How to Start Writing a Book: A Peek Inside One Writer’s Process

How to Start Writing a Book: A Peek Inside One Writer’s Process

Three months ago I started writing a memoir.

This story has been hiding in my brain for the last decade, percolating without me knowing it. Long story short, back in middle school I started dating a guy and it turned into a seven-year, mildly abusive relationship.

A decade after it ended, I realized the microscopic hooks that found their way into my veins so long ago were still part of me today. I didn’t realize there was a story in it until so much time had passed, I had a rush of fresh blood to my brain. Three months ago, I woke up.

My mother mailed me the dozens of worn journals I kept during that time and I’ve spent almost every morning since poring through them. When I realized this story could be a memoir, I had a rush of excitement I haven’t felt in a long time.

Like all writers, I’m a rabid reader, devouring anything from bestsellers to crime to nonfiction to fantasy to YA to obscure self-published novels. And while I’ve been writing for the entirety of my life, I know nothing about writing a book.

I don’t even know how to start writing a book, where to, literally, begin. Do I start at the beginning of the story and end at the end? Should the book be a series of flashbacks? Do I write the last page first? Do I outline? Do I transcribe my journals? Or do I just sit down and start with whatever comes out?

writing a book

Step 1: Procrastinate writing by reading about writing

The first thing I did was search Amazon for “how to write a book”. The first promising result was Stephen King’s On Writing, a fantastic memoir-slash-rant on bad writing. If you haven’t read it, do so.

But while King helped me understand the importance of daily writing habits and slaughtering adverbs, his approach scared me. Apparently King just sits at his desk and starts telling the story, a story with characters who magically write themselves, a story that simply takes on a life of its own, beginning to end.

Step 2: Sit down and see what happens

So that’s what I tried. I sat down and tried to write the first scene of my story. Two problems promptly (ugh, adverb, sorry) presented themselves:

  1. I don’t know the story. Sure, I know the basic scenes and plot structure, but I don’t fully know how this story ends. How do I know what to focus on, what themes to tease out if I don’t yet know those themes?
  1. My first attempt was horrible. I started writing about the day Tom (not his real name, of course) and I met. What tumbled out was a list of actions:

I was at my friend’s birthday party and Tom was sitting across from me. Someone dared us to kiss. I blushed. Tom leaned forward.

Oh my God, I can’t even. Someone shoot me. I should definitely never write books and should probably just push papers for the rest of forever.

Step 3: Copy someone else

What I wanted to know was how to write well. How to structure my story. Not just the book, but a paragraph. A sentence.

So what if I just copied someone else? Just to try?

I opened the first page of one of my favorite memoirs, Eat, Pray, Love. Lucky for me, the first scene was about a kiss.

Elizabeth Gilbert starts her bestseller, “I wish Giovanni would kiss me. Oh, but there are so many reasons why this would be a terrible idea. To begin with, Giovanni is ten years younger than I am, and — like most Italian guys in their twenties — he still lives with his mother.”

So I wrote:

I was sinking into the couch, surrounded by an array of other sweaty thirteen-year-olds, tugging at my shapeless T-shirt, praying someone would dare him to kiss me. It was just getting dark outside, the floor-to-ceiling windows, curtain-less, making me feel like we were alone, tension rising, in a cave.

I felt instant relief. Better.

While obviously not copied word for word or action for action, reading Liz Gilbert’s lines about a kiss while thinking about my own put me smack dab into the headspace I craved. A headspace where I could more easily capture tone and rhythm and sensation. A headspace I trusted to tell my story.

For weeks I did this, religiously opening my favorite books and copying their structure. If they started off with a piece of dialogue, that’s what I did. It they started with an action, i.e. “He swung his leg out of the bed,” so would I.

And that’s when the magic happened. Copying other writers only lasted a few minutes before I found myself mid-rampage, tearing through my story, able to tap into my own style.

So that’s what I did. I took it story by story, memory by memory.

Step 4: Create a to-do list and use helpful tools

At the beginning, I was using Evernote to create a new note for every memory. I created one master notebook I called “Tom Stories” and wrote a giant checklist of all the snippets, big or small, I could remember: our first kiss, my 16th birthday, learning how to drive, college fights…

Every morning I would pick the memory that seemed most appealing and I would tell it as if I were writing a novel.

After while though, my brain scattered. Where was the kiss story again? I worked on it last week but it’s gone now. While Evernote’s search function is great, I wanted to stop writing little snippets and start visualizing it as the book I wanted to write. Unfortunately, Evernote sorts by the date you last edited a note, and it was getting messy.

I did a bit of Googling and discovered Scrivener, a tool to help you organize not only your writing, but your notes and table of contents and research. I downloaded their free trial and played around. Each Evernote file became a section in Scrivener, complete with a quick summary for each scene, so I could easily scan and organize.

It wasn’t until I started using Scrivener that I finally felt like I was working toward something important and real.

Step 5: Create a routine

I still don’t have the daily eight hours Stephen King thinks I should have, but he’s right about one thing: Dedicating the time and energy into writing every day is the only way to get your story on paper.

But I have a day job, giving me maybe three hours, at the absolute maximum, to work on my book (never mind that I don’t really have three hours because my brain is fried at the end of the day).

So every morning before work, instead of walking the dog (oops) or reading a book, I work for a maximum of one hour on one story. Sometimes a story takes me 20 minutes. Sometimes I find myself going for hours. Most of the time I don’t want to start, but once I do, 90 percent of the time I’m ecstatic that anything comes out at all.

Step 6: Go where the story takes you

I hate this advice because it’s like love — you’ll know it when you find it — but it’s impossible to anticipate.

That said, I took a memoir-writing class while working on one story in particular. I shared it with the class ,and after the critique I realized it worked both as a chapter in my memoir as well as a stand-alone personal essay.

So I took a break from working on the book and have spent almost two months perfecting this one essay. I hired an editor and have a big hairy dream of getting it published in the holy grail of personal essays, Modern Love.

Doing this has given me two surprising benefits:

  1. It turns out this one piece is representative of the whole story. Trying to nail this essay is most of the battle. So while it’s taken me out of the day-to-day of writing the book, working on a snippet has helped me discover the wider themes behind my story.
  1. If I can publish parts of the memoir prior to pitching agents and publishers, I’m going to have a much easier time marketing my book. So I’m actually almost doing some pre-publicity, while also reinforcing my brand so I can have at least a small audience for this book before it even goes to print.

I obviously don’t have the answers, but I’ve done more with this book in three months than I’ve done on any other project. It’s all boiled down to creating a daily habit, organizing my work, working on small sections and hiring an editor. I’m looking forward to where it takes me next!

Have you written a book, especially a memoir? Do you have any tips for me as I embark on this journey?

Filed Under: Craft
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118 comments

  • carolyn shrewsbury says:

    how do you get the computer to do the writing?

  • Larry Paz says:

    Well done. Being part of a writers group has helped me understand that there are many ways to move a story forward. I found it helpful to find a mentor – someone who gives me honest feedback and gently reminds me they haven’t seen anything recently. I too found Scrivener to be an excellent tool! It is always open on my computer as I start the day. A visual reminder there is work to be done.

  • Amber Bowen says:

    Great advice. Struggling to keep focus though, I’ve been through alot when I was a kid I had percocious puberty, a few years later a brain tumour all while growing up while my parents were going through divorce which to this day has screwed up my mind and I had scoliosis, my family was torn apart. I really want to write something so that I can express what it’s like to others and so I have some peace if mind because I’m not good talking to people in person about it. But I think now that I’m 21 I’d really like to try and get my life to as close to normal as possible because of what I’ve been through I have anxiety and depression. Can anyone recommend anyone that could help me write it please?

  • Kay Cooray says:

    Hi Mariane

    I do love to write my life story. I believe it is going to be very inspiring for others and to learn a lesson to how to create a happy life. It has lot of personal details which are very heartbreaking. I do like to write and publish this story.

  • Kevin says:

    OK so I’m trying to write a book about my history, I’ve had a hard life as most of us have and it seems like failure after failure almost like it’s hereditary or it within my jeans. A lot of people of told me you should write a book about your life story and have always push that off and said it would be interesting. So here I am facing another major crisis in my life with my wife my job and my health. Looking back through my childhood years to present there’s a lot of things that I never dealt with that were like skeletons in the closet and I feel the need to write it down and let people know that we all have hard lives and to ask how do we correct them how do we correct the mistakes that we’ve made in the past so that the future can be positive. I look forward to hearing back from someone to let me know if this is something that people would read? I appreciate your comments good or bad thanks.

    • David STEVENS says:

      Hi Kevin, I’d like to read your book if you can write it about all you’ve learned about life and what I can learn from you and pass on to my kids & their kids.

  • anshika says:

    hey marian,
    i am actually just a 14 year old trying to write a novel about my mothers sufferings in life, and how i changed as a person with a very sad end. its something like the fault in our stars but the plot is a lot different. i obviously know about the happenings and stuff because ive seen it myself through the years. but i honestly am very confused on how to start? as u mention in ur article, im confused about how and from what point in mt life should the beginning be.. like when i was born, when my parents got married, before that? or just flashbacks? please help me begin my first piece of writing! could we connect over a call? or probably mail?
    thankyou xx
    much love!

    • David STEVENS says:

      Listening to your story, I want to hear you begin with your birth, jump forward and then flash back to your parents. Though this is not my personal preference this is the feeling I got from reading what you wrote, so perhaps it will mean something to you.

  • leesi kobani says:

    I want to write a memoir about myself, i have been through alot as a girl and now a woman. Sometimes am being rejected for no reason and sometimes am being at some places. Then I have been in several relationships that has caused me pains. Many a time I would want to give up on it all but somehow I would just move on. I am yet to find a light at the end of the tunnel and I want to write about my story but I honestly don’t know how to start. Perhaps I can get some help. Thanks

  • Patrick Inengite CT says:

    I’ve wanted to write over a decade now, that was in my first degree. Exposé, memoir and nonfiction. I started with one last year August, 2015 caption Muses of the Unemployed Graduate. Though after creating three chapters I lost it to no reason I could best initiate. Am from Africa,.Nigeria. Tonite I’ve ignited to continue the story to completion. So many stories already outlined to tell through my books. I LOVE YOU ALL AUTHORS and wanna be AUTHORS…?
    Kudos!

  • vishalvishy says:

    thank you so much for the lovely description…

  • Monica Martin says:

    There’s a book in each of us. If you’d like help creating yours, check out heart-of-roses.com. We provide help for writers at any phase of the process.

  • Ahura suzan says:

    Im suzan from uganda this has inspired me,i have longed to write a book about my life but would always fail.i have never writen any articles apart from my exams probably ranked myself a failure in that field, i know i have an inspiring story that can help someone out there but i do not know how to state it, sometimes im seeing it being acted but in dreams wishing it was true.All my freinds have told to tell it to the world but i do not know can help.
    Will be glad to get a reply.

  • Kimmo Matias says:

    I really like the idea of using other author’s work (the way they begin a chapter etc) to jumpstart your writing process. I found that approach really interesting and shall try it. I want to write my own biography, a memoir of sorts and I have been battling with a lot of the same issues. Unfortunately I can’t really give you tips at this point as I am running behind you! But I wish you great success with your writing and thank you for the tips!

  • Alok Hari says:

    Thanks. I am scared of writing. I try many things but failed, this time I find, this useful article. Hope this work for me. I am thankful .
    Regards

  • Ricky Gill says:

    Hi, I really enjoyed this and all the comments and replies were also very helpful. I have a couple of questions or concerns really, that I was hoping some of you could help me with.
    I’m writing a “how to book” about relationships. How long should it be? I don’t want to overkill it but also don’t want it so short that it’s considered a pamphlet. 2nd one have a ton of things to say/write but I’m not sure how to organize everything? Basically, as of now, I have close to 20,000 words written down but it’s like I started writing and just went with it. Nothing is organized by chapter etc. Should I keep writing until I feel I covered everything I had to say then have an editor help me organize it and put it all into perspective? I have alot to say and good advice but as far writing a book I have no clue what I’m doing. Lol any tips or advice would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks in advance, Ricky

  • Jebrail Wrdak says:

    ohhh my dear, sorry for your abusive relationship, that lucky boy might not understand value of a piece of gold like you. and thanks very much for remarkable writing, it really made my day.

  • Hannah says:

    I enjoy writing about my life and adding
    a twist to make it less obvious that it’s my life, even though it has barely begun. I think that you shouldn’t stress too much about how it appeals to others, just write freely, and DON’T set aside certain time for writing. I tried, and it turned into more of a job than the fun it’s should be. I’m sincerely sorry about your abusive relationship, and I hope your memoir gets published some day.

  • Akpoebi says:

    Hi, i have learnt so much from the basic steps you outlined in the writing process,especially in d area of dedicating time and energy daily in writng a book,i find this to be very true in my experience.l’m a new writer,but passionate about writng for children.

  • Ramon Smothers says:

    Well, I definitely felt as if I were in your shoes. The thing that stood out to me was making time to write. And also, not feeling like writing when you sit down but finding the energy somehow to do so. Thank you for sharing.

  • Linda F. Radke says:

    Please consider adding http://www.StoryMonsters.com to your list of resources.

  • Kay Trammell says:

    I’m definitely best at step 1… Ha! But really, this is a great structure for writing. I find the hardest part for me is creating the routine without distractions. Thanks for a great post!

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