Writing the First Draft of Your Book in 5 Easy Steps

This article was first published on the Inspiration Lab

Besides surfing as much as possible at her home break of Wrightsville Beach, Inspiration Lab member Laurel Senick is the host of an ocean-themed podcast called Post Session Podcast. Her surf documentary, Any Given Morning, appeared in the Cucalorus Film Festival and won awards at both the SoCal Independent Film Festival and the Rincón International Film Festival. She has completed her first novel, Foam, and is currently working on her second novel, Luminescent. Below, Laurel shares what she’s learned about getting started with book-writing.

Does writing a book seem like a daunting hike up Mount Everest? That’s how it seemed when I started my first novel. Like Mount Everest was staring down at me, an insignificant ant. Thoughts like Who do I think I am? and I can’t write an entire book! only exacerbated the issue. Sometimes I still have those thoughts, so why would you take advice from an author who hasn’t even been published yet?

Well, as I paused about halfway up this intimidating climb for the second time, I realized I’m exactly the person to write this post. It’s not about the destination — it’s about the journey. So here are five simple steps that will make your own climb if not easy, at least easily doable.

1) Set Aside a Time: This, my dear friend, is the hardest of all five steps. The good news is that once a time to write is determined and committed to, you’ve rolled away the biggest boulder standing between you and your first draft.

But free time, you wonder, who has free time?

When I embarked on my first novel, I knew I wouldn’t sacrifice my surfing for this endeavor. After all, my book is about surfing — it’s my muse. I couldn’t quit my full-time job either. Sleep, I concluded, was the only thing I was willing to surrender for this new adventure. Luckily, I began my journey in November, when dawn patrol starts a little later. I didn’t realize at the time that writing while still half asleep was actually a technique that helped me get the words down, but I’ll talk more about that later.

2) Join a Writers Group: I credit my writers groups for the accomplishment of writing my first book. Yes, I said “groups” because I’m in two. When a friend called and told me about a critique group starting in our area, I knew I had to go. Fate was knocking… even when the only writing I’d done before then was journaling.

At our monthly meeting, we break into small groups, another person reads your piece out loud (GULP), and then everyone else gives a critique. Although terrifying, a “cold read” uncovers what a reader may trip over. Remember, when your book is released, you won’t be there to coach your reader through a challenging sentence or tell them why the plot is moving in that direction. Humbling as it is, nothing gives you a better idea of the direction you need to go than pre-publication feedback.

Another group — or should I say “challenge”? — I signed up for was the National Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO), a yearly event where you commit to writing 2,000 words a day. By the end of the month, you’ve written the first draft of a novel. This word challenge is great for knocking out a rough draft. This draft is the most important task for writers, which leads me to tip number three.

3) Wear the Right Hat: How many times have you heard a person say, “I’ve always wanted to write a book”? But too many writers quit before they really start. Why?, you ask? They quit because they wear the wrong hat while writing the all-important first draft. If you sit down to write with your critical thinking cap on, you will critique yourself right out of that first draft. The right side of your brain is the creative side, but using the left side will kill your creativity and stall your imagination, both of which you desperately need for this precious first draft. As I wrote at 5:30 AM, serendipitously my left brain remained groggy and uninterested while my creative juices flowed uninterrupted.

Furthermore, the first thing you learn from the professionals is: Get the Words on the Page. Too many writers stop at each sentence to edit and eventually they stop altogether. If you’re thinking, This doesn’t apply to me, I write nonfiction, well, even nonfiction writing requires creativity. This may hurt a bit, but your first draft will totally suck if your “serious writer” hat is on too tight. Acceptance will take the pressure off. Allow your sentences to be terrible… no, atrocious. Let the passive verbs abound and sentences run on and on. Often you will be telling instead of showing and your poor characters will be flimsy one-dimensions. You hereby have my permission to write a terrible first draft. This process is a rite of passage — or is that write of passage? Because it will pass you to the second draft that will be so much better than the first.

4) Take a Class: Did you know our local library offers a large writing curriculum for free? Don’t think that just because they’re free, the teaching is shoddy. County taxes pay for it and the classes are taught by industry professionals. Here are a few topics I’ve seen:

  • Advanced Fiction Writing
  • Write and Publish Your Nonfiction Book
  • Young Adult Fiction
  • Children’s Book Writing
  • The Craft of Magazine Writing
  • Travel Writing
  • Memoir Writing

I’ve taken a few of these courses myself. My favorite, a class on episodic television writing, was a blast. The professor had many television credits to his name and taught at a California college teaching this very course. There are also writing classes offered by local writers. I encourage you to check your local art venues and museums for available courses too.

5) Research: Not for the book… okay, for the book. Don’t worry, fellow sojourner, this step is fun! First, I want you to walk into your local bookstore as if you’re there for the first time. Notice the books at the front. Are they famous authors and bestsellers? Any new writers? Now think about your book. Who is it for? Is it self-help, business-related, or a memoir? Maybe it’s fiction or a mystery. Find the section where your book would be displayed. Then find where your name fits in alphabetical order. Finally, picture your book sitting on the shelf between that one and that one. As you stand there, smiling of course, make a little space for it. Now fast-forward a few years and imagine being interviewed by a talk show or a podcast because your book is a hit. What would you say about your book? If asked what brought you to the place where you wanted to write this book, how would you answer?

These five steps go from difficult to easy, but I recommend starting with the one that makes the most sense for your life right now. There are many more tips in my toolbox for writing a book but that’s enough for now — I don’t want you to get overwhelmed. Still, with the ongoing pandemic, many people have extra time to put toward this journey. There’s no perfect time to write a book, but it’s always a good time to begin, to take that first step, to write the first page.

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