How to Start Writing a Book: 9 Steps to Becoming an Author
Writing a book is one of the most challenging and rewarding things you will ever do. We won’t sugarcoat it: it takes serious determination, patience and hard work to finish a book. Talent? That’s not nearly as important as you think.
Every writer develops her own way of writing a book. Some like to pump out hundreds of pages of rough drafts, others deliberate over each and every word put to paper. As you develop a taste for writing, you will soon discover a method that works for you. But for absolute beginners, this blog post should serve as a good starting point.
Step by Step Guide to Start Writing a Book
Step 1: Pick a Genre
Take a quick glance at your bookshelf. What do you see? Mills and Boons historical romances? Charles Bukowski’s Dirty Realism? Paperbacks straight from the NYT Bestsellers list? Anne Rice vampire rip-offs? The complete Dune and Foundation series?
Picking a genre is the first step in writing a book. Don’t base this choice on what genres sell best, but what you like to read. A hardcore sci-fi fan writing a ‘new adult’ novel is only going to produce a shoddy book – if she finishes it at all.
In other words, write for yourself, not the market. Stephen King puts it best:
“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story. Your stuff starts out being just for you, but then it goes out.”
Step 2: Start from the End
Endings are the hardest part of any story. Don’t take our word for it; just ask any writer buddy of yours. Most beginners start out strong but find themselves flummoxed by the time the ending draws near. It doesn’t help that the ending is also the thing that stays longest with readers.
So before you put a single word to paper, figure out how your story ends. Not how it begins – that can be redrawn and revised indefinitely – how it closes. Work your way backwards. How does the character(s) reach his/her ultimate fate? What are the catalysts that lead to the close? What was their origin? And so on. Your plots will sound much more plausible and you’ll avoid the dreaded Deus Ex Machina that plagues so much fiction.
Step 3: Create Your Characters
Characters, not plots, are the soul of good writing. You don’t recall the story from Henry V; you recall Falstaff. The plot of Catcher in the Rye is mostly superfluous. It’s Holden Caulfield who holds your attention. Same with Sherlock Holmes, Atticus Finch, and Hercule Poirot. Characters stay with readers for generations, the stories are mostly forgotten.
This is why you must draw out your characters before you start writing the book. These tips should help:
Write a Character Biography: When was the character born? What is her name? Who were her parents? Was she rich, poor, or middle-class? Where did she go to school? What did she study in college? Answering questions like these will help draw a deep portrait of the character and make her more convincing.
Understand the Character’s Motivations: What does your character want? What are her motivations for doing what she does?
Understand Character Arc: Character arc refers to the character’s development through the story. The essential quality of every good character is change. For example, Harry Potter starts off naïve and ends up a steely eyed adult, while Frodo Baggins is a nobody from Shire who ends up as the savior of Middle Earth.
Understand the Struggle: “Character A wants B, but C stands in the way”. How A manages to overcome C and get B is the heart of any story. For example: Rocky wants to be a champion, but crushing poverty and Apollo Creed stand in his way. How he overcomes this is the meat of Rocky, not the final fight itself.
Step 4: Make an Outline
Once you have your characters firmly in place, start creating an outline of the plot. This is meant to serve as a very rough guideline to hold the plot in place. You don’t have to follow it word for word; feel free to improvise while you write.
Chiefly, the outline should:
Give a brief overview of what happens in each chapter.
Delineate the primary struggle in the novel.
Show how different events and characters interact and affect each other (A murders B, C takes the fall, etc.)
Allow plenty of room for improvisation
Step 5: Write the First Draft
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed” -Ernest Hemingway
The first draft is where you discover the story by yourself.
As you write, you’ll find characters and plots growing in directions you’d never thought possible. The outlines you wrote earlier will often be discarded as you experiment with characters, plots, styles and forms. This is a place for you to break the mold and push yourself creatively. Don’t bother being perfect; the faster you can jot down ideas on paper, the better. Eventually, this rough collection of thoughts, ideas, and plotlines will come together into a comprehensible book – after due editing and countless revisions of course. For now, focus on writing – anything.
Everyone has a book inside them.
Step 6: Get Yourself a Drink
Now that you’re done with the first draft, head over to the nearest watering hole and grab yourself a drink. You’ve earned it.
Step 7: Rewrite
This is the part where most writers fail. Slinging out a rough draft is easy enough; turning that incomprehensible mess into something readers would want to read takes time, patience and practice.
Ideally, you should give yourself a few months between first draft and first rewrite. This gives you the creative distance necessary to analyze the writing dispassionately.
Ask sharp, pertinent questions – does the plot make sense? Are the characters convincible? Is the pace too slow? Too fast? Is the writing crisp and creative enough? Is the story fun to read?
The first rewrite should take you considerably longer than the first draft. Don’t worry about getting every word right – you’ll take care of that during editing. For now, focus on pulling the rough ideas in the draft into a narrative that actually makes sense.
Step 8: Edit
“Write Drunk; Edit Sober” – Ernest Hemingway
Done with the first rewrite? Don’t start partying yet. There is still lots of work to be done.
Editing is the opposite of creative writing. Instead of spinning beautiful metaphors and creating lush imagery, you have to actually delete linguistic flourishes. The amazing adverb you found after an hour’s search in the thesaurus? Gone. Those long-winded, poetic asides? Deleted.
This is where, as Stephen King puts it, you must “kill your darlings”.
To make this murder slightly easier, follow these tips:
Minimize Adverb Use: Adverbs are the lazy man’s writing crutches. They reduce into a single word what should generally be conveyed by context. “He walked quickly to the door as Lily pulled into the garage” is not bad writing, it’s lazy writing. Try being more descriptive – “He rushed to the door as soon as he heard Lily’s car pull into the garage”.
Use Plenty of Synonyms: This quote from Dead Poet’s Society says it all:
“So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys – to woo women – and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do. It also won’t do in your essays.”
Tighten Up: A book is no place for lazy writing. Take out words and passages that aren’t absolutely crucial to the story. Your book should be half its original length after a solid round of editing.
Get Outside Help: Most writers don’t have the critical distance to edit their own books properly. Consider getting outside help – a professional editor or a friend – to look over your manuscript.
Step 9: Party!
Congratulations – you’ve now written your very first book. This is the time to hit the clubs and party hard. Then wake up next morning and start working on your second book!