January is, supposedly, the time of new beginnings and new goals, and many of us decide that this will be the year we chase our dreams of finally writing That Novel and becoming a “proper” author. Exciting stuff, but beginning your writing journey can sometimes be easier said than done. You have the ideas, the overflowing notebooks, the Pinterest boards, the playlists, but now you’re anxiously staring at a blank Word document thinking: “What next?”
Valid question. As an author myself with two novels and many novellas under my belt, I’ve decided to compile some tips on how to get started, from the first stages of planning to completing that final draft (although we all know a draft is never really final. For the sake of avoiding an existential crisis, it’s good to pretend otherwise).
I should add a disclaimer though. Reader, this author has been putting off her next novel for almost two months now, and this is the closest she has been to real words in weeks. I am certainly not the most inspiring in the business, and some of these tips may not apply to you — writing is often a solitary experience and each individual will approach it differently. So, if you’re looking for a quick way to spit out a New York Times bestseller, look away now. If I knew how to do that, I’d already be one myself.
This brings me to my first point… sort of. Patience is probably the one thing you absolutely require to become an author, self-published or not — perhaps more so than talent or knowledge: patience with yourself, patience with your story and characters, and patience with the publishing timeline.
Crafting a novel isn’t even a little bit easy even for those who are “naturally gifted”, if such a thing exists, and it most certainly isn’t quick. It’s possible you’ll have to go back to the drawing board more than once because ideas rarely translate the same on the page. My second novel took weeks to even begin to come together — weeks of complaining to my friends that something just didn't feel right. And the truth is, it might never feel completely right. Sometimes, you just have to get lost in the maze of screaming self-doubt until you find the way out. The best advice I’ve ever seen is from Terry Pratchett:
The first draft is the first of many steps. Don't fret if a scene isn't working, or if a part of your book isn't what you imagined. You're just telling yourself the story to the best of your ability. You will have plenty of time during revisions to shape the book into what you want it to be."
So tell it the best way you know how, for now. You can always redraft and edit later on. But please be patient with yourself. Oftentimes, things come together in the strangest of ways: some of my best creative breakthroughs have happened in the shower, or with me squinting at my Notes app at 2 a.m. because something came to me just as I was falling asleep. Trust yourself, but mostly, try not to rush it or judge your early drafts too much. It’ll come together. Promise.
If you’re struggling on where to start planning and don’t feel ready to begin an outline yet, it’s always a good idea to turn to other books and understand what kind of story you’re trying to tell. While there’s a lot of debate about whether you have to be a reader to be a writer, books have always been the most valuable tool for me — they’re where I learned the art of storytelling, where I learned what sort of author I want to be, and they’re where the inspiration comes from when I can’t find it in my day to day life. That doesn’t mean you must read a thousand books in your own genre. One of the most refreshing things for me is to read a vast range and see how each book differs. There are so many diverse stories out there with so many different approaches to enjoy, so don’t just stick with one style, one structure, one genre, one author. Pick fruit from different trees: make yourself a colourful fruit salad! Even the rotten ones might teach you something. (Not that there are rotten books out there, but there are ones you won’t enjoy; ones that might teach you what doesn’t work for you.) They’re all helpful, all integral tools, and I have yet to meet an author who doesn’t love books.
So, without further ado, let’s try to reduce the stressful, painful, heartbreaking and heart-mending process of writing to a — hopefully helpful, probably not accurate — step-by-step. Once again, this article will mirror my own experiences as a romance novel writer, and what has been true for me might not be true for you, so do take it with a pinch of salt.
Step 1: Planning & Outlining
If you’re here, you’ve probably already begun planning your novel in some capacity, even if you’re a pantser who keeps it all in their head and jumps straight in. For me, a half-planner, half-pantser, the first step of writing is often a random seed of an idea being planted in my head, but once it takes root… well, don’t expect me to talk about anything else but these new, exciting, aggressively queer characters who are probably about to fall in love. Yes, you heard me. I don’t ever sit down to plan as the first step. The idea comes to me and I let it. I don’t know if this is just my strange old brain giving me one good thing, or if it’s a Writer Thing that we all experience. Either way, I must trust it. So I do.
As the seed buds, I often head to Pinterest to begin a mood board. There, I’ll create a section for each character I have so far (at this stage, it’s usually just the two main characters) and fill the board with any aesthetics that fit my story (transferred from my other boards, because I keep anything that might inspire me in a giant board titled Writing Inspo). One thing I find difficult about writing is visualising, so this helps me to solidify the idea I already have, while also bringing new ideas to the table — depending on how long I scroll for. At this point, I’ll probably also begin a playlist on Spotify in a similar way. All in the name of the Vibes!
After that, it’s time to start doing some actual work. We’ll open a word document and begin our outline. Mine usually starts by rounding out the characters and listing any plot points/scene ideas I already have in a very messy, incoherent way, usually transferred straight from my Notes app. If research is required, now would be a sensible time to begin it (but I, a child of chaos, usually Google things on the go just to make things more difficult). Fear not, though — now it is time to organise with a table!
This is the structure I use for romance writing, so it might not apply to everyone — however, I’ve found it useful even when diving into other genres! No matter how you decide to structure the story, you’ll most likely be planning in beats, which are just the different steps of the story, usually the most memorable and integral parts. You might not have all of them down yet, but now is the time to try to at least plan the general gist, even if it’s only the beginning, middle, and end. Where do your characters begin, where do they want to go and why, and how do they end up? What person/perspective and tense works best for the story? Of course, a lot of people go far beyond this. They know their character’s favourite meal or colour or shirt. They know how many freckles they have and where each scar is from. I envy these authors greatly, but I usually need to begin writing for the characters to tell me who they are — so it’s okay if things get a bit wonky and different once you start writing. Outlines are easy to change and no story should be set in concrete yet. Sometimes, I only really understand the book once I’ve finished a first draft — and sometimes not even then! Don’t see the outline as a fixed template. Let it guide you when you need guidance, but if you feel slightly restricted, don’t be afraid to stray far, far away from it too. Especially when looking at the “black moment”, don’t feel the need to incorporate some awful angst because the outline suggests you should. What it really means to me is just the turning point — the part where the stakes are highest, even if they’re still pretty low. It took me a while (and I’m still learning) to realise that I don’t have to throw in a random bit of conflict for the sake of what’s expected. A lot of people have differing ideas on how a romance story should be structured, but at the end of the day, if you’re adhering to expectations because you feel like you should, the story might end up feeling artificial and unnecessary. Challenge your characters when you need to: not when conventions tell you that you should. It’s your story before anyone else’s.
If all this sounds a bit overwhelming (it is for my little neurodivergent brain, that’s for sure!), you might prefer to jot the outline down in a shiny new notebook or some pretty sticky notes — and you can get those in apps, too! Sometimes, you have to make writing a bit fun with cute stationery and you deserve to! Glittery gel pens at the ready! There are some useful programmes out there, too; I usually head to Trello just to make a planning board that’s easier to come back to, and you can also add images and such. Keep searching until you find what works for you!
Step 2: Writing, I Guess?
If you’ve gotten this far, it means you’ve done the hard bit and you’re ready to begin your manuscript… probably. It’s incredibly daunting to stare at a blank document, so you might want to consult my NaNoWriMo tips for ways to make writing feel a bit less like work and more like fun (in short: playlists, candles, and treats). Make no mistake, though. Staring at the bright, empty screen and losing all hope while you try to conjure a knock-out opening line is part of the process, so don’t be too worried if you have to do this for a little while. Or a long while. Or forever…
My advice is to write whatever comes first. If it’s a scene halfway through the book, just get it down, even if you may have to change it later. Not everybody works chronologically (although I would probably have a meltdown if I didn’t — neurodivergent brain at it again) and it’s okay if all you do is get it all down roughly and… well, badly. Don’t get too hung up on typos or errors or rereading and re-editing. I am ordering you to write the draft, however it looks. You can have a breakdown about it after.
And you probably will. I certainly have. Sometimes, things just don’t work, and you might quickly realise that you’ve started all wrong. That’s okay! Start again! Just remember to keep your previous drafts, because you never know if you need to go back to them. Take breaks when you need to and perhaps think about finding somebody to bounce ideas off (AKA cry and complain to) in this stage, because it might be the toughest yet. Family, friends, or critique partners are great for this, and a less invested brain might be able to solve a problem you’ve been stuck on.
Honestly, this is probably the part that I’m least capable of aiding you with, so excuse me if none of this is helpful. Writing is a You Thing, and your brain will guide you better than I could. Once again, please trust it. It probably knows what it’s doing! I’m always a little bit surprised when, after five existential crises in a row, my brain begins to produce actual coherent sentences. It’s not something you can rush, but it’ll happen all the same.
Oh, and it’s okay if it all feels wrong for a bit. There’s a reason why it’s called a work in progress, and, as mentioned, a lot of us don’t really understand the story and characters until long after the first draft. If you get to around 40k and you’re not enjoying the book, or even a little bit happy with it, maybe that’s your time to reassess, but until then, it’s probably going to feel like a brain-jumbling slog, and that’s okay. Just keep writing…
If you’re aiming for a certain amount of words within a certain amount of time, I’d recommend using NaNoWriMo.org to keep track of your goals and daily achievements. It’s good all year round for keeping score. There, you can work out how many words per day you need to write to reach your final target, and it’s quite satisfying to see the peaks and troughs of the line chart change over time. As an author who is usually on deadline, I can’t remember how I used to write without it!
Also, don’t be too worried if your characters go off-script at this point. Like I said before, they have a mind of their own and, rebellious as they are, shan’t be confined to your silly little outline. Allow them room for adjustments and let them take you where you need to go. Even if they end up on Mars! Everybody loves to talk about discipline in the same breath as writing, and while you might need it to be able to sit down every day and write, you don’t need it for the story itself. Before anything, this should be about creativity and enjoyment — so let it be about that. If you’re not discovering new things about your characters/the world/your skills and ideas, then what, really, is going to make this journey exciting for you? Is it a journey at all?
Sorry. I don’t mean to induce another existential crisis. Let’s go back to calm stuff. You’re drifting in the smooth, blue ocean. Follow the waves. Enjoy the journey; the destination doesn’t matter too much at this point.
How’s that? Are we all calm and ready to write?
Step 3: Moment of Truth and a Couple Hundred Re-drafts
Just kidding! Although some authors do end up writing 10+ drafts before they feel even remotely happy with their work, I usually aim for two or three. But before we get into it, congratulations! You wrote a book! It probably seems less like a novel and more like a blazing trash fire right now but that’s okay! I don’t know about you, but I’m always pleasantly surprised when I go back to the manuscript a second time and find that, actually, it’s not as bad as I think. The things you were hyperaware of when writing aren’t as big and scary now, and hey! You spelt everything correctly! Maybe! You think!
But first, please do take a break. You need fresh eyes to edit, and you need space from the world you’ve just created before you can even begin to make changes, so take at least a couple of weeks away from the novel. Read a new book or hop onto another project — it’s so much easier to spot issues with a refreshed brain and a bit of rest.
Another thing I find helpful when it’s time to edit is to change my font and/or use a different level of zoom. That way, you’re not staring at the manuscript exactly the same way you were before. You can trick your brain into believing it’s different.
But where should you start with a re-draft? Honestly, I’ve never been all that great at this part. I do know that you should try to separate your read-throughs depending on their purpose. So, it might be good to go into the first round of edits with the intent of focusing on structure: things such as consistent plotlines, characters and their purpose, dialogue, tone, etc. Even if they’re not the same as your outline, you should probably be able to note the different beats here and how they drive the story forward. If they don’t, maybe they’re not necessary or need to be looked at again. What’s important is that each chapter, scene, word, has a purpose. Cut out the parts where you over-describe if you need to. Maybe even cut out that one character who is kind of cool but has absolutely no relevance to anything. Be a bit brutal if you must. One of the first things I learned in my creative writing course was how to sadly, regretfully delete paragraphs and sentences, even if they sounded very fancy and professional. The reader doesn’t read for the sake of reading. The reader reads for the story. Make sure you’re always telling it.
Now is also a good point to focus on the balance between dialogue, actions, and general description. Maybe you’re having the opposite trouble and the story is there but it’s a little rushed. Are there enough setting descriptions in there? Enough internal thoughts from the characters? Does the pacing need to be slowed? You might find yourself adding content rather than deleting it, but in the end, the purpose is the same. The reader wants to immerse themselves, and it’s your job to immerse them. If you’re struggling to decide what the story needs, I like to think of my books as movies. If a director looked at your work, would they know how to visualise the scene? The best thing you can do is find a balance between the aspects mentioned above: if you find massive chunks of dialogue without any tags or action, it might be a sign to go back in and focus on something else this time. If there is a huge amount of exposition yet very little happening, is it necessary? Is there a way to show things through action, description, and plot rather than a long old paragraph where not much happens? (I regret to inform you that showing rather than telling does work, as much as we all loathe the advice.)
In short, this round of drafting should be about telling the story better than you were capable of the first time around. You had the bare bones: now add the meat.
I will be honest and say that, while re-drafts should be separated, I do this next step at the same time as the structural edits, and that’s the line/copy edits. The boring stuff, really: spelling, grammar, sentence structure. If you struggle with this part, it might be worth installing spell-checking software like Grammarly. While it shouldn’t be used as a crutch, it is handy to spot smaller mistakes and quickly clean up your manuscript. Another quick tip: update your outlines to reflect any changes so that, should you need to, you can head back into the chapter without scrolling through the document for hours to find the right part.
It might be a while until the manuscript feels ready, even after you’ve completed these steps. Now is a great time to get another set of eyes, if you’re brave enough, maybe starting with people you know and trust to give you honest feedback. This brings me to the final step (for now)...
Step 4: Find Beta Readers and Critique Partners
As solitary as the writing process is, I can’t emphasise enough how integral other people’s feedback has been to my skill and stories. Of course, I was lucky enough to experience workshops at university, and while it was daunting to share my work with peers and professors, it also got me where I am now. If you’re a first-time writer and debating whether you should do the same, whether at school or in a local community, I would strongly recommend it. Because workshops are filled with other authors, I’ve found peers to be gentle with criticism — they wouldn't want you to tear apart their book, so why would they do the same to you? But authors are always a unique bunch, and they’re likely to pick up on something in your book that you may not have considered. Plus, they’re bound to have some compliments as well as constructive criticism, and who doesn’t want to hear about the good parts of their story?
If workshops aren’t an option and you’ve already had your nearest and dearest read the book, it might be time to search for beta readers or critique partners. Usually, you don’t have to pay, although it might be good to make yourself available to return the favour. You can find betas and CPs on social media if you don’t know any around you, and they’re usually authors or very informed readers. Now, it can be a difficult process. Some betas commit themselves to too much and are unable to get back to you. Others are a little more critical than you’d like. Take it all with a pinch of salt and try not to bring up the defences too high. This book is your baby, and it’s hard to face criticism. You’ll want to jump in and argue at some point. But learning to sit with feedback and implement it is a necessary skill in this industry, whether you wish to self-publish or go down the traditional route, and in the end, every bit of criticism is helpful, whether you agree or not, because it comes from people much like the ones who will soon read and review your books. The book was yours before: now you’re preparing to share it. Allow people to have an opinion on it.
And then go back! Re-read, re-draft! See how it turns out!
It’s also worth mentioning here that you might consider hiring a sensitivity reader. Even if you feel confident in your representation and handling of certain themes, it’s always good to have a second opinion. As an artist, if you’re unable to portray themes in a sensitive, innocuous way, you’re not doing your job right. That’s not to say that you can’t approach hard-hitting, heavy themes or only include positive representation. It is to say that if you’re spreading harmful ideology, whether intentional or not, it might be time to go back and decide if it’s the right thing to do. Representation is more important than ever and our ignorance can sometimes slip through the cracks. I’m guilty of it, as most authors are; prejudice and inequality are so ingrained in us that we sometimes don’t even realise where we go wrong. That’s what sensitivity readers are for.
At this point, you might also begin to think about content warnings (ideally before you share your piece with others, just so everybody is prepared for whatever uncomfortable themes may come up). This is nothing new. Movies often include them, so if you’re not sure, follow their lead. Some big ones would be: death, violence, blood, gore, addiction, drugs/alcohol, and discrimination. Everybody deserves to decide what content they consume, and your book, no matter how harmless you believe it might be, is no different. Please be mindful of others as your story makes its way into the world.
If you’ve made it this far, you might just be ready to begin your publishing journey — so I’ll be covering that in my next article very soon. I hope this was helpful and I wish you the best of luck in your author adventure!