A dear friend of mine desperately wants to write a novel. She’s planning on creating a family drama; a story with some mystery and juicy twists and turns. It’s something she’s imagined doing since she was a little girl. She’s an accomplished, successful professional with a husband and a son, yet one barrier stands in her way to realizing this goal. After decades and decades, she simply can’t get started.
A graduate student of mine recently emailed me about a similar issue. She’s a brilliant, creative, bubbly woman with lots of great ideas. My student shared she’s writing a non-fiction book about faith. Further down in the email, she added that she’s been working on chapter one for twenty years. Twenty years. She’s stuck and can’t seem to move past those first few pages. Did I have any advice?
Both dilemmas are very common. My friends and coworkers often talk about dreams of penning a novel, composing a play, or getting started on a screenplay. It gets mentioned so frequently I believe almost everyone, at one time or another, has thought about becoming a published author. Usually, there’s a catalyst for the goal—a riveting experience, a deeply-moving incident, or important memory they hold in their hearts. In most cases, it has nothing to do with talent, ambition, or ability. I am certain that fear plays a huge part in holding them back.
I’ll admit, attaining the status of mega-bestselling-author seems a bit out of reach. It’s glamorous and romantic, flying around the world to sign books, meet adoring fans, and reap critical acclaim. For that select group, fame, fortune, and future book deals usually follow. These authors have done a lot of hard work (or gotten lucky!), established themselves in the industry, and consistently publish winning titles.
Despite all this, despite the tough competition, and a crowded marketplace, I firmly believe there’s still room for talented authors. Every year, new writers burst onto the publishing scene with novels that grab the spotlight and thrill fans. This reinforces to me, and hopefully, everyone, that maybe this “writing a book idea” isn’t so crazy after all.
So, what is really holding you back? From a business perspective, indie publishing is alive and well. The stigma of self-publishing has all but fallen away. An author doesn’t need an agent, a big publishing house, or even a small press to get a novel or non-fiction book listed on Amazon, Apple, Kobo, or Barnes and Noble. Once your manuscript is finished, a writer can Google “how to format and publish a book” videos, invest a few hours watching tutorials, and upload his or her manuscript. Amazon’s KDP website is so slick that even the newest of authors can easily navigate through every single step.
With formatting and publishing solutions readily available, what other challenges are stopping you from getting started? Here are seven big myths I consistently see new authors buying into:
- Not Enough Time – Everyone is short on time. Everyone. But time is a commodity that can be divided and scheduled. Set your alarm for 30 minutes or an hour earlier and write. Use your lunch break to write. Instead of watching Netflix, write. If writing a book is really important, you must give up something to create the time. I don’t have cable. In the end, it’s a small sacrifice and I don’t miss it at all.
- No College Degree or Previous Writing Credits – I don’t have a degree in creative writing. You don’t need one. Michael Crichton was a doctor. Ernest Hemingway was a reporter. Joan Didion worked at a magazine. David Foster Wallace was a teacher. While I do have a degree in English and worked in journalism, when I started on this path, I had no writing “credits” in a magazine or newspaper. I didn’t have a blog. And I certainly did not have friends in the publishing industry. Almost everyone starts at ground zero. There’s no place to go but up, right?
- No Outline – If you love to outline and plot out project steps, you may love the process of outlining your book. There are tons of great books on the process. I have about 20 of them. Your job is to find the system that works for you and realize it may take a while to get into your outlining groove. On the other hand, if you are one of those wild and crazy authors who flies by the seat of his or her pants (a “pantser”), go for it! Let your muse lead the way.
- No Agent – You don’t need an agent. Really. Agents are nice to have, not a must-have for writers. Remember, agents can be fabulous and make amazing things happen, but they also take 15% of your profit. It is something to be weighed and considered.
- The Writing is Not Good Enough – Everyone has this fear. Every author, at one time or another, believes his or her own writing is terrible. Like with anything in life, there are good and bad writing days. The key is not allowing the bad days to take over and lead you to quit. A dedicated author pushes through, finds a reputable editor, and endures a thorough critique of his or her book. This is a must-have step, along with a final, professional proofread for pesky little errors. Nothing sinks a book (and your reputation as a writer) faster than misspelled words and faulty grammar.
- Fear of Criticism or Readers Not Liking the Book – The criticism is real. Readers can be candid to the point of cruelty in their reviews. Believe me, after seven books, I know it happens. However, readers can also be fabulous friends and close confidants who cheer you on at every turn. I am lucky enough to have both. You cannot, I repeat, cannot please everyone. Accept this (please) and move on. A thick skin is required for any author in the business.
- You are Too Old – Poppycock. No deal. Age is not an excuse. Plenty of writers began their careers well after their 20’s and 30’s. Toni Morrison wrote her first novel at 39. Millard Kaufman published his first novel at the age of 90. Helen DeWitt published “The Last Samurai” at 41. Bram Stoker didn’t write “Dracula” until he was 50. Anna Sewell, author of “Black Beauty,” wasn’t published until age 57. Frank McCourt was 66.
With these seven myths out of the way, it’s time to start writing. Here are seven steps you can use today to begin your novel or non-fiction book.
- Choose One Book Idea and Write a Rationale – Focus on one novel idea (or one topic for your non-fiction book). If you have several ideas that all seem viable, make a list and choose the one you are most excited and passionate about. This excitement and passion will help keep your motivation strong throughout the process. Next, dig down and determine why this book is important and different from others. What will your book offer readers that other books cannot? What important information will it contain? What advice, main message, or observations will you share to help your readers live a better life? Why will readers want to buy your book? Will it entertain, inform, enlighten? Think hard about this and spend some time developing your rationale until you have it down to three to four sentences. The idea should be easy to understand and concise. Using this rationale, combined with your main idea, you should be able to “pitch” your book to friends and acquaintances.
- Plan Out Your Story or Book – Even if you don’t like to outline, a one-page document containing chapter names or sentences listing key moments in the novel will help keep you on track. When I start my outlines, I like to list a sentence or two about every chapter. This way, I am not constrained, but it also keeps me from wandering too far away from the focus of my work. A brief outline also leaves room for additions, tweaks, and great new ideas as you build your story. If you are going the non-fiction route, you will need to put together a non-fiction book proposal, which I will cover in detail in an upcoming column.
- Find a dedicated writing space – Your writing space should be a place where you are comfortable and where you will not be interrupted. It can be your dining room table, a desk in a closet, a seat in the local library, or even the sofa. It is best if you can use the same space every day. This helps your brain wake up and trigger the “it’s time to write” reaction when you get into your writing space.
- Choose a set times/days and schedule them on your calendar - Your writing time should be scheduled, if possible, when you are at your most creative and motivated. This can be at 5 am, 2 am, or 11:30 pm. Whenever it is, make it consistent. Show up on the days and times you are scheduled to write. Put a writing calendar where you see it every day and mark your writing time on the pages (i.e. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 4 pm). This serves as a reminder and a written commitment to follow through. Note: Some people like to write every day. Other people like to write only Monday through Friday. Do what works for you, but shoot for at least three times a week.
- Determine a daily writing goal - This can be 300 words or two thousand words. In my opinion, 500 words is a good daily goal to start with. This ensures you can reach your goal and feel good about it, allowing you to come back fresh for the next session. Then, set a word count total and your target deadline (i.e. 40,000 words by December 20, 2019). Post it on your calendar or in a location you pass frequently. This small reminder will keep you motivated. If you are concerned that 500 words a day is not enough, think about it this way. Writing 500 words a day, three days a week = 1,500 words. Over 52 weeks, 1,500 words a week = a total of 78,000 words, which is about the size of a typical commercial novel. If you write 1,000 words a day, three days a week, you’ll hit 78,000 words in six months. Not too bad, right? If 78,000 words sounds like too much, write a novella (60,000 words) or a more concise non-fiction book (10,000 – 30,000 words).
- Use the Pomodoro Technique - This is a time management strategy invented by Francesco Cirillo that breaks down work into 25-minute (or shorter) intervals. The basic idea involves short “bursts” of writing with breaks in between. For example, set a timer for 25 minutes, then write as much as you can until the timer rings. Take a short break and repeat. Do this for as long as you have allotted to write. Modify to make it work for you.
- Turn off social media, the internet, and your phone – Our cell phones are so addicting, they make time and attention disappear. Before we know it, hours are gone. Decide now which is more important – Pinterest and Instagram or writing your book? If it’s the latter, turn off your phone and internet, as well. It’s too easy to get distracted by email, Facebook posts, and pop-up ads. Your word count will skyrocket when you have distraction-free writing time.
That’s it. Seven simple ways to help you begin writing your book today.
Once you start writing, know that you will face self-doubt and worry. You may feel overwhelmed, at times. These feelings are completely normal. In the middle of your project, you may think about changing story topics. You may come up with a new idea. Stay focused on your current project. Find a support system to keep you on track and motivated. This can include other writers, a face-to-face writing group, a critique group online, or friends who are waiting anxiously for you to finish your book.
Remind yourself to keep moving forward. Do not edit as you go; you can fix the pages later. Moving forward means you will finish. What makes you a writer is not your ability to start a book project, but your ability to complete one. Believe in yourself, your idea, and your ability. Take that riveting experience, deeply-moving event, or important memory you hold in your heart and make your dream a reality. No excuses. Start your book today.