Writing Your Book, part I: Getting Started


So, you’re following a bit of the advice we offered last week here at MW, and you’re starting that novel you’ve been thinking about all these years.  Good for you.  We (Faith’s idea initially) thought it might be helpful for us to follow the novel writing process from beginning to end in our posts over the course of this year.  This isn’t to say that every week we’ll be focusing just on this; we’ll touch on a range of topics, as we always do.  But this will be a recurring theme to which we’ll return periodically as the year progresses.  Many of these posts, this one included, will synthesize information from past posts, gathering information and advice in a single place.  No doubt they’ll also offer some new tidbits, as well.

With that in mind, let’s get started.

Chances are, you already have some idea of what you intend to do with your novel.  You have characters in mind, a general idea of the plot, some sense of the worldbuilding.  That’s good.  Now — before you actually start writing the thing — is the time to develop those concepts and plan out your book.  Don’t worry, all of you seat-of-the-pantsers out there, I’m not going to insist or even suggest that you outline your book.  That’s a personal choice, and you know better than I how much outlining or plotting you need to do ahead of time.  But there are others things you should have set ahead of time.

The first thing I would suggest you do, is read in your selected subgenre, not so that you can copy what others have done, or make your work derivative in any way, but so that you familiarize yourself with the tropes of the field, make certain that your work actually fits in the subgenre to which you think it belongs (important later in the process, when you start to pitch your work to agents and editors), and make certain as well that the book you want to write hasn’t already been written by someone else.  If you’re writing urban fantasy, you should read Kim Harrison, Rachel Caine, C.E. Murphy, Faith Hunter, and others.  If you’re writing mystery/fantasy, you should read Jim Butcher.  If you’re writing epic fantasy, you should know the work of Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, John Marco, Guy Gavriel Kay, and perhaps even David B. Coe.  YA books with animals as main characters?  You’d better know the work of Brian Jacques.  New weird?  Read China Mieville.  And if you’re writing a pirate fantasy, you’d better have read Misty Massey.  You wouldn’t try to bake a cake without first knowing what a cake looks and tastes like.  Same with writing a fantasy novel.

While you’re reading in the genre, you should also be researching your own book.  I use the word “research” a little loosely here, because depending on your book the amount of actual library/reference research you do might vary.  If you’re setting your book on a pirate ship, you need to know about pirates.  And ships.  If you’re setting your work in a world with medieval technology, you should familiarize yourself with medieval food and clothing, construction and weaponry.  You might want to learn a bit about castles.  If you’re setting is modern and real-world, then learn a bit about whatever city or area you’ve chosen.  If you’re writing a historical work, as I am now . . . Well, you get the idea.

During this time, I also identify whatever sources I think I’ll be needing throughout the writing process, and begin to gather them.  I buy books, bookmark web sites, draw or collect my maps, etc.  Also, if this is your first book, now might be a good time to get certain things you just have to have:  An excellent dictionary, a comprehensive thesaurus, a baby name book; stuff like that.

But my idea of research goes beyond what I’ve just described, to also include the creation of your magic system, the drawing of maps for your alternate world, character background, development of religions, histories, lines of royalty, etc.  Some of it will demand that you look stuff up; some of it will happen entirely in your imagination.  But in my opinion all of it is “research”, and all of it is absolutely necessary for the development of your story.

Now, you’ll notice that I’ve said nothing yet about working out plot points.  That’s because, for me at least, the research phase (which usually lasts one or two months; no more than three — the point is to write a novel, not look stuff up.  Get what you need to begin the book, and move on) is an incredibly fertile period for developing plot ideas.  As I learn more about my characters, my world, my magic system, story ideas come to me.  So I wait until after the research is mostly done before I brainstorm the finer points of my plot.

The other things I do in these preparatory stages, is come up with some system for keeping track of the information I’m gathering and the ideas that are coming to me.  In the past, I’ve used a notebook, I’ve used index cards, I’ve used spreadsheets, and I’ve used combinations of these thing along with others.  Character Keeper, the program developed by Misty’s husband, Todd, might be the perfect computer based tool for you, if you want to keep track of this stuff on your computer.  I hear it’s a great program, though it only works for Windows platforms.  For Mac users, check out Scrivener.

Finally, if you’re the kind of writer who likes to have an outline, this is the point where you should start working on one.  Even if you’re a dedicated seat-of-the-pantser, you should take this opportunity to make certain in some way, shape, or form that you have at least a general idea of where you’re going with your story and how you intend to get there.  There is nothing worse than getting half or two thirds of the way into a book and realizing that you have no sense of how to get from where you are to the ending you’ve envisioned.  If I had a dime for every book idea that had died for lack of planning . . . well, let’s just say that I’d be a very wealthy man.

All that I’ve written here is all fairly generalized, because every book is so different, every author’s needs so particular, that being more specific wouldn’t have accomplished much.  I should also add, that while I described these various stages in sequence, they usually happen for me with a great degree of simultaneity.  I read in the subgenre (as I’m doing now for my historical) at the same time I do research.  And as I do my research, I develop a system for keeping track of stuff, while also jotting down the plotting ideas that come to me.  And while I’m doing all this stuff, I’m thinking about the structure of the book and starting to work on a very general outline.  It’s an organic process.  None of these things is entirely separate from the others.  They’re all ingredients for that one cake, to return to the metaphor from before, and they need to be prepared together so that they can be blended at the appropriate time.

Anyway, this is how I begin.  Questions?  Additions?  Alternatives?  Let’s talk about process.

David B. Coe

27 comments to Writing Your Book, part I: Getting Started

  • Great post, David. For what it’s worth, while I’m doing the kind of research, world building and plot sketching you outline so nicely, I find myself moving towards some kind of thematic issue. Eventually I open a new document and give it a title which is usually some version of: what is the book about? Over the next few days or weeks I drop in ideas: not plot points, back story or events but ideas, themes, political issues, morals or whatever that I want to get tro grips with in the course of the book. I won’t use all of it but it helps me flesh out the book at a conceptual level and keep a sense of purpose so that it doesn’t get drowned out by the minutia of story. Just a thought.

  • Mikaela

    I have shifted, from researching first, to do my research after I have finished my outline. That way, I know what I need to research. Which prevents me from drowning in the reasearch :).

    Oh. One tip: There’s a plug-in for Firefox, called Read-me later ( I think). It allows you to save pages related to a specific WIP, without cluttering the bookmarks.

  • I’m curious how often you change your process. Certain aspects of my process are set in stone (such as revising on a hard copy with a sharp No. 2 pencil). Others change from book to book, story to story. I’ve composed on the computer, using long-hand, and voice recording. I’ve plotted in detail, in loose outline, and not at all. For me, I find the work itself denotes the process, and just as each tale is unique, each calls out to be written in one form over another.

  • Great post as always, David. My fav part of writing a book, and the part that I enjoy most, is the part that takes place in my head. As you said: >> the research phase … is an incredibly fertile period … As I learn more about my characters, my world, my magic system, story ideas come to me. So I wait until after the research is mostly done before I brainstorm the finer points of my plot.>>

    But, because I come from the thriller/mystery/hardboiled PI genre of writing, and have returned there for the Jane Yellowrock series, I often start a book in a very different way. I start with a germ of an idea, usually character based, and mate that character to a central conflict, giving the character strengths and weaknesses that will be challenged by that pivotal crisis.

    Then I write the first five to ten pages. If my character has a voice I like and can use, and an opening that presents character, world, voice, and conflict, *then* I start work on the entire research part, and that is where our pre-writing meshes, with basic-to-finer plot points developing as I research and world build. If those first few pages stink, then I have to find where the character didn’t work and refine or start over.

    Your way of writing a book is more logical — easier, frankly, than mine. But I am stuck with my process. I need the voice of the character to make me want to write the book in the first place.

    And unlike AJ, I never did thematic work, or only vaguely. I have had books (particularly the AKA’s DeLande Saga) studied by well educated literati who wanted to dissect the themes and debate them with me. I learned early on that I had to have an answer for them far beyond simply wanting to write a good story and punish the bad guys, which was the reality for me. They *expected* to have this lovely discussion (several times over a nice dinner, which ruined the meal for me, of course) on the nature of aggressive violence verses defensive violence and how I wove that through my plot, the effect of domestic violence on the psyche of women and how I used that concept in my character development, the effect of domestic violence on children in the formative years, the place for the vigilante in situations where the justice system is broken and victims were made to suffer, and the effect of racial and socioeconomic tension in the south as epitomized by the plight of children as victims of incest and abuse.

    “I just wanted the bad guy to pay,” was never enough.

    And the reality for me, is that themes always flow *from* the character and the plot, are resultant aspects of the weaknesses of the character I’ve grown, and are things that I think about afterward. I envy AJ the ability to step back early on and see where society and culture will impinge on the story. Again — it would be easier on me, and I think it would make for stronger books if I were to include themes early on.

  • Faith, to be clear, I totally agree that thematic concerns have to grow out of character and story. And it could be that since my day job involves ferretting around for these kinds of issues in Shakespeare that I’m more apt to ensure they are tehre in my stuff 🙂 But yes, I need to have a sense of what the book is finally about thematically, though I might actually be well into teh book before I figure that out.

  • David said,” If you’re setting your book on a pirate ship, you need to know about pirates. And ships. If you’re setting your work in a world with medieval technology, you should familiarize yourself with medieval food and clothing, construction and weaponry.

    And don’t assume you know all there is to know! I knew a good bit about ships before I ever got started, but I still had to research before and while I was working. I’d be plugging away and realize, “Hey, I have no idea what you call the thing that holds the capstan from spinning!”

  • AJ, I still recall the first time someone asked me about the theme of my book. I had just come through a year of writing hell (two books between April and December 31, while working full time on 3rd shift). My brain was fried, I’d had little sleep for months, I may even have been drooling. I said, “What theme? Theme? Oh … theme.” Then there was this awkward pause. And I finally said, “What do you think it is?” Still makes me laugh when I can find the memory in my cluttered and overworked brain.

  • Faith, I couldn’t answer that either. I could suggest some things I thought the book was interested in, perhaps.

  • Wow! So much to respond to and so little time… The funny thing about my post today is that while its all about getting started, I’m actually finishing the Robin Hood novelization today and sending it in, so right now I’m at the far end of the process from this post….


    AJ, I love that idea. Have never done it, but I will now. I do spend a lot of time thinking about theme as I prepare to write, and also as I actually do the writing. But I tend to keep those thoughts in my head rather than cataloging them in some coherent way. Thanks for this.

    Mikaela, that’s a great approach for those who tend to get carried away with research. (I actually tend toward laziness with research rather than obsessiveness — comes from being a grad student and academic for so long….) Thanks for the tip. And thanks as well for the heads up about the Firefox plug-in.

    Stuart, I tend to be a creature of habit, and much of what I do remains the same from book to book. That said, two things have changed recently. One is that I’ve become more and more of a seat-of-the-pantser in recent years. The other is that in recent months I’ve been playing with Scrivener and wondering if I can stop with the notecard nonsense. I don’t know what to do with the damn things once I finish a project. I can’t bring myself to throw them away, but then I’m stuck with hundreds of notecards….

    Faith, I wouldn’t say that one approach is more valid or logical than another — mostly what I wanted to do with this post was point out to people the things I consider as I begin a book or series — a checklist of sorts: things to do and think about as you get started. The order of it is secondary. The next post in this series, when I get around to it, will be “Finding the Voice” or some such. But I’m reminded by your comment, as well as your subsequent exchange with AJ, that it all comes back to the organic nature of the process that I mention in the post. And I think you’ll probably agree that this is true for you, too: When the process works — no matter what that process might be in its particulars — there is a synergy to the development of all the elements of the work; theme, character, plot, voice, etc. It all comes together. How we reach that synergy is as individual as DNA, but it happens for all successful projects.

    Great point, Misty. When I was working on my first series, which involved birds, I thought it was perfect for me because I never everything I needed to know about birds already. Wrong! I did a ton of research along the way and learned lots.

  • This is a great new series of posts, David! Thanks for this. I’m in the editing stage of a trilogy now, but I do have a new story (or two) on the back burner. It’s good to see the process through fresh eyes. Good to start a new project with some helpful pointers. Excellent advice.

    Happy Monday,

  • Faith, I rarely go into writing with a theme in mind. I’m not one to say, “I think I want this one to be about drug abuse” or “I think this one would be great if it was about the socioeconomic crisis facing the US today.” I just want to tell a good and entertaining story. If it happens that a theme sneaks into the story – it’s happened on occasion – then I don’t really care. If I ever get someone coming up to me and talking about some theme that they found in my writing I don’t know how I’ll react. Not sure if I should say, yeah, that’s great that you got that, or tell them the truth. That I’m just telling the story and if they found one it wasn’t intentional. It’s like how people analyze and dissect Romero films for the central theme and argue about it for hours. Meanwhile I’m just going, “I just like the movie.” I just want people to enjoy the tale/film/etc for a fun and entertaining read/watch. My other big issue with intentional theme is that they can tend to get preachy and if I want that I’ll read a book on religion or other such thing. I actually get annoyed with books that become preachy.

    Heh! Maybe I should say, “Aw, I’m sorry! You got one of those books with a theme in it? I try to keep those things out, but they just sneak in when you’re not looking…like an ant in your picnic food. My theme traps weren’t working that day I guess.” 😉

    And no, David, unlike that reviewer you talked about a while back, I did not find the racial theme in Rules of Ascension to be overly annoying. I’m still planning on finishing that series. Too much to read and write, little time to do it all.

    By the by, anyone wanting to write a pirate tale should also check out On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers.

    At the moment I’m scouring the library and Alibris and the Baen website for good space opera sci-fi. Re-reading David Drake’s Northworld series and picked up a potentially good David Weber book. I’m finding it difficult to find good space opera sci-fi that’s not EUs with rousing, heart-pounding space battles. I’ve been on a sudden sci-fi kick after writing my space opera sci-fi romance.

  • David, I’m impressed. The only way I’d EVER spend three months researching a book is if it was in the Bahamas. (grin)

  • Todd

    @Daniel R. Davis
    RE:Space Opera

    If you haven’t read any then –
    Honor Harrington series by David Weber

    Very generalized, the stories feels like the British Empire in space with excellent naval battles move from the sea to the three dimensions of space.

  • First, I’d like to ditto AJ’s comment. I always start with a page labeled “Notes:” where I throw down all the pre-plot ideas that run through my head before, during, and after the “Research” phase.

    Next, I would like to say thank you for putting so much emphasis on that “Research” phase. I know a lot of people who start the story and go back later to fill in the research gaps—it’s also what I used to do. But I would so often find myself having to rewrite significantly when a bit of research uncovered not only plot sinkholes, but large deposits of possibility that in the end made for a better story. A lot of the un-published writers I have had the privilege of encountering throw maybe a few days to a week into research and move on, rushing towards the “fun” part of actually writing, and wind up in quite a bit of trouble, later.

    Yes, the point is to write the story, but I also like to think people want to write _good_ stories, and doing your pre-work properly makes that a great deal easier.

    I am looking forward to the next post in this little series.

  • I have to agree with you wholeheartedly. I started writing a little over a year ago and got an entire WIP out. But what I didn’t realize what that it wasn’t the manuscript I had finished, it was the backstory, where the characters came from, what they were doing the whole sheebang.

    Now I’m settled into my story much more comfortably, I know where everything is, I know what’s going on and I feel more focused.

    This was a great post and a great idea for all of us who are lost out here in newbie land!!

    Thanks so much!!
    Happy writing

  • Many thanks, Jen. Glad you like the idea of the posts. I hope you find all of them helpful. Best of luck with the next project.

    Daniel, I agree with you entirely about preachy books (and I’m glad to hear that the Forelands books didn’t come off that way — thanks) but I think that theme can operate on other levels. For instance, race and prejudice are definitely themes of the Forelands, books, but so are sacrifice and betrayal, identity and pretense. Themes can be more than social/political stuff. They can be underlying human issues that recur throughout a project. That’s more the way I look at it. And let me second Todd’s recommendation (thanks for chiming in, Todd) — the Honor Harrington books are great and David Weber is a terrific guy.

    Kim, I don’t research ALL my books for three months. But when I’m developing a new series three months of research and worldbuilding is not beyond the realm of possibility. But I’m pretty OCD….

    Atsiko, thanks for the comment. Yes, one can do too much research and get lost in it, losing momentum on the project. But I agree that the greater danger can be too little research. A book with thin worldbuilding and poor background work will suffer for it. As authors, we have to build the foundations for our work.

    Hinny, thanks for your comments, as well. I’m glad you found the post helpful. I’ve done what you describe, although perhaps not to the length of a whole manuscript! But I’ve found entire chapters that need to be deleted because they’re background not story. As I say to Atsiko, we have to do the research first and lay that foundation. THEN we can turn to the story itself.

  • I’ll check out the Harrington books. Baen has a couple, so I’ll check the first one out.

  • This will be a great series, and you’ve given a great, comprehensive start. I’ll be sure to spread the word to anyone who could use a nudge.

    I’m curious, David, although I expect you might touch on this later in the series. If you take two to three months to research and flesh out your world (I imagine that would change in sequels when a world’s already in place), how much of your overall time on a novel does that take up? Do you alter that if you have a shorter deadline, or is the research and prep phase something you don’t like to hinder?

  • Hayley, thanks for the kind words and any plugs you give us. That’s a great question. As I mention in the comment above (in response to Kim) I don’t do two to three months of background work at the beginning of each book. This is something I do when I begin a series. And generally that is time when I probably wouldn’t be writing anyway. When I finish a book I usually take a little time away from writing. When I finish a series, I take even more time. Usually I use that time for PR work — website updates or reconstruction, conventions, etc. And I also use it to focus on the worldbuilding and/or research I need to do for the next project. It’s a good way of remaining productive while also giving myself time to recharge the creative batteries. Most of the time, that new project is my New Shiny, something I’ve been itching to work on for months as I finish the old project. So working on it doesn’t in any way undermine my need for rest.

    As to how much time that takes up, as a percentage of writing time over the course of a three or four book project, it’s really not that much. I spent maybe three or four months on the Forelands research, but I spent 4 to 5 years writing the books. Now, I’m a faster writer than I used to be, so the percentage would be way up, and that may mean that I no longer have the luxury of spending three months on research. Maybe now I need to limit that to 1 to 2 months. I’m really not sure. I’ll have to see how my new projects work out. But I think that for writers who are just starting out, who might need six or eight months to write each book of, say, a trilogy, spending two months on research is about right. But even that depends — on how fast a person writes, on how many hours a day he or she can devote to the book (as opposed to a day job, or family, or school). The figures I used are a bit rough, I suppose. And yes, when time is limited and deadlines loom, you do what you have to in the time you have. I had five weeks to write the Robin Hood novelization. I did some research on Richard the Lionheart, Eleanor of Aquitaine, King John, Philip Augustus, William Marshal, etc. But I had to do much of it on the fly. I don’t like to rush the research, but I REALLY don’t like to miss deadlines.

  • Research is a constant thing for me. As the story evolves I tend to bump up against things I don’t know enough about.

    One of the biggest changes in my WIP from its original conception was my decision to add naval battles to the book. Since this is very early on in the world’s (imaginary) timeline, I am writing what will be the first actual major naval battles. This is just a small part of the book as most of the action takes place on land, but still, I need to know what I’m doing.

    So, I purchased a couple of books about triremes: one about the Battle of Salamis and the other about the Athenian navy. I’m trying to balance reading these between writing and continuing plot development and reading as much epic fantasy as I can. (And of course all of that is worked in around technical reading I need to do for the day job.)

    Research doesn’t really slow me down all that much when it comes to the writing of the book. I can write a very sketchy chapter as a place holder, knowing that I will be coming back to write it properly later once I have the knowledge needed to flesh it out.

    Most of the time this works well. Sometimes, however, what I learn while doing the research can drastically change certain key events, which sends plot ripples out from there, requiring tweaking or scrapping other things already written.

    In order to keep track of things I have a couple of files. One is a strict notes file with a series of possible plot points. Another is a Names file listing the names of people, places and things. Another contains little vignettes that I write to develop characters, or provide a little meat to past events. It can also contain some Silmarillion-esque stories about major events that have gone before to help shape this moment in history my book deals with.

    Of course all of the above needs to be put to use. So, I do find a starting point and begin writing. I still need to figure out which characters will carry the narrative and their generalized character arc.

    As for the opening scene I try and start with the moment where everything really begins to change, which leads then to the scene where the main characters finally notice that everything is changing. And then the story continues from there until it reaches its conclusion.

    Fun stuff!!!

  • You raise a great point, CE. Just because I allocate some time at the beginning of a project for the research and background work, that kind of stuff crops up again and again throughout the project. I do as much up front as I can, but I also have to pause along the way and do more. The more I do at the beginning, the fewer those interruptions, but there is no way to avoid them entirely. As for the rest, it sounds like you have a process that works well for you. And yeah, figuring out which characters will be the POV characters isn’t easy — more on that when I write about voice.

  • Robin

    One thing I learned from my college theatre directing class: theme is in the eye of the beholder. You can do your best to weave in a theme about the negative effects of early childhood poverty on the patriotism of adult Bible Belt Caucasians, and many of your readers will still think the book was about the dangers of materialism. The literary types (took some of them darn English lit analysis classes, too) like to discuss theme so they can compare their experience to yours–or else they want to be told that they are so clever to have picked up on your theme when you tried so hard to hide it! 🙂 Tell the story and, if your characters are real, your psyche (and that of your reader) will supply a theme. (If you do plan one in, though–as I’m sadly compelled to do–I think it should be subtle enough to be missed by readers who are more personally moved by a different theme.)

  • Right, Robin. Theme is tricky. Some writers barely think about it at all, while others work on it in great detail. I’m probably somewhere in between. Often I start out with a theme; other times one presents itself as I go along. But no matter how it comes to me, I try never to be heavy handed with it, because that gets intrusive for the reader. Not a good thing. Thanks very much for the comment.

  • Tom Gallier

    Weber’s Honor Harrington series is awesome. The man is brutal to his characters. His battles are great, full of dire consequences and tension. Weber’s really good at making you love even minor characters.

  • Thanks for the comment, Tom. David Weber was one of the first professional writers I met after becoming a pro myself. He was pretty well established already and he could have blown me off as a newbie. Instead, he and his wife both treated me with kindness and respect. They remain friends to this day, though I don’t see them nearly enough. He’s a class act through and through.

  • April

    I am so psyched about this series David. A huge thanks. Would love to hear more details about using Scrivner. Are you using it during the research process as well?

  • Thanks, April. I’ve been away from Scrivener for the past month while working on the “Robin Hood” novelization. This week I started getting back to my historical fantasy and so have turned back to the program as well. I am able to use it for research. Basically I can import files — web sites, images, document — into the program and have the content available to me as I work on the book in Scrivener. It provides me with a filing system for information I’m gathering elsewhere. I’m not convinced that I’m using the program to its fullest potential yet, but the more I learn about it, the more I like it.