A lady stood at my convention table and said, “I’ve always wanted to write a book. Let me ask you, how do you even start?”
I confess, I didn’t know how to answer her right away. I probably said something nice to encourage her, but likely bumbled my way through it. Once something comes naturally to you, you tend to forget all of the little steps that brought you there. Can you remember what it was like before you knew how to read, or ride a bicycle, or transfer public transportation lines? It can be intimidating and scary the first few times and then you forget what even that was like.
Busses scare me. I see little kids in the city hop from bus to bus. It takes me twenty minutes of reading brochures to hesitantly hop onto my connecting stop—not because I am unable, but because I have no idea what I’m doing. I grew up in the country where everyone had a car—public transit wasn’t even a thought for us. I didn’t know where to begin. Writing is like that for some people, and everyone’s process is somewhat different. Some people are meticulous outliners, some people use notecards (yes, like in high school), and some people are “pantsers” (people who sit and right by the “seat of their pants.”)
Since there is no hard and fast rule, what I can tell you is how I used to write and how I write now.
I used to be a pantser. As I got better at writing—and thus more meticulous in my editing, I became an outliner. It happened organically. My old process was that I would write my thoughts, collecting each general chapter’s worth of thoughts in a page(s) in a notebook: what the major events of the plot were and things that needed to happen and then I’d jot subplot info in the margins. After the story was complete I would actually go back and write an outline off of that—mainly for editing purpose as I would sometimes check for continuity errors or just need to know where to go in order to make a change. Now, that’s how I write. I do the same thing, only digitally instead of on paper. I also keep pages and pages of other thoughts, character notes, etc. I usually consult it several times per edit and high light things that I’ve missed or need to pay attention to during the next draft.
Because I start with an outline (that I update as I write) editing has become easier for me. But that still doesn’t say how I start. I just do.
When I look at my outline, I don’t see tiny parts, I see the story as a whole—it’s good to mentally revisit what you want to accomplish with the story regularly. Then I zero in on what I want to write today. I look at that part on my outline and then I sit down to write it (it helps to have a regular space, make sure your calendar isn’t crammed with other stuff, turn off social media, have something to drink nearby, and allow yourself to engage in the story. Once you are in the swing of things, you may find you want to use all your scraps of free time to write, like me. I hate to put things down once I’ve begun on them and I began saving things in the cloud so I could take a story with to work on it in the five or ten minutes before a meeting. Even if I only write two sentences, it’s progress. Just be sure to set aside some of that time to dedicate to writing.
It may come slow at first. It might read like trash—that’s okay. Just get it on paper. Sometimes you just need to start in order to prime the pump and get something more inspired to flow. I would also recommend that you set goals and find a way to make yourself accountable to them—the quantity of your writing will increase and you’ll be happier for it!
Ernest Hemingway said “Write drunk, edit sober.” I’m telling you to get hammered, but what he’s saying is that the first draft can be a mess. Everything works out in the editing… in fact, editing isn’t complete until it’s polished. Another piece of advice I’ve often heard said is to “write for you—edit for your reader.” Find what works for you—find your inspiration and method because at the end of the day, you are writing for you.