20 Writing Strategies Aspiring Authors can Use to Plan, Write, and Finish their First Books
An interesting thing happens when I tell people that I’m a writer. Their eyes open wide in surprise, and they usually say one of two things, either, “Oh, that’s so cool. I could never do that,” OR “Oh my gosh, I’ve always wanted to write a book.”
At that point, they’ll usually tell me all the reasons they haven’t done it yet. If you’ve dreamt of writing or maybe even started a book, one of these might resonate:
- You don’t know where to start.
- You started writing your book but got lost/stuck and stopped.
- You just don’t have the time to write even though you have this great idea (which they’ll then share and ask what I think).
- You’re “not a writer” or “you can’t write” (which means VERY different things to different people).
- You don’t have enough ideas for a whole book or how to organize what you do have.
- You’ve tried writing and have probably hundreds of pages of stories/ideas/notes but have no idea what to do with it all or how to organize it into an actual book.
I remember feeling that exact same way with additional doses of terror, imposter syndrome, and self-doubt thrown in just to spice up all the excuses that kept me safe and not writing.
Most of my clients have their own special little mix of creative blocks and reasons that keep them starting to write their first books as well.
It took a while but four and a half novels and over 500 hundred blog posts later, I’ve developed some strategies to get from dreaming of writing to actually writing a book and sharing it with the world, and I’m sharing them in this post.
Try out the ones that resonate. Don’t tackle them all at the same time as that would probably lead to overwhelm and no writing, but choose a few and get started applying them.
See what happens.
If you’d like more support, accountability, and feedback on starting to write your book, go ahead and schedule a chat with me or check out my coaching page to see how I work with clients.
Let’s get started at the beginning, with how you think about yourself as a writer.
Your Writerly Mindset & Practice
1. Every book, whether you’re writing a novel, a memoir, or a non-fiction big idea book, tells a story. And (happily) you already know how to tell one!
Trust yourself & your ability to tell a story.
If you’ve ever shared a story about your terrible bad day or vacation or whatever, and your friends listened and enjoyed it, you already have an innate understanding of story.
We all do.
There are characters with goals, conflicts and events that stop them from reaching those goals, and a resolution.
It’s simple…but not easy to do, but since story structure is the foundation of any and every book, even non-fiction, it’s super important to understand.
The most compelling books have a strong narrative arc that takes the character or the reader on a journey of transformation. The good news is that whether you know it or not, you’ve already a strong intuitive sense of it. Trust that in yourself as you write.
This may sound like “duh” super obvious advice, but it’s not. You MUST write in order to finish a book. Dreaming of holding your book in your hand, planning out your plot, developing characters or figuring out your framework and messaging are all great. But, they will not get you to a completed book.
In order to finish your book, you have to write it, word by word, scene by scene, section by section, chapter by chapter.
Write often, write daily, write thousands of words that no one will ever read. Write by hand. Write in your journal. Type. Dictate ideas and stories into otter.ai.
To be a writer, to be an author, you must write. And you must write frequently.
“You have to be a writer before you can become an author.” Srini Rao
If you want to write a book, you actually have to put your ass in your chair, turn on your computer or open your notebook and string a LOT of words together.
3. Practice your craft.
I have a file on my computer of “cut scenes and chapters.” It has well over 50,000 words in it. I also have a fully completed but unpublished YA novel that needs more work. This is not evidence of failure. This is evidence of practice and learning.
Any athlete will practice specific skills to improve their overall game. Writers and artists are no different. We also need to practice in order to improve.
Focus on practicing specific skills you’d like to improve. For example, if you want to get better at writing dialogue, write dialogue. Write conversations between characters. Add different action tags and details. See what happens when you do that.
Think about your weak areas in your writing and focus on studying and improving those areas. Not sure where you’re weak? Ask your critique group (see #12), and they’ll help you.
4. Play with words
Write silly poems for your bestie on her birthday, write short stories that will never see the light of day, write random descriptions of things you see. Write a description of your office as if you’re super pissed off. Write another as if you’ve just fallen in love. What do you notice? What details do you include? How do the descriptions differ? How can you bring that into your book?
Write a section or chapter differently than how you’d planned. Share a different story. Add more personal stories. Write the same section several times, see which one sings.
Some of the most fun I have with writing is playing like this and penning silly poems.
There’s a lot of overlap between this one and practice. They can both be fun. And they can both help you hone your craft.
Reading WILL make you a better writer. Read in whatever genre you want to write and read in other genres. Read for fun and read like a writer, paying attention to the story’s structure, language, and development.
Note the details, the structure, the language.
“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.William Faulkner
If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”
Become a cell and let the story and words seep in (remember osmosis from tenth-grade biology? Yeah, some things sink in…)
6. Write about what you find fascinating (& ignore that lame advice to “write what you know”).
There’s this old idea that you should “write what you know” which is pretty much B.S. Unless every murder mystery writer is also a closet serial killer (and I certainly hope not), they’re writing from their imagination about ideas and things that fascinate them.
Don’t worry about tackling topics about which you know nothing but that you find endlessly interesting.
You can research anything to learn about it before you write. And research is one of the most fun parts of writing. Wanna go on an archeological dig? Perfect, create a character who’s an archaeologist and dive into researching it. You might not go on an actual dig, but you can read about them, watch videos and, possibly even interview an archaeologist.
It’s super fun to live vicariously through your characters or your topics, so explore topics and characters you find fascinating. That’s why you have an imagination!
Don’t limit yourself by sticking with “what you know.”
7. Don’t be afraid to revise your work as you go.
Many writing programs/teachers will tell you NOT to edit or revise under any circumstances as you’re writing that first draft. “Vomit it all out” is the standard advice because revising as you go will somehow keep you from moving forward. You’ll become a perfectionist, and you’ll end up with two perfect chapters but no complete book.
After working with hundreds of writers over my career, this type of perfectionism is rare, especially if your book is calling to your soul to be written.
I disagree with the “don’t edit as you write” advice because there is value in reviewing your work as you continue to move forward.
Going back and reviewing what you’ve already written gives you an opportunity to improve and deepen it. You can clarify ideas or plot points, get new ideas for where your book might go, expand areas that need a bit more detail or explanation, or cut areas that are redundant.
This is called practice (see #3). We need to practice to get better. Revising a bit as you go gives you the space and time to practice your craft and THAT, my friends, includes revising and editing.
When I’m working on a book, I begin every writing session by reading through and doing some revision on whatever I wrote in the prior session. It reminds me of where I am and where I want to go. It also gives me the opportunity to improve. Don’t be afraid to look back and revise as you go.
Just be sure you keep moving forward.
8. Allow yourself time to do your best work.
Writing books takes time. Writing great books, especially if you’re tackling your first one, will NOT happen in a weekend. A full-length book is generally between 65,000-95,000 words though they can run much longer.
You might be able to write a novella at 20,000 words in a weekend, but not a full-length book.
Excellence takes time. Ideas take time. Writing words down and typing takes time as does figuring out how to convey those ideas in the best way possible.
Remember being a kid and looking forward to your favorite holiday, vacation, or your birthday? So much of the fun was in the anticipating, the planning, the dreaming.
Allow that for your book, too. EnJOY that piece as you continue writing rather than demanding that your creative process join Amazon Prime and become a race to deliver your book too quickly before it’s ready and fully developed.
If it takes you a year, or two, or ten, that’s okay.
Just keep at it. Keep writing. Keep working. Give yourself the grace and the space to write well.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that you cannot create great work quickly. You can. But with your first book, if you’re just embracing your role as a writer, it’s probably unlikely. And that’s perfectly okay.
9. You won’t FIND the time to write. You have to MAKE the time.
Intentionally plan your days and weeks with scheduled writing time. Put that time on the calendar – block it off – then stick to that schedule.
You might write for:
- Two hours, four times a week
- 90 minutes five times a week
- 20 minutes 3 times a week, while sitting in your car during your child’s soccer practice
- Thirty minutes a day, every day
Whatever you can do to make the time, put it on your calendar.
Then, add all the details. Where will you write? When? How? By hand? On your laptop? Be specific in your planner as to when it will happen which will help you make it happen.
I wrote my first novels in 30-40 minute chunks between 5:00 am-6:30 am before I left for my full-time teaching job. I’d also try to write every weekend.
It felt like they took forever to write, but they got done and published. My LONE unpublished book was done during NANOWRIMO or National Novel Writing Month, where you write 50,000 words in a month. I finished it the following month, so it’s done. But I wrote it too fast. It needs a mountain of revision that feels overwhelming (see #7 – sometimes speed writing makes for more work at the end of the process).
As you’re looking at blocking time, I recommend NOT planning for writing new words of more than three or four hours. You can certainly work on your book for more than that, but break it up into different activities such as plotting/planning, drafting new words, research, or editing.
Doing any of the above activities for longer than four hours at a time, can feel exhausting and draining, so either mix it up OR keep your focused writing sessions at 3 hours max.
10. Write during your scheduled time, whether you feel inspired or not.
This is one of those “which comes first, the chicken or the egg” conundrums.
If you wait for inspiration to hit before you put your butt in the chair and begin writing, you’ll write sporadically and finishing your book will be a challenge.
If you sit down to write and have nothing to say, frustration hits.
You can avoid either scenario by scheduling your writing sessions and planning out what you’re going to write. See #15 for more on this one.
If you’ve got your writing sessions on the calendar AND you have a clear outline/plot-plan, you won’t have to wait for inspiration.
Now, I know some of you might be saying that an outline will feel stifling to your creative process, but think of your outline as a guide. When you map out a destination on the map app on your phone, you always get several options, and you’ll absolutely find yourself on these detours as you write your book. You might even find your destination changing halfway through. That’s totally fine. The idea behind an outline is to give you enough structure to keep you moving forward.
11. Allow for plenty of revising time.
There’s almost no other feeling in the world as great as typing “The End” after you’ve managed to draft tens of thousands of words into a cohesive whole.
But typing those words isn’t the end. You’re now ready to begin revising.
Good books are written in the first draft. Great books are written during the revision process.
And by revision, I’m not referring to editing. I’m talking about developmental revisions – rearranging, rewriting, removing, and adding new words.
This takes time, so be sure to allow yourself enough time to do this properly. It might include working with a developmental editor (I use one), or getting additional feedback from your writing group/partners.
First, you’ll want to set your entire manuscript aside for at least a few weeks. Then, get ready to read.
I recommend printing out your book. You’ve been reading and reviewing it on the screen, and reading it in print somehow gives you a different perspective on it. You’ll catch things you won’t catch on the screen. It’ll also slow down your reading. Try it.
Then read it and re-read it, and read it again, making changes and edits and revisions on each read-through. Give yourself a good solid month (or six) for this phase.
This section of strategies is all about holiding yourself accountable to actually getting your book written.
12. Track your word count – use a spreadsheet or put it in your planner
For each of your writing sessions, set a word count goal. Maybe it’s 500 words or maybe you have no problem cranking out 2000 words. Generally my goal is between 800-1400.
Sometimes I can crank out 3000 words but that’s when I have a super clear idea of what’s coming next, and I’m on a roll. Both my writing partner and I track our daily and weekly word coutns.
I’ve created a Google Spreadsheet here if you’d like to use the same sheet I use. Be sure to make a copy of it for your own template. Then, copy it again and rename it 2021 Word Tracker. You can track your daily word count and/or the number of pages edited.
13. Get yourself a writing partner or group where you can share pages and get feedback
Having a group or partner who you commit to sending pages and meeting with either weekly or every other week will absolutely help you hold yourself accountable to actually writing.
My critique partner and I will often also share our daily word count in a quick text or our struggles, so we can help motivate one another as well.
To find a partner or group, you might post on social media or if you prefer to work with people locally, you might contact your local library or community center to see if they are aware of any groups. Or, you can start your own and advertise it locally at the library, newspaper, or even coffee shops with a flyer.
I found my writing partner at a start-up meeting for a local writer’s club. While I don’t think the club made it as the leader moved, my writing partner and I have been meeting almost weekly for close to six or seven years. We’ve had a few women come and go through the years, but nobody has stuck like we have.
When you find potential people, ask them what they write, ask about their long-term goals, and get to know them. You’re going to be spending quite a bit of time with this person and their words so make sure they’re a fit. You don’t need to write in the same genre. My writing partner, Gillian Archer, writes erotica and romance while I write historical and women’s fiction. We both write novels and that is enough of an overlap. I’m not sure a non-fiction or children’s book author would be a good fit because that’s not our focus in the group.
If you can’t find a group or partner, you can always hire a writing coach to work with who will give you feedback. These sessions can almost be like 1:1 writing lessons as well. I offer coaching services or you can do a google search and find others. They aren’t free but if you want to improve your writing quickly, working with a book or writing coach can be one of the best ways to do it.
14. Keep writing – don’t stop to research or check details, especially if you’re on a roll
When you’re in the middle of a great writing session, words are flowing, you’ll often find yourself needing to quickly lookup a detail.
Here’s a trick for you. Instead of stopping your writing mojo, give yourself a note using “tk” and come back to it later. I don’t recall where I learned this trick, but it works because there are no words in English that have “tk” next to each other.
Here’s an example from my writing session this week. I’m working on the sequel to The Overlander’s Daughter. In the scene I was writing, Harper leaves a coffee shop and gets into her car. Both the coffeeshop and her car are in Overlander’s, but I didn’t want to stop to look up those details.
Instead, I wrote [tk – check H’s car make and coffeeshop name] and went on with the scene.
I can now go back when I’m feeling like revising or checking details, do a search for “tk” and find all of those areas that need clarifying.
15. Plan your writing sessions.
Planning out what you’ll write is actually a great way to hold yourself accountable.
It would be lovely to sit in our mountain cabin retreat, pour our coffee or tea, and sit down trusting that we will be filled with inspiration for each and every writing session.
Unfortunately, this isn’t so realistic.
Instead, make a plan. When you end a writing session, spend a few minutes jotting some notes on where you’ll start your next session.
OR, plan time to begin your next session by outlining or plotting the subsequent scene in as much or little detail as necessary.
This is why I strongly advocate for creating an outline or a plot before you begin drafting. You can create a fairly detailed outline/plot plan OR you can have a rough idea of where you’re going, but having NO idea, especially for beginning book authors, can create problems with actually completing your writing sessions.
Back to #6 and allowing yourself time to create a good book, also includes allowing time for your ideas to fully develop both before you write and as you’re drafting. Having your thoughts drilled down a bit will make the writing process so much easier because your brain has a starting place to work with and build ideas.
When you get stuck
16. Take walks/get outside
Going on both short and long walks is one of the best ways to have a breakthrough when I’m stuck – quick walks – a half-mile or mile that you can do in fifteen minutes
Walk without listening to anything – let your brain loose and let it do its thing
17. Go on artist’s dates
Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way introduced the idea of artist’s dates. Basically, you block out an hour or two every few weeks to spend some time doing something by yourself that inspires your artistic side.
Maybe it’s going to a museum or a craft store. Maybe it’s taking a long walk with your camera in hand and viewing the world up close and personal. For me, it’s often going to the craft store, quilt shop, or book store.
You might watch a movie or go ice skating or lay on the ground and stare at the clouds to find fun shapes. It’s really anything that gets you in a happy, inspired place.
Artist dates feed your creative soul. And, they’re fun.
18. Do some creativity cross-training
While an artist’s date is more about absorbing inspiration, one of my favorite ways to get unstuck is to do some creative cross-training which is about creating but in another arena.
If you’re a writer, you might take a break from writing and paint, sketch, take and edit photos, decorate a space in your home, pick flowers and arrange them in a vase, bake, decorate a cake. Do something creative that’s totally different from writing.
I always have a quilt going when I’m deep in a novel. Moving from crafting words to playing with color and fabric allows my brain to create but in a different way, and I’ll often have breakthroughs in my novels while I’m stitching or painting.
19. Write by hand
This is a strategy that I use and also some writing friends use as well. Uma Griish, a successful memoirist, writes all of her first drafts by hand. I write about a third of my first drafts by hand, but I always pick up the pen when I’m feeling a little stuck.
It gets words flowing. I wrote about this one in detail here.
The other benefit of writing by hand is that when you do take those handwritten pages to your computer to type, you’ll find yourself revising and editing as you type. So, by the time you get these pages typed, they’ve already gone through a revision cycle.
20. Type the End and start over.
Writing and publishing one book is a HUGE accomplishment. If you do it, congrats. But unfortunately, one book will not make a career.
You’ve got to keep at it and write consistently to find your voice and build an audience.
The best part is that the more you write, you’ll find what works for you. These are the strategies I’ve found that work for me. Because writing books is a creative endeavor, you’ll find what works for you as you write more and more.
If you feel like you need more support, shoot me an email or check out my coaching page and schedule a consult call.
I think this is one of the longest blog posts I’ve ever written. Why did I do it? Because there are so many people out there who have a soul calling to write a book and it just feels SO DAMN BIG and overwhelming.
Don’t let it.
Break it down. Think of whatever you want to write as a story you’re telling your best bud, and start writing one word at a time.
You’ll get there.
One final thing…
If you found any of these ideas or tips helpful for you, I’d love it if you would share this post with other aspiring writers either in an email or on your social media platforms.
Thanks so much,