Many aspiring authors contact us with this problem: ‘I don’t know how to start writing a book. I only have a few rough ideas.’ There are variations: ‘I have so many ideas, but I’m not sure where to start,’ for example. Yet the general theme is the same: How, in terms of actual steps, should I start? Read tips to start turning your ideas into a novel:
1. Let go of ‘should’
A lot of us have this strange idea that there’s a way we should do things. Yet starting a novel isn’t as much a question of how ‘should’ you start but how ‘will’ you start. Because the will to start has to be there. And what you work on first is up to you (though starting from the beginning makes sense, given the chronological way many stories – e.g. coming-of-age novels – are sequenced, plot-wise).
For the will to start to be there, you first need a reason to commit to your story. In other words, an idea (or group of ideas) you want to explore:
2. Understand book ideas, story scenarios and plot points
A single character action or complication is not necessarily enough of an idea to begin writing. Unless you’re skilled at pantsing your way through entire drafts (and this is unlikely if you’ve never written a book before).
Often we receive emails or in-app messages from blog readers and Now Novel members along these lines:
‘I have an idea: My character [description of what a character does], but this other character [description of what an antogonist does], yet I can’t find how to link everything together. I can’t start actually… What would make a good first scene?’
In this case, we have plot points: Significant events in the story. It’s hard to spin isolated actions into full narratives, though. Especially in your mind’s eye. It truly does help – even if you loathe planning or plotting – to get something down on the page. It helps to have at least a general, broader idea of your story’s potential shape and purpose.
So let’s strip things down to essentials. What are:
- Book ideas? The general ‘what ifs’ underlying stories. Example: [What if there were ‘a mythical world called Narnia that’s discovered by a group of children accidentally when one of them hides in an old wardrobe containing a portal to this world. [What if] As the children explore Narnia further, they discover a cruel tyrant has plunged the world into eternal winter using magic, and they become involved in a rebellion to defeat her reign’? This is one way of describing the book idea behind C.S. Lewis’ famous fantasy novel, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
- Story scenarios? A scenario is an ‘outline of a film, novel, or stage work giving details of the plot and individual scenes’ (OED). This is a more detailed view of what actually happens, plot-wise. Ideas are situations; scenarios are situations in a sequence of cause and effect.
- Plot points? Plot points are the individual story events that together make up the character and story arcs in a book. They’re significant events that show cause and effect, action reaction or consequence. For example ‘The King dies’ is a plot point. ‘The Queen goes into extended mourning as a result’ is another, related, plot point.
Deciding how to start writing a book when you have a clear book idea is much easier than starting from a single plot point or a hazy scenario.
If you look at the C.S. Lewis example above, and expand it, there are many scenarios we could explore. For example:
- The process of discovering a new world (scenes showing the children’s resulting wonder and terror upon their first encounter with Narnia)
- Meeting new characters. For example, the children in Lewis’ books meet talking animals along with the antagonist (Jadis, the White Witch) in Narnia
- The friendships, dangers and temptations that confront characters when flung into an unfamiliar world (one sibling is won over by the witch who offers him the sweet confection ‘Turkish delight’ in exchange for his help)
3. Find a book idea you love and can expand
Another struggle many aspiring authors face is staying motivated. Because long-form fiction is an endurance test (especially on days when ideas don’t flow as fast), it’s worth finding an idea you enjoy.
An idea that piques your own curiosity is more likely to pique your readers’ curiosity, too, besides. Because your love for your subject and/or setting, characters and other story elements will suffuse your writing.
Finding an idea you can commit to is a big part of the Now Novel process. It’s also why our Kickstart your Novel course begins with working on a synopsis before you start drafting. Having that sense of direction underlying your drafting, even if your outline consists of only rough ideas and not tightly-knit plot point sequences, helps.
When you decide on your book idea, think about:
- Themes that interest you: Are you interested in themes such as human courage (and what it requires)? A book idea featuring adventure and trials might be the perfect fit. Or else themes of destructiveness and the battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’? Fantasy or else a good thriller with a cunning antagonist might suit your thematic interests
- Subjects that fascinate you: What topics interest you? Are you passionate about music? Perhaps your story is a character drama about a concert musician preparing for a major recital (the basic idea of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled)
- Book ideas you can expand: For example, the lead up to a big concert isn’t perhaps scenario enough to sustain a whole book. What if your performer were having trouble with their memory, and they’re in an unfamiliar city? This is the premise of Ishiguro’s novel and it creates a surreal effect. We feel the protagonist’s confusion and disorientation as he wanders an unfamiliar setting, piecing together memories while his big performance looms ahead
A book idea you love and can expand will give you plenty of fodder to start writing. There’ll be multiple possible narrative threads. For example, Ishiguro’s multi-layered premise gives him many things to explore: The nature of memory, the public scrutiny and pressures artists face, and more.
4. Create an outline guiding you into your first draft
Often our challenges in learning how to start writing a book are organisational rather than creative. We might have a million ideas a minute, yet struggle to link them all together. This is where an outline really does help.
A synopsis can be as rigid a template, or as hazy a watercolour map, as you like. You can take winding side routes when you know how to find your way back to your story’s main narrative path.
The main thing in planning before you start is to reach a point where you feel that whatever scene you write first, you can and will finish writing that scene. Then another. And another. See the example of C.S. Lewis’s book idea above, and the bullet points showing how one could expand it? That’s all your synopsis needs to be: A guide to eventful expansion of your original idea.
Our Kickstart your Novel course includes feedback from a writing coach on your full synopsis. You can also read about different types of plot outline here. See which organizing/outlining approach speaks to you most.
5. Start writing your book – just do it
Something that easily gets in the way when you feel you don’t know how to start writing a book is perfectionism. Remember when we said ‘let go of ‘should’?’ Banish all ‘should’ from these early stages. Your first draft doesn’t have to do anything other than give you the space to begin working out how your rough ideas will develop into an eventful story that shares your passions, interests, insights, your mind and spirit – or those of the author/character you become when you write – with your reader.
Want to brainstorm so you can gather ideas and decide how to start writing your book? Join Now Novel for help finding your book’s central idea, along with settings, characters, and other elements of your story.
Cover source image by Oliver Thomas Klein