I’ve been teaching a wonderful group of people over the past few weeks and one of the things we’ve been talking about is how to get started writing a book. Whenever I talk about this with a group of writers, I can quite literally see the joy and relief wash over them as they realise that getting started isn’t as hard as it sounds, that they don’t need a plan and an outline, that all they need are two things: time and one idea.
Making the Time
I really believe that the first thing you have to do if you want to sit down and write a book is to plan writing time into your life. I know that sounds really boring but I also know that the best of intentions can come to nothing if time isn’t made for the writing. It’s so easy to fill up a week and suddenly realise you haven’t written a thing.
So, before you sit down and write anything, sit down with a diary or a calendar. Commit to giving the writing a go for a solid month – I really believe that if you do this, you’ll not only have created a habit and made writing a part of your life, you will also have fallen in love with your story and you won’t want to abandon it. I’ve blogged before about how I organise my day and my diary, or you can try an approach that suits you.
The important thing is to block out some chunks of time – say half an hour – on consecutive days so you can get some momentum going, a few times a week. Can you get up half an hour earlier? How much TV do you watch – can you cut this back by half an hour a night? – can you find half an hour in your lunch break to write while you eat your sandwich. Most people would be able to carve out half an hour a day, four days a week.
This might sound counter-intuitive to the whole idea of unbridled creativity. But I firmly believe that creativity rises to the fore when it is given time and space, rather than when you are so busy that you never put out a welcome mat for it and invite it in. Your schedule or diary will let you do this.
The Bird and the Puzzle – Ideas
Now you have made some time, you need to use that time for writing. But, don’t forget, nobody can sit down to write a book. It’s unachievable. What you can do in half an hour is to sit down and write one scene. Books are accumulations of scenes. If you write one scene in each writing session, you will, over time, accumulate enough scenes to make a book.
Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird, exhorts writers to take it one bird – or scene – at a time. She says that all you have to do when you sit down is to write as much you can see through a one inch picture frame. Perhaps all you can see when you start out is a woman meeting a man at a supermarket. If so, then write that scene. That’s all. Don’t worry about what comes next. Just write what you can see.
Dani Shapiro’s advice in her book Still Writing is similar, except she uses jigsaw puzzles as her metaphor rather than birds and picture frames. She says that the way to get a jigsaw puzzle done is to ignore the heap of colours and shapes in front of you and just focus on getting one corner done, then a straight line of edging, until the puzzle is complete. Books begin with a word, she reminds us, then a sentence, then a paragraph, then a number of paragraphs which make a scene. Start with the corner of the puzzle. One word on the page. Then a sentence. And keep going.
Writing Time is For Writing
Try to make sure that, in your precious half hour, you sit down and write rather than try to come up with an idea for what you should be writing. Try to be alert for ideas at other times of the day. Everyone has their ideas times. Mine come in the shower, in the car when there are no kids in the back, just before I go to sleep. Whenever I have an idea for a scene, I write it down. I have a notebook full of scribbled scraps of ideas. You need an ideas notebook too.
Every time you have an idea, even if it’s as small as, “I think my main character would wear colourful clothes” then write it down. You can, in your half hour, write a scene of her shopping for colourful clothes, or getting dressed in her colourful clothes to go out for the night, or being criticised by her employer because her clothes are too colourful for the sombre working environment they should be cultivating. You can write a scene out of any idea, no matter how small.
When it’s time for you to sit down and do your half hour, open up your ideas notebook and choose one of your scribbled ideas. It doesn’t matter which idea you choose. Choose the one that sings out to you when you cast your eye over it. At this stage, you don’t need to worry about writing in order because you don’t know yet what the story is. So how can you write it in order? Your goal is to write one scene and then another until you have enough scenes that you start to see a shape of a story emerge. Then you can do a plan or an outline if you want to, or start to write in order, or just keep going with sitting down to write the scene you want to write.
Keep a couple of books with writing prompts or writing exercises handy. If, when you sit down to write, you have no ideas or none of your ideas appeal to you, then open your book and choose one writing exercise. Spend your writing time doing one or two or three exercises. Amazing scenes and ideas can grow out of writing exercises. I always use exercises when I’m starting out. I have scenes in my books that have begun life as a writing exercise. They make you try new things and write in ways you would not otherwise have done on your own.
Play and Experiment
Come to the writing time with a playful and experimental mind in the early stages of writing. This is the time to try new things. You can write some scenes in first person and some in third person and see which you like best. You can write some in past tense, some in present tense, try out different narrators. Don’t be too fixed on writing in a certain way. Be open to whatever happens, even if your book goes off in a direction you didn’t expect. This can be where the most exciting writing takes place.
Most of all, good luck with it. I hope that helps. Remember, nobody can sit down and write a book, You don’t need a plan or an outline. You need to make some time and have one idea for a scene and you start from there. This is the process I’ve followed for all of my books, and it’s worked. Have fun!