by Angela Ackerman
Every writer’s journey is unique, but there’s one iconic moment we all experience: the decision to stop thinking about writing a book and actually do it.
And then? Euphoria. Finally, our ideas will live on the page! We imagine characters, plot twists, and future readers clutching our book, unable to put it down.
Of course, this high usually curdles into terror because now we must write the book. And we have zero clue as to how to do it.
It’s overwhelming; we can see the finish line but have no idea how to get there.
With any big goal, the best way to achieve it is to break it into manageable pieces. A great first step for writing a first book is to map the route, start to finish. Here’s what that might look like.
Whether you have hundreds of ideas for a novel, or only a few, you need to settle on a core premise to make sure it's strong enough to build a story around. Using Goal, Motivation, Conflict (GMC) can help you test ideas:
Goal: What your character wants
Motivation: Why your character wants it
Conflict: What stands in their way
These key elements form your core premise, and once you know it, you have your story’s first piece! To dive into this a bit further, here’s a GMC+Stakes worksheet.
Once you have your story premise, it’s time to plan the people, places, and events. Some writers do a lot of prewriting, brainstorming their characters at depth to understand who they are, what they want and need, and develop their backstory and relationships. They also world build so they can write the story’s reality with authority, and plot/outline story’s events so they have a really good idea of what will happen, and when. Other writers do minimal planning in favor of a discovery draft, where they uncover these things as they write.
The level of prewriting you need is a personal choice, but generally the more you know, especially about key characters and their motivations, the easier it can be to write. Very likely you’ll have less big picture revision to do later, but results may vary, as they say. If this is your first time, pay attention to your gut. When your instincts are nudging you to stop planning and start writing, you’ll know.
When you think you’re ready to start writing, take a moment to set yourself up for success. Choose a place to work where everything you need is at hand – notebooks, pens, a computer, noise cancelling headphones or whatever else you might need. Think about when is a good time to write, and if any challenges could make it hard to get words down. This will help you be prepared when life intervenes.
Welcome to the fun zone! This is when you finally get to unleash your creativity, so enjoy every moment of it. Don’t let worries about quality get in your way. This drafting process is about letting go so words can flow. Fixing and refining comes later. If you get stuck, try these tips and keep writing to the finish line.
It’s possible you might hit a point where you doubt yourself and your abilities. If so, know you aren’t alone. All writers feel this way at some point. What’s important is that you push back on these thoughts. Keep writing and trust the process. You’ve got this!
After the first draft is written, celebrate! Writing an entire book is a huge undertaking, and you’ve just done it. Take some time to do something special – read, relax, reward yourself for having the persistence to see this through. Celebrating each win is self-care, so indulge.
You need time and distance from the story so that when it’s time to revise, you see it with fresh eyes. Even if you want to start revising right away, put the manuscript aside for two weeks to a month.
After your story has sat for a bit, you’ll want to read it start to finish to get a sense of how it flows, what areas need stronger development, and anything that might need to be reworked. So rather than start revising right away, make notes as you read. This will give you a plan to follow for your first round of revision.
Also, expect to find some cringe-worthy writing. This is a first draft, not a final product, after all. But guaranteed you’ll also find some gems and think, “Whoa, did I write this?” Use those as fuel to inspire you!
This first round is where you fix the big stuff: strengthening characters and their arcs and making sure they and their emotional experiences are relatable so readers will connect to them and their journey. You’ll want to address any plot and pacing issues, look for plot holes or logic issues with your worldbuilding, and things like that. This revision pass isn’t about making the story perfect, just create a story with strong bones. Remember to use your notes from the first read.
Because this story is your baby, it can be hard to be objective about what’s working and what isn’t, so going to others will help you get distanced opinions on how well the story works and might need to be fixed.
This step should only be taken when you’re mentally ready for it. It’s easy to become emotional and mistake help as criticism, which brings self-doubt to the surface. Find people who are genuine about wanting to help you and don’t be afraid to tell them this is your first experience with critiques. When feedback comes in, remember their goal is to help you strengthen this story, not hurt your feelings.
At this early stage, paying for editorial help may not be the best choice. Workshopping your story via critiques helps you save yourself money by doing as much of the work yourself as you can. Here are six tips for finding a great critique partner.
After you’ve had a few people provide feedback, you’ll have more ideas on what needs to be strengthened. Sort through the advice, and take your time, doing as many rounds as you need to get your story and characters to where they need to be.
Once you’ve workshopped your novel and you feel the story is solid, you’ll want to turn your focus to description, dialogue, and language choices. At the sentence level, strengthen your verbs, look for words or actions you may overuse, tighten your writing, deepen symbolism, and make sure your pacing is strong. Look for opportunities to strengthen every word.
When you feel confident about the shape of your story, it's time to polish it up. Proofread for typos, missing words, repeated language, repeats, and make sure everything is consistent. If you changed names, places, or other elements, make sure you've caught any old bits hanging around. Read your story aloud as it will help you find the little things.
Just as you did with your first read, you’ll want to do a final one, too. By now, you might be sick of this story. If so, take a break before the final read.
If there’s anything that bothers you as you read, make a note of it. You can also ask others to read it as well to get second opinions before you take the next step toward publication.
Before turning to a publishing route, you want to feel confident that this is your best work. At any time, if you need to, go back, revise again, seek out more feedback, or even look into hiring an editor to help you work through a problem. You can also work your way through this Storyteller’s Roadmap if you would like step-by-step help.
Don’t rush. Strong stories take time, so give yourself the freedom and space to create the best story possible. And remember you aren’t alone in this; help is everywhere. Search this blog for keywords to read articles that can help you. Ask other writers for resources and advice. Chances are, any challenge you encounter is one others have faced, and they’ll have ideas on how to help!
Which of these steps do you struggle with the most? Are there any other steps you'd add to the list?
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Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, and its many sequels. Available in ten languages, her guides are sourced by US universities, recommended by agents and editors, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, and psychologists around the world.
Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, a portal to game-changing tools and resources that enable writers to craft powerful fiction. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
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