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

'I can't start my book' - picture of Now Novel home page

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.

Join Now Novel and get motivated to write your book with the help of our diverse writers’ community.

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  • Thank you!!! Great article indeed! I’ve been struggling for years with my research and planning and have been unable to get going with actual writing. As you said, I’m soon gonna set a date to ensure I don’t keep procrastinating anymore! Thanks again!

    • Hi Ambili,

      Thanks very much! I love to hear about writers gaining motivation. Feel free to sign up for Now Novel groups where you can get feedback from other writers as you go. It helps to have people to bounce your work off so you stay driven and focused.

      Warm regards,
      Bridget

  • Daniel J. Smith

    One thing I would add is this: If the prospect of writing in 1,000 or 5,000 word chunks seems too daunting, just focus on a particular scene that you are really excited about. Write that scene in the best way you can. You may not have hit 1,000 words, but you’ll be well on your way. Either way, keep writing!

    • Thanks for sharing that perspective, Daniel. Very true – however small you need to break up the parts of a book to get writing, do what works for you.

  • Thisismedisqus

    I am not happy with anything I write. I feel like there are too many books in my head and that I am mixing them up. I start writing, but after a gazillion corrections, I grow tired and quit! Help!

    • Hi there!

      I’m sorry to hear that, hopefully you’ll be comforted by the fact that so many writers have this exact same problem. Some suggestions:

      Make a brief list of each book idea, with a one-line synopsis of what the book will be about. Then try to arrange in order of those you feel are the most developed as ideas, from most to least.

      Go with the first one and be disciplined about ignoring those clamouring extra ideas. Perhaps some are practical enough to weave into your primary idea.

      Try not to ever edit while you go – that’s when perfectionism and feelings of your writing not being ‘good enough’ can creep in. You can do basic editing such as correcting typos, but do the language polishing later. That way you’ll have the excitement of your story taking shape without being too hard on yourself.

      I hope this helps! Keep me updated on how your writing’s going.

      Bridget

  • SkyeBlueMuffin

    As Thisismedisqus said, I also feel like i mix up other books and game and movie plots as well. I am trying to write a book since years. It’s still the same location. I have set up a huge world, with lots of information about country, different folks, traditions, cultures and fauna. But the actual story. It just doesn’t work out. Because i feel like it’s been done so many times before. I want to reach an impressive level of high fantasy. Of course some of the elements are the same as in other books but i want it to be different. And this is where doubts set in

    • Hi Skye,

      Confidence does take time to build up. I’d suggest joining a writing group and sharing your story ideas and getting feedback. Sometimes some external perspective is very helpful! Don’t worry about the originality of the overarching ideas. So long as your world rings true and you create your own details and your own characters, readers are less likely to care about structural similarities.

      • SkyeBlueMuffin

        I thank you so much for your fast reply and advice. I have just started to overthink everything clearly.
        Unfortunately… i live in switzerland and we do not have any writing groups in my city or any place you could exchange with other writers. same goes for writing websites. this makes it harder for me to write and get advice.

        But still.. thank you very much~

  • Kara Clare

    This is a great Article, I have ideas for novels forming in my head all the time. My problem with not starting though is lack of being able to focus and pay attention. I get distracted to easily, especially with the inner distractions but I’m hoping to start soon.

    • Hi Kara, thanks for the kind feedback. Distraction is a challenge! Have you tried creating a detailed outline? I find it helps if I write down an objective for each writing session before I start too. I keep it somewhere prominent so that I can remind myself what I should be focusing on. I hope your novel is on its way soon.

      B

  • Joe Zangief

    Wow this just hits home!!! I needed this boost! Thanks

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