All the experts agree that the best way to survive this challenging time of social distancing and staying at home is to find ways to stay occupied. Many recommend taking time to do things we have always wanted to do but can’t fit in to our normal busy schedules. For an interesting take on this from someone who has experienced more isolation and confinement than I could begin to imagine, check out this article from the NY times where former astronaut Scott Kelly compares our current situation with being on a space station. One of Kelly’s suggestions is that you need a hobby. Put another way, he’s suggesting that you treat this unique abundance of time as an opportunity, rather than a prison sentence. If you are one of the many people who has been wanting to write a book, what better time than now? You can’t go anywhere, and your obligations to work may be either nonexistent, or at the very least, lighter and more flexible if you are working from home. Undeniably, if you are serious about your book, and especially if you plan to try and publish, you will need to treat it as more than a hobby. But you have a unique window of time that hopefully you will never have again—at least not due to a pandemic. So, take advantage of it.
One reason that many people put off starting to write, is that they have no idea how to begin.
In this short article, I offer three tips to help you get started.
1. Get to know your characters. One frequent mistake among writers is to think that their story is primarily about plot. It’s not. Whatever our preferred genre, the reason we stay up late to finish a book, the reason we read to the last page, isn’t because of what happens, it’s because of who it happens to. A good book gets the reader invested in its characters. We want to see them grow and change. We want to see them vanquish evil, get their heart’s desire, or live happily ever after with their prince charming. To draw from a currently popular example, when we read—or watch—Little Women, the reason we’re pulled into the story is because we care about the March family. Beth’s death, though it would sadden us as any death does, would not bring us to tears if we did not know that the reason for her death was that she selflessly cared for the Hummel family, as she had promised Marmee she would. If we hadn’t fallen in love with Jo, her grief at the loss of her favorite sister would elicit little more reaction than the abstract regret we feel when we hear that something unfortunate has happened to a distant acquaintance.
The same is true for your book. If you want the reader to care about what happens, you have to make the reader care about the characters to whom things are happening. To do that, you have to know them and care about them first. So, before you waste time writing three hundred pages of plot, take time to sketch out your characters. You can start with the basics, what do they look like, what’s their general personality? What clothes do they wear? What are their likes and dislikes? Then go deeper. Why does what happens in your story matter to them? How do they change as a result of what happens in your story? For more on why character development is the really important part of your book, see Lisa Chron’s book Story Genius, or Elizabeth George’s Write Away.
2. Outline Your story. Even if, as it does me, the thought of writing an outline makes you cringe, do it. There are a number of approaches you can take to doing this, such as Story Grid, or Author Accelerator’s Inside Outline, an approach where each element in the outline contains two components: what happens and why it happens. Some writers prefer to have a physical story board, where they can physically arrange and rearrange scene cards. If one of those tools works for you, by all means use it. If not, it’s OK to find the approach that works best for you. The important thing is that you have a detailed path to help you write forward.
3. Know your genre. If you plan on publishing your book, it’s never too early to start thinking about how your book will be marketed. Picture it on a shelf in your local bookstore. Where will it be? What books will be next to it? What will make your book different from other books in your genre? Who is your audience? What are the conventions of your genre? For example, the typical word count for a mystery or thriller is eighty-ninety-thousand words. If you’re going to deviate from that, you should have a good idea as to why. If you don’t know the conventions of your genre, excellent information can be found at Goodreads.
The information I have covered in this article barely scratches the surface for these three aspects of your manuscript. I will expand on each of them in subsequent blog posts, but in the meantime, I would love to talk with you if you need help with any of these tips. You can email me at Donna@goodincoaching.com, or visit my website at http://www.goodincoaching.com. If you haven’t received my complimentary copy of The Experiment of Writing a Book, click here to receive your copy.
May your writing brighten this time of uncertainty and isolation.