Have a great story premise in your head, but the thought of a finished three-hundred-plus-page book seems impossible? You’re not alone. Countless people, especially those who love reading, get an impulse to write a book at some point in their lives. And a lot of them actually begin writing that book; however, after the first thousand or so words, many put it off and then never get back to it. Of those that stick around, plenty others coast to a halt around the ten-thousand-word mark. So how do you make it over that eighty-thousand-word mountain and publish Book 1?
As someone who released his first only a couple months ago, I just went through this experience myself, and I completely understand how frustrating it can feel at times. Luckily, like most other things, you can get past it with a little hard work, a little planning, and a little bit of a “screw it” attitude.
The reason unfinished first novels are so widespread is because there are two separate problems at play, one involving the tricky craft of super-long-form story structure and another involving the tricky craft of cramming book writing into your already-busy schedule.
Isn’t it annoying when you see celebrity authors cranking out two, sometimes three, books a year? You wonder why it’s so easy for them. It’s easy because after their first novel many years ago, they’ve already mastered problem one – super-long-form story structure – and as for problem two, cramming writing into their schedules, this isn’t a problem at all since writing is their schedule; they don’t have classes or jobs to contend with and can wake up in the morning and simply bang the keys all day. So don’t get annoyed by them; you have it a lot harder.
Rest assured, you can someday get there yourself. But first, you need to learn how to overcome the two biggest problems debut authors face; I’ve separated this article into two parts, one for each.
Aspiring Author Tip 1 – Structure Your Plot
It’s ridiculous when you read an article about writing a debut book and it begins with something like this, “The first thing you need to do is come up with an interesting idea for a story, which takes a lot of brainstorming…” Yada yada yada. This is crap. Coming up with an idea for a story isn’t something you do by brainstorming. The best stories are personal; even fictional ones are tied to some level of truth in the author’s life. Everyone instinctively has a story to tell; the main reason people think about writing a book in the first place is because they have a great story trapped in their head they want to get out.
If you’re reading this I’m sure you already have an awesome premise for a novel, and probably already have a great main character and a few cool supporting ones too. Though intriguing characters and a powerful premise often fill the heart of a book, they’re not the difficult part in putting a book together, especially for a debut writer. The hard part is filling three hundred pages with stuff.
So how do you do it? The key is understanding that most plots have a similar underlying structure, even if they appear very different on the surface. The plot of most mainstream fiction (whether in books, film, TV, theater, etc) typically follows a protagonist through a very organized beginning, middle, and end, as he battles against an antagonist to get something he wants. There is of course no precise “template” for how this is done, however, the vast majority of mainstream publications follow a very similar trajectory as their protagonists go on their journeys.
If you can grasp what this trajectory tends to look like, filling pages with stuff will come naturally, since you won’t be thinking of your writing as individual “scenes” stacked on top of each other, but a fluid progression where one thing naturally leads to the next.
Not every book follows the flow I’m about to tell you, and many great stories have nothing in common with it at all, however, if you’re writing your first novel and are stuck at only a few thousand words, understanding this concept should hopefully help you reshuffle your outline and move things forward. Below I broke out how this classic progression works within the beginning, middle, and end:
Again, this is not a set-in-stone pattern, however, it should hopefully give you some insight into the ups and downs of a mainstream fictional story, and help you craft your own plot. This general structure applies to many genres. Whether you’re writing a thriller about a spy going after a terrorist network, or a love story about a divorced woman looking to find romance again, the concepts hold true. In the spy book, the allies would be, for example, CIA agents, and the antagonist would be the head of the terrorist group. In the romance novel, the allies could be the main character’s best friend and sister, and the antagonist could be the manipulative ex-girlfriend of the new man she falls in love with.
Though getting a plot down is the most important part of finishing your book, it doesn’t mean your story will necessarily be great. There are many novels out there with structured plots that simply don’t captivate readers. Though there’s no direct path for writing a memorable book, all great stories have three elements in common. One, they have a plot that’s interesting. Two, the world of the story and the characters are relatable. And finally, everything comes together in such a way as to convey a unified message. For more on these elements, check out my post about plot, relatability, and message.
Aspiring Author Tip 2 – Structure Your Life
If you’re writing your first book, chances are you don’t have some pre-arranged big-money deal with a publishing company. You likely are in school or have a job. It can of course be tough to write something of novel length when you’re dealing with exams or quarterly reviews. Filling three hundred pages with stuff can seem very intimidating. However, if you break the task out into little pieces, and have a simple, repeatable plan for attacking each piece, it’s much easier than it seems.
A typical novel is about eighty thousand words, which sounds like a ton. However, if you write just a thousand words a day (considerably less than the length of this article), you’ll be done with your first draft in only eighty days, which is less than the time between Labor Day and Thanksgiving. A thousand words a day is a very attainable goal, even if you have school or work in your life.
To make sure you meet that number, set aside a consistent time of the day just for writing, and let people know you’ll be busy then for the next few months. How do you pick the right time? Well, since you can’t add hours to the day, you’ll have to of course cut something out. Is there a certain time of day you find yourself being totally lazy? For instance, from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM, between classes, do you catch yourself watching reality TV re-runs? If so, use this chunk of time for your book.
Very few people have all their waking hours filled with productive activities; I’m sure you can pinpoint a couple down periods a day you can stick writing into. Now, that’s not to say that you shouldn’t let yourself have some leisure time. It’s very important for writers (and people in general), to have time to decompress and let their minds relax every day. However, if you can shrink some of this downtime from six hours a day to just two, you’ve opened up four hours to fit in your thousand words.
Finally, getting a thousand words written daily is going to be tough – no matter how much time you allot to yourself – if you aren’t sure what you’re going to write about before you sit down each day. It’s critical to have a plot outline – even if it’s very generalized – completed before you begin writing the actual chapters in your book.
Thinking about some of the ideas I went over with Tip 1 in this article, put together a good outline, then cut out the bad TV and get going on that book.
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Copyright 2021 Ted Galdi