Question: I have a great idea for a book but don’t know how to begin writing. Where should I start?

If you have a great idea for a book but aren't sure how to start, use resources like the Author Learning Center. 


Having a great idea for a book is a wonderful gift, but can feel overwhelming if you’ve never written a book before! There is no right or wrong way to get started, as the writing process differs from author to author, so it’s really about finding what works best for you. Some writers dive right in and allow themselves to write freely, without a roadmap to guide them or research to inform their writing. Other writers find it beneficial to start with some market research, topical research, or an outline. If a more informed and structured writing process appeals to you, here are some steps you can take before writing the first draft of your manuscript: 

1. Understand where your idea fits into the book market

With an estimated 4 million books published each year around the globe, the book market is a thriving, competitive place where new books can easily get lost if they don’t meet reader and industry expectations. The best way to understand where your book idea will fit in is to start by looking at how the market categorizes books. At the top level, books are categorized as either Fiction or Nonfiction. Fiction books are written from the writer’s imagination, but can also be inspired by true experiences. Nonfiction books are based on facts, truths, and real events. Within these categories are many genres and sub-genres determined by literary technique, tone, themes, and content.

The other categorization to be aware of is age group classification. Books are classified as either adult, young adult, or children's, and within the children’s group there are several different sub-groups based on reading level and book length.

If you are writing your first book, it might be helpful to research books that are similar to yours.You can learn a lot about how to write a book just by researching and reading books in the same genre and subgenres as your idea. Pay attention to writing style, key elements, structure or format, length, and content. Take note of what these authors do well and learn how to apply it to your idea and unique style.

As with any new product or service, you want to create something that people will buy. If you want to write a great book that will stand out and sell, it’s important to understand how your book will be categorized, for whom you are writing, and if your book’s length and content will meet reader and industry standards. This market research will inform decisions you make as you are writing, designing, and marketing your book, so don’t underestimate its importance. The more you understand where your book fits in and whom will purchase it, the more value you will offer.

2. Know how much topical and supporting research is required to write your book

The type of book you are writing will greatly affect that amount of research that needs to be done up front to make your story as engaging as possible, or to make your content as compelling as possible. Fiction stories can be created solely from imagination, but are often inspired by real life experiences, situations, or events. Whether you’re writing mystery, fantasy, or a young adult coming-of-age, research can help bring accuracy and believability to your story. Historical fiction and science fiction tend to require the most research since these stories use facts as the foundation. Gathering research up front will enhance your writer voice and allow you to write more deeply from all five senses (sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch), which will create an emotional connection with your readers.

Nonfiction books are based on truth and facts and can require more in-depth research depending on your knowledge of the topic about which you are writing. Without proper research and reasoning, a book that is intended to inform, inspire, or instruct will be ineffective. The opinions and solutions provided in a nonfiction book must be logical. Otherwise, readers will be left feeling confused or assume you didn’t have enough evidence to truly prove your point. This can reduce your credibility and the perceived quality of your book. Memoir writers may need to refer to journal writings, interview family members, or conduct other research to make their true story as accurate as possible.

Always approach research with a plan – it is one of the easiest ways for writers to procrastinate. We recommend setting a hard deadline for all of your upfront research and do only the research that’s necessary to get started with the writing. If you come across something that requires more research as you are writing, highlight it or put placeholder information in and come back to it later during the revision process. In addition, be sure to keep track of all sources so that you can properly cite them in your final manuscript.         

3. Create an outline to use as a roadmap

Great book ideas can easily turn into lackluster books if key elements are missing. One way to ensure you are integrating the elements and structure readers expect in your genre is to create an outline or guide to follow. Having a roadmap to follow also increases your chances of staying on track and avoiding the dreaded “writer’s block”.

Many authors find it helpful to write a summary or outline for their book idea.For fiction and memoir, some writers start with a story synopsis or summary because it’s an easy way to get your basic story idea down in a few short paragraphs. At a minimum, you want to include the 5 key elements of a good story: the protagonist or main character, the antagonist or opposing character, the inciting incident that sets the story in motion, the main conflict, and the resolution or conclusion. This basic summary can serve as the foundation that you build upon with a more detailed plot outline such as Freytag’s Pyramid or Save the Cat.  

Nonfiction authors should start by listing a table of contents at a minimum. You’ll want to determine the best structure and flow for the information you want to share. There are also the more common outline structures that can be used such as classical outlining and mind mapping.

There isn’t a hard and fast rule that you have to write your book content in the order it will be published. For example, fiction authors might find it helpful to write the ending first, and work backwards from there. Nonfiction authors can benefit from starting with the chapters or sections that are most inspiring. Your first draft is where you want to give yourself more freedom to explore, put aside your editing hat, and overwrite. It’s much easier to cut or reorganize existing content in the revision process than to create new content.

4. Set SMART goals for yourself

Time management, self-discipline, and goal setting are all essential for getting to the finish with a book. By establishing some short-term, measurable goals, your writing process will be more effective and more manageable overall. We recommend following the SMART method for setting goals:

Specific: Don't plan to have your book done “by some time next year”. Set a target date and work backwards from there to determine when you will need to reach certain milestones such as first chapter complete, book halfway complete, first draft complete, etc. Also schedule specific slots on your calendar to write each week rather than fitting it in “whenever you can”.

It's beneficial for authors to create a plan and goals before they start writing a book.Measurable: Many writers find it helpful to measure and acknowledge progress by word count. Start small with a goal of 100 words per writing session, and then continue increasing your word count goals once you find your groove and understand your production levels. You can even set goals based on number of pages, scenes, or chapters. These elements are easy to track and measure.

Achievable: Make sure your goals are attainable given your work schedule, family life, and physical or mental capacities. Take into account any jobs, social needs, family obligations, and even your physical and mental health when setting goals.

Realistic: This goes hand in hand with making sure your goals are achievable. You don’t want to get discouraged because you’ve set time lines or goals that aren’t realistic, given all the other things you have going on in your life.

Time-Based: Giving yourself a certain time frame to accomplish something will help keep you on track. When scheduling time on your calendar for writing, take into consideration when and how you are most productive. Do you work best when you write daily in shorter batches, like 30 minutes per day? Or, maybe you are most productive when you write for an hour at a time, but only a few days a week. Set a timer if needed so that you don’t push yourself to the point of being counterproductive.

Sometimes it takes a few weeks of writing to understand the process that will work best for you. Your goals are likely to evolve or change as you gain experience so make adjustments as needed.   

Writing a book can be extremely rewarding, but also challenging at times. The process of completing a book requires a lot of time and dedication, so be sure to get the support and resources you need through communities like the Author Learning Center or through a local writing group. You can find even more great tips on getting started HERE.

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