How to Take Your First Step in Writing the Great American Novel

What is your step by step process for writing a book? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Joy Jordan-Lake, Author of A Tangled Mercy, Adjunct professor of English lit & creative writing, on Quora:

The first and most important step is… drum roll, please… nothing sexy or spectacular, sadly. Honestly, there’s no book you can buy with all the answers or all the plot templates: it’s simply carving out time to write every day—or at least five days a week. That alone is the biggest difference between those who finally publish a book and those who always intend to but never do.

For the vast majority of us, especially just starting out, there aren’t huge pockets of unfilled time just waiting for us to hide out with a laptop— the dog quietly curled at our feet—while we produce an international bestseller. So we have to be a little ferocious in staking out time and protecting it from all comers—and especially from ourselves, the absolute worst enemies of our writing time. The voices in our heads, most writers at least, tell us we’re delusional to think we can write a book, that we’d spend our time better just paying the bills or cleaning the commodes during this time (because who are we kidding, anyway?). Those voices kill creativity.

Some people find they need to get up an hour earlier than usual—before driving to work or before the kids wake up. John Grisham did this writing his first and I believe also his second novel while still practicing law full time—before The Firm became a film and a blockbuster book. My friend Camille DiMaio, who wrote her first novel while working as a successful realtor and raising four kids, simply stayed up ‘til 3am writing each night for six weeks in order to finish a first draft. She was utterly exhausted, but that early push made the difference between being a wannabe or a published novelist. During semesters when I was teaching boatloads of classes at a local university and also had small children at home, I would try to write very early before anyone else woke up (except the dog, who always insisted on following me to my attic office as crucial support staff) and then I’d sequester myself during lunchtime in order to reach a page per day goal. Even at times when I didn’t have an office of my own, I’d hole up in the corner of a coffeehouse or an off-hours restaurant and keep my nose in my laptop, shoulders hunched, so that no one dared bother me. My first novel Blue Hole Back Home came into being this way—a crazy mix of sleep deprivation and mule-headed determination.

It does help immensely to establish a word count or page goal for each day, and be fairly tough on yourself about meeting it, even if that means not getting to watch Netflix that evening. If you have family responsibilities, there will simply be times you have to let go your word count for the day, like when a child has the flu or you need to take an aging parent to the doctor and wait five hours to see a specialist. I think the key is not to let those days when you have to offer yourself mercy become the norm so that you fall out of your routine.

Beyond that, there is no hard and fast step by step, since each writer is different and each genre requires different methods of its authors. If you want to write a thriller or mystery, you’d better have a fairly detailed plot from the start in order to map out each of your reveals and twists. Other types of novels can simply grow from a single idea or image, and the writer simply lets the characters lead the way as they grow and develop. J.R.R. Tolkein was grading papers for his classes at Oxford when, out of the blue, he scribbled “In a hole, there lived a Hobbit” on one paper. And thus was born a future classic. Even then, though, it helps to know generally what the final scene or chapter might be before writing the first, so all that sleep deprivation and mule-headed determination does not go to waste!

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