Learning how to write a book is a many-stepped process – finding a story idea you love, outlining, drafting, rewriting and editing. Although you will encounter challenges during your first draft, asking good questions and acting on your answers will help you keep focused and finish. Here are 6 essential questions to ask yourself:
1. Are my expectations realistic for this stage?
Committing to getting your story down on the page is a bold first step. As a published author, editor and print journalist, I’ve learned it’s easy to lose motivation if you demand that your story reveals itself in beautiful, polished prose from the start. John Irving said, ‘More than a half, maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting.’ Knowing this:
Remember what first drafts are for: Just get the gist of the story to start. Use note form. Be messy. Allow yourself horrible clichés and dead metaphors. Just get the story told and leave it until the rewrites to switch on your internal editor.
Know you can always edit a ‘bad’ page: You can’t edit an empty document. Even if a scene feels lacking in tension or colour, keep moving. Note in the margin anything you want to redo and come back to it when your first draft is complete.
2. Where do my biggest writing challenges lie?
List the elements of writing craft you find most daunting. Perhaps you struggle with the bones of writing (grammar and punctuation); perhaps the connective tissue of story (structure); perhaps its body and clothing (description, characterization).
Whether you’re in the middle of your first draft or you’re getting ready to revise, make a list of errors you tend to make (such as plot holes or vague characterization). Check for these consciously as you go, but only make small additions or changes that don’t reduce momentum.
3. Do I need to restructure my writing process?
Sometimes, what seems like a story problem is procedural instead (and vice versa). For example: Scenes feel a bit disconnected. There aren’t enough plot or thematic arcs connecting events from chapter to chapter.
This first draft challenge could result from focusing on micro structure in the drafting process – writing the book scene by scene – and neglecting the larger – macro – structure.
Even if you prefer not to plan, find a plot outlining method you can dip into if you ever feel like you can’t see the way forward, or the connective pathways.
Returning to a bird’s eye view of where it’s all going is a reassuring fall-back. A map isn’t necessarily a prison. Rather, it gives you the freedom to go on off-the-track adventures – you know, at least, where the main co-ordinates of your story lie.
4. Am I being organized and focused, and working smart?
We’re fortunate we don’t have to write entire novels on typewriters anymore. (Unless you love the romance of antique equipment!) There are so many tools that make organizing and writing first drafts faster and easier.
Writing a full-length novel naturally may seem a mammoth, daunting task. Simplify and focus better by:
Setting a deadline in a calendar and weekly word count targets: Google Calendar is free. You can even set alerts to remind you to stick to your writing plan. Use this as a loose, motivating guide.
Use note-keeping apps to store and organize research: Depending on genre, your story may require substantial research. Research the basics of what you need for the first draft and write note-form summaries of key dates, events and ideas in an app like Evernote for easy reference.
Use brainstorming tools to be more systematic: We developed the first step of the DIY process on Now Novel, for example, to help writers struggling with how to write a book (and finish) brainstorm and simplify. Guided prompts separate elements of story (such as plot and characterization) into manageable units.
5. Have I developed the kernel of my story idea enough?
Writing a novel, short story, or even non-fiction such as memoir, has the same task at root: Finding the large-scale and small-scale details of the actual story. Sometimes you can get past feeling stuck in a first draft by going back to the ‘5 W’s’ of story:
What is the story about: What happens? What are the main events and what themes do they explore? What subplots may develop a key theme (e.g. ‘the power of courage’) and your characters further?
Who is central in the story: Whose story do you want to tell, and why is this character (or group of characters) and their story engrossing?
Why: Why do you want to tell this story? Why do characters want or choose what they do?
Where: Where does this story take place (what is its setting)? How does place change, and what new hurdles or discoveries will these changes bring your characters?
When: Does the story span a single day or centuries? Does it depict events in the past, events happening now, or does it imagine a possible future?
Keep these questions in mind at every stage, from brainstorming story ideas to rewriting. Making sure each of the 5 W’s is intriguing ensures even your first draft will be rich and well-layered.
6. Do I need external writing help?
Although some authors finish their novels solo, acknowledgements pages are common for good reason. The conversations and collaborations we form during creative projects often unlock new paths and inspirations. Join a writing group or work one-on-one with a writing coach – however you prefer to get outside assistance.
Whichever way you approach your first draft, establish a process that will give you the balance of structure and freedom you need to tell the story only you can tell from start to finish.