Writing Your First Book: 5 Tips to Get Started

Back in 2016, I got to speak on Minnesota Public Radio about how to start to writing a book as a new author. While that show ended up focusing more on first lines and book openings (including a fun but harrowing on-air writing exercise!), I had a lot of prepared notes about the general process of sitting down to tackle that first big, book-length project, whether it’s a memoir, a novel, a biography, or anything in between and beyond. Here are those notes, distilled down to five tips.

1) Try other forms.

The idea for your book might not spring from your head full-grown like Athena from the head of Zeus. Sometimes you have to tease it out by approaching it through another form like a poem or a screenplay, or even a painting or a song.

Trying out other forms can also be helpful during the writing process. For example, if you’ve lost track of your characters in a scene (Wait, should that squadron be near the river or up on the hill?), an aerial sketch often clears up the problem quickly. If you’re having trouble encapsulating a setting or time period, listening to music from that place or era can give your brain a jolt of inspiration.

2) Don’t get trapped in a process that doesn’t work for you.

There are lots of articles out there with titles like “10 Things Successful Writers Do” and “The Routine Famous Q. Author Used to Write Their Umpteenth Best Seller.” You know the ones; they often suggest things like writing a certain number of pages or writing at the same place and time every day.

 I’m nosy by nature; I love learning how writers work and how they talk about how they work, so I gobble these articles up. But while they can give some helpful pointers on building a writing process, they often gloss over two important points:

a. Your writing process, like your work, is your own. It has to fit you, Famous Q. Author be damned.  

b. Writing a book takes place within a life, and life is always changing. Just because a particular process works for you on one project at one time doesn’t mean it’ll work for every project for the rest of eternity.

So do your morning pages, or join a monthly writing group, or write for exactly fifteen minutes at 2:00 a.m. every day, if it works for you. But the second it doesn’t, it’s time to consider a new approach, because life’s too short, and you’ve got too many pages to write!

3) Set deadlines and goals (within reason).

Tackling a book-length project is a lot like going on a long road trip: It’s important to keep the final destination in mind, but it’s also good to set up smaller goals and targets along the way to maintain your momentum.

Some macro, big-picture goals you might shoot for (besides finishing your manuscript, of course) include entering a contest or applying for a grant, residency, or fellowship. Your smaller, micro goals might be “write the wedding scene” or “format my bibliography” or to write for a certain number of minutes every day.

A warning: If your goals start to interfere with your writing—say, you feel guilty or ashamed about not meeting them, or they’re too aggressive or no longer inspiring—change them and don’t look back (see point #2).

4) Read, read, read.

In an episode of The Simpsons, Principal Skinner gets fired and decides he’s going to use his free time to finally write his take on the Great American Novel. “Mine is about a futuristic amusement park where dinosaurs are brought to life through advanced cloning techniques,” he says. “I call it . . . Billy and the Cloneasaurus.” The problem is painfully obvious to everyone but him: Skinner’s dream novel is a clear rip-off of Jurassic Park.

Reading—widely, broadly, truly, madly, deeply, etc.—is cliched writing advice for a reason. Reading helps you learn new writing techniques and avoid unintentional embarrassment like Billy and the Cloneasaurus. And if you’re reading books that are similar to your project (say, in the same genre or on the same topic), you can scope out the competition and familiarize yourself with the conventions of your niche, which are important to know, even if you plan on breaking with those conventions—especially if you plan on breaking with those conventions. 

5) Find your ridiculous free time.

I have a bad habit of waiting for the “perfect” amount of free time to appear on my calendar before I’ll exercise. I reason (wrongly, I know) that working out for less than thirty minutes barely counts; I mean, you need at least five minutes to change clothes and grab water, right? The result is that I pass up chances to get in quick bursts of exercise that could probably have a big impact on my health, if I’d just let them.

Writers, especially newer writers, can fall into this trap too. They might say, I’ll sit down to write as soon as I have a night free, or If I don’t spend at least an hour a day on writing, I’m not a serious writer.

I’m here to tell you that when it comes to writing, every minute spent working toward your goals has value. So take advantage of all your pockets of free time, even the ones that seem ridiculously tiny. Think you can’t spare thirty minutes a day to work on that memoir? What about fifteen minutes? What about five minutes?

Sure, if you only spend five minutes a day writing, your progress toward finishing a book-length work will be slow. But you will make progress, and that’s what’s important.

Have you started a book-length project? What worked for you? Let me know in the comments!