So I’m a huge supporter of the idea of writing for your own enjoyment. If you want to write poems or journal entries or short stories for your eyes only (or for a few select friends), that’s a fantastic outlet that will make you a better creative thinker and give you a relaxing way to unwind. There’s so much self-discovery in the process of writing, and it’s fun. In other words, you don’t have to be published to make writing well worth your while!
But let’s say you’ve got a great idea for a novel, a memoir, a biography, a self-help book, etc. You’ve got your heart set on getting this written and getting it out to an audience. But you’ve got little to no writing experience, and you don’t know what’s ahead.
Where do you even begin?
You might think it’s best to do one of the following first:
- Go to a writer’s conference and soak in all the information you can.
- Read a ton of books about writing.
- Read a ton of blog posts about the writing craft.
- Join a writer’s critique group.
- Brag to all your friends that you’re going to write a book.
- Find a published writer and ask them to tell you everything they know about how to write a book.
- Spend a lot of money on pretty journals and writing paper and think about all the things you’re going to write in there.
Now, many of these are good things (OK, maybe just the first four are) but they’re all terrible places to start. Why?
Because you run the risk of being paralyzed into inaction. You’ll have a deluge of information that you can’t really sort out, because you don’t even know what questions to ask.
So what should beginning writers really do first?
I’m going to give you some radical advice here, something that you might not hear anywhere else.
Before you join a writer’s group, read a writing help book, or even tell your friends you’re writing something, the first thing you should do is this:
Quietly, in secret, write 15 chapters.
I’m serious. Write those 15 chapters. Make them the best you know how to make them. Then re-read them, and see if you can re-write them to make them even better.
Yes, it will take a long time. It might take you six months. It might take you two years.
And it will be the best learning experience you can possibly have. Here’s why:
In writing, you primarily learn by doing.
When you sit down to write, do you start with an idea and find the words to describe it, or do you start with some lovely words already in your head and work out the idea from there? Do you start with dialogue first, or scenery, or action? Are you a careful outliner, or a “let’s sit at the keyboard and see what happens” kind of writer?
There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. You can find successful writers who fall into any of these categories, because each writer has a different process that works best for him or her.
But you have to discover that ideal process for yourself—and you can learn how only by working through the process.
Until you’ve written, you don’t know what questions to ask
Yes, books and conferences are helpful, but they are usually designed to help you deal with specific issues: How can I write better descriptions? How can I make my characters more realistic? How can I write more believable dialogue? How do I create really exciting plot twists?
Before you write anything, you don’t know what you’ll be good at and what you’ll struggle with. I’ve known writers who can spit out the most natural-sounding dialogue without even thinking about it, but struggle to describe how a character looks. Others write beautiful, flowing descriptions effortlessly, but have trouble making characters sound like real people.
Chances are you’ll be great at some aspects of writing, and need to get advice on others. But you won’t know what to focus on until you’ve really done some serious writing first. So don’t go looking for writing resources until you know where you need help.
You can’t improve unless you have a draft
I’m going to be honest—your first few chapters might not be very good. They may be filled with rookie mistakes that later on you’ll groan at when you read. But you learn from these mistakes. And in order to learn from them, you have to have a chance to make them. And you can only do that by actually writing.
A sure-fire way to never make any progress at all is to never even start. You can always go back and improve a paragraph. What you can’t improve is a blank page.
I’m pretty certain you’ll find when you re-read your story, you’ll find that chapter 15 is significantly better than chapter 1. That’s meaningful progress.
The 15-chapter commitment will help you decide if you can put in the time
If the thought of spending six months writing just a few chapters sounds like much too long to spend doing anything, consider this: a single book can take hundreds (or even thousands) of hours to write.
Writing is an extremely time-consuming task. You’ll have to take time out of your schedule from other things in order to make time for it.
Committing to writing 15 chapters first will do one of two things:
- It will teach you that you simply don’t have the personality type that can spend long hours alone in front of your computer without going insane. (Trust me, not everyone is cut out for this odd lifestyle!)
- OR it will teach you that even though it takes a lot of discipline and time management, you actually enjoy the process once you really can sit down and concentrate.
What happens when I finish those 15 chapters?
First, celebrate! This is a big accomplishment, and you should be proud of yourself. You’ve done the work and now you have something to show for it.
Second, evaluate your experience. Are you exhausted and relieved it’s over? Or are you ready to jump into the next 15 chapters? This will help you decide whether to continue writing a book, or whether you should focus on something else. (It may be that you discover other skills in the process—such as the ability to break down complicated info, or to perform improv scenes in front of your mirror.)
Even if you decide writing a book is not for you, you’ll have learned so much from the experience, and chances are you’ll be a better communicator when it comes to writing for work, school, or to communicate with your family. That’s a net win for sure!
Third, now it’s time to start getting some advice. Have a trusted friend read what you’ve written and give you honest feedback. Go ahead and join that critique group, or register for that conference, or buy that book on writing. Now that you know what your strengths and weaknesses are, you can actually benefit from all the information coming your way.
When it comes down to it, the best way to start writing a book is to actually start writing a book. Dive deep, put the work in, and you may be surprised at how much you benefit.
And so, my worldbuilders, write on!