The Beginning Writer: How to Get Started
Whether you are quietly whispering to yourself, “I am a writer,” or shouting it as loudly as you can, creating a book-length work IS an intimidating process. How do you even begin to do this?
I began writing my first story very quietly. I didn’t tell many people I was attempting to write a book. Who knew if I could finish? Maybe it would be awful when I was done. I couldn’t stand the thought of people asking me how it was going if it wasn’t going well or if I decided to abandon the project completely. Beyond knowing that I wanted to write, I knew nothing about writing. I had to educate myself as I went. (I had to learn things like manuscripts require double spacing, 12-point font, and one-inch margins.)
I would have loved to have some straightforward guidance on how to get started (and keep going), so I’m glad to share my top seven tips to help you complete your first draft.
1. Decide what you want to write. Who will be your readers?
You probably have the germ of an idea already bouncing around in your head. Maybe it is a fictional story or maybe it is nonfiction. Either way, you need to ask yourself a few questions.
What do I want to write? Writing is hard and frustrating at times, you need to make sure you’re writing something you’re passionate about to keep you going.
Who will read this book? It’s never too early to think about the audience your book will appeal to.
If what you want to write doesn’t seem to have an audience, and your goal is (eventually) to sell books, you probably need to rethink your idea.
As a first step, this is very important. Who wants to put in 12 months of writing only to realize that there’s no market for a vampire space alien futuristic wartime romantic suspense story? (If you can prove that this story theme actually exists, I PROMISE to give you a shout out.)
2. Read a lot in your genre.
You must familiarize yourself with the type of book you’re planning to write. What’s popular? What’s missing? Ask yourself if your idea is similar enough to fit in with the others and appeal to the fans of this genre but also different enough to gain interest and stand out a little bit?
I was once on a panel at a writing conference, when a beginning writer who was having difficulty with her plot mentioned that she never reads. (Mic drop.)
You can’t do that and expect to be successful with your writing—that goes for nonfiction, too.
An exception of sorts:
Now, I do know a number of writers who will avoid reading anything too similar to their story’s plot while they’re writing to guard against accidentally/subconsciously incorporating details from those stories into their own.
3. Refine your story idea or nonfiction book topic.
With a firm grasp of the types of books in your genre, you can refine your story’s plot or nonfiction book topic.
With a nonfiction book proposal there’s a set guide of material you pull together including a table of contents and sample chapters, so you are required to provide an outline.
However, for fiction writing, you must decide how much plot you're comfortable creating in advance. I used to be a firm pantser, writing by the seat of my pants with a general idea of my plot, allowing things to unfold as my writing progressed. However, I am now a light plotter. I like to have a framework of the major plot points in the story, as well as a detailed list of characters' traits, before beginning a story. I find that this helps me write faster and requires less rewriting than in the past when I may have written myself into a corner or two and needed to backtrack.
4. Create a writing schedule and stick to it.
Writing takes discipline. I don’t like the advice that makes you feel like a failure if you don’t write every single day. Not every schedule can accommodate that. However, I do think you need to set a schedule and stick with it. Put it on a calendar and don’t make apologies for taking time to do something you want to do.
Simply say, I am busy then, when invariably a request comes in that will interrupt your writing time. Except for emergencies, be vigilant about protecting your writing time! (I need this reminder every so often myself.)
5. Invest in your new adventure.
Professional Writing Association Memberships – There are many genre-specific writing associations with membership benefits that include writing craft assistance and networking opportunities.
Conferences – can be a great place to learn about the craft of writing and the business of publishing. (They’re also some of the best places to network with other folks like yourself. I promise you’ll make writing friends!)
Courses – Just like conferences, there are an abundance of in-person and online writing courses. Check out your local university or community college. I'm a big fan of the University of Wisconsin Continuing Education Courses because I live near Madison, WI.
Software – Many people love using writing software like Scrivener. I do just fine with MSword. Others prefer writing by hand. (Just remember if you like to write by hand, eventually, you’ll have to get that manuscript into a digital format.)
Back-up System - Whether you use an online storage system or an external drive, please, please, please make sure you have a secondary back-up of your files. Your computer will die one day (it will, believe me), and you're going to be so happy you have a duplicate file of your work.
Writing Craft Books – There are many excellent writing craft books. Here are a few of my favorites and those that are often recommended by published authors.
Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
On Writing by Stephen King
Why We Write - an anthology by 20 acclaimed authors
How to Write a Novel by Nathan Bransford
Story Genius by Lisa Cron
Any of the writers' thesaurus series by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi
Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
6. Find your tribe . . . critique groups
Joining professional writing associations and attending conferences can allow you to meet so many other writers. Here’s where you can find a core group of people to review your writing and give advice as you work your way toward completion of your rough draft.
I write in the children’s market and was lucky enough that through my membership in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) I found my spot in a critique group, which has been instrumental to my writing for almost a decade.
Even your local library may have a writing group that you can join. Check out the offerings there, too.
7. Keep going . . . finish that rough draft
Don’t be too hard on yourself, if/when you've neglected your writing schedule, because LIFE has gotten in the way. Just get back in that chair and pick up where you left off. For most first-time authors, writing a rough draft of a novel can take up to a year (or more). Many people, of course, write much faster.
The rough draft of my first novel took about 12 months to complete, however, book three in that same series took four months to write—in part because I was following a fairly tight outline.
Once I have a rough draft finished, I often let it sit for a few months to marinate before I go back to do my first round of edits. I find that by having fresh eyes (so to speak) makes me see flaws I might not have picked up on immediately after writing that chapter or section. You can see my whole editing process HERE. It is a multi-step process. The picture with all the green tabs shows the final edits needed before publication on my first book.
Of course, these are just the first seven steps to getting that rough draft completed. We could talk about specific writing craft areas like subplots, the art of great dialogue, character building, setting and more. But for now, it’s enough to just get moving on writing your first chapter. The rest will come!
Good Luck and Happy Writing, Valerie