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What to Expect When Writing a Book for the First Time Cover Image

What to Expect When Writing a Book for the First Time

What to Expect When Writing a Book for the First Time Cover Image

So, you’ve made a bold and brave decision to write a book for the first time. The journey you’re about to embark on can be exciting, daunting, joyful, exhausting, thrilling, frustrating, satisfying, and long—but oh, so rewarding.

There’s no correct way to write a book. Some start at the beginning, some start in the middle or at the end. Some authors write a book in a few weeks, others take years or decades. Some can sit down and write for hours at a time, uninterrupted, others get more done in 30-minute sprints.

While the book-writing experience will be different for everyone, there are some common obstacles, feelings, and triumphant moments all authors can expect to encounter on the writing road.

Books take a lot of research

Even if you’re not writing historical fiction, even if you’re not writing a speculative novel about the effects of a deadly chemical agent on the nervous system, most books require research to enrich the story.

Call expert sources or shadow them for a day

Add color, detail, and accuracy to your book by talking to experts.

If you’re writing a book in which the main character commits insurance fraud, call an insurance adjuster (or two) to learn more about how the claims process works, how long it takes, and how much cash someone can expect to get if they pull it off. Ask if you can drop by their office or shadow them for a day to see how the work is done.

Research context

Many people use their own experiences to inspire their work.

Let’s say you decide to write a memoir about the years you spent delivering room service in a ritzy hotel. To enrich the story, research the history of the hotel and the kinds of people who frequent its rooms. You might even research how the 1% lives and the city where the hotel is located to better contextualize your experience.

Build a reading list

Reading books adjacent to your subject matter is also valuable. Many writers even develop a “reading list” of books that inspires their work and keep them close by during the writing process. For example, an author working on a novel about a botanist of nature poetry might keep on their shelf: A collection of nature poems, botanical field guides, biographies of famous scientists, a copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and articles about the few places on earth where biodiversity is actually increasing.

What goes on your reading list is completely up to you and can be as varied in form and subject matter as you like.

It takes a really long time to write a book

It can take years to write a book, and that’s OK. It might take you only a month, and that’s OK too. Sometimes, halfway through writing your book, you’ll get an idea for another book—and feel the need to chase that impulse.

Though it can be helpful to set a deadline for yourself to stay disciplined in the work, be kind to yourself if you need more time.

First drafts aren’t usually that good

Even famous, published authors don’t write very good initial drafts. The important part is to simply get the book down on paper, no matter how badly it makes you want to cringe, then edit, refine, and polish later.

The good news is, you’ll find that some of your best sentences, scenes, and plot lines come from your first draft. Your initial instinct is often right.

You don’t have to write the book in order

Write in whatever way the book presents itself to you. The first scene you write might actually be the story’s climax or its ending. Don’t feel like you have to write the book front to back. Listen to your muse and tell the story as it comes to you—you can always reorganize later.

Outlines help. So do sticky notes

Organization is a challenge for any writer working on a book. Your first draft may present the plot in chronological order, but in your second draft, you may want to present scenes out of order to create tension or poignancy or show cause and effect.

To keep your story organized and keep track of scenes and plotlines, use a story outline. You can do this at the very beginning or during the revision process.

Sticky notes are a popular tool for playing with story order. Write the name of each scene on a note and stick them on the wall, move them around. 

There are endless ways to outline and plot your book. These are some of our favorites.

You’ll need to revise the manuscript several times

When authors talk about “drafts,” it doesn’t mean they sat down and revised the whole book front to back. It might mean revising a scene here, a chapter there, adding a bit to the opening, clipping a little from the end.

You might write the first three chapters of the book, revise them six times, then move on to writing the rest of the book.

You’ll get stuck

At some point during the writing process, you’ll find yourself stuck. It might be writer’s block, it might be a character you can’t quite figure out, a scene you can’t quite finish. 

If you need help getting out of a writing rut, check out our 500 writing prompts to help beat writer’s block.

This is when it can be really helpful to get feedback from a writing group. (More on that below!)

You don’t always have to sit at your computer to be productive

There’s a story about a movie studio executive who hires a bunch of writers to create the next great blockbuster franchise. He puts them all in a room with a bunch of computers and desks and tells the rest of the office to not disturb the geniuses at the end of the hall. 

He walks into their office one day and is furious when he sees the writers lounging around, laughing, and telling stories. 

“I hired you to write the next great movie series! What do you think you’re doing?”

“We’re writing.”

Writing doesn’t always mean tapping away at your computer. It can mean going for a walk, having lunch with a friend, or going on a trip in the midst of writing your book. 

Engaging with the world and with other creative people is where writers get their inspiration, and it gives your ideas time and space to gel.

It helps to have readers along the way

Getting feedback from readers you trust is a necessary part of writing a book. Join a writing workshop or create your own to get feedback, ideas, advice, and notes as you write.

Where and how to find a writing group

If you don’t have a writing community, you can find one at Poets & Writers Groups or through your local bookstore or library.

You can also take writing classes and workshops at literary organizations. You can find classes specifically tailored to authors working on book-length projects, authors who work in specific genres, generative classes (which means you’ll receive writing prompts and assignments), and workshops (which means you’ll be expected to present work for the class to read and comment on).

Here are a few organizations that offer classes like these:

Most classes have a fee, but many organizations offer payment plans and scholarships. 

You’re going to get tired

This is not meant to dissuade you or discourage you, it’s to let you know that it’s completely natural to grow tired of writing a book. It can feel like a gargantuan task, and you may come up against writer’s block along the way.

Don’t be afraid to take a break or work on something else for a while until you get your charge back.

It’s not easy to keep the details straight

After you’ve written 80,000 words, it can be tough to remember the small details, like whether your character lives on the corner or in the cul-de-sac, whether they take their coffee black or with cream, whether they graduated in 2005 or 2006.

Keeping notes on characters and plot is one way to track these details. This is also where a good copy editor can help. If you need help finding a copy editor, check out our guide.

Writing software is totally worth it

There are plenty of great software programs that can help you organize your manuscript. Tools like these offer more tools and shortcuts than Google Docs or Microsoft Word.

Writing software can help you stay organized no matter the order you write your book in. You can track research, make notes for later, and see two pieces of your book side-by-side. Some support markdown, which makes it easier to publish your book digitally when you’re done.

We particularly like Scrivener, Ulysses, and StoryShop to help during the writing process.

Need help choosing a tool? We’ve vetted the seven best digital writing tools to help you stay organized before, during, and after you write your first book.

You’ll be so glad you did

Writing a book is tough, it’s draining, it can be discouraging, and it can be one of the best things you’ve ever done.

Push through the tough moments and the blocks that make you want to quit. Remember to celebrate little victories along the way, like finishing a chapter, crafting a particularly good line, or mastering a character’s voice.

Keep your eye on the long-term goal: A publishable book. You’ll be so glad you did.

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