How to start writing a book (and finish it, too)

I’ve written posts about the process of writing a book before, but I understand that my readers might still have questions about exactly how to start writing a book.

As is usually the case with writing books, there isn’t just one way to do it, and as long as you end up with a finished book that you’re happy with, you haven’t done it wrong. But if you’re a total beginner writer and you don’t know where to start, this post will certainly be helpful for you.

You might also want to read my posts about starting to write with no experience and writing a book for the first time.

Don’t make this mistake when starting your book

Don't make this mistake when you start writing a novel

I know that if you’ve got an idea that you’re excited to start writing about, you might just want to get started without any kind of a plan. Maybe you came up with a cool concept for a fantasy novel and start writing without doing worldbuilding in advance or considering what kind of characters live in your world, let alone coming up with the actual plot. Or maybe you came up with a really cool protagonist and you want to start writing about them and their adventures before choosing any of the other details that belong in a novel.

Every writer must choose for themselves how much they want to plan their novels in advance and only experience will show them what method of outlining works best for them. Still, going in completely blindly is rarely a good idea, especially when you’re completely new to writing books.

The preliminary work I’ve listed in this post is pretty much the bare minimum of planning you should do before you start writing a book. Planning beforehand is never a waste of time – it will save you time and effort later on even if you change your mind on some things.

Have a solid idea before you start writing

Vague story ideas are great for writing exercises! I have created tons of writing prompts that are barely more than a single sentence and they work wonderfully for training your imagination and you can use them to practise different writing skills.

However, when you want to write an entire book, the idea must be completely clear in your mind. You don’t need to know every single detail in advance, I certainly don’t, but you should have no doubt about what it is that you’re going to write. Otherwise, you’ll be dooming yourself to dozens of rewrites at best and a weak story at worst. Yikes!

Decide your premise, genre and tone

Don't start writing a novel before you know these 3 things

Before you’ve written a word on your first draft, you should know what the premise, genre and tone of your story are. Without them, it’s like starting a lego build without knowing if you’re building a truck or a castle.

What is a premise and why does it matter

Your premise is a one or two-sentence summary of your story, typically mentioning your protagonist and what they must do to overcome an obstacle that has come their way. I didn’t use to think it was important to know this beforehand, but in fact, your premise is a guiding light that helps you stay on track of the story you were meaning to write.

For example, “A boy wizard must endure seven years of schooling to become acquaintances with a fellow student in a competing house” is wildly different from “A boy wizard must destroy the dark lord who is responsible for his parents’ death” even if both accurately describe what happens in the Harry Potter series. It is like taking a photograph, you have to choose where you focus.

So choose your premise but don’t get stuck trying to make it sound fancy. You can choose the exact right words later after your book is finished and you’re ready to have other people read it. Just make sure you know exactly what the premise is.

The difference between genre and tone

You can probably name a few genres of books and you know they are different categories of stories. A genre tells you what kind of a story you can expect, like if it’s scary or romantic, but genres also dictate what kind of conventions you’re going to find in the story. You can expect to read about magic in a fantasy novel and there are relationships in romance stories, to give you a broad example.

Tone, on the other hand, is the writer’s attitude shown in the story. Is it going to be lighthearted or very serious? You need to know that before you start writing. Your reader can see your tone on the very first page and they expect it not to change halfway through.

Know what your main character needs to go through

Know your main character's journey before you start writing

Personally, I like using story structure to map out my main character’s journey before I start writing my book. I think structure is an extremely helpful tool, but if it doesn’t work for you, then knowing what your protagonist needs to go through over the course of the story is the bare minimum. (I don’t know how many times I’m going to write “bare minimum” in this post, but every time I do I need to stop and wonder if it’s bear or bare.)

Every story is about a problem and about the transformation the characters go through when overcoming that problem. (Although sometimes the world changes and the protagonist stays the same, which is often the case in superhero stories.) If you only have a character idea, no matter how cool that idea is, you don’t have a story until you know what the character needs to go through.

I have written a post about your protagonist’s wants and needs driving the story, which you should read when planning your next main character. Using the Protagonist Workbook will also help you craft the best protagonist you’ve ever written!

Have your outline or your notes ready

So whether you choose to do a full outline or only make notes of the most important aspects of your story, you should have them ready when you start writing your book.

I’m a big fan of notebooks and writing by hand, so I tend to have a bunch of handwritten notes and a handwritten outline before I start writing my first draft. By hand. If you prefer to have your notes digitally, I think Evernote is a great option for that because it lets you organise your notes more easily than something like Google Docs, and you can access it from your phone and your computer as well. I don’t personally use Evernote for my books but pretty much everything else goes there for note-keeping.

(Edited to add in 2024: Evernote’s free plan is currently very poor, so I personally don’t use it for anything anymore and their paid plans cost a lot more than they used to. I don’t really recommend using them anymore unless you’ve already got a paid plan.)

After I first wrote this post, Notion became a big thing and I’ve since created this novel-writing dashboard that has everything you could need for planning, writing and tracking your novel from start to finish. It’s functional and distraction-free, but you’re more than welcome to make it ~aesthethic~ if you’d prefer.

Whichever way you decide to go, make sure your notes or your outline are easily accessible to you throughout your writing process.

Know where and when you’re going to write

Decide where and when you're going to write before you start writing your book

Yup, our lives are full of stuff. I know. But if you want to write a book, you have to choose what you’re going to keep and what can go. Wishing you could write will get you nowhere.

If you’re able to achieve it, a regular writing routine is a good way to make progress. However, if you have a lot of unpredictable things in your life or you’re the type that doesn’t do well with routine, then you must make yourself writing opportunities.

When you accept that any progress is progress, you stop thinking that you need hours of uninterrupted time to write. You start taking those 15-minutes windows here and there to work on your story. For me, routines work when I want to exercise, but currently, writing happens in most of those “between” moments, except on Fridays when I purposefully dedicate more time to it. When I get to the editing process, I take bigger chunks of time to work on it without interruptions.

Whichever way you lean, you have to make a choice. Decide where you’re going to find time to write, make it easy to start writing and don’t wait for the right conditions.

Make a commitment to write

It’s something I hear a lot. People think about writing books. Then they do very little actual writing.

There’s nothing special about people who have written a book or even multiple books – they simply decided to do it and then actually committed to doing it. Most of my writer friends have kids and jobs and responsibilities, so it’s not like we’ve been given some magical Extra Writing Time by a higher power. We just write.

I’ve already written a post about how I wrote a book while parenting two children, and while you and me are not living the same lives, you can take some tips from that post. Some day soon I’ll definitely write a post about how to write a novel while working full-time.

Keep writing and worry about quality later

Don't worry about quality when you first start writing a book

Something else that’s going to keep you stuck forever is worrying that you’re not a good writer. Do you know how you become a good writer? By learning and by writing. Do you know how people write good books? By writing and then editing.

You have to be willing to tolerate a “bad” first draft in order to write a good book. No published work in your local bookstore is a first draft, so don’t compare your writing to books you’ve already read when you’re just getting started. Wasting time and effort to polish your first draft before it’s even finished goes completely against the whole purpose of the first draft.

Some writers say they’re doing just fine editing as they go and that their first drafts are more like third drafts. If that works for them, great, but I would not recommend doing that, especially if you’re a beginner writer with no experience in writing a book before. Write first, don’t look back and then edit later. That is the best way to get any writing done.

What to do after your first draft

So imagine you’ve just written your book from start to finish for the first time – then what? First, congratulate yourself, because you have just finished your first draft. Take a little breather, go read this post about editing your novel and then get started on your revisions.

Editing a book is no easy task and it typically lasts a lot longer than writing your first draft does. I would urge you not to get discouraged, though. Just push on because there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing a finished novel manuscript in front of you.

Do this now

Now that you’ve finished reading this blog post, it’s time to act.

Get a notebook or open your favourite note-taking app on your phone or your computer. If you’ve only got a vague story idea with no plot in mind, use the story questions in this post to help you mine for more plot elements and then do the same with these story structure questions. You can even use these brainstorming printables that I have available in my Etsy shop!

Once you’ve done all that, or if you already had a plot in mind, it’s time to outline your story. When you know what you’re going to write, figure out when is the best time for you to work on your book. Jot it down in your planner, if you must. Just decide and stick to it.

If you need help with specific things, you should check out Writing A Book 101 in case I’ve already written a blog post that deals with your problem.

How about we start writing that book together?

If you’re ready to start writing a book but you’d still like a little more guidance and the exact steps to get you started, I’ve made something with you in mind. My free mini-course gets you started in less than a week and you’ll know exactly what you need to do to stop “thinking about” writing and to start writing for real.

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