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I Want to Be a Writer, but How Do I Get Started Writing a Book?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Putting the first words of a story down on page is like someone who’s never sewn anything cutting into an expensive piece of silk to make a dress. If that seamstress doesn’t know how to sew, doesn’t know what a dress pattern looks like or how to read the instructions on it, she’s going to end up ruining the silk and being discouraged from ever trying again. So what is the amateur to do?

Well, in sewing, we start with simple patterns and cheap fabrics, but we still choose to make something that we’ll like in finished form.

Just as the first-time seamstress wouldn’t expect to turn out a perfect red-carpet evening gown on her first attempt, you can’t sit down to start writing expecting to turn out a perfect story/manuscript.

So . . . how do you get started writing a novel?

Well, it depends on what kind of a writer you are. I have to start at the beginning and write through in linear order to the end—even though it means the opening chapters will need some serious work once I finish the first draft.

I have to see the story evolve on page just as if I were reading a book from cover to cover. Upon a rare occasion, when a scene comes to me fully formed, I might write ahead, just to make sure I don’t lose the idea—and many times, this might help me gain momentum in the linear writing, to write toward that scene. However, sometimes I end up not using that scene—but it did teach me something about the characters I might not have otherwise known.

What’s helped me the most in recent years is the fact that other than Stand-In Groom and Ransome’s Honor, which were completed manuscripts when they sold, everything I’ve written was contracted from a synopsis. So when I’d get past that oh-so-exciting, I’m-working-on-something-new opening and I’d get stuck, I could pull my synopsis out and write out scene cards—for those I’d already written (seen at the top) and for those I wanted to include (seen on bottom), whether they were in the synopsis or whether reading back through everything made me think of new scenes to include.

Wall Plotting |

You’re Not Writing “a Book”

The most important thing to keep in mind when you sit down to that Sphinx-like blank page is that you’re not sitting down to write “a book.” You’re writing a Chapter or a Page or a Paragraph or a Sentence. If you sit down at the beginning of a project with the weight of a 90,000-word manuscript hanging on your shoulders, you may find yourself crushed by it.

Think about it this way instead. If you can challenge yourself to write 1,000 words a day, you can have a completed first draft in about three months. If you can only do 500 words a day, you’ll still have completed your draft in six months. And that’s only if you’re writing trade-length fiction. If you’re writing a novella (20,000 to 30,000 words) or category-length (45,000 to 65,000 words), the number of days is even shorter.

So how do you get started writing a book? Easy: the same way you’d eat an elephant. One bite—one word—at a time.

Putting Words on Paper

I Want to Be a Writer, but How Do I Get Started Writing a Book | KayeDacus.comBut putting words on the page isn’t all there is to getting started writing a book. Besides passion for your characters and what seems, at the moment, to be an interesting scenario, there’s a lot more that goes into starting a book.

  • Know what point of view you’re going to write in (first person, third-person limited, etc.).
  • Know which characters are going to be your viewpoint characters (the only ones whose heads you’ll get inside of). This can change as you write (that’s what revisions are for!), but you need to have a pretty solid plan for viewpoint before you start.
  • Know what your basic story structure/plot is. If you’re writing a genre like romance or mystery, you pretty much know where you’re going—it’s how you get there that’s leading you to write in the first place. If you’re crossing genres or writing more literary-style fiction, this may take a little more work.
  • Allow yourself to make mistakes, to forget “the rules,” to write crap. This is when the parents are out of the house and the Little Sister (creative side of the brain) is completely ignoring what Big Sister (analytical side of the brain) is trying to tell her to do. Let Little Sister out to play while writing your first draft.
  • Don’t give up. Writing may seem easy and fun when you’re just getting started, but it gets hard fast. The internal and external critics make us doubt ourselves, our characters, and our stories. We get lost in the middle and are not sure how to get out. We write ourselves into a corner. We run out of creative energy somewhere around the 30,000-word mark. Don’t give up.


For Discussion:
What do you need to know about your story before you start writing it?

Have you spent all of your time “planning” your story but haven’t started it yet? What do you need for motivation to get started?

How do you keep yourself motivated after you write the opening of your book?

  1. Thursday, October 3, 2013 1:18 pm

    Great ideas. I especially like the reminder to not think about writing a book, but to instead think of writing a chapter, a page, etc. I used to just jump right in and write as a teenager. As an adult, however, maybe as a result of university study, I would invest my time researching and planning my stories but freeze up when it came time to write anything. Once I have an initial idea, now, I’m learning to just jump right into the writing – even if it sounds silly, at first – and then prepare a more detailed plan once I’m past the first 500 words. I find then that the mental barrier of writing is gone and it’s a lot easier to keep going with it.


    • Thursday, October 3, 2013 1:44 pm

      For the first time in more than eight years, I’m writing something that isn’t under deadline, under scrutiny, under contract, or under obligation. I’m writing it for ME (and for the readers who’ve been begging for this story), but I’m planning to self-publish it, so there’s no pressure on when it has to be done. Because I churned out so many books in so short a time, I had to learn to edit as I wrote because I wasn’t going to have time to do any revisions before deadlines, and to write as “perfectly” as possible on the first time through . . . which sucked all the fun and joy out of the process.

      But now, with this story in progress, I feel like I’m re-learning how to write from a place of fun and joy. I’m allowing myself to use passive language and blank lines when I can’t think of the right word or turn of phrase or name for a minor character. I’m using a non-standard font (I started out with a hand-writing font, but that was too hard to read when I was on my phone or iPad re-reading what I’ve done so far). So I switched to Georgia, because that’s the font that my blog defaults to, and I’ve never had a problem with writer’s block here. 😉

      I now no longer dread facing the blank page. The thought of starting (or continuing) to write no longer makes me freeze up. Mainly because the fear of failure isn’t there anymore. The fear of missing deadline is gone. The obligation to write something I might not be “feeling” at the moment isn’t there.

      I like the idea of just jumping in, whether it’s at the beginning or at some random spot if an idea comes to you. As I’m quite fond of saying—everything can be fixed except for a blank page. The only way to fix a blank page is to write something!


  2. Lady DragonKeeper permalink
    Thursday, October 3, 2013 2:05 pm

    Wonderful post! As a lifelong reader, I’ve often contemplated writing, but never have … I think because I haven’t really brainstormed a plot that I fell is “unique enough” and get clogged up on researching time periods …


    • Lady DragonKeeper permalink
      Thursday, October 3, 2013 2:06 pm

      *feel 🙂


    • Thursday, October 3, 2013 3:15 pm

      I had the research issue when I was in my late teens/early 20s when I thought I was meant to write Civil War-era romances because that’s the era of history I was minoring in and knew the most about. But I couldn’t get past the non-fiction of it to be able to write those stories.

      However, I think coming to the British Regency and Victorian eras through fiction first and becoming fascinated with it through the eyes of characters and not just as a researcher was why I was able to write fiction set in those eras, because that’s how I was accustomed to experiencing them.

      I’m stuck in the Tudor era (Henry VIII – Elizabeth I) with my reading right now, both fiction and nonfiction, and everyone who knows me is encouraging me to write stories set during that time. But even with all of that reading (and it’s reading, not research, even with the nonfiction), I haven’t had a single spark of a story idea set during that time.

      I read a letter to Dear Prudence today about someone who wanted to major in creative writing but got a nursing degree instead who now uses her ideas to write fake letters to advice columns and keeps track of how many of them get published/answered. It’s definitely a unique way (and one that’s not too time consuming, as those are short) to play with the idea of a character in a certain situation.


  3. Lady DragonKeeper permalink
    Thursday, October 3, 2013 10:26 pm

    I can relate to that … I love reading about certain time periods, but never have thought of a story idea yet (minus vague things such as wanting to include characters of Asian descent in a historical, pre-WWII setting).

    Writing something shorter to get my feet wet is a good idea! That example makes me wonder how many other people are writing fictional letters to advice columns … 🙂


    • Friday, October 4, 2013 8:59 am

      I read a couple of different ones, and I would imagine from those a great many people do it. I would imagine, though, that those who are most adept at it are the ones you’d never suspect of being fake, and those you think are fake are most likely real!


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