How to Start Writing a Book: 4 Simple Steps to Get You Started
If you’ve never written a book before, starting one can seem like an impossible feat. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the scale of the job, to the point where adding even a single word to that blank screen feels like a Herculean task.
The truth is, there is no “one weird trick” for how to start writing a book. But there are several steps you can take to begin the project organized, energized, and confident about the task ahead.
Step 1: Create a vision for your book
Maybe you already know what kind of book you want to write, or maybe you’ve just always wanted to write some kind of novel. Maybe you’re somewhere in between. Whatever’s drawn you to writing a book, it’s important that you figure out what you’re actually trying to create — otherwise, you’re likely to write yourself in circles.
Consider your genre
Unless you’re writing something purely as a passion project, with no intention of publishing your book, you’re going to want to consider what kind of experience you’re promising readers when they sit down with your work. Genre will not only set the tone, but determine much of the structure, character types, and even the length you should be aiming for. Before you sit down, think about the book you want to write, and ask yourself:
- Do you understand the genre expectations? For example: romance readers want at happy ending for the main couple, and mystery readers expect to be thrown off-course by a red herring or two.
- Is it actually going to be a genre you enjoy writing in? Just because you like to read it doesn’t mean it’s the genre that works best with your skills as a writer.
- Are you going to want to write more in this genre, if your book becomes popular? The last thing you want is all your hard work to pay off, only to realize you’ve now been pigeonholed as a certain type of writer — and it’s not the type you want to be going forward.
Note, all this applies to more than just fiction! Self-help books have a very different tone and structure than “how-to” guides, which have different structures in turn than books offering broad overviews of their topics. Make sure you understand the genre you’re getting into before you start.
Consider the market
No matter what you write, the market is going to play a big role in who wants to read your book when it’s ready. While it’s important to pick something you’re going to enjoy writing, there are also commercial considerations at play. Looking at the number of books in your genre on Amazon will give you a sense of how much interest there is — but more popular doesn’t always mean an easier sell.
The smart author will pick what’s known as a “hot niche” genre. That is, one popular with readers, but not so over-crowded that your book will get lost. (Think about how hard it would be to compete against George R.R. Martin under plain-old “Fantasy,” for instance.) This is where subgenres can really benefit you, so be sure to spend some time exploring what’s out there before you sit down to write. You may just find a new favorite!
💕Check out our post to learn more about popular romance subgenres.
Find your book’s unique selling point
Although you do want to match expectations in your market, you don’t want to create a book exactly like all the other ones out there . At this stage, it would be useful to consider what you bring to table as an author. What unique viewpoint or twists on the topic can you provide? For example: a fantasy novel that re-imagines Moby Dick as a dragon, or an exploration of how the intersection of humanism, Black feminism, and secular worldviews fit into an unwelcoming society.
If you can’t come up with anything unique at this point, don’t stress too much — it’s entirely possible something will develop as you write. But give it some thought, and keep it in the back of your mind as we head into the next step on our journey.
Step 2: Give your book a solid foundation
Now that you know what you want to write, it’s time to turn that idea in a real, actionable plan. The first step of which is…
Declare your intentions and set a deadline
It’s easy to think to yourself, “I’m going to write a book,” and then never actually do it. You know what really helps get it done? Accountability.
People need accountability to see things through, especially something as time-consuming as writing a book. Think about it: if you’re just doing this for yourself, it would be all too easy to let other things in your life take priority. If you don’t make your book important, you may find yourself falling behind until it seems like you’ll never catch up.
On the other hand, if you’ve told other people you’re going to see this through, you’re a lot more likely to stick with it. Especially if people are asking you how it’s going, or if you’ve promised someone they can beta read it when you’re done.
Explore your idea
Next it’s time to take your broad idea and develop it into a full concept.
There are a lot of things to consider as you develop your book, and the way you’ll go about planning it will vary depending on whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction. For a detailed fiction walkthrough, you can watch the rest of the above video series here. Some things you’ll want to consider at this stage are:
- What kind of themes and questions do you want to explore in your book? The power of friendship, the inevitability of death, an examination of the grief process?
- Potential plot twists, and any tropes you might want to use — if you’re writing fiction.
- Building your world and the characters that live there — if you’re writing fiction.
- What other books have said about the topic already — especially if you’re writing nonfiction.
Outline your book
The amount you outline is going to vary depending on whether you consider yourself a “plotter” (someone who plans everything out in advance) or a “pantser” (someone who writes by the seat of their pants). But regardless of which camp you identify with, we suggest having at least the broad strokes laid out before you start.
Why? Writing a book is a large undertaking, and even if you don’t want a detailed map of everything, you’re much less likely to get lost if you at least have a compass. Pinning down the beginning, a few ideas for the middle, and a clear end point will leave you lots of room to explore, while still keeping you on target.
You can learn more about exactly how to outline your book here, and even download a free template to get you started.
Write down everything
When you’re just starting out, you’ll probably be so excited about your book that it may be all you can think about. In this early honeymoon phase, it’s easy to imagine that you couldn’t possibly forget any of the ideas sparking around in your brain. After all, this book means everything to you. How could you not remember your main character’s birthday, when you know them as well as you know yourself?
Trust us: you will forget details over time. Sometimes even the big, brilliant idea that finally solves the plot hole you’ve been trying to fill may get lost in the shuffle. It’s not a sign that you’re a bad writer or that you don’t know your story — it just means you’re human like everyone else. Consider keeping your notes:
- In a dedicated journal
- In a notes app on your phone or computer
- As chapters in your book writing app
- Filed in a binder
- On a series of sticky notes or notecards
Regardless of how good or bad your memory is, it’s important to capture inspiration when you’ve got it. Just be sure to keep all your ideas in one place, so you don't lose them and need to solve your problems all over again!
The next thing to consider is how to actually go about putting those plans into action.
Step 3: Build a writer's lifestyle
Now that you're taking yourself seriously as a writer, it's time to treat it that way. After all, starting a book isn’t going to do you any good without a plan to keep writing it. Unless you want your writing career to peter out after a few chapters, you’ll need a routine in place that will allow you to put in the time to see your book through to the end.
Remember the deadline you set for yourself back in step one? Now it’s time to break it down, and figure out how much work you’ve actually committed to.
Start by taking the target word count for your project (as determined by your genre), and dividing it by the number of days until your deadline. This will give you a base sense of the pace you’ll need to maintain in order to achieve it. If it’s genuinely too much, you might need to revise your deadline or targets, but otherwise use that as your starting point.
Try to build in some days off, as well. Not only do a few scheduled breaks allow your creativity a chance to recharge, but you’re going to run into days when your productivity is lower than you’d like. Building in a cushion for yourself allows you to have “cheat days” where you write less than your daily goal (or even not at all!), but still maintain your ultimate deadline.
Figure out what time of day you’re most productive
Are you a morning writer? A night novelist? A lunchtime creator?
Typically, everyone has a sweet spot: a time of day where the words flow easier and your muse is feeling generous. If you’ve never written before, it may take a while to figure out yours — the answer may even surprise you.
Before committing to a full book, take a week or so to free-write at different times to see what works best for you. Then comb through your schedule and see what you can rearrange to give yourself a consistent slot in that timeframe. You won’t always be able to work at your ideal time, of course, but try to schedule it as often as you can — at the very least, knowing when you work best will help you avoid scheduling your writing for when you work worst.
Carve out a writing space that works for you
It’s important for writers to have a space where they’re both comfortable and uninterrupted (or as uninterrupted as possible — we understand that real life doesn’t always work out so neatly). The benefits of this are two-fold. One, it just makes it easier to concentrate. Writing takes a lot of time and thought, and even a bit of distraction can throw off your entire groove. But also, by having a set location where you work, your mind will come to recognize sitting down there as time to switch to productivity mode.
The biggest things you'll want to consider when setting up your writing space are:
- Is it comfortable? This means taking care of your posture, as well as being a space you'll be happy to spend time in. You'll be putting in a lot of hours here, so it's important to care for your mind as well as your body.
- Is it private? Again, you don't want to be interrupted it you can at all help it. Sometimes this means you'll need to wait until the kids are in bed, or sometimes you have to repurpose a room with a door that locks. Worst case, consider a pair of noise-cancelling headphones to keep distractions at bay.
- Will you have a place to store your things? While all you really need to write is a stack of paper or a computer, it helps to have a little more space to spread out. After all, you do need a home to store your notes, research material, and writing craft books. A hidden corner for snacks is never a bad thing, either.
Feel free to try out a couple of different spots at first, until you settle on your ideal location. And don't be afraid to mix it up once in a while! Writing in coffee shops is always a fresh way to break out a rut.
Now all that’s left… is to do it!
Step 4: Conquer your fears and start!
By now you have an outline for an idea you love, and you’ve figured out the routine you’ll use to make your book a reality. The only thing left to tackle is the thing that’s probably been holding you back in the first place: fear.
Every writer has to deal with self-doubt from time to time, and it’s especially common when you’re about to start a new book. First, take comfort in the fact that the feelings you’re having are perfectly normal. But we’ve also got a couple of final tips on the specific issues that trip up new writers.
Accept that some bad writing will happen
It’s genuinely okay if not all of your sentences are good — in fact, you will definitely write some lines (or even whole pages) that make you cringe. This isn’t a sign that you’re a bad writer: every writer will produce more than a few clunkers in their first draft. Yes, even your favorite author!
When you’re just starting out, don’t worry if anything you write sounds awful. It’s entirely possible that some of it isn’t as bad as you think, but even if it is, that’s what editing is for. You can fix a lot of the problems in the second (and third, and fourth) draft, and once you’ve self-edited as well as you’re able, professional editors can help you polish it up to perfection. Right now, the only thing you need to worry about is getting it done! Remember the old saying: You can’t edit a blank page.
Get yourself a support system
No writer is an island. Hopefully your friends and family will be encouraging of your writing endeavors, but even if they’re not, there’s plenty of people who will be happy to have your back. As you begin your writing journey, seek out other writers for support, encouragement, and to bounce around advice and story ideas. Consider finding:
- A writer's group, where you can either chat about the craft or exchange work for critique
- Local classes and workshops, where you can not only further your education but find friends and mentors
- Writer's conferences, for networking opportunities, and to spend a few days soaking in the enthusiasm of other writers.
And don't forget the power of the internet! There are plenty of virtual spaces where writers can connect as well.
Learn how to deal with writer’s block
Speaking of struggles: every writer, from novice to professional, will encounter writer’s block at some point or another. It’s important for new writers to figure out how they’re going to handle it when the enthusiasm leaves and the inspiration dries up.
We have a whole post on dealing with writer’s block that you can check out, and some of it's advice are things you’ll already be doing if you follow this post. But a few of the other important parts to keep in mind include:
- Try to figure out what’s causing it. Writer’s block can happen for a variety of reasons, from exhaustion to realizing on some level that you’ve made a wrong choice in your book. Identifying the source will help you figure out how to fix it.
- Feel free to mix things up. Yes, routines are important, but sometimes creativity needs a change of pace — or scenery. From working in a different location to taking a break to write a short story from a writing prompt, keeping things fresh will often be the reset you need.
- Work on a different part of your book. This can be either writing out of order, or doing further development of your characters, plot, and ideas.
Free-write to break the blank page
If you still can’t quite get yourself to sit down at the blank screen, consider taking the pressure off: “mess up” the top of your document a little. This is your first draft — no one has to see it except you. Don’t worry at this point about nailing your opening line or what makes a good first chapter. Instead, just open up a document and free-write the first thing that comes to mind. Maybe it will be a scene of your story, or maybe you’ll write about how nervous you are about the task ahead. Anything is fine, so long as it builds the momentum you need to break through and do what you’ve set yourself to do: start writing that book!
Ready to get started? Grab yourself one of the best writing apps, and begin your writing journey today.