5 Tips on Starting a Writing Project

Writing a novel is a daunting task.

king quote
quote by Stephen King

Starting with nothing but an idea and a blank page, you have to come up with thousands of words to tell a story. Hours of brainstorming, world-building, drafting, and editing are before you, and it’s one of the scariest places to be.

I’m at the beginning right now. I’ve had my idea for a few months and have been researching. I feel like I’m getting very close to the point when I can actually start writing the novel. And I’m remembering just how scary the beginning can be.

So today I wanted to share with you my tips on starting a writing project. These tips are what seem to work for me at the beginning of the daunting task of writing a novel. I hope something in here resonates with you and can help you tackle the beginning of your own writing project

I don’t think anything is scarier or more exciting than a blank notebook.

1. Let the idea simmer.

I don’t like to jump in right away once I have an idea. I always find that letting the idea sit in the back of my mind for a while helps it develop. It’s also important when you first think of a story idea to not talk about it to anyone. The story idea will never be as special and exciting to you as when it’s new and only yours, and talking about it with someone else can make it lose it’s specialness, thus making it less exciting to you.

2. Read/watch all of the comparable titles.

After thinking through my idea for a while, I make a list of every book and movie related to it. These comp titles help you see how other authors and filmmakers take on a similar topic, and these titles will also be used down the line when pitching your work to be published. I then spend a month or so watching all of the movies and reading all of the books to help me further develop my own story idea.

3. Immerse yourself in research.

The next crucial step is to immerse yourself in the necessary research for your project. A lot of the advice I see out there is to just start writing and make a note to come back to it later when you need to research something. That might work for some genres, but when you’re writing something more research-intensive like historical or science fiction, I find it best to do all of your research up front. Doing this will help you be better-informed about your topic and I’ve found it helps me come up with story and plot ideas as well.

4. Get to know your characters.

This is probably the most important step before starting a writing project. Stories are all about the characters. And if you don’t know your characters well before you start writing, you will feel lost and the story will lack direction. Of course, characters will surprise you and you’ll get to know them better through writing the story, but you still need to learn about them before you start.

5. Breathe.

Lastly, take a deep breath. You’re about to spend weeks/months/years with these characters and this story. So take a deep breath. Remind yourself that you can do this. And start writing.

What tips on starting a writing project would you add to this list?

A Writing Resource You Should Be Using: Hoopla Digital

A while back I wrote about falling in love with audiobooks and how listening to books is a great way to fit in more reading in your life. At the time I had just discovered the app Hoopla Digital—a resource my library lets me use for free—and I had no idea how life-changing this app would be.

You can sign up for Hoopla with your library card, and then you have access to thousands and thousands of titles. Hoopla has ebooks, comics, movies, music, and—my favorite—audiobooks. And the best part is that you don’t need to wait for books like a traditional library or even some digital libraries. There is a limit to how many you can titles you can borrow per month, but you can download and enjoy right away!

This is what your Hoopla library looks like. I always have a bunch of audiobooks checked out.

As writers we’re supposed to read as much as we write. This lets you know what’s out there so you can keep current in your genre. Reading also inspires you and shows you how to write.

But it’s hard to find time to read that much. And when I do sit down and read, I sometimes feel guilty I’m not using that time to write.

Even though it’s difficult to fit in all of my reading hours, Hoopla makes it so much easier with their vast library of audiobooks. I can read books by listening to them so much quicker than if I sat down and read print copies. And Hoopla lets me fit in reading easily throughout my day. Some of my favorite times to listen to audiobooks are when I’m:

  • getting ready in the morning
  • getting ready for bed
  • cleaning
  • crafting
  • doing puzzles
  • coloring

I’ve been able to read so much more and I love it.

Some of my favorite books-the Selection series-are all on Hoopla. And my favorite part of the app is that I can listen to books at different speeds, like 1.5x.

This is a writing resource you should definitely be taking advantage of if your library provides it.

How Do You Define Writing Success?

Do you define having achieved success with your writing as getting a book deal with a major publisher? As finishing a manuscript? As getting to share your writing with thousands of readers? As sharing it with just one person, or even just yourself?

When we think of successful writers we usually think of the big household names or number one bestsellers. We imagine contracts with big publishers, multi-book deals, and agents in New York City. And we have visions of hundreds of fans showing up for book signings.

The problem with this picture of success is that it doesn’t happen all that often. The reality is that very few people end up achieving this perfect image of a successful writer. It’s not that this version of success isn’t possible, it’s just that it’s extremely hard to attain and depends on many factors that have nothing to do with you and your writing. And if you are striving towards this because this is your only definition of success as a writer, you’re probably just going to end up disappointed in how things turn out.

Instead, think about how to define success for yourself, what it would mean to you to be successful. While success to some people might mean becoming a big time writer, to others success may be simply writing a little more than you did the day before. The truth is that it doesn’t matter what you achieve with your writing. Whether you end up with a contract from one of the big publishing houses or simply write 500 words one day, what matters is that you make a goal and work towards it.

Setting goals is so important when it comes to writing because writing is something you choose to do with yourself. No one is going to make sure you get your writing done—it’s all up to you. Writing is a lonely road most of the time, and without goals to guide you along the way, you’re probably going to end up lost.

I’ll be honest—I haven’t made any money yet off of my writing. But I have a college degree in creative writing, a published book, a wonderful marriage, and a pretty cute dog. I’m only 25 years old, I’m happy, and I’m going to keep working towards my next goal. And then I’ll work on the goal after that, until maybe one day I do get that book contract with a major publisher.

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What does writing success mean to you?

Iterating the Writing Process

I’ve been reading Gabriela Pereira’s wonderful book DIY MFA in which she outlines a do-it-yourself alternative to a traditional MFA program. I’ve chosen not to continue with my education with an MFA program. One reason is because of the cost, but I’ve greatly enjoyed pursuing continued education on my own through reading lots of books and would rather not go through the rigidity of another university program. DIY MFA has been a great alternative with being just a $20 book (which I got half off).

What I love most about this book is that Pereira approaches the DIY MFA like it is a startup business. She uses many terms and concepts throughout the book that relate to a startup business, and focuses on iteration. Iteration, in relation to writing, is when you take your process and test and improve it over time in order to become a more productive and better writer. The key is to take a step back and look at how your process works, and then make small adjustments accordingly.

A while back I wrote about how I had been struggling to stay motivated and had come up with a sticker reward system that was working well. And it did work well for a while, but then it stopped working for me.

Then, when I started reading DIY MFA and learned about iteration, I realized how I needed to step back and look at my writing process and make small changes to figure out what would work for me. I’ve since gone through three other versions of my sticker system, each of them being a different way for me to lay out my work week. I’ve used iteration to find the right total number of work hours and the right balance of writing and marketing and craft and reading hours, and I think I’ve finally landed on a system that works for me. And if I find that it’s still not working, I’ll use the process Pereira outlines in order to keep honing in on the best method for me.

I love the DIY MFA mindset because it’s all about finding what works for you as an individual. I highly recommend this book to every writer. It is full of advice on everything from writing with focus to reading with purpose to building a community, which are the main principles of an actual MFA. This book has been a great alternative to going back to school for me, and I can’t wait to finish reading it.

DIY MFA my copy
DIY MFA by Gabriela Pereira

Behind the Scenes of Somewhere Only We Know: Writing a New Story

Before signing my name on copies of Somewhere Only We Know, I first write a phrase that captures one of the main messages of the book: “Write a New Story.”

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This is how I sign copies of Somewhere Only We Know

Somewhere Only We Know attempts to tackle the very difficult subject of abuse. The book features four girls who experience different kinds of abuse—emotional, physical, and sexual. As a result of the violence in their lives, all of the girls have fallen into varying degrees of silence about what they’ve gone through, with one of the girls even unable to speak altogether.

However, it is through writing and stories that the girls start to find a way to communicate and find hope again. Frankie, the narrator, and Lindsey, the one who doesn’t speak, read many books throughout the course of Somewhere Only We Know, and they learn how to use writing as a way to see other possibilities for their lives.

Writing is how I get through difficult situations in my life, like my experiences with depression. Writing gives me a way to work things out and see new possibilities. Writing is how I find hope.

The one thing I wanted readers to remember when they finished reading the book is that their story isn’t over yet. No matter what you’ve gone through—whether it’s abuse like the girls in my book, or any other difficult situation like depression or an eating disorder—you can change. You can find hope again. You can overcome whatever it is you’ve gone through.

You get to decide how the story ends. You get to write a new story.

One of my favorite quotes from Somewhere Only We Know, from when Frankie discovers the power of writing

Finding Motivation

Being self-employed is hard.

Getting to work from home and write is what I’ve always wanted to do, so of course I’m incredibly grateful. But a lot of days it’s difficult to get to work. It’s hard to sit down at the computer every day and write when I don’t often get to see visible results from the work I do.

I was called to do this, I know that. The only career that ever spoke to me was being a writer. I know that this is what God intended for my life. But then I’m alone at home during the day, and it’s really quiet with just me and my dog, and I have so much trouble focusing. The publishing world is so hard and most days seems impossible to break into. It’s hard to imagine myself getting a literary agent and get a book deal trough traditional publishing, like I’ve always dreamed.

Last week I read The Bestselling Author Mindset Formula by Jennifer Blanchard. Blanchard talked about how if you’re ever going to make it, you need to believe it. You need to have a bestselling author mindset. You need to tell yourself, “I will be a bestselling author,” because once you believe that, you’ll finally be willing to take the steps needed to get there.

The Bestselling Author Mindset Formula by Jennifer Blanchard

So after so many years of self-doubt, I’m choosing to believe it. I will be a bestselling author. I will one day get a traditional publishing deal and I’ll be able to walk into a bookstore and see my name on the shelves. My books will one day bear “New York Times bestselling author.” It will happen if I believe it. It will happen if I trust that this is what God has called me to do and I follow him to get there.

To help me stay motivated, I’ve made a reward system for myself. One sticker if I write so many words and one if I work so many hours each day, and I earn prizes if I fill out a sheet. I always thought it was a little silly when my professor said she used a sticker system, but I’m six days in already and I’ve noticed a huge difference.

Give a sticker or some other reward system a try if you’ve been struggling to find motivation to work. And try believing in yourself. Say to yourself that you’ll be a bestselling author. If you believe it, then you’re already on your way.

Plotter or Pantser?

Writers tend to fall into one of two categories. The first, “plotters,” are those who plan out everything for their stories ahead of time. They outline, write backstories, and try to figure out the details of the whole story before they write a word. The second category, “pantsers,” are those who write “by the seat of their pants.” They don’t plan anything ahead of time; rather, they discover the story as they write it.

The way the writing community talks about it, you’re supposed to fit into either of these categories. But I always seem to find myself somewhere in the middle. I’ve found that everyone seems to be different in how they go about planning or not planning their book, and I’ve also found that I seem to change up my strategy with each thing I write.

When I first started writing, I was a complete pantser. I spent about three years writing my first book, from my senior year of high school to my sophomore year of college. As I wrote the book, I knew how I wanted it to end, and, scene by scene, I very slowly worked my way through it. Since I wrote the whole thing before taking a single fiction class, it is not a very good book. The book is not completely terrible though, and the people who read it told me they really liked my characters, but it can definitely be a lot better. I do have ideas on how to completely revamp it, though, and plan to tackle it again one day.

After I started taking fiction classes I began working on a second book, and it was then that I discovered my method of being a piece by piece plotter. This method worked for both this second novel and Somewhere Only We Know. With both of these books, I wrote a little bit to get going in the book, and then I would stop and plot out the next few scenes. I would go write those, and then would stop again and plot out a few more scenes. This method is a combination of being both a plotter and a pantser because I was only plotting a little bit at a time. I wasn’t thinking too much about the overarching story, just writing it by the seat of my pants. It’s like E. L. Doctorow’s quote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

When I started my new work in progress (WIP), I wrote a little bit of it, just like how I began my second and third books, but then I felt really stuck. My WIP is a dystopian story, and so a lot of world-building is involved. I knew who my characters were and what the primary conflict was, but a lot of the details were fuzzy to me. I decided to read K.M. Weiland’s books Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel and their corresponding workbooks. Weiland does an amazing job explaining story structure and how she goes about outlining, and I highly recommend them. I wrote pages and pages of notes for my WIP. I didn’t go quite as in depth as Weiland, but I did much more pre-plotting than I usually do.

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K. M. Weiland’s text and workbooks

However, instead of feeling ready to get writing after I wrote an outline, I simply felt overwhelmed by all of those pages and pages of notes. I attended a retreat in the fall, and the author who read the beginning of my WIP really enjoyed it. So I felt reassured that I was on the right track with the book, but I still wasn’t sure how to keep going.

I did write a little more in the book after the retreat, but I’ve been mostly stalled on this WIP. So last week, since it was on sale, I decided to download software that so many writers swear by—Scrivener. I’m still just getting my feet wet in it, but I’m hoping that I’ll be able to organize my outlining notes in Scrivener in a way that works better for me and then will be able to really get going on my WIP.

I love the concept for this story and can’t wait to share it with you. I just am still figuring out if plotting or pantsing, or a combination, is going to work best for me. It will take trial and error for everyone, and for every story you write, to find what works best for you.

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Are you a plotter or a pantser?