How Does an Author Begin Writing a Book?

“How does an author begin writing a book?” is another of the Most Frequently Asked Questions I (and a lot of published authors) face.

Every author comes at it a bit differently. Here’s how I do it.

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The One-Liner

I begin with a one-line concept. Most of these come to me years (or in a couple cases, decades) before I actually begin writing the book.

My current concept list for future novels in the Non-Compliant Space series, beyond the starting trilogy, looks like this:

  • what Molloy did next
  • time travel murder adventure
  • blockchain dystopia
  • the founding of Interstellar Science (Mai’s story)

(That last one is one of the concepts I’ve had in my head for literal decades; I started thinking about that one in 2001 or so.)

Character and Conflict

From the one-line concept, I decide who the main characters are, then start kicking around possible central conflicts.

For me, central conflicts always arise from who the main characters are. Whatever the plot ends up being in “what Molloy did next,” for example, is going to depend entirely on Captain Molloy’s attitude and behavior toward the central conflict. So we already know it’s going to be snarky and prone to flying off the handle for reasons no one talks about.

“Time travel murder adventure” already has a cast pre-determined by the first four books, and given who the cast is, I expect most of the plot in this one to be interpersonal shenanigans.

“Blockchain dystopia” has no characters at all so far, which means it’s fair game to fold into any of the other options so far. I can’t see Molloy caring at all about a blockchain-based dystopia, however, so it’s probably not going to feature as the central conflict in “what Molloy did next.”

Outlines and Suchlike Discontents

Once I have some idea who’s involved and how they’re going to react to the central conflict, I start outlining.

The first outline is usually a page long-ish paragraph summary of the main plot. If I manage to work up any sub-plots at this point, they get their own paragraph.

From here, I turn to the beat sheet method outlined in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! I write messy paragraph summaries as needed until I have some idea how the plot fits onto the beat sheet. This is the point at which sub-plots usually work themselves out for me; not only does the beat sheet explicitly leave space for them, but this is also where I see how they feed into the long decline from the Midpoint to the Dark Night and how they’re essential to the Finale.

Once I have characters, a plot, and a sense of the beats, I can start drafting.

More Scribbling

I typically start each beat with several paragraphs summarizing what happens in that beat. Each paragraph is a scene. If I need to extend this ahead two or three beats, I do.

Then I write the scenes. If I get stuck anywhere, I go back to freewriting paragraphs until I get unstuck.

I repeat this process until I’ve written all the scenes and put them in order. That’s the zero draft.

Almost a Book

Then I retype the entire zero draft into Word. That’s the first draft.

Then editing, a process that, like sausage-making, is best left undescribed.

At some point in this process, I may or may not put on pants. The pants-wearing phase is optional (at least until I have to talk to another human being in meatspace).

The process of finishing a book is somewhat different from the process of starting it. I’ve covered that in detail elsewhere on this blog, including this detailed three-part description of my actual writing process.

But that’s how I start.

How to Get Motivated to Write Your Novel

Many writers struggle with motivation. Motivation is a fickle thing; it comes and it goes, and its visits rarely coincide with several free hours in which to focus on writing.

Yet people do, in fact, manage to finish writing entire novels. Or stick to an exercise plan. Or build a house. As someone who has managed to complete two of these three goals, I frequently get asked, “How can I maintain the motivation to write a novel?”

My answer: Don’t try.

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Motivation is the drive to complete a certain action. That drive can result from a number of factors, whether internal (like interest, hunger, or pain) or external (rewards and punishments). For most writers, the trouble lies not in the drive itself but in channeling it in the ways and means most effective for writing.

In order to goad ourselves into writing, we often turn to extrinsic motivators. “If I write for half an hour, I can have two cookies.” “No video games until I finish this chapter.”

It’s common to turn to rewards and punishments; after all, they’re a pillar of our educational systems and workplace environments. The problem is that they not only don’t work, but they actually degrade our intrinsic motivation over time. In other words, giving yourself a cookie or time on the Playstation in exchange for writing actually makes you less likely to want to write – and it makes you less likely to turn out quality work when you do write.

If you’re seriously considering writing a novel, however, you already have some intrinsic motivation. The key, then, is to provide yourself with the support you need to move from motivation to a finished product.

Planning: The Key to Motivation

Motivation is a primarily internal sense, feeling, or drive. To create tangible results, it needs to be focused into action. That’s where planning comes in.

A 2002 study in the British Journal of Health Psychology split 248 adults into three groups. The first group was given motivation to exercise in the form of a pep talk and a pamphlet on the benefits of exercise in reducing heart disease risks.

The second group received the same pep talk and pamphlet. However, before Group 2 left the talk, each member was asked to complete the following statement: “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].

The third group got none of the above, thus serving as the control group.

Each group then tracked their exercise: day, time of day, and place. The control group, who had received no motivational materials at all, saw 38 percent of its participants exercise at least once a week.

The first group, who got the pep talk and pamphlet, had a 35 percent exercise rate – actually lower than the group that got no motivational materials at all.

And the second group? Ninety-one percent (91 percent!) of its participants exercised. By writing down what they would do and where and when they would do it, this group managed to boost its ability to achieve its goal by more than both of the other groups combined.

The takeaway? Motivation doesn’t matter. Planning matters.

How to Plan to Write an Entire Novel

Writing an entire novel is a big task. Getting it published adds additional challenges. But since your manuscript has to exist before you can pitch it to publishers, let’s start with how to get it written.

1.  Break down the goal.

Your ultimate goal is “finish the novel,” but that’s a big task. Broken down into smaller pieces, that task might look like:

  • Create character profiles.
  • Create a timeline.
  • Choose major plot points.
  • Outline the novel.
  • Outline a chapter.
  • Write a chapter.
  • Write a paragraph.
  • Write a sentence.

Every item on the list should be something that leads in a concrete way to the goal of writing an entire novel manuscript. “Research cover artists” won’t help you get anything written. Neither will “buy the perfect notebook.” If it doesn’t lead to you putting story words on paper, save it for a later list.

2. Work out timing.

How much time do you have to devote to writing each day? Write it down, whether it’s 12 hours or 12 minutes.

At what time of day can you take this time to write? Write it down, whether it’s 2 p.m. or 2 a.m.

On what days of the week can you write? Write these down, whether it’s “all seven” or “just Tuesdays.”

Congratulations: That’s your writing time.

Put this time in your calendar. Right now. And treat it as scheduled time. When something or someone else wants that time (and they will), say, “Sorry, I have something scheduled then.” You don’t have to tell people what it is or why it’s more important than their yearning to binge-watch Seinfeld or rinse out their socks in public drinking fountains with you. “No” is a complete sentence here.

You may find yourself adjusting this time period, and the days of the week in which it occurs, as you write. That’s fine. The focus is to find your time to write and guard it against all other possible intrusions.

3.  Slot #1 into #2.

You might get profiles for every character written in 12 hours. You might get a sentence, or even two, written in 12 minutes. Once you know how long your writing time is and on what days, you can break down the first list into chunks that are as large or small as you need in order to spend your writing time on writing.

Voice of Experience: I recommend being flexible here. Show up to your writing time intending to outline a chapter, only to have a character in your head insist on spilling their life story? Write it out. Tempted to skip writing time because you don’t know what comes next? Show up anyway and freewrite about the worst things that could happen at that moment.

The point is to land your butt in the chair during writing time and to put down words that directly relate to the story, whether those are plans and outlines or the story itself.

4.  Save other plans for later.

The urge to edit while writing overwhelms a lot of writers, especially on their first novel. If it arises, remind yourself that you will plan the editing and revision phase after you are done with the writing phase – not during the writing phase.

Then, do that. Once you have a novel’s worth of story on paper (or in pixels), follow the same steps for your revising and editing time. Then for publishing. Then marketing.

By building a plan and sticking to it, you eliminate the need to “feel motivated.” Instead, you turn writing into a habit – allowing you to focus your energy on the story itself.