If You Don’t Know Where to Start,
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Letters, I get these letters. They go something like this:

I’ve been thinking about writing a book. What should I do next?

There are variations—Everyone tells me I should write a book, say, or I’ve been writing all my life—and usually some biographical information, but that’s the gist of it. Sometimes the letters are so vague I’m not sure what the writer is asking. I’m not sure the writer knows what he’s asking.

But here’s the short answer, dear ones. If you’re thinking about writing a book, you should …

Start. Writing.

Like, sit down in front of your computer, open your word-processing program, and start typing. Honest, that’s how it works. As an editor, I can’t help you until you’ve got something on the page.

Or you could start a blog, and see what happens. Lots of books currently in print started as and are derived from blogs, like Molly Wizenberg’s lovely A Homemade Life. Or Mike Hyatt’s Platform, in which I had a small editorial hand.

But you want answers, I know you do. More specific answers than Start Writing, although I can think of no better one. (Except, perhaps: Read.) So let’s see what I can rustle up. If you haven’t started writing yet, you should …

1. Consider your writing skills. If you are confident you know how to compose paragraphs in a coherent manner, start writing. (Don’t laugh! A lot of people really can’t compose sentences and paragraphs. It’s a lot different from talking.) If you’re unsure, seek out a creative writing course, for real. You can find writing courses at community colleges, at your county extension education office, at writers’ conferences, even online (caveat emptor, of course). You’ll end up writing some of your book for this class.

2. Definitely seek out a writer’s group and/or critique partners. I need to write a blog post about this someday (UPDATE: here it is); every author I’ve edited has been in a writer’s group, and I think it’s an important part of writing, this interaction with others. Your group can give you lots of editorial advice—and it’s free, aside from the investment of time. (Note that while in-person fellowship is nice, your group could just as easily be an e-mail group.)

3. Start reading the type of book you want to write. That is, do your homework. If you’re thinking about writing a memoir, you need to read memoir. You’ll see how they’re constructed, how they need to have a story arc. You’ll get ideas. Mary Karr started the recent trend in memoir, with her book The Liar’s Club—you could start there. I highly recommend it. I can give you a list of others, of course.

4. Make an outline. I can’t stress this enough. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, start jotting down the main points you want to write about, then break those down too. You can rearrange a dozen times ’til it makes sense.

OK, there are four really important things. It’s good that you asked. Now start writing. :)

Tweet: I’ve been thinking about writing a book. What should I do next?
Tweet: As an editor, I can’t help you until you’ve got something on the page.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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6 Comments

  1. April Line says:

    Hi!

    I would say the following things about this post.

    First, I agree that there is nothing more important to an aspiring writer than to read, read, read. She should read and write tirelessly. But a lot of people who tell me they’ve always wanted to write a book (this invariably after I tell them what I do for a living) have written lots but read little. It actually angers me when someone says, “Writing is my passion,” and then when I ask them what they’re reading, they say, “Oh, I don’t read.” This happens most often at the gym. So for wannabes who write lots but haven’t read lots, no time like the present to get started. Read lots. Especially what you want to write, like Jamie says.

    Second, I don’t necessarily advocate the outline. I spend time on the page with my characters for a while. Once those guys start to assert themselves in my unconscious mind, the things that happen–what they do–is no problem. Of course, every writer’s process is different, and some writers write very well from outlines. Some writers don’t have anything but ideas when they sit down, and some writers practically write the book before writing it. It seems important to me, instead of outlining, to become acquainted with your process. You will do this by writing lots.

    It’s good to have notes and things in mind and, especially if you’re writing a novel or a longer work of narrative nonfiction, a little spot where you write down who works where, names (don’t laugh! Jamie will tell you how often she gets MSes where a character’s name changes in the middle!), and details and key plot points lest one forgets. If you’re writing genre fiction where every character has a hair and eye color, make sure to note those, too. I’m sure Jamie can also tell you about characters whose eye and hair colors change. Once I read a draft where the heroine’s eye color was maple, hazel, and chocolate, depending on the page.

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  3. Hi,
    Can you please list down 3 top creative writing courses available online and resident…

    Thanks a Lot

    • Jamie says:

      That’s not really something I’ve ever looked in to. Especially online courses. The Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa is highly regarded but it’s certainly not the only one in this country. I just don’t feel like I’m qualified to make a pronouncement on it or any of them, really. Here’s a list from Wikipedia, but, again, I’m certain there are others of value. Even my local university offers a summer graduate-level writing program that’s been getting some favorable attention. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Creative_writing_programs

  4. Ankit gindoria says:

    Well.. there is small problem because of which I was looking for online course.. I stay in India.. :)

    • Jamie says:

      There are a zillion of those! :) And I can’t really take a position, you know? The best I can tell you about online courses is CAVEAT EMPTOR. You might be better off joining a local writers group or finding a critique partner.

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