The number of people who begin writing a book is much larger than the number who manage to finish: Here’s how to start a book so that you will see it to the finish line.
Be smart in choosing a genre or sub-genre
If you live and breathe steampunk, erotic historical romance or space opera and can’t possibly imagine writing or reading in any other genre, then this choice won’t be an issue for you, but most people enjoy a few different genres or sub-genres and may need to think carefully about which they wish to write. Think about which genre you know the most about and which is most likely to sustain your interest as a writer. You should also consider your strengths as a writer. Do you have a knack for working out intricate plots? A thriller or mystery novel could allow your full trove of writing skills to shine.
When choosing genre, also consider the commercial viability of the story, and this means doing some market research. This will make it easier to build an audience when you are finished revising your final draft and enter the publishing and marketing process.
Make the most of market research
Writing strictly to fulfil what you think is hot on the market at any given time is a mistake: You should always write what you want to write, to some extent at least. Nobody can predict what will be the next big thing. Prior to Harry Potter, who could have guessed that a boy wizard would take the publishing world by storm?
However, what you want to avoid is doing something like getting halfway through a book on sparkly vampires before realising that the Twilight series of books exists. This is the sort of thing that will definitely grind your novel writing to a halt, and it is one reason you need to be familiar with the genre you are writing in (the same goes for literary novels). Another consideration is the viability of the genre itself. For example, if you are deciding between two genres, you might want to pick the one that is the most commercially successful.
If you are choosing between several different ideas, doing market research can also help you choose the one that seems the most commercially viable. For example, if all the literary agents for YA fiction are saying they are sick of dystopian novels, you might want to shelve your idea about a teenager fighting against a totalitarian future government until either the market is open for new works in this niche genre or until you devise a way to really make the subgenre your own.
How to start a book like a pro: Plan your novel to stay on track
Whether you are a planner or a pantser, you will increase your chances of finishing your novel if you do some planning. This might be an extensive outline or it might just be some notes on a page about the main character and where the story is going to start. The Now Novel process is one option: It’s designed to inspire and motivate you. At the end of completing the story planner you will have a blueprint that you can follow as rigidly or flexibly as you like. If you don’t want to do a complete outline of your story just yet, you might consider something screenwriters use called a beat sheet which lists the major events and turning points throughout the story. Alternately, you might think about the three-act structure and identify the rising and falling action in each major section of your novel. Planning your novel doesn’t guarantee you will finish it and not planning ahead of time doesn’t mean that you won’t, but having some sort of plan is how to start a book with great forward momentum.
Put in place a motivating writing routine
Before you have even begun your novel, you should establish a writing routine. Choose a time of day when you can write uninterrupted and when you are alert enough to work and play with words. If you think that you are too busy to choose a regular writing time, consider that you make regular time for things like going to work, showering and eating. Your writing should be just as important as those things. If you don’t feel that it is that important, it might be harder to finish your novel. Prior to writing the first draft, get your family and friends used to the idea that you are embarking on a creative process that’s important to you.
One important thing to remember is that planning and brainstorming is not the same as writing. Once you have begun work on your novel, you should spend the majority of this your writing, but there may be occasions when you have to stop to research something or to seek an outside perspective from a writing mentor or beta reader. If you have an hour to write several times a week and no other time to do process work around writing, schedule only a portion of each hour for writing until secondary tasks are complete. Otherwise, it can be too easy to lose days and weeks telling yourself that you are making progress on your novel when you are really getting lost in research and note-taking.
You can help ensure that you stay on track within that writing routine by establishing a time line for finishing your novel, including important goals and milestones:
Set realistic, attainable yet challenging and rewarding goals
Give yourself something to aim for and show yourself how much progress you’ve made by setting goals. Make a realistic assessment of how many words or pages you can write per session and estimate how many sessions you will have and how long it will take you to finish your book. Keep in mind that it doesn’t matter if you only write half a page, 100 words or 1,000 words per session as long as you are making progress.
If you find it motivates you, you can make a graph or another type of visual aid to show your progress. Reward yourself when you reach various milestones throughout the writing of your book.
Five common reasons people do not finish their novels
Even with all of this preparation, some people still fail to finish their novels. Let’s consider some of the reasons:
- Poor planning is one reason. Sometimes you don’t realise you’ve planned poorly until you begin to run into problems. For example, you may not have worked out a plot thread sufficiently. On the other hand, you might have thought you could avoid planning only to find yourself stuck on choosing direction for your story halfway through.
- Another reason is lack of time. You can plan to set aside one hour three times per week to work on your novel, but you might find yourself struggling to carve that time out all the same.
- Some aspiring novelists falter due to low confidence. You’re moving along on schedule, but you might be asking yourself why anyone would want to read your book and worrying that others have already had the same idea.
- You may be getting bogged down in rewriting a section of your novel and trying to make it perfect. Often writers will do this with the beginnings or first halves of their novels.
- You are dealing with actual life-altering stress. As a writer, you need to be able to keep working through life’s ups and downs, but on occasions, events such as illness or work stress become understandable preoccupations.
Four simple ways to ensure that you finish your novel
The good news is that even in the face of these challenges, you can learn how to start a book so that you’re less likely to quit:
- Keep in mind that if you realise you have planned poorly or have not planned enough, you can always stop to fill in those gaps. Give yourself a finite amount of time in which to do this. Roughly two writing sessions should be enough. Do not allow yourself unlimited time because then you will get bogged down again in planning. Avoid reworking portions of the book you have already written until your first draft is complete. Readjust your schedule to account for the lost time, and then get started again once you have worked out any problems.
- If you are finding yourself unable to take the time you need to write, you need to take a hard look at the situation and figure out whether the problem is with your life situation, the schedule you have set for yourself or your own discipline and motivation. Are you allowing family members and loved ones to take over the time you have set as writing time? If that is the case, then you need to claim that time back. It is also possible that you have been unrealistic with your scheduling. Remember that writing a novel is not a competition. You need to choose a pace that works for you. Finally, if you are using the time you’ve set aside for writing to watch TV or do other activities, you need to prioritise your writing.
- Keep in mind that every writer suffers from fear and a lack of confidence at times. You need to direct your thoughts away from negative self-talk when it happens. It might help if you tell yourself that while your novel may be bad, you will never know until you finish it. Furthermore, once you have something written down, you can always shape and improve it, especially if you have the external perspective of a writing mentor available.
- Learn to recognise when you are burned out or if it is not a good time to start. In some cases, writing a novel can be a welcome distraction from health concerns or other sources of stress. However, if challenging life circumstances become overwhelming, it is okay to put your novel on hold for a little while. Rather than forcing yourself to stick to an unproductive writing schedule, set a date to return to your novel and take a few weeks off.
Knowing how to start a book is only one part of writing a novel, but if you start with the right preparation, you will be in a better position to finish writing a book. You should have a sense of the genre you are writing in and some idea of what is going to happen in your story, even if the actual writing of it takes you to unexpected places. You must plan your time and set achievable goals. You also need to be realistic about what you can accomplish given your other commitments. It is also important to remember that if you don’t finish a draft of the book, you have nothing to work with. Whenever you are tempted to go back and rewrite from the beginning, remember that you can do all of that work once you have finished.
What is one good piece of advice you have about how to start a book?