How to start writing a book

Every artist was first an amateur. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I get hundreds of comments and emails in response to the post on how to write a book. Here’s another interesting, and life-grounding, question from the mailbag:

I found your website hand thought it was awesome. I watched your videos and decided I could use some advice from you.

My house burnt down 3 weeks ago in Burnsville, Minnesota. I lost a 38 foot RV, a 69 Plymouth Fury Convertible, and monster truck and trailer in the driveway and my 16 years old sons car he worked on so hard and never got to drive. I also lost 5 animals in the fire and that really hurts. I still have my 3 children ages 23, 16 and a 10 year old daughter who is having night mares with all this life changing overnight experience. Guess what? I want to write a book about my life and how it changed so quickly. I am very grateful we are all alive and ok. Like everyone else I dont know where to start. I am living my worst night mare in a hotel gong on a month. We have nothing but the cloths we were wearing that day. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Please contact me.

Very sorry to hear about your loss. I do hope there are local government agencies or non-profits that can offer you some assistance. Books aside, I do wish you and your family well.

On starting: there is no single easy way. Everyone is different. There are tricks I list in this essay on writing hacks, but some or one will work for you. The truth is how you start doesn’t matter, but if you wait for a perfect way you’ll never get started. If that essay doesn’t help, here’s additional advice:

  • Plan to write every day. Writing a book is a marathon. It’s more important than you work a little every day, than how much you work on any particular day. Are you good with self discipline and forming new habits? If yes, great. If not, that is likely the real skill you need to learn.
  • Plan to come back. One trick is to remember that the real work in writing is editing, something that only begins when you finish a first draft. I plan to come back later and revise, cut, rewrite and do all kinds of work for the second draft. The “writing” part is just the beginning. Having faith in the next draft has a freeing effect. There’s no pressure to get things right, or even to make them good, on the first draft.
  • Take a course or find a coach. There any many teachers and experts willing to help you along. Start with Jane Friedman and her recommendations.
  • Go chronological. In your case you’re writing about things that have happened, or are happening to you. Great. Pick a date, say a week before the fire, and write about what happened every day from them to now. It could be as simple as two or three facts per day, or memories per day, or your recollection of your thoughts on those days, whatever you like. But anchor on time as the spine of your writing. It creates an easy way to divide up your memories, and to trigger thoughts or recollections. You then might choose to go to your family and friends and get their stories and recollections on every day, giving you even more material to work from.
  • Draft an outline. An outline can be one page long or fifty. It depends on how much detail you feel you need to get going. If it’s your first book, I’d strongly recommend writing a two page outline that covers, at a high level, all of the major events or points you want the book to cover. It’s a good test: if you can’t write two pages, you probably won’t be able to write a book. If you can write a two page outline, put it aside for a day or two and then come back and re-read the whole thing. Is there a better order to explain events? If so revise. And then pick one of the chapters and get to work. Repeat.
  • Keep a notebook with you. Have a place to write down ideas and thoughts about your experience and keep it with you all the time. Your rule should be whenever a thought crosses your mind, no matter how strange or personal, you write it down. Worry later if its good or interesting, but in the moment, commit yourself to writing something down. I have piles of old notebooks, and go through one every few weeks.
  • Read books like the one you want to write. Learn from other writers by reading their work. For every “how can I?” question you have go find a book and see how a successful writer solved the problem. If your book is a memoir, many great writers have written books about their personal experience with tough times. Check out Joan Didion’s The year of magical thinking, about her experience with having two loved ones become seriously ill at the same time. It can help to see how other writers have tackled the same type of writing you’re going through.
  • Write every day. Even if it’s just for 5 minutes, even if it’s just a sentence or a few words, sit down and write every single day. You have to get used to how it feels to sit there and that only happens if you put your ass in the chair every single day. Find a slot in your schedule that you can protect (early mornings or late nights often work) and ask family to respect that time.
  • Have a plan for staying motivated. A book will take 500-1000 hours of work to write. That sounds scary, but most people watch 1000 hours a TV every year (4 hours a day).Writing is straightforward to do, but you have to keep showing up. Think about your reasons for staying motivated. Create a writing calendar where you can leave a note, or a mark, every time you sit down to work. This will help get some positive feedback every time you put in some effort, even if you’re not very productive on a given day. Your output from any writing session doesn’t matter much provided you continuing to work on it day after day.
  • Work towards a complete first draft. You can only write one draft at a time, so focus on the one in front of you. Don’t worry about how many drafts you’ll need. A draft needs to be complete enough that someone can read it and give useful feedback to you. If an entire draft is too, work towards having a complete chapter. Then two. Then more. Ask for feedback from people whose opinions you trust. And with that feedback you’ll be able to decide how to revise for your next draft.

I hope that helps get you started. Best wishes.

If you’re thinking about how to publish:

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