Writing: How to Get Started Writing Your Book or Novel*

by Alison on April 6, 2012

Recently a friend of mine announced she’s going to start writing her book. I feel like a mom-to-be who has discovered a friend is pregnant. I can’t wait to have another person to commiserate with. The late nights! The agonizing edits! The panicky feeling that someone somewhere is already writing this very book and it’s better than the one you’re writing. (I assume these are normal writerly neuroses.)

I realized I had so many things I wanted to tell her, and so I thought I’d share them with everyone after pulling them together for her. Here are my top tips and best practices for How to Get Started Writing Your Book or Novel.

Step 1: Settle on a Writing Schedule: I practice this step with near religious fervor. Sure, Zora Neale Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in seven weeks while on a trip to Haiti (show-off), but that’s not normal. For most of us, having a designated time each week that we write will force us to get it done. And it’s okay if at first all you do is stare at the blank screen during that time slot. Just make a standing date with yourself and show up. Magic will (eventually) happen.

Step 2: Read Comp Titles/Know Your Genre: Generally I’m afraid to read the latest books in my genre–especially if they seem close to my book idea–but I force myself to because it’s so important. If someone really has written a novel about space monkeys who live on nothing but moon cheese and that was your very idea, you’ll want to shape your book to feel different. While you’re in the trenches of writing, I recommend immersing yourself in good comp titles for your book. It’ll help you avoid accidental plot points that are too similar and inspire you.

Here’s a comp title for my current project that I have LOVED.

Step 3: Make an Outline: It was important in high school when writing your very first academic essays and it’s still important now. You need a broad sense of where your book is headed. And pay attention to the classic Dramatic Structure when drawing up this outline. You don’t have to follow Freytag’s Pyramid, but you have to know what it is to purposely NOT follow it.

Step 4: Begin the Story on Page 1: When I was on track to be an editor at Random House, I learned first hand what the #1 mistake in book-length writing is: delaying the start of the action. Time and time again, the book didn’t really begin until page 45, 89, or 104. Often, I could omit the entire first section and the reader would be no worse for the wear. Focus hard on kicking the story off immediately. Make it a game with yourself. Can the action start in the first paragraph? What about the first sentence?

Step 5: Remember, We All Write Bad First Drafts: In her book on writing–Bird by Bird–Anne Lamott says something that really resonates with me: we all write bad first drafts. If you’ve done all the steps above and you’re still staring down a blank screen, just start typing. It’s okay if it’s not any good. No one will EVER see it and I assure you, even your favorite, most New York Times-esteemed author has an equally bad first draft on his or her computer.


* This title–and all titles on this blog–have been adjusted for maximum SEO. We’ll talk about SEO very soon.

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