So, you’ve finally decided to write a book. But how on earth do you get started?
This article will make a couple of assumptions. First, that this is your first attempt at writing a book, and second, that you have a bit of creative writing experience before you start.
Yet, even with creative writing experience, writing a book isn’t easy. When people ask how to start writing a book they already know the answer—you need to sit down and do the work, day in, day out for months on end.
The following ten steps cover every aspect of the writing process that you will need to get yourself sat down at a desk and writing.
- 1. Can Anyone Be a Writer?
- 2. What Is a Good Idea for a Book?
- 3. How Do I Research a Novel?
- 4. How Should I Structure My Novel?
- 5. What Is the Most Common Point of View in Fiction?
- 6. How Do I Create a Memorable Main Character?
- 7. What Do You Need to Be a Writer?
- 8. What Makes a Good a Writing Routine?
- 9. Should I Write with Pen and Paper or on My Computer?
- 10. How Do You Write the First Chapter of a Novel?
1. Can Anyone Be a Writer?
The simple answer to this is yes, anyone can write. Writing is a skill that can be learned and honed over time. The best and most successful authors didn’t start out that way. They had to work at it, and learn.
This doesn’t mean that anyone can be a successful writer—but anyone can try.
If you want to write books, you should spend most of your spare time reading them. As Stephen King stresses above, you should read a lot. King goes on to say that people should read every genre and every style.
You should read the classics, but you should also read junk books and bad books. They will show you the kind of writing you don’t want to write, and the kind of writing that doesn’t work. Every novel that you read will teach you about plot development, characterization, point of view, and style.
Aim to read both widely—taking in as much great literature across different genres as you can—and specifically, in the genre you wish to write in. This will help you find your own writing style.
All good writers imitate to start with (even without realizing it). Many will have gone through phases of reading Hemingway and then writing in stripped down, bare bone sentences. Or worked their way through a James Joyce novel and tried to write in babbling, modernist, stream-of-consciousness language.
The point is that the more voices you read, and then imitate, the closer you will get to finding your individual voice and style.
2. What Is a Good Idea for a Book?
The first thing you need to do is decide what your novel will be about. An idea doesn’t have to be fleshed out in detail; it just needs to be a seed from which everything else can grow.
J.R.R. Tolkien got the idea for The Hobbit after absentmindedly writing on a piece of paper “in a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.” JK Rowling knew that she wanted to write about a boy wizard with black hair and spectacles. And George R.R. Martin wrote A Game of Thrones after picturing direwolves in the snow.
But how do you come up with a good idea? You start with the genre you want to write in.
Let’s say you love the Jack Reacher novels. Start with the basic characteristics of a Jack Reacher novel—a loner, ex-military, acting as a modern-day knight and roaming America. Now try to think of a new twist on that, a variation that would be fun to work with.
Perhaps have a similar character, but put him in Victorian England. Or make him a vampire who can only operate at night. The point is to take the classic formula for your genre and give it a twist.
And make sure the idea is in a genre that you are passionate about. You’re going to be spending a long time writing this thing, so it is essential that you enjoy spending time in that world.
3. How Do I Research a Novel?
Once you have your idea, the next step involves doing research. There are two types of research to think about. The first is factual research—the scientific or technical details that you will need to make the plot work.
Getting the logic of the story correct from the beginning—whether that be the historical accuracy of the events, or specific details of an ancient religion’s rites—will allow everything else to fall into place later.
One of the reasons Andy Weir’s The Martian was so successful was that the whole story was science-driven, and all the math and science had to be correct. Similarly, John Grisham was successful with legal thrillers because he spent every day in court as a lawyer.
There is a second type of research too—researching your genre. This is essential for two reasons. Firstly, so that you have some idea of how unique your killer idea really is.
Let’s say you come up with an idea for a PR guru who moves from London to the country and ends up solving cozy mysteries. Researching your genre means you will very quickly discover Agatha Raisin and save yourself months of hard work for nothing!
Secondly, you will also be able to work out the ideal length for a cozy mystery and the tropes that cozy mystery readers love. You may want to add your own twist, as mentioned in the last section, but you still need to know which tropes the genre requires.
4. How Should I Structure My Novel?
Now it’s time to create an outline and nail down a plot you can work with. A plot outline will give you a framework within which you can find your way. A classic plot structure for a first novel is the three-act structure.
This is the format used for some of the most successful novels ever written, so it has some serious pedigree behind it.
In simple terms it works like this:
Act One is for setting the story. This means establishing the world that the story is set in, the characters who will inhabit that world and the goals and problems they will go through. This act will normally include an inciting incident or catalyst that sends the main character into action.
Act Two is all about the journey the main character will go on. Often referred to as rising action, they will encounter problems and must find new methods of dealing with those problems. There will be conflict points and the characters will be taken to a low point on their character arc.
Act Three is all about resolving the journey and exploring how the characters have changed.
The reason this formula has worked for so long, and is so useful for first-time novelists, is that it breaks the novel into chunks and paces the novel so that each act ends on a pivotal moment in the plot. Done correctly, this means there are waves of narrative that constantly leave the reader wanting more.
5. What Is the Most Common Point of View in Fiction?
Point of view (POV) is the viewpoint that you use to tell your story. There are essentially three different options when it comes to POV:
First-Person POV which is told using “I” and “me” as well as “we” and “us”. This is when the viewpoint is from one person, who will usually be the main protagonist.
Then there is Second-Person POV, which uses the pronoun “you” and addresses the reader as if the reader is the protagonist.
And lastly, there is Third-Person POV, in which the author narrates the story about the various characters, referring to them as either “he,” “she,” or “they”.
So, if you are starting out on your novel, which should you opt for? It is highly unlikely you will want to use second-person POV.
Unless you are writing a choose your own adventure style book, there is no need to address the reader as “you” and make them the protagonist of the novel. So, your choice will be between first and third person:
- First-Person POV is a very popular choice for most modern novels, as it allows the reader to get closer to the protagonist. Essentially, the reader is seeing through the eyes of the “I” narrator and experiencing the world with them.
They get to know not just what the narrator says to the other characters in the book, but also what they are thinking when they say it. And this means it creates empathy with the character. The classic example of this is Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.
You can also set the narration up in such a way that the protagonist becomes an unreliable narrator. Patrick Bateman in American Psycho narrates his killing spree from a first-person point of view, but near the end of the novel it is revealed that one of his victims is alive, leaving the reader to question the entire story.
- Third-Person POV is the most popular POV in novels these days, and specifically third-person limited, which means the narration is about “he” or “she” and everything is seen through their eyes.
Third-person POV lets you reveal things as a character sees them, and keep things from the reader if the character doesn’t know them.
You can control how much of their inner emotion you reveal to the reader, and also vary who the protagonist is from chapter to chapter, moving into different characters’ POV. (However, you should not do this in the same scenes, as this is disorienting and known as head-hopping.)
Traditionally there was another third-person POV, known as third-person omniscient where the narrator saw everything, knew everything and could zoom in and out of every character. This was used in many of the classics, but is rarely used these days.
For a first novel, third-person limited or first-person POV are the best place to start.
6. How Do I Create a Memorable Main Character?
Main characters tend to be what readers remember most about novels, and developing your main character is as important as your seed idea. They will need to have a full and fascinating backstory and certain skills or traits that make them memorable to the reader.
Ideally, they will go through transformation throughout the book. Simultaneously, you will need to back them up with a cast of characters who are equally memorable and well developed.
But how do you make your characters memorable? There are two main things you can work on.
The first is to think about their inner life. People want to know what the main character feels, thinks, or remembers.
Instead of saying she was angry, you need to think about her inner emotions:
... the sight of that padlock on the door made her stomach tighten and she felt her face go red. Suddenly she remembered the last time she’d been here …
The reader is empathizing with the character as the memories come flooding back.
The second technique is to differentiate them from the average person. Women swoon over Mr. Darcy because of, rather than in spite of, his bad manners and “forbidding, disagreeable countenance.”
Sherlock Holmes is an ingenious detective, but his appeal is that he is cold, dispassionate, a drug addict, and plays the violin.
In modern examples, Lisbeth Salander was the star of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as a troubled genius hacker with Asperger’s, whilst anyone who has read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will forever remember Marvin the Paranoid Android.
Even though a trait may be undesirable in real life, in your novel it could be the unique element that makes your character memorable.
7. What Do You Need to Be a Writer?
You need a space in which you can work productively. This is going to be somewhere where you feel comfortable and focused as you sit down to write.
The main things that most people look for in a writing space are that it is quiet, clean, and away from other people, with no distractions other than the research materials you have gathered for the project.
For some people however, the opposite maybe true. We’ve all seen people sat in coffee shops with their headphones on, typing furiously on a laptop.
Some people don’t have the luxury of a room of their own, and it might be that the low buzz of a coffee shop offers respite from noisy children at home. The point is to choose a space that works for you and then make it part of your writing routine.
8. What Makes a Good a Writing Routine?
Assuming that you have to fit your writing around your main job, you’ll probably only have a couple of hours a day to work on your book. The trick is to work out when is going to be the right time to write for you and your schedule.
You can do this by looking at your life and working out how to fit writing in with your natural pattern. So, if you think you work better at night, you could opt to fit in a couple of hours in front of the computer instead of in front of the tv. If you are an early riser, perhaps you get up an hour earlier every morning.
The main thing is to find a time you can fit writing in and be prepared to sacrifice something from your day that is not essential. Secondly, you do this every day. And thirdly, you need to set yourself a daily or weekly word count as part of that routine. It could be 500 words a day or 3,000 a week. It doesn’t matter. It is the commitment, and sticking to it, that is the important thing.
9. Should I Write with Pen and Paper or on My Computer?
Next, think about the tools of the trade that you might want to use. For most people this will come down to a choice between sitting down with a pen and paper and sitting down at their computer.
Those writers who use pen and paper swear by it for their first draft, as a way of avoiding all the distractions that computers offer.
There is no internet or social media on a blank piece of paper. And the thing with pen and paper is that you just write and write, and keep moving forward, so as not to just fill the paper with crossed out lines. Of course, you will have to use a computer at a later point in the editing process, and that means typing up what you've written by hand.
Most people now write on computers because of all the convenience they bring to the editing process. Microsoft Word is essential, not just for its formatting abilities but also because you will most likely need submit your novel in Word format.
However, another piece of software that is even more useful is Scrivener, which has been designed specifically for writers and allows you to organize your writing in a drag and drop system.
You can set up individual scenes, chapters, and acts, as well as organizing your research and character studies in different sections.
Additionally, if you are looking for distraction free writing but don’t want to use a pen and paper, there are several apps out there that assist with your lack of willpower. The Freedom app, for example, allows you to turn off all distractions, while FocusWriter allows you to write on a full screen with no bells and whistles to worry about.
And then of course there is our own ProWritingAid editing tool, which provides detailed writing reports on every aspect of your writing style and grammar, not to mention regular writing tips, helping you to improve as you go along.
10. How Do You Write the First Chapter of a Novel?
Now there are two schools of thought when it comes to the opening line, and chapter, of your novel. The first is that you shouldn’t get too hung up on the perfect opening, that you should just crack on and write and keep writing, rather than spending too long worrying about writing the first chapter.
The alternate view is that the first line and first chapter really are quite important for several reasons, and therefore worth spending extra time on. Many of the greatest novels of all time have memorable first lines and first chapters, and grab their readers right from the start.
A good first line gets the reader’s attention and pulls them into the book. You might only have a few moments when someone is browsing your book in the bookshop, and they open the first page to decide whether to buy.
An agent who has a desk full of manuscripts will most likely only read the first chapter of each manuscript before chucking it aside.
Your first chapter will help set the tone and direction of the book in your own mind. We mentioned earlier that George R.R. Martin formed Game of Thrones from the scene where the Starks find the direwolf pups:
The first chapter is important because it allows you to settle into your world and build your ideas. In the end, it’s probably worth spending extra time working on the first chapter and getting it right so you know where you are going with the rest of the book.
How to Start Writing a Novel—in a Nutshell
As we said at the beginning, the answer to how to start writing a book is simple—you just need to write. You need to sit down and start writing. There is no other way around it. Write, write, and write some more!
But if you need a little more help getting started, check out the How to Write a Novel tag on our blog, and download your free copy of The Novel-Writing Training Plan below for everything you need to know.