How to Start Writing a Novel in 12 Easy Steps

From the journal of a newbie sci-fi writer

Here I am, at the keyboard, staring at a blank doc with zero words. Don’t get the wrong idea. When I said “How to” in the headline, it was more of a question than a promise. I mean, by the end of this post, I’ll have more than zero words in my sci-fi novel, I promise. But I don’t yet know how I’ll get there.

I’m a newbie to sci-fi, but I have written before. Seven years ago, I started writing a fantasy adventure novel on nights and weekends. Three years ago, I wrote a business book. Eight months ago, I left my job to try writing full time. Last month, I fiiiiinally finished that fantasy adventure novel, and this month, I’m finishing up a sort of self-help book.

So I should probably know how to start writing a book by now. But I don’t. Well, okay, I know how to start non-fiction books. But fiction? The novel I’ve just finished writing may not be any good (I’m trying to get it published now) and I started it so long ago I don’t quite remember how I did it. Seven years is such a long time… I’m not even the same person anymore.

Anyway. For the first time in seven years, the slate is clear. I’m ready to start a new book. And there’s a sci-fi idea I’ve been thinking about for years. I’ve been getting more and more excited about it. It’s time to do it.

Only… crap. Because, again:

In case you missed it:

Zero words. Zero words. Jesus.

Starting a novel is hard. No, not just hard. Every novel I see in bookstores, every novel I’ve ever read, I guess the author must’ve started at zero words, but what happened at that moment? It’s like the Big Bang. Something appears out of nothing. It’s goddamn magic.

So I guess I’ll have to make up the process of starting a novel as I go. I have to trick myself into forgetting this is impossible.

Step 1: Put if off by writing a Medium post about starting a novel

Aaand… check! But at some point I have to get back to the book.

Step 2: Start on paper

The blank document on the computer screen is super intimidating. The blank stack of printer paper on my desk is much more approachable. I grab a pencil, which can always be erased, and start jotting down some notes.

Step 3: Create a new document

I use Pages on the Mac for writing fiction, because it’s free, scales and scrolls super smoothly, and the interface can be stripped down to almost nothing.

Step 4: Call it scraps

My next strategy is to change the name of the document I’m working in, appending the word “scraps”. For all my previous writing projects, I’ve always kept several “scraps” documents with little bits I cut but couldn’t bear to delete entirely. What if I started with the scraps? That seems promising.

Step 5: Call it version 0.1

Lowering the bar even further. This will remind my self-editing brain to take it easy because not only are these scraps, they’re not even the first draft of the scraps!

Step 6: Set a kind of ridiculous goal to stress myself out

The right stress is good. I tried setting a goal of 500 words, but it wasn’t stressful enough, and that day I didn’t get around to starting the book. So the next day I set a goal to get to 2000 words. That freaked me out a little. In a good way.

Step 7: Set a timer for 20 minutes

Nobody who knows me will be surprised I had to use a Time Timer to get going.

Step 8: Put on “Master of Puppets”

Because Stephen King used to listen to Metallica when he was writing in the 1980s.

Step 9: Start on paper

Actually even this version 0.1 “scraps” file is freaking me out.

Step 10: Get into Play Mode

I’m not writing the first words of a whole book. Nope, not at all. Not a linear thing that’s going to end up being tens of thousands of words, starting with the words I type write now. Right now, I’m just in Play Mode. I’m just gonna write a random scene for fun, and get to the real book later.

Step 11: There’s really nothing else I can possibly do now but write on this paper

Step 12: Type up what I wrote

I might rewrite an expand a little, but all I’m doing is transcribing, mostly. Not gonna freak myself out by telling myself I’m starting this damn novel.

Woohooooooo!!!!!

Writer, designer, person. Author of SPRINT and MAKE TIME. More at jakeknapp.com.