Writing a Novel: Getting Started

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If it’s true that of every 1,000 people who start to write a book only 30 will finish (3%), and of those who finish writing only six (20% of 30) will get it published, it makes you wonder what’s going on. The issues around publishing are complex, and not something I want to explore in this article (I have other articles on that topic). What I do want to explore is what I discovered when I decided to undertake writing my first book, a middle-grade novel called When Willows Weep, which was recently published. It easily could have never happened at all. So why and how did I manage to become one of the 3% who do finish writing a book? First, I had to get started! 

You Can’t Finish What You Never Start

For all the people who do attempt to write a book, I think there are many more who never even get started. I was in that camp for nearly four years myself. The idea for When Willows Weep came to me in 2016, when my daughter Willow was in the sixth grade of a lovely Waldorf school. It was a truly magical year for those sixth graders. They made gorgeous wooden swords in woodworking class. They learned and danced a sword dance at the May Day celebration. There was in a Medieval Ceremony held in stone chapel where each student was knighted with all due ceremony and ritual. I sat there watching Willow’s knighting and hearing her recite the following oath:

“I will speak the truth and maintain the right. I will protect the poor, the distressed, and all people. I will practice courtesy and kindness to all. I will deplore the allurement of ease and safety. I will maintain honor and the cause of God in every perilous adventure.”

A picture popped into my head of Willow standing in a hay field near the house, armed with her sword and facing down a pack of ferocious dogs—but these dogs were evil, later to be named hellhounds, demon dogs straight from the pits of Hell. With just that picture in my mind, I realized I wanted to write a story with my daughter as the protagonist, who finds herself smack dab in the middle of an epic battle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness, a classic showdown of good versus evil. She would also have recently awakened special abilities (divine gifts) to help her in the battle—Sight, Light, and Fight.

As I mentioned, this happened in 2016. It seemed like I thought about this idea for a novel quite a lot, but never started writing. What was holding me back?

Work/Life Balance and Writing a Novel

It was easy enough to make excuses for why I wasn’t writing this story I wanted to write. I make my living as a freelance writer and editor for hire. I write anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 words every day for pay. I’m used to cranking out words, but I don’t write fiction for pay, I write non-fiction web content, mostly blog articles for businesses of all types. After spending eight or nine hours writing for pay, I always felt like I had nothing left for writing my novel. The idea of spending more of each day writing, even though it would for my own project, simply wasn’t very appealing. 

On top of that excuse was the general issue of available time. Between parenting my daughter, being deeply involved in my church, and indulging in my main hobby of acting in and directing amateur theatre productions, there weren’t any hours left in the day. Anyone who’s been bitten by the theatre bug knows how much time goes into doing show after show. 

Years slipped by without ever starting to write the novel. In the fall of 2019, my daughter was a sophomore in high school. I was beginning to feel like I’d never write the novel. I decided I needed to do something to get started, so I joined NaNoWriMo, which is National Novel Writing Month. It’s a time when writers commit the entire month of November to writing 50,000 words towards a book. During NaNoWriMo 2019 I wrote a grand total of ZERO words—nothing, nada, nil, zilch. I also didn’t find this surprising. I hadn’t done anything to make time to write. I just signed up for this online group and nothing happened. It didn’t do anything for me. Go figure.

If An Opportunity Presents Itself, Take it!

As another year was flying by, then along came 2020—the year the world was turned upside down and inside out by the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 global pandemic. It’s strange to think a worldwide public health emergency was one of the puzzle pieces that fell into place and forced changes around how I would spend my time. Theatres and shows of all kinds were shut down. In-person worship and many other activities at my church were put on hiatus. I certainly couldn’t use lack of available time as an excuse for not starting my novel—I suddenly had plenty of time.

I also realized part of the inertia around starting to write was being afraid to write fiction. I’m a non-fiction writer and knew on some level how different writing fiction is from non-fiction. If I was going to dive into writing fiction, I needed some serious structure, accountability, and guidance on how to write fiction. Meanwhile, one of my many day-job gigs was managing a group of developmental editors for a book writing program called Creator Institute, and what these “DEs” were doing with writers were the exact things I myself needed—providing structure, accountability, coaching, and writing feedback. In the fall of 2020, Creator Institute staff were offered the optional perk of participating in the book writing program as writers without paying dues. 

I was savvy enough to realize this was my best opportunity to commit to writing my novel and finally getting started, so I did it. The program is intense and challenges writers to complete their first draft manuscript in a condensed timeframe of about five or six months—and I did it! It was such a relief to not only start writing, but also finish the first draft. I’ll have much more to say about the writing process and what I learned as a first-time author in other articles. This one is about just getting started.

What’s Holding YOU Back?

Do you have an idea for a book? Have people ever told you, “You should write a book.” Whether it’s non-fiction, a memoir, a novel, or a collection of poetry, just getting started is the first obstacle most people never overcome, let alone finishing the writing or getting published. 

For me, it took a forced reshuffling of priorities and activities along with recognizing I needed help and getting the help I needed. In one sense, I was lucky. Without the pandemic and without Creator Institute, there is no doubt in my mind I would have never started. I guess what I’m saying is there will always be excuses for not starting, but excuses are just that—excuses you make for yourself instead of taking the actions you need to take to get started. 

At any point during the previous years, I could have said “no” to a couple of shows to have time for starting the novel. I could have sought out a writing program at any time to give me the structure, accountability, and guidance I needed. But I didn’t. Then my previous excuses were stripped away, and I had no more excuses. I at least had the wherewithal to recognize it was either now or never in terms of starting. You, however, don’t have to wait until your excuses are forcibly taken away from you. You can choose to make room for starting your book now. Carpe diem!

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

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