‘I can’t start my book’: You can in 7 simple steps

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Writing a book is a wonderful process of discovery and revelation, but it is also daunting, especially if you’re attempting the process for the first time. If you find yourself saying ‘I can’t write my book’,  here are 7 steps to take that will spur you on:

Table of Contents

1. Set a motivating date
2. Lower the stakes
3. Break your book into manageable chunks
4. Grab your reader
5. Elicit questions
6. Start the story anywhere
7. Try to write in someone else’s voice

1. Set a motivating date

One thing to keep in mind as you are planning to write your novel is that your planning should not become a stand-in for writing the novel. The same is true for research. It can be easy to either get bogged down in these stages or touse them as procrastination. While you shouldn’t start a novel with insufficient planning or research, you also need to guard against doing too much of either of these things.

One way to avoid this is by setting yourself a firm date for starting the book. What if the date does come along and you feel you still aren’t ready to start? Keep in mind that the first draft is just about getting down a framework that you can work from and not about producing perfectly polished work. If your first draft has plot or research holes, you can fill those in on subsequent drafts.

 Don’t let the fear of finding those holes in the initial act of writing keep you from starting in the first place.

2. Lower the stakes

A common mental block that keeps many writers from starting to write is the enormity of the task ahead. Whether you’re writing a piece of middle-grade fiction in the range of 50,000 words or an enormous fantasy blockbuster of 150,000 words, a novel may be the longest continuous work of writing you have ever embarked upon.

However, it is important to demystify both the length and the process. Writing a novel is still a matter of getting a certain number of words down each day that you write, so rather than thinking in terms of the enormity of the entire task, focus instead on the day’s work of 500 words or two pages or however much you have decided as your goal for this writing session.Another way of lowering the stakes is to change your mode of composition. If you normally write on the computer, try longhand and vice versa.

 You can trick yourself into feeling as though you aren’t really beginning your book, and this can help you break through that initial anxiety.

3. Break your book into manageable chunks

Write towards certain novel milestones. For example, if you are beginning your novel with roughly a three-act structure in your head, write toward the inciting incident. Don’t think beyond that point or how you are going to get past it. Just aim for the inciting incident, and once you arrive at that point, you can worry about where you are going next.If you are not working with some version of the three-act structure, you can still use this technique. Simply choose an important incident that you know will happen early on in your novel and write toward that.

If you are a pantser and do no planning at all, this might be a little bit more challenging, but even if you don’t plan, you are certainly aware that something significant that ignites the narrative or changes things for your protagonist needs to happen early on in the novel. Even if you don’t know what that something might be, set yourself a goal for when it will be, such as at the 5,000- or 10,000-word mark.

 This help you to conceptualise your first big task as a novelist as basically a longish short story.

4. Grab your reader

I can't start my book - woman readingBy and large, the first draft should be written for you. You’re going to do a huge clean-up on the first draft, so you don’t need to spend too much time at this stage worrying about how readers will react to certain aspects.However, if you are struggling to start your book, it may be that your problem is not so much a mental block as it is a practical problem. Perhaps you simply don’t know where the best place to begin your novel is.If this is the case, then think in terms of grabbing your reader’s attention. This can be tricky because grabbing your reader’s attention does not necessarily mean opening by having your protagonist dodge bullets or carry children out of a burning building.

The object in the first few pages of your novel is not necessarily to make your reader’s pulse pound but to make your reader care enough to keep turning pages. The weakness of the action-packed opening is that you’ve given your reader no particular reason to care whether your protagonist manages to dodge the bullets or escape the burning house. That’s not to say that an action-packed opening is a mistake, but it is definitely not a guarantee of reader loyalty.What will grab your reader from the first page is a sense of authenticity.

In other words, your reader needs to believe that your character and your world is a real one. You do this through detail, dialogue and anything else that firmly grounds the narrative.

There is one other element you need to include in your first few pages to keep your reader’s attention:

5. Elicit questions

The other thing that will compel your reader to keep going is having a question that reader wants answered. Again, in the first few pages of your novel, this question does not have to be “Can the protagonist save the world?” In fact, you will be more likely to achieve quicker identification if you lower the stakes a bit.In the opening pages of Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, here are some of the questions raised:

  • Why is the narrator in Amsterdam?
  • What kind of trouble is the narrator in? Why are the police involved?
  • What does his mother have to do with it? Why would things have been different if she had lived?

These questions along with the use of exquisite detail in Tartt’s writing and a strong voice makes the reader want to turn more pages.

On the other hand, perhaps your problem is that you are overly concerned with getting your reader’s attention in those opening page, and it is leaving you blocked.

Here is a solution:

6. Start the story anywhere

A story should have a beginning middle and end - Godard quoteWhen you think about starting your novel, you probably think about starting on page one and writing until you get the end. However, there is no rule that says this is how you must go about it. No one is grading you or waiting for you to show evidence that you have proceeded in a linear fashion. Perhaps you are struggling to start your book because you are excited about the climax or some other scene that happens along the way, but you can’t figure out where to begin or how to get your characters to that point. There’s no reason you can’t start by writing the scene that is most vivid to you right now.

In addition to getting you past that initial anxiety of starting the novel, this approach has another advantage. If you are writing a scene that you are already passionate about and that is well-developed in your imagination, it is likely that you will better capture the tone and voice that you will use throughout your novel.

 This will leave you in a more confident position as you do write those opening pages.

7. Try write in someone else’s voice

If all else fails, try being somebody else. In a way, this is what writers do every time they sit down to work anyway. In this case, begin your book by imitating a writer than you most admire. Maybe you are a fantasy writer who loves the work of Robin Hobb or George R. R. Martin, a crime writer who wants to write funny novels like Elmore Leonard or a literary writer longing to experiment with form and genre like David Mitchell. Try starting your novel in the style and voice of one of your favourite writers, and see what happens. Of course, this imitation is something you will clean up later, but you may find as you go along it morphs into a discovery of your own voice.

Starting a novel can be daunting because it moves your novel from the perfection of your imagination to an imperfect existence on the page. However, whether your struggle to get started is due to anxiety, an uncertainty as to how you will get the reader’s attention or an inability to decide where the novel should begin, there are a number of approaches you can use that will take you past that initial hurdle.

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