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So many aspiring authors have ideas, but they don’t know how to start writing. How do they turn that idea into a full-fledged story? Do they write an outline? Do they just start writing? Should they begin with a character sketch? Start writing the middle or the end? Research the era they want their novel to take place in?
How should you start writing?
The honest answer is that there is no one way to start writing. Every writer has a different approach and it may very well depend on what you are writing or what has triggered your idea.
Since starting a novel can vary from author to author and from idea to idea, I’ve put together this post where 12 writers offer advice on how to start writing.
I hope one (or more) of these processes will resonate with you and get you to start writing!
What Writers Think about How to START Writing
Writing is so much easier when I am organized and I’ve set goals and made plans for my writing. For me, the first step in how to start writing is making time to write. Once you’ve made the time, it’s simply a matter of figuring out what works best for you. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Maybe you need to outline your novel. Maybe you need to get to know your characters. Maybe you have one scene that won’t stop haunting you. Start there. For me, I create a simple outline and then I start typing. Any and every word that comes to my head. The words may or may not end up in my final draft. That doesn’t matter. The first draft is an exploration of my idea and it is loosely guided and structured by my outline. For a free download of the exact outline I use, subscribe to The Writing Pal!
But don’t take my word on how to start writing. See what others have to say:
Kristen Keiffer from Well-Storied
Wading through the murky waters of a new story idea can be overwhelming. I personally find it difficult to write without a plan in place, which is why I choose to pre-write my stories. I always begin this process by coming at my idea from as many angles as possible. Begin by asking questions. Dig into the “why” behind what you do know about your idea to discover what you don’t. With time and patience, the scope of your story idea will expand until you have all the threads needed to begin weaving a full-fledged story. Don’t be afraid to make good use of established story structure and characterization techniques, going into as much detail as you’d prefer. And when at last you’ve gained confidence in the path you’ve planned for your story, you’ll know it’s time to write.
Caroline Ailanthus from News From Caroline
How to start a novel?
Most of mine start themselves. The trick, I suppose, is to notice when they do and act accordingly.
‘Starting a novel’ could mean getting the idea, or it could mean sitting down to write. As far as getting the ideas, that is, in part, a waiting game. You don’t have to wait for your muse for all writing–if you did, there would be no professional writers because we wouldn’t be able to trust ourselves to produce. But an idea big enough to sustain a whole novel? If there’s a way to make that happen, I don’t know it. But you can prime the pump. Writing prompts, free-writes, or, my favorite, daydream a lot. Play. When your muse knows you are listening–and listening unconditionally, without an agenda–it may give you an idea. The idea may fizzle. Play some more. There’ll be others.
Once you have an idea, how to start? Maybe you’re overwhelmed by the whole process. That’s ok. Write down what you have so far. It might be a jumble of half-formed ideas that makes up a small paragraph. That’s ok, too. Just write what you have, and when you have more, write that–you will likely discover that writing down ideas brings more ideas to mind. You might start at the beginning and move forward. You might write a plot summary and a couple of character sketches. You might write a series of scenes that don’t connect to each other clearly. It’s all good. There are lots of different ways to write a novel. Now that you’re writing, there’s one more! When you have the whole story down on paper, you can move on to editing, which a different, but important subject. The first time through, don’t worry if it’s any good, and don’t worry whether you will finish. Maybe you’ll produce a masterpiece the first time, maybe you won’t, but the important thing is to get your creative juices flowing and to convince your muse you are serious about this. Once you do that, you can work on improving your process and your craft. For now, just write what you have and write more when you have it and enjoy the process.
L. A. Jacob from Dark Mystic Quill
I usually start a novel with a character. Someone gets into my head, a voice, usually. Yes, I hear voices; but it’s okay, there’s medicine for that.
The character always has a flaw. That’s the first thing I want to see. We can’t have perfect characters because they’re boring. After I get them to disclose their flaw–it may take a couple of days of me stewing on it–then I figure out what is the worst thing that could happen with that flaw. A fear of heights? Have the climax on a mountaintop. A fear of loss? Their dog dies.
After I have an end–not necessarily THE END–I ask myself, “Who wants to tell the story?” The character in my head (first person), limited third person, or even someone else entirely?
Once I have that settled, I sit down and start to write. I just let it flow. I don’t outline because I consider that confining; it’s like a box to me. My purpose is to get to the end, when she’s on the mountaintop or his dog dies. How I get there is up to the Muses.
Sarah Werner from Write Now
Locate paper and a pen/pencil. (This may sound facetious, but I’m completely serious.) Press the tip of the pen/pencil to the paper, and marvel at the mark it makes.
That mark is how every single story ever written begins. That mark is the genesis of your thought.
Now think back to your story idea and, with that in mind, extend the mark into a word. It can be any word you like — but if you’re stuck, I suggest “Certain,” “She”, or “Once”.
Now, what comes after that word? Look back to your idea again — to the thing that prompted you to want to tell a story in the first place. How can that mark — that word — blossom into a sentence that begins to give flesh to that idea?
If you’re not sure yet, that’s okay. Press your pen/pencil to the paper and simply make another word. Feel the soft scratch of your writing implement against the paper. Let your eyes absorb the mark of the graphite or the ink. You are in the midst of creating something. Isn’t the possibility delicious?
If you write a word you don’t care for, it’s OK! Just cross it out. You’re creating, and creating is messy. Just be sure to replace it with a new word. And another after that.
Writing is simultaneously the most simple and most difficult thing in the world. It’s a complete paradox. But you’re going to embrace it, because you have a story to tell, mark by mark.
Maddy from The Writing Resource
The hardest part of writing isn’t really finding an idea, there are so many ideas out there. In truth, the writing of the story is the hardest part. It’s so easy to get stuck with an idea and not know what to do next. The whole process is enormous and intimidating. But if you break it down, it can get a whole lot easier.
Personally, I find the best way to get started and put pen to paper involves two things:
- Getting to know your characters. Don’t be afraid to pretend your characters are real and talk to them from time-to-time about life and decisions they might make. Or, (if you want a slightly less insane option) fill out a few character profiles. Either way, when your characters become real to you they feel more believable on paper.
- Quiet your inner editor. When you start writing your story, that empty document with the blinking line will probably be your worst enemy. I often worry what other people will think about what I’ve written, whether my grammar is correct, if I use words correctly, and if my jokes are actually funny. But weirdly enough, worrying like that never helps (who would’ve thought?). So, remind yourself no one else is going to read your first draft, except you. That means it can be as terrible and as rife with mistakes as possible and no one will ever know.
Sara Cardon from Sara Cardon Writes
When you first start writing—really writing—there’s a JOY to it. It’s like dancing when no one’s looking. The skill isn’t important, just the love and passion.
You practice and start working on your moves—uh, writing skills.
But at some point you need mentors. For a beginning writer, I recommend joining a writers group. A writing association teaches writers at any stage of their journey. You can begin to tap into their combined experience. Writing groups are the best place to begin find people with similar interests, levels of experience, and people you can connect with and build friendships.
Not sure how to find a writers group? Search in your browser for a writing group in your city. Look at their websites. Write a couple on a Post-It Note. Check their meeting dates and then visit to see what they have to offer.
From writers groups you will be able to organically form critique groups. A critique group helps you refine what you’ve written and test it out. Both writers groups and critique groups are essential for improving craft and creating synergy.
There will always be questions, and having a team to help you find the answers is invaluable. Good luck finding a writing group to help you on your writing journey!
Elizabeth Craig from Elizabeth Spann Craig
I’ve found that the best way for me to develop an idea into a full-length story is incrementally. That’s why everything I do, every day, is in small pieces. For one thing, this helps give me a feeling of success in meeting writing goals each day (it can be better to have a string of successes instead of racking up a huge word count daily). For another, it makes completing a story a lot less overwhelming. Set the bar low and shoot for 5-10 minutes. Better yet if you have a mini-outline in mind when you start your writing session. This doesn’t have to be much…just a sentence that you write at the end of each writing session saying what you want to accomplish with the story the next day.
Gabriela from DIY MFA
When you write, the learning is often in the doing, yet so many times we writers get bogged down on trying to get things pristine and perfect, instead of just doing getting those words on the page. I recently gave a TEDx talk, titled Creativity is a Craft and it Belongs to Everyone and it’s all about how we need to do that mundane, daily work, in order to reach our creative goals.
What does that look like for beginning writers? We have to come to the page, choose a technique or “problem spot” in our writing, and work it until we figure it out. I like to think if this as the literary equivalent of a musician practicing scales or an athlete doing an exercise so as to strengthen a particular muscle. And just like musicians and athletes, you don’t try to fix the problem when you’re performing on stage or on the field. No, you need solve that problem by doing exercises that fall outside the context of your “performance” (for writers, this would be the book you’re working on).
Here’s how I go about it: Let’s suppose I’m trying to improve the dialogue in my story. I’ll use a random prompt generator, like the Writer Igniter to spark an idea. Then I set a timer for 15-20 minutes and I write something based on that prompt. But I don’t just write whatever comes into my head, I write with focus, working on that technique that was giving me problems. If that technique is dialogue, I might write the whole exercise as a stage play. If my problem spot is the character development of my villain, I’ll try to do the random exercise with that character at the center.
The goal is to give yourself freedom to be creative, but also use this free-writing to help you build your skills. I spent a long chunk of my early writing life journaling and brainstorming ideas, and while it was fun, I often felt like I was spinning my wheels and not getting anywhere. It was only when I started approaching my writing with a more focused mindset that I saw results by leaps and bounds. And the rest, as the say, is history.
I started my writing journey with a fantastic course at Southern Methodist University called The Writer’s Path – and it was all about how to actually start writing your book. If you are in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, check them out! If not, do some research on similar opportunities. In person writing classes may seem like a drag but they can be extremely helpful and most are relatively inexpensive. In addition, the hero’s journey is a great place to start. Every story in the history of storytelling follows a pretty typical formula: call to adventure, crossing the threshold, supreme ordeal, the resurrection. Now writing shouldn’t be too formulaic- writers are creative people after all! – but those 12 stages can do wonders in sparking ideas to make sure all the necessary elements are in place for a compelling and satisfying story.
Rae Elliot from Barely Hare Books
I’ve discovered no two people write the same way. Some folks rely on an outline before writing- and that’s great. I myself don’t use an outline unless my scenes are waving a white flag. Then, I talk with my husband because he’s a creative genius and he helps me make sense of my thoughts. I’m still finding my groove when it comes to a writing routine. Some days, I sit down and just write. However, sometimes inspiration will hit me out of nowhere and I have to stop everything and write down the idea. Unless I’m driving. Then I brake for red lights.
I believe writing every day is vital, though. I put time aside each day when I know I won’t be interrupted and I write anything.
Also, I write better in my writing space. It’s cramped and small and messy. I knock elbows with a mass of Star Wars collectibles, Lord of the Rings maps, a Brave poster and some scone crumbs (I should probably get to cleaning that). But this space works for me. Here, I walk into my mind and leave the world behind. I don’t feel like the world is looking over my shoulder as I write, either, which helps me connect to the page and write with my own voice. It’s not a perfect set up, but it suits me. And maybe one day I’ll have my perfect writing space hidden behind a revolving library shelf door, complete with leather chairs, leather walls, and a leather fireplace. I’ll sit there writing the way the masters write. But for now, I’m happy with Leia and the scones.
Tal Valante from Re: Fiction
A good story often boils down to three things: interesting characters, hard choices, and change. Having trouble going from idea to fleshed-out plot? Follow your character’s journey through its stages.
It looks loosely like this:
- Your character begins at the status quo of emotional/mental Point A.
- An inciting event throws her off balance, and she can’t stay at Point A any longer.
- She reacts to the change, trying to restore order to her life.
- Her reactions have ramifications that inspire even greater changes in her life.
(If you need more meat for your story, go back to #3 for another round.)
- Finally, she arrives at emotional/mental Point B and claims it as her new status quo.
- The End.
There’s more to it, of course, but the basics are there. Follow your character through engaging conflict and earnest change, and you’ll have a solid story on your hands.
Jade Young from The Educated Writer
Brainstorm: Take your central idea, this can be a scene, a character, really anything, and build upon it. Pull out your favorite notebook, open a pack of index cards, or open a Word document, and interview your idea. What? When? Where? How? Why? Who? Every time you answer a question ask yourself, Why? Keep doing this, keep asking why, until you’ve run out of ideas.
Research: Do not brush this off. Start with what you’ve already written down about your story while you were brainstorming, such as places or time periods, and then use Wikipedia, Google, the library, anything that you can, to expound upon your ideas further. Write down everything! You never know when something you deem insignificant now might be helpful to you later.
Meet Your Characters: These people are going to become your best friends for the next couple of months. You need to know them like the back of your hand, especially your antagonist and protagonist. Start with these two characters and ask yourself: What’s their goal? Fear? Age? Name? What do they like to do? Where do they like to go? Who are they close to? Do they have any enemies? Love interests? Family? Career? Once you flesh out these two characters, it will be easier to flesh out any supporting characters. Also, get creative! Create a Pinterest board, a Spotify playlist, or an Amazon wish list for your characters. Remember, document everything! You never know when you’ll need to reference these things later.
Outline Your Plot and Conflict: Hash out your novel’s conflict. You won’t need to know absolutely everything, but know at least your novel’s beginning, middle, and end. Without conflict, your novel has nothing to stand on so pay special attention to this step. Write down the following story elements:
- Inciting Incident: What causes the protagonist to act?
- Build Up: What obstacles does your protagonist face that ultimately build up to the final conflict?
- Climax/Final Conflict: The ultimate conflict. The event your readers have been waiting for. Do or Die. Will your protagonist win everything or crash and burn?
WRITE: Start putting pen to paper, fingers to keys, and get writing. You have the basics, and now the confidence, to get going. I wish you well!
Well, what are you waiting for? Go on and write right now! And be sure to pin this to Pinterest in case you get stuck later!
What helps you start writing? Comment below.