Start Writing a Book
I canʾt tell you how many times Iʾve heard an aspiring writer say, "I have lots of ideas, but I don't know where to
start." And the response most often heard is, "Just begin to write." The ʾjust do itʾ approach may work for some,
but there are actually methods you can use before investing umpteen hours of writing a first draft that may
make the process a little more efficient.
Not every writer will take the same approach—what works well for some may be cumbersome for others. For
example, the right place for me to start writing is at the beginning, but thatʾs not true for all writers. Some
writers will craft the ending first and work backwards. Some in the middle. Youʾll know early on whether the
method you are using is working for you, so if you choose one thatʾs holding you back, try something else. Do
whatever works for you. There is no one right way.
And remember what Somerset Maugham once said. "There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately,
no one knows what they are."
Remember - If writing a novel was easy, everyone would be doing it, and they would be
turning out award-winning best-sellers left and right.
Five Reasons for Not Writing That Novel
I apologize for starting out with such a negative remark, but I have to do it. I recommend you don't write a novel:
- If you need to support yourself on the royalties. The vast majority of first-time authors sell less than 100 books—in total. That’s
under $400 in royalties for most books.
- If you cannot afford to hire a professional editor ($0.01-0.04/word depending on the level of editing). A good editor will ensure
your writing is clear, credible, and marketable.
- If you are not ready to spend as much time promoting and marketing your book as you did writing it.
- If you don’t have a thick skin.
- If your main goal is to appear on Good Morning America as this year’s newest best-selling author.
Read First, Then Write
Before you begin writing your first sentence, I suggest you read, read, and then read some more. Read books in your genre, and make
notes on what you liked about them, what you didn'tʾt like about them, and then emulate what you think the authors did well. Maybe your
favorite author created a compelling character, one youʾll remember for a long time. Analyze and understand how he did that. Or maybe
another author made you feel like you were on the journey right along with the protagonist. How did she do that? If you can figure these
things out, youʾll be on your way to writing a successful narrative.
Take Some Classes
There are scads of opportunities out there to learn the craft of writing--trade associations, webinars, Internet articles, websites, on-line
discussion groups, colleges, and universities. Click here to purchase a list of many other sites where you can learn about the writing
craft. (I charge a nominal processing fee for this and other lists which are updated quarterly.)
Know Your Audience
Forget the notion that you can write a book everyone will love. That has never happened and never will. Another myth is that the larger
the target market, the greater the sales. In fact, the opposite is often true. The larger the market, the more competition you are likely to
face, and the more money and time youʾll spend trying to get noticed. Furthermore, striving to appeal to a wide market can result in your
writing being too general and appealing to no one.
Having a picture in your mind of who you are writing for will make the writing process easier as you craft your novel, and your marketing
efforts more productive when it’s done.
To appeal to a specific group of readers you must understand their needs, wants and desires. Finding and narrowing your niche will
help you reach and appeal to more of the people who will ultimately buy your book.
Sometimes understanding the demographics of your target audience will help to find your niche. When determining reader
demographics, you may want to consider the following:
- Gender – Are males or females more likely to read your book? Keep in mind, almost 70% of all fiction is being purchased by
- Age – Which age group(s) will be most interested in your book?
- Mature – older than 65
- Boomers – born 1946-1965
- Generation X – born 1966-1976
- Generation Y – born 1976-2004 (also called Millennials)
- Young adult – Ages 12-18
- Children – Younger than 12
- Education level – Some novels will appeal to readers regardless of their level of education, while others will appeal to a smaller
group of people at a particular intellectual level. Be sensitive to the intellect of your target readers and write accordingly.
- Values – Will your storyline appeal more to someone who is free-spirited or always logical and rational? Someone whose life is
an open book or requires a certain amount of privacy? A workaholic or completely laid back? Someone who is monogamous or
has multiple partners? Keep in mind that the risk you take when trying to appeal to readers with opposing values is that you will
end up appealing to neither.
Think about your genre and your story line. Based on demographics, who will be the more likely people to buy your book?
The Five Basic Elements of Fiction
American best-selling author, Mike Wells, may have said it best.
Each and every story is composed of the same five basic elements: a (1) hero who finds himself stuck in a (2) situation from
which he wants to free himself by achieving a (3) goal. However, there is a (4) villain who wants to stop him from this, and if he’s
successful, will cause the hero to experience a (5) disaster.
If you're writing fiction, this is a good guideline to follow.
The Four Ws
You are going to save yourself a whole lot of time if you determine certain things before you actually start writing. Other authors have
called them the four Ws.
- Whose story is it? Who is the protagonist?
- What extraordinary thing is going to happen to the protagonist to change his or her life?
- Why will whatever it is that is going to happen matter to the protagonist?
- When does the story really start? When does that thing happen that changes things for the protagonist? When is the climax of
Once you answer these questions, you'll find the writing process much easier.
Most novels will be born from some inkling of a story that the author thinks will make a good story.
Inkling #1 Example: Mary Louʾs next door neighbor disappears after displaying odd behavior for months. The missing woman's
husband claims she ran away with someone who she met on the Internet. But when the husband seeks out Mary Lou for
comfort in a clandestine way, she suspects he may have had something to do with his wifeʾs disappearance.
Inkling #2 Example: The local hospital begins to be the site of unexplained deaths. When John Smith dies from a relatively
minor ailment, his family members devote all their energy to getting to the bottom of it.
Inkling #3 Example: Jennifer learns she has a twin sister, and she is alive and well and living two towns away. But Jennifer isnʾt
sure how much her sister and her adopted family know about the circumstances of their separation, making a possible reunion
problematic and potentially dangerous.
After you have the idea in your head, you will likely have thoughts of how to feed off it to make the story full and compelling. I find it useful
to jot these wonderful thoughts down. (If you have a better memory than I do, you may not have to do this.)
Iʾm a very organized person and find it helpful to support the storyline with an outline, and the way I do it is by creating a spreadsheet
with the following columns:
- Chapter #
- Chapter Name
- Time frame
- # of Words
- Plot Points
Under the ʾChapter #' column, I create 25 rows and type in 1 through 25 down the page, thinking Iʾll probably end up with twenty-five
chapters, give or take a few.
In the ʾPlot Pointsʾ column, I write a few brief sentences for chapters 1, 3, 12, and 25 based on the narrative arc that many authors use
to structure their work. Click here for an illustration of a narrative arc.
Chapter 1: You want to establish the setting and at least the main character in the first chapter.I choose these plot points because they are typically the ones I know in my head before I start writing. Thatʾs not to say they donʾt
Chapter 3: Novels need conflict, drama, tension, and/or crisis to grab reader attention and keep them turning the pages. The
hint of the problem should start fairly early.
Chapter 12: The most impactful conflict, drama, tension or crisis should come approximately half-way into manuscript.
Chapter 25: If possible, establish the appropriate ending early on so you have a goal in front of you.
change during the course of the project, but I find they provide a good starting place.
When I complete a chapter, I name it, fill in the start and end dates (the story's time frame), the number of words, and then elaborate on
the plot points.
For me, this evolving outline proves to be invaluable throughout the entire writing process. It keeps me on track with the storyline, saves
time from going back into the text looking for specific scenes, and monitors the number of words Iʾve written (I like to keep the majority
of chapters relatively the same length and try to keep my novels under 100,000 words in total).
If you decide to use an outline, not to worry if you donʾt end up following it exactly. It shouldn't be etched in stone. Sometimes when
youʾre writing, the story will (seemingly) take off in a direction on its own. When that happens, if it feels right, go with it. It's relatively easy
to revise an outline.
The Twelve Pillars for Constructing a Novel
Here's the link to a wonderful series of articles by C. S. Lakin on how to construct a novel. http://www.livewritethrive.com/category/key-
pillars-of-novel-construction/ She talks in depth about:
- Plot and Subplots
- Secondary Characters
- Writing Style
The Elevator Speech
Once you have your rough outline created, you should be able to create a one-sentence summary of your story, or as some people call
it, the elevator speech (a 20- to 30-second verbal statement about your book, taking no longer than your average elevator ride between
two floors). You will thank me for this advice the first time someone asks you what your book is about. Click here for more information
about writing elevator speeches.
Itʾs important to have the major characters in your story fully developed before you start writing. Their actions and dialogue will depend
on their many individual characteristics, such as the following:
- Physical condition
- Likes and dislikes
I talk about character development in much more depth here.
Point of View
Point of View (POV) specifies through whose eyes the story is being told, so youʾll want to establish the POV at the onset. There are
three basic POVs:
First person - When you write using I, we, me, mine and my, the story is being told by the protagonist (central character) in first
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing
particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.
--Opening line of Moby Dick by Herman Melville, written in first person.
Second person - Probably the least used writing style is second-person narrative (using pronouns you, your, and yours) in
which the narrator tells the story to you (the reader) as if you were another character in the book.
You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no
—Opening line from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, written in second person.
Third person - Most novels are written in third person narrative using he, she, it, and they.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the
epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the
spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
--Opening line from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, written in third person.
Click here for a more thorough discussion on POV.
Writing requires discipline, and whether you are going to make writing a full-time project, or you're doing it in your spare time,
establishing a writing routine will get you to your goal much faster than without one. If you say, "I'll fit it in when I can," chances are you
will never finish your project.
I'm retired (well, sort of), and for me what I find to be most productive is to leave mornings open for responding to e-mails, checking in
on social media, participating in the online discussion groups for authors to which I belong, and promoting my books. That leaves the
afternoons open for writing.
Most writers will tell you they need a break after three to four hours to keep their perspective fresh. Taking breaks that are unrelated to
writing will help to this end as well.
I can't tune out anything, so I need a quiet place to write. No TV on or music in the background. For others, background noise may be
Most distractions are counterproductive for most writers, so it's important to keep them to a minimum. Turn off your phone, Blackberry,
pager (whatever) while you're writing so you can focus all your attention on your craft.
I learned the hard way that if you intend to write full-time, it is imperative that you take frequent exercise breaks. If you don't, you could
provoke serious back, neck, and shoulder problems. In addition, according to the Mayo Clinic website:
Research has linked sitting for long periods of time with a number of health concerns, including obesity and metabolic
syndrome — a cluster of conditions that includes increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist
and abnormal cholesterol levels. Too much sitting also seems to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and
cancer. One study compared adults who spent less than two hours a day in front of the TV or other screen-based entertainment
with those who logged more than four hours a day of recreational screen time. Those with greater screen time had a nearly 50
percent increased risk of death from any cause, and about a 125 percent increased risk of events associated with
cardiovascular disease, such as chest pain (angina) or heart attack.
You may want to try a height-adjustable desk. The one I use is the Varidesk. Switching between sitting and standing throughout the day
has made a significant difference for me.
Writing Vs Editing
Writing and editing require different skill sets, and in order to achieve the most productivity, I recommend keeping them separate by
writing a complete first draft of your novel first before doing any editing. That way you can keep your creative juices flowing freely for an
extended period of time before you start the arduous task of editing.
Warning: If you're like most writers, you'll spend more time editing than you did writing the initial manuscript. I find it useful to take a
break between finishing that first draft and starting the editing process, so I have a fresh perspective. If you're anything like me, you'll
end up saying, "I can't believe I actually wrote that," more than once.
There are numerous reference books available that will help you produce a well-written compelling novel. Here is my list of the 'must-
The Chicago Manual of Style -- most editors, proofreaders, copywriters, and publishers use this reference guide for rules on grammar,
spelling, punctuation, and so much more. It is available in hardcover, or you can subscribe to the electronic version by visiting http:
The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White -- the best little reference book you'll ever find on word and punctuation usage;
sentence and paragraph structure; misused words and expressions; and more.
Writing Fiction (A Guide to Narrative Craft) by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French -- a 400-page reference book that includes
everything you need to know in order to write a successful novel.
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