It’s not really a secret that writing a book is a difficult process. But knowing where and how to start – this makes up a hefty portion of the battle. Read on for some top tips…
A friend recently said to me, “I wouldn’t even know how to start writing a book…” or words to that effect. And at the time, I was at a loss as to how to explain it. First thing to know is that it isn’t easy at all. It’s a lifestyle choice, if you’re taking it seriously. If you’re writing something just for yourself, that need otherwise never see the light of day, then fair enough. Plug away at it at your leisure. But if you have your mind on wider distribution, publication, etcetera, then yes, it’s a battle of self-discipline, self-doubt, and dedication.
But all of those points only factor in if you’ve worked out how and where to start. For many, this is half the battle. Either they don’t know what to write about or where to look for inspiration. So, here’s a few points that may be worth considering when you’re toying with the idea of writing a book.
1. Be aware of your surroundings
Sounds like I’m starting a privacy awareness course or something… And actually, in a sense, you kinda do have to invade people’s privacy a bit when looking for inspiration for a story. That’s not to say get up in people’s faces and ask a load of personal questions. But if you’re in a public place, for example — you could be in a park, in the gym, on a train — whatever and wherever, if you have the opportunity and something takes your interest, use the time to look and to listen. You might find the characters and events bring themselves to you, and with them, the core for your story. I recently wrote a short story based on a spark of inspiration I had on a bus and I love the end result.
2. Make sure it interests you
There’s no point in writing a book about a subject that means zilch to you. Research can be one of the most fun and interesting parts of a project. But if you’re not interested in the subject to start with, you won’t want to research it. No research leads to no book. A matter of psychology, really. You’re more likely to be motivated towards writing something you’re passionate about. If you have a story about football, write about football. If you’re passionate about the Battle of Watling Street then by all means, crack out a book about that!
I’m not a fan of the phrase, “Write what you know,” but if you don’t know about your subject, make sure you want to know about it.
3. Know your character(s) and/or your setting
You can’t have a story without characters or setting. Characters drive the story, after all. I refer back to Points 1 and 2 of this post if you’re struggling to envisage them. Look to your environment, the sort of people that are around you. What do they look like, what can you tell about their personality? Who do they engage with, and how do they engage with them? A few words of conversation can be enough to spark a story. Like going through a Sainsbury’s car park one day and hearing a woman demand a divorce her husband in front of all their fellow shoppers (true story). There’s another whole blog post on things you should know about your main characters for you to read.
Setting is something you can maybe afford to have less defined. But again, if you’re struggling on characters, your setting can help inform some of your decisions and situations. If your story is set in a hospital, it stands to reason there will be doctors, nurses, orderlies and so on. A story set in a school will have a diverse cast of students and staff. And here, again, writing what you know or what you’re interested in will help out a lot.
4. Make a plan (but don’t OVER-plan)
The planning of a book is divisive in the writing community. Some authors depend on their plans and stick to them like a barnacle to a whale’s face. Others don’t bother with them at all and let the story just come to them as they go. Lately, I’ve found with my current work-in-progress that there is such a thing as over-planning. To the point where I almost started the book from scratch and chucked the plan away. It certainly helps to know your general direction for when you start typing those first paragraphs. At the very least, know your character’s starting point (Point A) and ending point (Point B).
5. Get your brain in gear
In other words, practice. Try a little free writing to get you started. Just write about whatever comes to mind, see what your creative voice sounds like. If you don’t like it, don’t keep it. But if you do… even better. Keep a sticky note in your phone and write down any words, phrases or lines that come to mind that you like. Once your brain is used to the idea of telling a story, or knowing what to look out for to get inspiration, it’ll be more prepared for the main task!
6. Work little and often
Okay, so you’ve got your idea now. You know your characters well and there’s a direction for them. Maybe you’ve tapped out a few sentences already. You’re over the starting hurdle, but how do you keep going? My answer: don’t feel obligated to write 1,500 words a day like some people would recommend. For some people, that works fine and fair play to them. For me, I can’t always commit to that, and you might feel the same. So I advise instead to write little and often. Manageable chunks; maybe 500 words at a time or even fewer, or just find an hour a couple of times a week and see how you do. Remember — lifestyle choice. But that doesn’t mean it has to take over your whole life!