, it doesn’t. You might be more of a discovery writer than a planner, the kind who just gets the idea to a shining state and then runs with it. Or you might have an idea that, while good, will still need some adjustment when the actual writing comes. This is all to be expected.

But if you’re starting from absolutely nothing, this should be your first step in writing your book. Planner or discovery writer (and you might not know which), you’ll need something to start from. Get that brain buzzing, looking for the idea that drives you forward.


Seeing the Differences

Right, so you’ve got your idea. Maybe even you’ve gone further and turned that idea into a plan (again, you may be a discovery writer—a pantser—or a planner, so this can vary). Regardless, you’ve got the idea you want to write a book around. Now what? Well, now it’s time to consider the requirements that come with writing a book.

Say what?

Yes, you did read that correctly. We’re about to discuss one of the traps that often grabs new, would-be writers, the trap of not knowing what the requirements of writing a book are.

See, a book is not a short story. If you’re going to write a novel, you’re going to need to acknowledge some things, such as the length. You’re going to need to get into your character’s heads, describe the scenes. You’re going to need to space out the plot and events so that they take a reasonable amount of time. You’re going to need to give things narrative weight—foreshadowing and letting events take time so that they have an impact.

Why is this something you need to consider? Because I’ve read writer’s first attempts at books before that feel like a bunch of short stories strung together, or where the narrative is lightweight and lacking in depth because they weren’t quite sure what the component parts of a book were.

If you’ve never heard about it, look up the try/fail cycle. Pay close attention to the gradual growth of characters in the books that you read. Look at how many pages pass in the plot from one twist to another. Better yet, look at how the author keeps you, the reader, engaged in the meantime. Look at the details they put into the characters and the world, details that wouldn’t be present in a short story.

A short story is a few hundred to a few thousand words. A novel starts at 50,000. Consider how you’re going to fill that out. What will you present that will be interesting? What can you write about in those 50,000 words that will keep a reader invested?

Now, if this sounds a bit overwhelming, don’t worry about it. The truth is, no one expects you to figure out all of these things on your first try, and I’m not saying you need to. What I am saying is that when you sit down to start writing your first book, you’ll need to keep these things in mind. Keeping them even in the back part of your head will help you stretch towards that goal of writing the novel you want, and you may find that it can help alert you to when you’ve made a step onto the wrong path. You’ll realize “Wait, I can’t reveal that just yet, so maybe …” and off you’ll go, fixing what you otherwise might not have noticed along the way.


Set a Schedule

You know what one of the number one causes of people who want to write a book not writing a book is? Not writing the book.

Yes, I know it sounds silly, but it’s true. It seems that just about everyone has a story about how they want to write a book, but never got around to it because X, Y, Z … pick your reason.

So, you want to write a book? Learn from their failures. Set yourself up to succeed.

Find a time each week, or better yet, each day, to set aside for yourself, a time when you know you’ll be refreshed and ready to go. Make no mistake, writing is work, so make sure you’re going to have the energy you need to throw at it. Pick a time when you’ll be well-rested, when your mind will be sharp, and when you’ll be able to devote yourself to it.

Along with that, remove your distractions. Turn off facebook. Turn off Steam. Silence the phone. As you get better at writing on a schedule, you’ll start seeing the difference between distraction and temporary change of pace, but early on? It’s all a distraction. Cut it. Give yourself that hour with nothing to get in your way.

And then? Write every day you’re supposed to. Don’t miss a single one unless you really, really need to. Make your writing a dedicated part of your life. Set goals. Keep track of your progress.

It might seem hard at first. Actually, scratch that, if you’re an ordinary, everyday adult, it will be hard. You’ll probably have to make sacrifices. Give up some free time, some leisure.

This doesn’t mean that you’ll lose all of it. But just a little. Set yourself that schedule so you can decide where to give … and when you’ll sit down and write.

Then sit down and do it. Put those words on a page. Don’t say you have “Writer’s block.” Don’t make an excuse to get out of it. Stick to your system and write.


Now, once you’ve done all that, you’ve worked on your idea, you’ve looked at the differences, you’ve set the schedule, and you’ve started writing, what’s there left to do?

Don’t Be Overwhelmed By Your Failures

It might seem simple. It may seem straightforward. Or it may seem impossible. You might think you won’t face a single problem. But you know what? You will.

There will be setbacks. Parts of the story will fall flat. You may have to rewrite chapters over and over again before you get it right. You might have parts of the story that don’t feel like they’re working. Characters that aren’t playing out the way you planned.

Keep writing. Whether it’s the first page or the last (in fact, special mention should be made to not give up in those first few chapters, no matter how it looks). Keep going. Push ahead. Make changes as needed, but don’t let the changes take over to the point that the story isn’t going anywhere. Keep pushing towards a resolution.

Will it be perfect? No, of course not. It’s your first book. There will be flaws. There will be mistakes that will be embarrassing. There will be problems.

That’s okay. It’s part of the process. Just keep at it, and finish that book. You may not publish it. Heck, you may look back on it in coming years and cringe. The important thing is that if you keep at it, eventually you’ll pull away, and for good or ill, that book—your book—will be done.

Don’t let the bad parts get to you. Don’t let the setbacks discourage you. They happen for a reason. You’ll be inexperienced and fumbling with your first. Probably your second. And your third. Fourth. Fifth.

But if you keep at it, you’ll learn from each mistake. Don’t be discouraged when you look at how much better other authors are doing than you, when your work doesn’t turn out to be as grand as you’d hoped. All those other authors? You’re seeing the results of thousands of hours of dedicated crafting. That “first book” an author released? More than likely it was their fifth or sixth. Writing takes practice. Effort.

Don’t let your failures stop you. Slow you down? Sure. It’ll happen. But don’t sit and get caught up in rewriting the same chapter over and over again (or worse, the opening chapter) until it’s perfect. Just grit your teeth, and move on.


Read

Every so often I’ll hear a young wannabe writer react with pure incredulity at this one. Usually they’ll point out that they’re afraid they’ll end up mimicking what they read.

So what? Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And while it may not be marketable, you can still learn from the experience (which is one of the reasons why fanfiction is a good place to ease yourself into the ropes of writing things).

Those writers that have put their work out there for sale? They’ve written books you can learn from—even if that’s what not to do. If you’re going to start your own book, make sure that you’re not neglecting to be well-read, especially in the genre that you want to write in. Not only will it show you what others consider good, but it’ll keep you from falling into some of the more common pitfalls by helping you identify them in your mind.

There’s an old story that runs around the con circuit about a group of high-profile authors doing a panel on writing, and a young would-be writer stood up to ask a question during the Q&A portion. He had a story he needed help with, and he wanted to get some input. But first, before he would tell the panelists what it was, he had each one of them promise that they wouldn’t steal his idea, because it was a very cool idea, and it was his idea. Amused, one by one the authors agreed, for the would-be writer to say “Well, it’s this idea I have for a mysterious shop that sells magic items—”

The panelists fell apart laughing.

Yeah, this wannabe writer had asked the panelists to not steal his idea, which happened to be one of the oldest fantasy tropes in the book. And he should have known it was one of the oldest tropes in the book.

Look, I’m not saying that when you sit down to write your own book you need to be making sure it’s the same as everyone else’s. No, what I’m saying is that you need to be read so that you know what the conventions, styles, and the like of the genre you’re writing are. You don’t need to be a fount of knowledge about the genre, having read every major title out there, but you should be familiar with it. Know a little bit about the genre you’re writing before you sit down and accidentally write Harry Potter.

At the same time, don’t worry about following the conventions of the genre as you write. They exist for a reason, and there’s plenty of room for you to be original inside a genre while still holding to that genre’s tropes.


Have Fun

Now, when all of this is said and done, it may look like a lot. And to be fair, it kind of is. Writing a book will not be easy. You’re going to want to pull your hair out sometimes over things not working the way you’d hoped, or not being to describe something the way you wanted to. Sometimes you’re going to feel very frustrated.

But when that happens … don’t forget to have fun with it. You’re writing a book, creating a window into another window for your readers to experience and enjoy (even if they never do). You’re letting characters have adventures, crafting worlds and universes to explore.

Have fun with it! There’s a lot of work in writing, true, but a lot of it is quite entertaining. Your characters may surprise you. You might write dialogue that makes you laugh. You may get gleefully excited by some cool, fantasy city you’ve created.

Have fun with your writing. Look for the enjoyment in it. And in that note …


At the End of the Day, Take Pride in What You Have Achieved

That’s right. When all is said and done, pat yourself on the back. Got through a rough spot. Smile and feel accomplished. Finished your work for the day? Nod and feel good. You’re doing it, bit by bit! And that’s worth remembering.


Right, in conclusion:

-You have to have something before you can start your book. An idea, a character, something to give your writing a direction to head.

-Know the differences. A short story is different in tone and pace than a novel. Try to figure out what the differences are and how to engage them in your work.

-Set a schedule. Seriously. You want to write a book? Devote some dedicated time to it. Make a schedule, hold to it.

-Don’t let your failures overwhelm you. Keep trying. There will be mistakes. Accept it, and move onward.

-Read other books in the genre you’d like to write. Be familiar with it in at least a passing sense.

-Have fun. Books are awesome. Writing a book and creating a world populated with characters? Incredible. Don’t forget that.

-Pat yourself on the back once in a while. Take a look at what you’ve done and recognize your hard work. Then dive back in.

Good luck. Now get to it.

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