You have a great idea and you want to start writing a book.
You love to write. You’re told you have a way with words.
Your friends and family might even be encouraging you to write.
But you struggle with:
- How to begin
- How to start fleshing out your ideas
- How to know whether the timing is right
You might even wonder if you should write a book. Do you have what it takes?
The first thing I feel obligated to tell you is NOT to begin your writing career with a book.
Does that sound strange in a blog about how to do it? I’ll deliver that advice, but please — remember that for writers, a book is not where you start. It’s where you arrive.
Starting your writing career with a book is like a five-year-old starting her education in graduate school. There’s a lot to learn first!
Start with shorter stuff. Blogs, articles, e-zine pieces. Learn the trade, the business, how to be edited and work with editors.
As you learn the craft and hone your skills, THEN start thinking about writing a book.
How do you know when you might be ready? The only way to know for certain is to immerse yourself in the craft.
Writing a book is an enormous task. You need to know what you’re getting into.
Writing a book can change your life, especially if you succeed in seeing it published. It can also allow you to impact the lives of your readers.
And there’s nothing more rewarding to a writer.
While getting started can seem overwhelming, because it is, it helps to follow a proven process — something I’ve developed by writing and publishing more than 200 books in nearly a half century.
Let me tell you, you’ll find it much easier to quit than to finish.
That’s why you need to know:
- How to start writing your book.
- The steps to take, and in which order.
- How to overcome writer’s fear, procrastination, and writer’s block.
You can finally start writing the book you’ve always dreamed of writing.
How to Start Writing a Book
1. Establish a dedicated writing space.
If at all possible, don’t use an area for writing and anything else. If, for instance, you have to clear off the kitchen table to write, that’ll soon get old. Nothing else should happen where you write. Leave your workstation set up and ready to go when you are.
Your space doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to best serve you. I’ve always tried to make mine the best I could afford at the time.
When I first started writing books, my wife and I had young kids. My desk consisted of a board suspended between two kitchen chairs I set before the couch.
Ideal? Hardly. But I was productive and prolific in that space.
Obviously, as soon as I could afford my own room for writing, I loved operations there. But do what you have to to find your own space.
Dreamers talk about writing. Writers write.
2. Sharpen your focus.
I know writers who can treat the drone of conversation and clattering dishes in a coffee shop as white noise and even work there. Just learn how you work best, and if you need silence, find somewhere else to write.
Also know your weaknesses.
Is it clickbait videos on YouTube? Jumping on emails as soon as they arrive? An addiction to your phone?
I’m a morning person and write best then. But even I find I can concentrate better on my work after I have quickly checked my emails and caught up on the news.
You probably already know what time of day works best for your creativity — and if you don’t, experiment to find out — so try to schedule your writing then.
Eliminate distractions, either by rushing through some preliminary tasks like I do, or aggressively by taking advantage of a tool like Freedom, which lets you temporarily block apps, websites, and social media across all your devices.
3. Assemble your writing tools.
You may be one of the few who still handwrite your early drafts, but the publishing industry runs on Microsoft Word. That means you’ll need to submit your final manuscript as a Word doc from a desktop or laptop computer — either Mac or PC — and the best one you can afford.
I write using Word, so when my manuscript is finished, I can submit it as is. Other writing software also works, but you’d have to convert your work to a Word document before transmitting.
Scrivener is particularly helpful for compiling and organizing research, can be used for writing your manuscript, and is also usable to format a self-published draft. I have not found it as helpful for formatting my manuscripts for a traditional publisher. It does have a steep learning curve, but plenty of resources can help, including the popular Learn Scrivener Fast online course and Scrivener’s own tutorials.
While you’re learning to become an aggressive (even ferocious) self-editor, I recommend grammar checkers like Grammarly (for grammar and spelling), ProWritingAid (grammar, spelling, and style), and the Hemingway Editor (style and readability).
Check out my full list of software recommendations.
I love having every supply I might need within reach while I’m writing. For me that means:
Pens, pencils, stapler, staples, paper clips, ruler, pencil cup, pencil sharpener, note pads, sticky notes, printing paper, paperweights, tape dispenser, file folders, reference materials, space heater, fan, lamp, beverage mug, napkins, chargers, extension cords, you name it.
Finally, and most importantly, get the best ergonomic office chair you can afford. Little curbs your creative flow like back, neck, or wrist pain.
Upgrade your space as you’re able, but don’t wait to start writing until everything’s perfect. That day will never come.
4. Develop a writing (and reading) habit.
Block off at least six hours of writing time every week. It doesn’t matter whether that means three two-hour sessions one hour a day, six days a week. Any combination works, as long as you’re consistent enough to create a habit.
Writers are readers. Good writers are good readers. Great writers are great readers. You’ll be surprised at how much you can learn through reading. I recommend reading dozens and dozens of books in your genre before trying to write in it. You’ll see what’s expected, what works, and even what doesn’t.
5. Settle on a great idea.
To be book-worthy, only big concepts need apply. There’s no room in today’s competitive market for anything less.
If your concept is small but still important, make it an article or a blog post.
But for a book, if you’re a nonfiction writer, think How to Win Friends and Influence People or The Purpose-Driven Life. If you’re writing fiction, think Harry Potter. I can’t stress this enough.
You’ll know your concept has legs if it stays with you, if it grows every time you tell someone about it, and if you keep getting more and more excited about it. You must feel compelled to write it or you’ll never endure the grueling grind of writing a book.
If you have a big-concept idea, you owe it to yourself to bring it to life.
6. Distill your idea into a single sentence.
Notice I’m not saying to distill your entire book into one sentence — just your idea. Start with a one-page premise, then start cutting until you can get to that single sentence.
An orphaned boy enrolls in a school of wizardry, where he learns the truth about himself, his family, and the terrible evil that haunts the magical world — Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
You can change other people’s behavior simply by changing your own — How to Win Friends and Influence People.
A judge tries a man for a murder that the judge committed — Margo
7. Create your outline.
This might come as surprising advice from me, a known Pantser (someone who writes by the seat of his pants rather than being an Outliner).
I follow Stephen King’s advice: “Put interesting characters in difficult situations and write to find out what happens.”
But even Pantsers need some idea where they’re going.
If you’ve not had a book published before, agents or publishers will require a complete synopsis for nonfiction and usually a complete manuscript for fiction.
Nonfiction outlines are non-negotiable because an agent or publisher must know what you plan to say, how you’ll approach it, and on what you’re basing your message.
For fiction, most agents and publishers require a complete manuscript because you must prove not only that you have a great idea and beginning, but also that you can finish. You need enough setups and payoffs to carry you all the way through.
In nonfiction, your setups will be made up of promises of solutions to problems or felt needs readers bring to the equation. The solutions you present are the payoffs to those setups.
8. Conduct your research.
If you’re writing nonfiction, you should be an expert on your topic — not writing from only your own experience but also knowing your field inside and out by being thoroughly familiar with the other experts. That requires thorough research.
Believe it or not, research is just as important in fiction because to be effective, fiction must be believable. Make a factual error and readers notice — and you lose credibility (and believability). Specificity lends credibility.
Be careful, however, not to show off your research — especially in a novel. The story is the main course, so view your research as seasoning to make your story believable. It’s the spice that adds credibility.
9. Break your project into small pieces.
It’s been said that the only way to eat an entire elephant is one bite at a time.
Your book may comprise 400 or even 500 pages of manuscript. Considering that all at once is too much to wrap your head around.
So view the task as a series of small pieces: words, sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters. What may seem slow progress at first — especially in light of the entire manuscript. But by staying at the task a little bit at a time, after a few months you’ll see pages adding up.
10. Determine your writing schedule and deadline.
First, estimate how many pages your final manuscript will be — double-spaced and in 12-point Times New Roman font. And don’t worry — you’re only guessing at this point. Divide the pages by the number of days you’ve set aside to write. That will give you your daily page target.
Don’t be alarmed if you start writing and realize you far over-estimated the number of pages you’re able to produce in a day’s session (however long you have designed it). You’ll soon get a handle on your most manageable number.
Once you’re comfortable with that pages-per-day figure and have a rough idea how long your manuscript will likely be, you’ll be able to estimate and set a reachable deadline. Be careful not to fudge on it because you’re new to this and it’s a self-prescribed deadline.
That said, your deadline can change as you learn more about your production capacity. But once you’re able to lock that in, keep your deadline sacred. Only about one in a hundred writers literally achieve their deadlines, so do even that and you’ve set yourself apart from 99 percent of the competition.
Let me be blunt: You will not find the time to write. You must make the time to write.
No one I know has six or more hours a week just waiting to be filled. But we all make time for what we really want to do, don’t we?
Carving out time for writing — if it’s as important to you as I think it is (or you wouldn’t still be reading this) — will require sacrificing something else on your calendar. What’s it going to be? How badly you want to finish your book will determine what you’re willing to sacrifice.
It might be social media. A movie. A binge-worthy TV series. A party. A concert.
Just be careful not to sacrifice too much sleep. A weary writer is a bad writer.
And don’t sacrifice your highest priorities: family and friends.
Just know this: something will have to give.
11. Embrace procrastination.
Yes, you read that correctly. Many experts recommend all kinds of ways to beat or push through procrastination — because it seems almost all writers struggle with it. I sure do. In fact, I should be awarded a doctorate in procrastination.
But somehow I’ve written over 200 books, so I must have discovered a solution to it, right?
Wrong. I haven’t. Nothing I tried worked. I lost a lot of sleep fretting over it through the years. So what happened? How am I able to finish so many books despite procrastinating?
I learned to manage it.
I finally accepted that procrastination is inevitable. Because it happens with every project, I came to realize that it must be part of the process.
Despite all that fretting, I found that when I did get back to the keyboard, my subconscious had been working on my novel or my nonfiction premise. So now I actually embrace procrastination and even see it as an asset. I accept it and even schedule it on my calendar, accommodating it while still keeping my deadlines sacred.
Yes, I often have to go back into my schedule and change the number of pages I must produce per day to make my deadline. But I never let my pages per day get out of hand. Keep your deadline sacred while allowing for inevitable procrastination.
12. Start writing your book.
At the risk of overstating the obvious, you can’t finish what you never begin. At some point, planning has to stop so writing can begin.
Over-planning can become another form of procrastination. It can also be evidence of writer’s fear.
Is fear holding you back?
Frankly, I embrace fear the way I embrace procrastination because it too is inevitable. But it can also be legitimate. Self-help gurus may urge you to not be afraid, to look within yourself or look up for courage.
I say it’s okay to be afraid of what’s worth fearing. Maybe your writing isn’t good enough. Maybe there is too much competition. Maybe an agent or a publisher’s acquisitions editor won’t like your manuscript.
Just don’t let those legitimate fears keep you from writing. All that will do is become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You’ll never finish, guaranteeing you’ve failed.
Rather, channel that fear into humility and humility into determination to do your absolute best writing every time. Sure it’s a risk. But you’ll never know what’s possible for you unless you try.
Start Writing Your Book Today
If you’ve been struggling with how to start writing a book, know you’re not alone.
Writing a book feels like an enormous challenge because it is! It can overwhelm anyone, including me.
But it can become much more manageable with a solid process.
So start today.
Set up your writing workstation, check out my favorite writing tools, and start refining your big-concept idea.
Carve out the time your book requires and get after it. Then keep going, every day.
You may finish your manuscript before you know it.