Writing a book is a complex process. In this two-part post, we share 50 tips for the first five of the ten steps to writing a book, from finding a winning novel idea to writing a successful first draft:
Step 1: Find a book-worthy story idea
Whether you’re writing a book for the first time or a veteran author, finding story ideas can be challenging. Here are 10 tips for the first step of writing a book:
1. Make something new out of two previously unrelated ideas
In Stephen King’s On Writing, the bestselling authors says:
‘Good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: Two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to rcognize them when they show up.’
King touches on something important: We often talk of ‘finding’ ideas, but ideas come to us when we are observant and curious about the world. This curiosity includes imagining novel ways to combine unlike things. Love or hate the trend, the explosion of ‘[Classic author’s novel] … with zombies’ books is an excellent example of how you can take unrelated ideas to create something with mass market appeal.
2. Trawl news articles for great story scenarios
Often news items have fantastic story potential. Journalism, like fiction-writing, focuses on the 5 w’s of story – ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘where’ and ‘when’. When you find a fascinating news item, you will already have some (if not all) of these elements to expand and extrapolate on because of this shared story emphasis.
3. Borrow book ideas from history
This advice (via Leo Babauta) is excellent because history is full of daring feats and surprising turns of events.
‘You don’t have to write historical fiction to find your story ideas in history. You could use reports from a disastrous battle and its historical fallout, for example, as the basis for a fantasy battle and its immediate and lingering effects in your own fantasy novel.’
4. Ask a series of imaginative ‘what if’ questions
This is a classic, playful approach to finding story ideas. It’s one of the steps to writing a book Neil Gaiman advocates in his article answering readers’ questions here.
5. Look to literary tradition and say ‘No’
Many fantastic novels have been written out of writers’ disatissfaction with contemporaries or predecessors’ treatments of subjects dear to them.
Think about a book that has disappointed or even angered you with its treatment of specific subjects, themes or issues. Let that gall drive you to imagine how the story could have been told differently. Then write it.
6. Find a writing prompt that fires up your creativity
There’s a reason story-writing prompts can be found all over the web: Because they work. If you’re feeling stuck for ideas, one of your first steps to writing a book should be picking a writing prompt and writing freely on the topic.
You might not use what you come up with while responding to a prompt, but in the process you could easily find other, better story ideas.
7. Take the micro view of a story that’s been done
This is great idea-finding advice from Steve Padilla. Says Steve, ‘Turn a story on its head. If the macro view has been done, do the micro view. Or vice versa.’
Say, for example, there’s already been a story about a census bungle that reports half of a small town as deceased. You could write a new story describing one man’s fight with bureaucracy as he tries to prove he is very much alive.
8. Reconfigure and recycle real life
An overlooked option is to draw elements from your own life and the lives of people you know to create a book idea. Many aspiring authors feel anxious about using revealing autobiographical information or the lives of others, but you can change names and details enough for your novel to only be based on real-life events tangentially.
9. Take online classes that will grow your story fodder
If you can afford the time, take a class that will expand what you know.
One great place to find free online courses offered by major universities is Coursera. See their range of courses and enroll in a class to expand your mind and gain new inspiration for story ideas.
10. Write the book you’ve always wanted to read
Nobel-winning author Toni Morrison is known for giving amazing advice for writers. An oft-repeated gem:
‘If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’
Take Morrison’s advice and picture yourself in a library or bookstore. You’re hunting for a book. You’ve always wanted to read a book on this subject. You’d love for this specific story to be told. What is the story? Find out, imagine, and tell it.
You can read more fantastic writing quotes by Morrison on this Toni Morrison Wikiquote page.
Step II: Create a book outline that will guide you to success
Writing a book outline is a crucial part of the novel planning stage, but it is also a helpful rescue method if you get stuck and don’t know how to proceed. In this scenario, stop telling the story for a moment and write an outline of where you’ve got to so far. An eagle’s eye view will help you spot the narrative thread in your story’s complex folds.
11. Choose a book outlining method that suits your working style
There are many ways to outline. Some like to create a chapter by chapter summary, while others prefer to work from a simple one-page story synopsis. If you’re at the story-outlining stage, read our post on 7 plot outline types and choose one that suits you.
12. Be comprehensive – include setting, character and event
An outline doesn’t have to be massively detailed but it does need to be comprehensive. Make sure you begin by having a strong idea of the who, where, what, why and when of your story. Your outline should narrow down where your story takes place, who its central actors will be, and what the main action of the story will involve (a disappearace, a reappearance, a great gift, a crippling loss).
13. Be organized with your outline
Organization is key to success in writing a novel. Find a way to organize your outline. For example, you could:
- Keep a separate folder on your computer or physical folder for an outline, draft and any necessary research documents for each chapter of your novel
- Write your outline across multiple index cards that you can lay out in sequence for a tangible idea of your story arc
14. Start outlining from a character-based approach
People are the lifeblood of stories, more so than big story concepts. Begin your outline by having a clear idea of your book’s main character. What is their primary goal? What are the internal conflicts (flaws and traits) that could trip them up in reaching it? What are the external forces (villains, natural phenomena or societal rules) that could get in their way and create story tension and conflict?
15. Outline subplots that will support your story’s outcome
The main narrative arc of your story should lead to a final, satisfying outcome. The process of getting to that point, however, is made far more interesting by subplots.
For example, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch’s legal defense of a man charged with sexual assault in a town plagued by prejudice and racism is the central plot, but there are subplots such as Atticus’ children’s learning about the neighbourhood outsider, Boo Radley. The children’s lessons against making false assumptions about others and their ‘dangerousness’ based on prejudice tie directly into the main plotline, supporting its themes.
16. Create a beat sheet that forces you to think about plot mechanics
This is advice from Chuck Wendig. A beat sheet is an outline of every plot point in minimal terms, for example, ‘Man finds mysterious chest in basement. His children urge him to leave it alone. His wife thinks it’s full of rubbish trinkets. He can’t find a key. His neighbours hear of his discovery and grow curious,’ etc.
A beat sheet, in Wendig’s view, has the additional advanage of letting you see where the story works and is interesting. It also helps you see where change is vital by showing what isn’t flowing or properly linked by cause and effect.
17. Outline each scene briefly before you write to stay focused on its purpose
Besides giving you a blueprint for your story, an outline can help you find the purpose of each scene. Outlining doesn’t have to stop at the initial planning stage. As you write, outline each scene in your book in brief before you begin writing. Jot down:
- What should happen in the scene and the characters who are involved
- What the scene will show about the characters or contribute to the story arc
- What central tension, conflict or unknown will help to make the scene interesting
18. Condense your outline as much as possible
If you don’t outline usually, you might find your outline becomes more and more like a story in its own right. K.M. Weiland smartly suggests taking the most crucial plot points and condensing them into a shorter synopsis as this will reduce rambling and show a clearer narrative path to the story outcome.
19.Build six stages of story development into your outline
For your book as a whole and for individual subplots, make sure you have covered the six stages of story development:
- Exposition: The introduction to the characters and central conflict or goal of the story
- The inciting incident: The event that sets the story in motion
- Rising action: Plot complications that increase tension and raise stakes so that the reader wants to know the outcome pressingly
- Climax: The crucial moment at which all the preceding action has built to a make-or-break moment
- Falling action: The tension decreases slightly as the story’s resolution approaches
- Resolution: Loose ends are tied or snipped and the reader feels a satisfying sense of arrival
20. Reread your outline regularly and change as appropriate
Great novel outlines are flexible. The beauty of storytelling is that it sometimes takes you into unchartered waters. Sometimes your story doesn’t follow your map entirely. Rather than change your story to fit your preconceived plan, revise your map. Keeping your outline updated with any major plot changes will ensure you have a story compass that remains relevant to your process and helpful.
Step 3: Do helpful research for your story
Research is one of the steps to writing a novel that you might not need to venture into much. If you’re writing a historical novel, though, research is crucial for factual accuracy as well as story material.
21. Make a list of story elements you will need factual support for and list reputable resources
If you’re writing a novel about a doctor and her profession is pivotal for your story, this is one instance where research would be useful. As you plan your story, note down what you might need to back up with facts. Some reliable sources of information for stories:
- Educational (.edu) websites that have educational authority
- Organisational (.org) websites (for example international organisations responsible for upholding standards in professional fields)
- Professional, fact-checked encyclopedias (Library Spot has a useful list here)
22. Organize your research for clarity and easier process
Avoid letting research for your story take up so much time that you never get to actually write it. Look up only what’s essential, governed by your plot and the factual information you’re likely to need but don’t know. It could be something as small as the landmarks of a real-world setting where your novel takes place.
To organize your book research, you can:
- Create a folder on your computer for each element of your book (setting, character, plot) and store the relevant research for each element in documents sorted alphabetically
- Use a free tool such as Evernote to clip information from web articles into virtual notebooks focusing on different areas of research for your story that you can then save for reference
23. Don’t let facts clog your narrative
This advice is courtesy of fiction and non-fiction author Helen Benedict. In her post ‘Research in Fiction – Necessary but Dangerous’, Benedict writes:
‘Another common mistake is to fall so in love with your research that you stick in facts all over the place, thus clogging the narrative and making you sound like a show-off: “She donned her necklace, made of a rare blue amethyst discovered by Richard Burton in the mines of Eastern Peru, and went down to dinner.” This leads to fiction filled with factoids but without a believable character in sight.’
24. Make research facts fit your story (not the other way round)
This advice follows on from Benedict’s advice to include facts in your story with a light touch. While researching facts for your story, have your outline in place first and make the facts support your story idea. That way you won’t invent improbable scenarios simply so you get to use certain outlandish or surprising facts.
25. Go to a place you’re writing about (if you can)
Setting benefits hugely from research. If you’re writing about a magical city in the sky, good luck getting there, though! If you’re writing about a real place, though, visit if you can. At second-best, you can use Google Maps Street View to take a virtual tour around a city or landmark to get a more vivid image of it in your mind’s eye. This will help you create a more authentic feeling fictional version.
26. Read works of fiction that draw on the same research elements
If you’re writing a novel set in an important time period (for example the Second World War), reading novels set in the same time period will help you use research better. Reading similar authors will help you learn how to incorporate historical or factual detail with a light touch, so that the story remains front and centre.
27. Don’t rely on the internet exclusively for story research
It can be challenging sorting the factually useful from the factually incorrect. While reputable online sources are convenient, dip into print books. Editorial processes and fact checking are more common in print than digital publishing, so you can find high-quality information for your story in books.
28. Remember other important book-related research
Besides researching the content of your story, remember to research other crucial elements such as whether there is space for your story in the fiction market. If you’re shopping around a story about rival kingdoms and mothers of dragons, don’t be surprised if fantasy publishers say your book is too similar to A Game of Thrones because of similarities of plot and character.
29. Put a limit on the time you will spend on research
This is advice Randy Ingermanson (creator of the Snowflake novel outlining method) gave to an aspiring author. There comes a point during research when you will know your story inside out. Don’t over-research your book. Says Randy:
‘If you love research, then you are probably doing too much of it and you really need to get out of the library and start writing your novel.’
30. Remember that precision isn’t always necessary
Muriel Spark’s Edinburgh, Peckham and Kensington are specific and detailed right down to the bus routes, yet one of her most brilliant and unsettling books, The Driver’s Seat, follows her central character from the “north” on a holiday to a kind of generalised “southern” every-city. There’s a Metropole hotel, a post office, public squares, a museum with “ancient pavements”, but the setting really might be Athens or Rome, Palermo or Barcelona. Simultaneously vivid and vague, the effect is disorientating and absolutely appropriate for that queasy and unsettling story.
Essentially, you don’t have to make every aspect of your novel ultra-specific. Research can plug any holes in your knowledge that could make writing about a specific time, place or subject challenging, but you can also invent as you go.
Step 4: Create a deadline and schedule distraction-free writing time
31. Set a deadline and work out how long your first draft will take
Consider that the average book is between 60, 000 to 100, 000 words long. If you want to write your book in exactly one year, to get your daily word count divide by 365: Aprroximately 164 to 274 words per day.
Keep in mind that you won’t simply write your book from start to finish because you’ll need to revise and edit (and might flounder occasionally). Realistically, aim for writing at least twice the number of words you need for a draft per day (approximately 500). This will help to make sure you stay on target.
32. Find time to write by making small compromises
If you’re hard-pressed for time to write, make small compromises. If you watch TV every night, watch every second or third night (or once per week if you can be that disciplined) and save your viewing for later. Besides finding you have more time to write you’ll find your series will also last longer.
33. Use distraction-free writing tools
Most document ediors such as Microsoft Word now have full-screen modes that enable you to write without any clutter or distractions. You’ll be less likely to fire up your internet browser and procrastinate on the web if it isn’t immediately accessible.
David Nield’s guide to minimal distraction writing apps at Gizmodo is a good place to start reviewing your options. Or see our post on writing apps that increase your productivity here.
34. Avoid editing while you write at all costs
If you really want to make progress during each of the steps to writing a book, resist the editing urge. There is a specific time to edit and that is when you have written enough to start pulling everything into better shape.
35. Don’t play around with formatting
Experimenting with formatting your writing is another common way to distract yourself from actually writing. Helvetica or Times New Roman? It doesn’t matter until you’re typesetting a finished, polished book.
36. Create your own distraction-free writing space
The only distractions in your writing space should be those that distract you from procrastinating and remind you that there’s a book waiting to be written.
At Lit Reactor, Robbie Blair describes his writing space:
‘My walls have humorous posters about commonly misspelled words, how to use semicolons, and when to use i.e. or e.g. in a sentence. I do this because I want to make myself comfortable, but also because I want to remind myself that writing is what this space is for.’
Make sure your writing space reminds and motivates you to complete all the steps to writing a book.
37. Make a writing calendar and reward successful writing days
Creating a reward process is a crucial part of becoming a productive and motivated writer. Keep a calendar that you only use to schedule and plan your writing time. One you hit your target word count each day, draw a tick on the corresponding day on your calendar and give yourself a reward.
A reward doesn’t have to have monetary value. It could be a relaxing, lengthy outdoor walk or a social excursion. Make doing the things you love more dependant on achieving your high-value goal: Finishing your novel.
38. Bring peer pressure into your writing routine
An element of peer pressure and mutual motivation can kickstart your writing project. Melanie Pinola at Lifehacker says the following about good writing habits:
‘Having an “accountability buddy” is a tried-and-true strategy for getting things done. Whether you join an online writing group or simply tell someone about your project and goals, other people can help you stick to the plan.’
39. Tell people not to disturb you
If you’re serious about writing your novel and finishing it, the dearest people in your life should respect that too. Make sure you communicate to a significant other or family members that there are swathes of the week where you will be head down in making progress on your novel.
40. Start in small increments and build up as you go
It’s easier to get distracted from a writing schedule when you aren’t giving yourself enough breaks. To begin, start writing your novel in small scheduled increments of time. You may find that as you get into a rhythm, you’ll start working past your usual cut-off time effortlessly.
Step 5: Write the first draft
41. Know what a first draft is and isn’t
It’s easy to be overwhelmed if you have a false perception of what a first draft is. A first draft is not:
- A polished version of your novel
- Something you need to edit copiously as you go
- A rigid structure you can’t restructure
- Your last will and testament
A first draft is:
- An opportunity to tell your story from start to finish, in all its rough and clunky elements
- A launchpad towards writing an entertaining and polished final draft
- Something concrete you can work through with a writing coach or editor
Having reasonable expectations of your first draft will help you avoid writer’s block.
42. Read over your outline often as you draft
Read over your outline frequently as you write the first draft. This will remind you where you wanted the story to go and help you separate what is merely a story transition from what is the meat of the plot. You’ll write in a more focused way.
43. Limit your focus for each drafting session
This is crucial first draft advice via Write to Done. Limiting your focus partly means ‘shifting your focus from creating a “solid” first effort to creating a “flavorful” slice of writing’. Learning how to overcome writing obstacles early in the process will save you plenty of headaches later.
If your writing is sounding fussy and stiff because you’re trying to write well, for example, spend your next writing sessions actively focused on letting go of every single self-criticism. Write badly on purpose. Letting go is an important step to putting in place the right amount of control. You won’t overcome every challenge at once.
44. Outline your aims briefly every time you sit down to draft
Focused writing is productive, valuable writing. Every time you sit down to write, outline your aims for the session. They could be ‘write a scene showing how the main character meets the love interest’ or ‘write the transition between the mansion shootout and the thugs’ conversation in the getaway car’. Giving yourself instructions like this will make drafting more deliberate and will clarify your focus.
45. Don’t be too precious about how and where you do your drafting
You don’t need to be seated cross-legged on a divan while listening to Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro to write the perfect draft. Truly. Just write, whenever and wherever you have the time.
46. Finish faster by leaving parts in shorthand
Getting through your first draft faster is helpful because your main goal is to flesh out your story idea into a complete shape that is more detailed than an outline but not completely polished.
To finish your first draft faster and proceed to the later steps to writing a book, leave parts in shorthand. Don’t have a transition for how the thugs get from the shootout to the open road? Just write ‘they somehow get to the car under fire and make it off the estate and onto the open road.’ You can put in the finer details when you re-write your draft.
47. Focus on ‘why’ over ‘what’ while drafting
A word after a word may be power, but an event after an event isn’t necessarily story. It could also be a news update. For there to be story, your book needs the ‘why’ to be clear. While you’re drafting, focus on why things happen and establishing these causal links. It’ll make sure that your story’s structure is satisfying and adheres to its own inner logic.
48. Keep a strong set of motivators
Writing a book is a major challenge due to the amount of time and thought you need to invest. It can be done, though, when you have a strong set of motivators working in your favour. Stay motivated while writing the first draft by:
- Joining a writing group where others share your goal
- Getting a writing coach who will be an external source of accountability and support
- Rewarding yourself as you reach wordcount or chapter targets
49. Try out different approaches to drafting
Although it’s important not to edit obssessively at the line or paragraph level when you are writing a draft, you might find that leaving all editing off until you’ve finished the final chapter is impossible. You might also find that you don’t have a tangible enough sense of making progress.
Try different approaches. You could edit each chapter of your draft once it’s complete, before moving on to the next. Find a system that works for you – it’s your process, after all.
50. Give yourself a well-earned break before you get stuck into susbequent book-writing steps
When you’ve written sentence of your first draft, set it aside for a week and give yourself a small holiday from writing. You’ll return to your story with a fresh perspective and new story ideas that will enrich what you already have written down.
Look out for part 2 for a step by step guide featuring another 5 steps to writing a book and another 50 tips.
Find out how you can use Now Novel to finish your book in structured stages.