10 Writing Tips for your First Book
So you want to be an author and have no clue where to start? Friend, I GET YOU. I was you. Some days I still am you.
Beginning your writing journey is both exciting and daunting and there is no fool proof how-to guide to help us. That is where I hope this blog post comes in.
I’m no expert, and I understand that every writer accomplishes tasks in a different way, but if what I’ve learned in my short time pursuing writing as a career can help another, I can't help but share. While it’s not how-to guide, it does include my tips and tricks that I learned the hard way when writing my first novel.
First things first, let me introduce myself.
Hello friends! Some of you may have heard of me, but it’s likely that most of you haven’t.
I’m Kimberly Marie, and I’m an author. My debut novel, The Sun at Dawn, will be coming out in the coming weeks worldwide online and in bookstores. While it’s a crazy feeling to know that my work will be on shelves for people to read, 2 years ago my baby didn’t even exist. It took me over a year and a half to write the first rough draft of my book, and another six months of editing before I even started querying the book to agents (which was worse than writing the actual book). Many lessons were learned through this period, and in this post I hope to share a few of them with you.
Now, let’s get down to business.
0. Just start
You may be wondering why I have this tip listed as 0. That is because it isn’t really a tip, rather a plea. If you feel you have a story brewing inside you, just start writing, and don’t give up.
This industry is hard.
My first novel got over 50 rejections from agents and publishers alike before I took a chance on an indie publisher in London. That chance paid off and now my book is going to be sold in Barnes & Noble among their retailers. This was not the traditional way to go about getting a book published, but I am compensating by building a large audience on social media (mainly Instagram), and using those platforms to market my book.
This is just to say that there are many paths you can take to get to where you want to be, but you have to start walking or you’ll never get there.
“I believe myself that a good writer doesn’t really need to be told anything except to keep at it.” - Chinua Achebe
So this is me telling you, keep at it.
ONTO THE LIST:
1. Have an idea
This may sound silly, but you wouldn’t believe how many people come to me asking for tips about writing a book when they don’t even have an idea sorted out.
Personally, I always have some sort of outline of the plot before I start writing the book. Even if I only know how the book starts or is going to end, I have a skeleton to build off of. Most of my outlines aren’t full of structure and grandeur and there is no long workbook I fill in with each new idea I have, but they give me somewhere to start when I begin typing.
In actuality, most of my ideas are a paragraph saved in my notes app on my phone, just detailing a rough outline of what the book could look like, but even this gives me a jumping off point. When you have a place to go, finding your way there is always easier than if you are aimlessly walking around looking for a plot line.
2. Don’t be afraid to change things.
In my first book, “The Sun at Dawn,” I had a very strict outline, because that is what I thought I needed.
I was determined to stick to this structure for my book because it was what I first envisioned and thought that this was what successful writers did.
They came up with an idea and stuck to it.
Through hell or high water, they didn’t change things. They were religious in their efforts to writing.
NEWSFLASH: None of these things are true.
I caused myself so much more heartache by not being open to adjusting the plot line or characters. This often resulted in me deleting whole chapters of hard work because as my story and characters evolved, certain plot points I thought were necessary weren’t anymore, and I was not willing to let them go.
Change is healthy and change is good. You can’t expect the story line to be exactly what you envisioned in the beginning because as your characters grow and change, so do you, as a person and as a writer. This means it is only natural that some things in the story will change, and you need to be open to it. This openness is especially important during the editing process, when others look over your work.
Stephen King put this concept into words when he stated, “when your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”
He isn’t lying. It hurts terribly sometimes. You have to wrestle with yourself to understand what is worth keeping and tossing, but in the end it only makes the work stronger. When changes are suggested by your editor or others you have entrusted to critique your work, you need to be able to decipher what is necessary to the story, and what is hindering the growth or flow of the plot line.
In “The Sun at Dawn,” the names of the children that Annabelle cares for when she is serving her tenure as governess changed many times throughout the writing process. Nothing I chose seemed to fit them and their personality until I settled on Isabelle and Lucas, but there were many other names that I chose and threw away before then.
Entire sections of writing were deleted and rewritten during the editing process as well. Fresh perspectives showed me that some details weren’t needed in certain scenes, and more details were needed in others. Don’t hinder your work thinking your first idea needs to be your last.
3. Writer’s Block sucks, but it happens to all of us
So many nights I have sat for hours staring at a computer screen, my fingers ready to type, but my mind giving me nothing to work with. Tired eyes and too many chocolate bars later and I would still be looking at a blank screen. It happens to all of us, and it is the most frustrating thing about being a writer.
There is also often no cure for it. The only thing you can do is push through it and wait it out. Move to another project. Keep doing creative things. Just take a break and daydream about the book to keep the idea fresh in your mind. Just find what works for you in those times of emptiness and frustration.
My favorite thing to do is switch gears to another book I am writing, but I understand that not all people can just switch back and forth between projects on a whim. I also find a lot of help in continuing to do creative things like calligraphy, poetry, and photography. By keeping my creative juices flowing, I am able to power through my writer’s block quicker than if I chose not to do anything.
I also escape by reading my favorite books or going to the bookstore to browse. Just taking my mind off of my own work and pull my head away from it all always helps. Music, long drives, family time. Do whatever you need to do to pull your mind away from what's blocking you.
“Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It’s a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write.” - Paul Rudnick
4. Do your research
The next few tips are very character and setting oriented. The first of these is doing your research. I cannot stress this enough. Research is one of the most important things you will do for your book. It is the base of your work and the backbone of the story.
Is your book taking place in the 1920’s? If so, think about what the 20’s looked like. What did they wear? What did they drive? What sayings were popular in that time? What jobs were your characters likely to have?
You have to remember when writing any piece that setting is just as important as characters and plot. If I find blatant errors in setting or background information, I disconnect from the work instantly because I can only focus on the things that are wrong with the piece. It also comes across as lazy on the author’s part to publish a work with clear factual errors.
I wrote a Victorian Era novel and had quite a bit of research to do to make sure I stayed true to the time period. I had over 20 open tabs about the role of a governess in Victorian Era England alone. This is not including the tabs I had open for attire, speech, education of that era, as well as architecture and the hierarchy of the household. It is tedious and overwhelming at times, but your effort in creating an accurate and believable world for your characters will only heighten the work and your readers will appreciate the time you put in.
5. Who are your core characters?
I am always one to add extra characters as the story goes on. Finding holes that a new character could fill in a scene, or see value in creating a new relationship for one of my existing characters, but I always have a group of core characters that I establish before I begin writing a book.
This is typically about 4 characters who I know will play large leading and supporting roles throughout the work. I decide on their look, personality, and sometimes name before the writing portion of the work even begins.
Some questions to sort out before you start writing:
What do they look like? What do they believe in? What is their struggle through this story? What role do they play? What could their possible outcome be?
REMEMBER: the answers to these questions can always change, but having the background of your characters worked out before writing will only help make their storyline stronger.
6. Consistency is key
There are few things that grate my nerves more throughout a book than consistency issues. Character or otherwise.
One minute a character has blue eyes, but suddenly they have brown. Oh, and a sister that has never been mentioned, but in chapter 13 suddenly appears out of nowhere with no explanation. Am I a little salty? Maybe. But, regardless, this is still something to keep in mind when writing your book. Stay true to your word.
I always have a character list printed out next to me when I write, not only to keep track of my characters names, but also to make sure I stay true to who they are. I list personality traits on this page and anything else I think I may need to remember when dealing with this character.
Who they like, dislike, are in a relationship with. It can be so easy to forget about certain characters, so having a list can help make sure that none are left behind.
Does one character wear glasses? Make sure you remember to include this throughout the entire work. They should interact with their personal attributes.
Don't just tell me they wear glasses, have them push them up the bridge of their nose, or take them off to clean them on their shirt. We all learned about show, don't tell in school, but this is where you can really put it into action. You have created a multi-layered human, remember to include their attributes in everything they do.
The same goes for setting.
Are you in London? Then it should probably rain through a healthy portion of the book and characters should have accents.
Is Alaska where your novel takes place? Then it is dark for six months out of the year and almost always cold.
These are just a few examples of something that may seem like common sense, but I have found that when I am engrossed in writing, I overlook little details in grand scheme of things, and as writers, we can't do that. We have created a world for our reader to take respite in, and we have to stay true to it.
7. Diversity is everything
Keeping to the topics of characters, remember to make them different. I feel as if this is self-explanatory, but I read so many books where I get lost in a sea of characters that are the same, and it just weighs the work down and makes it hard to navigate through. Remember to make your characters different from each other.
This doesn’t only have to be in race and gender, but also personality and background. They all have individual struggles they must face and they all have different thoughts and opinions. They were raised differently. Have faced different hurts throughout life, and have experienced different types of joy. The characters themselves must reflect these facts.
The conflict of the story is created through the interactions of the characters. If they all look, think, and act the same way, there will not be a healthy and natural flow of conflict through the story. We live in a diverse world, so yours should reflect this.
Your characters all have their own different path to walk. Honor this.
8. Timeline is important
The hardest thing for me when writing “The Sun at Dawn” was timeline. I had to go through the entire 90,000 word manuscript multiple times to correct timeline issues and make sure the story flowed correctly.
I do not write books in order, rather I write scenes and put the book together like a puzzle. It drives my mother crazy, but it is just the way my scattered mind works.
While I have come to appreciate my process, the madness in which I write creates horrible problems when editing because I constantly have to go back through the draft and fix timeline issues. One scene in my book took place in January in England, and the next, Annabelle was picking flowers in the spring. This was a blatant timeline issue that forced me to go back and alter that chapter and add more scenes to create a realistic timeline and a chapter that flowed well from one scene to another.
You have to remember that you are taking your reader on a journey and no one will stick around for a story that gets lost along the way.
9. Give yourself realistic deadlines
You probably aren’t going to write 10,000 words a day. I know I can’t. If you do, you are truly superhuman (teach me your ways, please!).
When I start a book, I can crank out 15,000 words in no time… but after that I bomb. I freeze. Go through a LONG period of writers block, and eventually find my way out of it to average about 10 pages a week give or take, without editing.
This is a realistic expectation I set for myself because I know I can accomplish this. When you set realistic expectations for yourself, you spend less time being disappointed if you don’t reach them, and spend more time creating a healthy workflow. There will be some days you don’t write a single word, and other days you crank out 2,000 words in an hour. Take the time to learn how your mind and body write, and set expectations based on that.
Kim’s Bonus Tip: Stream of consciousness is everything in writing as well, so don’t stop typing just to go back and correct that spelling error if you can still decipher what the word is. Spelling and grammar can always wait a few minutes.
Don’t break your workflow just because you feel the need to add that comma. Just start typing and keep typing. Deadlines are great if you need something to keep you motivated, but there is always time for editing later.
“You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” - Jodi Picoult (NY Times Bestselling Author)
10. Write dialogue first
This is my favorite tip on the list. I learned this at the end of writing my first manuscript and if I could turn back time and learn it at the beginning, I would. It would have saved me months of work because it kept me typing through the scene, rather than pausing my typing to think of a different word for “said” every five minutes.
To break it down, when I write, I play the scene in my head like a movie first. I never start with describing the scene. Maybe a small blurb at the beginning of the rough draft of the scene (1-2 sentences) to remind me where they are and what the atmosphere is supposed to be.
No matter what, though, the thing I always have down now first is the dialogue. I play the scene through my head, and type what I envision my characters saying to each other. No description. No action words. Just the words that flow out of their mouths and into the scene. This creates an amazing opportunity to up your word count as well. By writing 1,000 words of strict dialogue in a scene, you have a great jumping off point.
Setting: couple in living room is fighting over John (boyfriend) interfering with Abigail’s (girlfriend) life.
How could you possibly do this to me? You told me that you would always stand by me.
I will always stand by you, but could you really expect me to step aside and watch you ruin yourself? I can’t do it.
I won’t ruin myself.
Yes you will! And the fact that you can’t see that only justifies my actions more.
This is my life.
Really, because when we bought this house you said it was the start of our life.
Word Count: 82
By adding description and action words, you can easily add double the word count in the scene. This also helps you stay focused on the progression of the story rather than getting lost in the details of what you think a good scene is made up of. Once you have the bones of the scene (basic background and dialogue) you can easily add everything else later. Below is the scene from above, after I have gone back and added all the extras. (Forgive me for the poor writing. I wrote this scene off the cuff in 2 minutes and it didn’t come out of any current work in progress)
“How could you possibly do this to me?” My shouts could easily be heard by the neighbors, but the aching muscle hiding behind my ribs could hardly care. “You told me that you would always stand by me.”
“I will always stand by you,” John was getting agitated by the conversation. His hands running back and forth through his hair was always his tell. There was nothing in me that was willing to give up, though. He did this, and now he had to face his actions. “But could you really expect me to step aside and watch you ruin yourself? I can’t do it.”
“I won’t ruin myself,” my voice didn’t come out nearly as strong as I wished it would have. The pathetic whisper floated through the air between us, letting us both know he was probably right. I was never one to accept the truth easily, and we both knew this.
“Yes you will!” Facing me now, those brown eyes I loved stared down at me in accusation. “And the fact that you can’t see that only justifies my actions more.”
Now that made me angry.
“This is my life,” and it was. My life and my choices and I was not required to ask his permission for any of it. Even with my fiery belief in what I had just said, the broken look in his eyes as the words tumbled from my lips told me I shouldn’t have said that.
“Really?” Now his voice was a whisper, reaching out like an olive branch, almost there, but not long enough to touch me. “Because when we bought this house you said it was the start of our life.”
Word count: 283
By adding the descriptive part of the scene after the dialogue, I am able to create a mood throughout the entire scene while only focusing on editing and molding the work, not worrying about the verbal interaction between the characters.
Now I get to focus on their physical interaction, mannerisms, personality traits.
Are they anxious? What are their hands doing? How does their voice sound? What are they feeling?
These are all things that I can add once the verbal part of the interaction is complete. You can always go back and alter the dialogue as well, but you will have an entire scenes worth to work with.
Well there we have it. 10 of my favorite tips & tricks that I’ve learned in my writing journey so far. Granted, not all of these tips will work for everyone. Each writer is different and has their own work flow that helps them achieve their end goal of a polished and finished work, but I can only hope that a couple of these will help you to start writing the story that is buried deep inside of you.
Your words deserve to be read, so put them on paper.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” - Maya Angelou