How to Write a Book When You Have No Idea What You’re Doing

I want to write a book.

You remember when this big idea first hit, right? Maybe you were browsing for books, waiting for an author’s autograph, or sitting in stupefied awe after finishing a great novel. The idea took root and then, bam, you’re rushing to a stationary store to gear up, buying all the notebooks, pens, sticky notes, and highlighters you can carry. You browse online for writerly things—a cute laptop sticker or a mug that says, “Writer at Work.” The moment that mug arrives, you’re filling it with something or other, setting it next to your stack of notebooks, and pulling the keyboard closer, because IT’S TIME.

You open a new document. Your hands flutter to the keyboard. This is it—the magic is about to happen.

Onscreen, the cursor blinks. And blinks.

Boy, the page is so white. How did you not notice before? And that infernal flickering cursor… is it just you, or does it seem kind of judge-y?

And that’s when you realize your big idea has a second part to it:

I want to write a book…but I have no idea where to start.

Thankfully, this truth, while inconvenient, doesn’t have to stop any of us from writing. It may seem daunting at first, and doubts might try to sway us (What was I thinking? I can’t do this!), but I’m here to tell you that, yes, you can write a book.

7 Tips for How to Write a Book When You Have No Idea What You’re Doing

Not knowing where to start is a problem countless writers before us have faced and figured out, so if you are feeling a bit lost when it comes to your big dream, these seven things can help you move forward and better yet, jumpstart your writing career.

1. Write

Sure, this seems obvious, but starting can be paralyzing. We worry about committing our ideas to the page because what if they resemble some four-year-old’s Cheerios-and-glue “masterpiece”? Well, guess what? They might, and that’s okay. Great storytelling takes time, and if that didn’t put off Stephen King, Susanne Collins, or Nora Roberts, it shouldn’t stop us, either.

To begin, try dreamzoning. Jot down your ideas, or try outlining the story you envision using one of these methods or this outlining software. Or start with something small, like a short story or scene. At the start, our goal should be getting comfortable with putting words on the page and have fun, not pressuring ourselves into penning the next Game of Thrones.

2. Read and Reread

Reading is so enjoyable we tend to forget how each story is a treasure trove of education on what makes a book good, bad, or off-the-charts great. So read widely, thinking about what makes each story compelling. Look for characters that stand out, story worlds that seem so real you feel part of them, and plots that keep you flipping pages long into the night. Ask yourself questions:

  • What made certain characters larger than life?
  • Did their personalities, complex motives, or a truth they live by pull you to them?
  • What scenes and situations seemed the most real to you?

Studying where you fell under the storyteller’s spell can help you see how you can do the same for your readers.

3. Join a Writing Group

One of the best things you can do at the start of this journey is find others on the writer’s path. A community of writers puts you in touch with those who have the same goal, meaning you can learn from and support one another. Plus, having creatives in your circle helps to keep you accountable, meaning your butt stays in the chair and words get written.

4. Collect a War Chest of Knowledge

We all start with some talent and skill, but to write well we need to train up. Visit Amazon to find writing books with high reviews so you can judge which might be most helpful for your development. Make note of the title or ISBN and order them at your favorite bookstore.

Another way to build your knowledge is by subscribing to helpful writing blogs. Bite-sized learning can be perfect for a time-crunched writer. I recommend exploring Katie’s sidebars because Helping Writers Become Authors is full of storyteller gold. Visit this page on outlining, and this one on story structure because understanding how a story works will help you get your first ideas off the ground so much easier. And the Story Structure Database is a great way to see all this plot and structure information in action.

You should also make learning about characters a priority because they drive the story. Getting to know who the people in our stories are and what makes them tick helps us understand what’s motivating them, and that makes writing their actions and behavior easier. Once you have a better handle on plot and character, turn to other storytelling elements and techniques. There’s so much great stuff to learn!

5. Take a Course or Workshop

Investing in guided or self-guided learning can also kickstart your progress. The community is packed with great teachers. Below are some good options, but first, if you belong to a writing organization, check to see if they offer members classes for free or at a discount.

6. Look For Step-by-Step Help

As any writer will tell you, the road from an idea to a publish-ready novel is a long one, and it’s easy to get lost along the way. It’s no fun when we don’t know what to write next, or we don’t know how to solve a problem in the story. And, if we get too frustrated or our writing stalls for too long, we might end up quitting. Having an expert offer guidance as you write can keep you on track.

Some writers like to partner with a writing coach so they get personal feedback and support as they go. If this is something you might like, here’s a list to start with. A benefit is that you’ll learn a lot about writing as you go, but depending on how long you need coaching for it can get a bit costly. So another option might be the Storyteller’s Roadmap at One Stop for Writers. This roadmap breaks the novel-writing process into three parts: planning, writing, and revising. It has step-by-step instructions on what to do as you go, and points you to tools, resources, and articles that will make the job easier.

The Storyteller’s Roadmap also has built-in solutions for the most common writing problems, so whether you need to overcome Writer’s Block, Impostor’s Syndrome, or stop new ideas from derailing your story, the Code Red section keeps you on track.

7.  Above All Else, Be Fearless

Starting a book can seem like a monumental undertaking, and sometimes with big dreams, we have the tendency to try and talk ourselves out of them. We fear failing, because we think that’s worse than never trying at all. If you feel the passion to write, don’t let fear stop you. The world needs great stories!

Wordplayers, tell us  your opinions! Have you started writing a book, or are you still in the “thinking about it” stage? Tell us in the comments!

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About Angela Ackerman

Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression and its many sequels. Her bestselling writing guides are available in eight languages, and are sourced by U.S. universities, recommended by agents and editors, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, and psychologists around the world. To date, this book collection has sold 750,000 copies. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers as well as One Stop for Writers, a portal to game-changing tools and resources that enable writers to craft powerful fiction. Come nerd out about writing with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Comments

  1. All great advice here. Writing is definitely a “the more I learn, the less I know” experience. For me, the most important thing has been to give myself permission to be lousy while trying to write a story I think has something important to say. That’s sort of a two part notion. First, I write about something I care about, even if that’s something like “people need to laugh or be otherwise entertained.” That helps me keep hammering away. The other part is to accept that I’m not a natural genius and I draft garbage. Garbage is fixable.

    • angelaackerman1 says

      I feel this! I think all writers have an epiphany moment where they learn enough about writing to realize just how much they don’t yet know. And this is where they need to decide if they are ready to adopt a true learner’s mindset and become comfortable with the idea that they will always be learning and growing, and that’s okay…or if that’s not what they want from this journey. Some people choose this point to pivot and do something else.

      If we can view learning as one of the great things about storytelling, we can go far, I think! Personally, I love learning more about the craft. 🙂

      And you are so right – you can fix it if it’s there, but if it isn’t there, it can’t be fixed. So we need to write and be okay knowing it’s not going to be great on the first draft. 🙂

  2. BK Jackson says

    Of all these great tips, #7 is the most critical & it’s the point on which the other points hang. “Above all else, be fearless.” If you are fearless, you will finish what you start. The other tips are awesome but can lead you down rabbit holes if you are not fearless. Take #4 or #5 for example–you buy a couple of books on writing craft and it proves to be such a nice distraction from actual writing that you buy a few more. And so it is with conferences and courses.

    I’m preaching to myself here because I’m guilty as charged. I want to learn to be fearless. I want to come to the end of my life having finished those project ideas I had on my brain. I do not want to say “If only I had….” I want to be fearless in my writing in 2022.

    • angelaackerman1 says

      So very true. Writing well means putting ourselves on the page AND having faith in ourselves and what we’re writing. We do have to be fearless to reveal ourselves on the page and know that storytelling is a process, and it takes time and effort to become skilled at it. Any career requires the application of skill and knowledge to become proficient, and writing is no different. We need to be patient with ourselves and be excited about where we want to go in storytelling. We can’t give up when it’s hard, and that takes courage & grit. 🙂

    • angelaackerman1 says

      And, I should add, YOU’VE GOT THIS, BK!

  3. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Angela!

  4. Grace Dvorachek says

    When I began writing, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t even know writing actually required things like research and hard work. I had to figure out most of these tips for myself, which was a lot harder than having them laid out in front of me. But now I’m at a stage where I know how to write—and I even know what to write—but I somehow still can’t write. This post is a great reminder of the basics, and I believe it’s furthered my journey back towards being a healthy writer.

    • angelaackerman1 says

      Grace, you are on a journey and are doing great. Look how far you’ve come! Don’t be afraid to start small to get into the writing habit again. Take the pressure off yourself by thinking about the entire novel and just free write, or write a scene for fun. If you know the story you want to write, then why not write a backstory scene, something that happens to the character before the book begins that will not be part of the story but is something you should know more about? A great scene to use would be the protagonist’s emotionally wounding event, because that’s one that will affect their behavior, goals, and needs in the story, so it can be good for you to explore it just for you. 🙂

      Keep going, you’ve got this 🙂

  5. Be fearless.

    What better advice is there?

  6. Margaret Bemrose says

    I love writing and have attempted to write several stories. I seem to have ideas as I’m developing the story but I simply cannot end them! The endings I have attempted seem weak and fall short of the storyline that I have developed. I am in the process of writing a science fiction story but the only ending that I can envisage is one that involves fighting. Most stories of this genre seem to end in fighting and I would love to avoid that but have no idea where to turn. Any advice would be very useful.

    • angelaackerman1 says

      Hi Margaret,

      SF does have a lot of battles and fighting, doesn’t it? I would probably consider a few things here. First, if your storylines feel like they lack the depth you envisioned originally, I would suggest that you might need to look at two areas: character development/arc and theme (and of course as you might guess these two are connected.)

      When characters lack depth, the story can feel more surface because their deeper layers (needs, motivations, fears, vulnerabilities, etc.) are not really being shared with readers. And if they aren’t being shared, chances are they are also not feeding a character transformation where a character fights for their goal because it is his missing piece, satisfying some deep unmet need or longing within, if only he can overcome conflicts happening within him.

      Getting to know your character and what’s driving him, holding him back, and what necessary changes need to happen to be successful can help you design a satisfying character arc that truly shows his path to the goal as a journey of change, not just a trophy to obtain where he wins and someone else loses. And of course, a key to doing this is to work on your theme (the big idea/subject/belief your story’s really about).

      Some stories are more mission-oriented and so there’s less internal change and growth in a character’s arc, so if you suspect this might be the case for you, consider going deeper and thinking about what the story would look like if your character was on a true change arc.

      Katie has a TON on theme and the character’s role, so I’m going to encourage you to have a a read and see if what she speaks about resonates with you and therefore might help you achieve better depth:

      https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/book/writing-your-storys-theme/

      https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/choosing-a-protagonist/

      Once you understand what your story is really about and how to tie theme to arc, this might helps you decide how story events (plot) can best serve theme and the internal journey. You may find what you need isn’t a traditional “fight” but something else entirely. 😉

      I hope this gives you some food for thought! 🙂

  7. Colleen F. Janik says

    Thank you for all the helpful tips, especially number one. Years ago when I wrote my first novel, I started with a short story that I had written and used it as a sort of outline. When I wrote the short story, it was not so intimidating writing the short story, so that was a great place to start.
    Also, for a few years I wasn’t doing much reading and didn’t listen when writers told me that reading other authors’ work is necessary. Eventually I did start reading again for my own enjoyment and am finding that spending time reading is helping and inspiring me so much. I’m now ready one of Daphne Du Maurier’s novels and it’s so amazing to realize that her work lives on in the novels originally published in 1951.
    In my wildest dreams I love to think that maybe some day one of my novels could reach that state of literary immortality.

    • angelaackerman1 says

      Starting small is really a great way to go, because whenever we take a huge task and turn it into a series of steps, suddenly what didn’t seem possible IS possible. I’m glad to see you are reading and writing! And story is immortality for all of us, even if we don’t rise to that level of fame. Our words and stories will always be there, waiting to speak, long after we’re gone. 🙂

  8. Thanks for the tips. Tip #2, Read and Reread, has been most helpful in my writing journey. I have always loved reading books. But now I read to learn.

  9. Wow! Thanks for linking to Bang2write Angela – and on one of my fave blogs! Hello KM Weiland 🙂

  10. I appreciate these suggestions. As someone else has mentioned, I’ve fallen into the trap of reading about writing more than actually writing. My (only) project has been stuck and stalled for so long now I’m seeing it as unfixable because I can’t imagine the story going any other way. I’ve toyed with the idea of starting an entirely new project, but that feels like taking precious time away from the one I’ve already got so much invested in. So I read blog posts and think, “Great tips!” and my characters are still left standing around in a warehouse wondering where they go next.

    • angelaackerman1 says

      It’s so important to get back to writing again. I have a few ideas for you.

      1) read the whole story to where you are now. Resist the urge to fiddle and fix (but make quick notes if that will help)

      2) when you reach the point where you stopped, go back one chapter and either polish and edit it, or rewrite that chapter to get back into the flow. Once you get to the warehouse, hopefully ideas will be ready to flow.

      3) regarding the scene where you are stuck, remind yourself of what the character wants and why. What is their objective–what must they do? What’s standing in their way? How can something be finally resolved…or things made worse?

      4) if this doesn’t get you writing again, then skip ahead to another scene that you feel solid about. Maybe you know the warehouse scene is where your characters are searching for evidence about a crime they were involved in that they need to steal. You have no idea how that will happen. Skip ahead to a point in the story you feel in steady ground – they now have the evidence and need to destroy it so it can’t be used against them. Write that scene, and move forward from that point. Your brain will be working in the background about how to fill in the blanks as to how they got the evidence back, and when the perfect idea hits, you can go back and write that missing scene or scenes.

      I hope this helps! Good luck and I hope you are able to start writing again 🙂

  11. Eratta Sibetta says

    My first book was massive and the story just seems to want to go on forever. Some people have even advised dividing the whole book into 3 separate books. And so on and so forth…it seems that there are some books that just refuse to let the Author rest.

    And so, like a noose around my neck discovered that the first book keeps taunting me. It was easy to write, though the material was rather difficult. The second book I’m finding harder to write, because it calls for clearer insight and a deeper understanding of the characters. The main protagonist is difficult and totally unhelpful. Critical of everything and anyone who tries to help. And I wonder if for an Author ‘writing without fear’ means ‘without prejudice—without fear or favour’ and how far must an Author really go. Why do I choose to write about difficult subjects? I actually toyed with the idea of writing of writing a romance novel, but just didn’t feel the fire for it. And honestly feel daunted by the whole idea of writing this novel. Also despite having written what I think is a good novel: Soft in Flowers, I find writing my second novel leaves me with terrific dread. I have no idea what this fear is and wonder if other Writers often feel overwhelmed?

    I’m a great fan of Kate Weilland’s work and help in her Writers blog and would appreciate some helpful advice and or suggestions.

    Thank you

    Eratta Sibetta (Author of Soft in Flowers)

    • angelaackerman1 says

      I do think some soul-searching is needed here, but a really important point to think about is that first one – this story is refusing to let you go. I think that’s always something we should listen to.

      I don’t know if you know the theme of this story, but that is probably a big piece of the picture as to why you have chosen a difficult topic to write about. This story, and that theme, is important to you in some way.

      Regarding your character and the need to do some deeper characterization, this is good that you’ve recognized this. Your character is difficult, so now you need to know why. What is causing them to push people away and reject help or involvement? In other words, what are they afraid of – what happen to them in the past that hurt them so badly they will do anything to ensure it never happens again? Whatever that event was is causing your character to behave the way they are now. They are using friction to keep people and situations at a distance so they won’t have an opportunity to hurt the character again.

      I would do a dive into this character and try and figure out what makes them tick. Use the Character Builder at One stop for Writers. You’ll find no other tool that lets you get as deep into a character’s psyche as that one. You can sign up for the free trial and create one character with it. You might find this really helpful to know what your next steps are: https://onestopforwriters.com/about_cbt

      Once you understand the character better, you’ll know what they want and why – those deep reasons they may keep hidden from others. Then you can ask yourself why you feel so connected to this character and the story. Knowing the character better might help you get to know your own connection to this story & theme.

      Good luck!

      • Eratta Sibetta says

        Hi Angela,

        My heart was pounding as I read your comments. It somehow invigorated me to start writing again as I’ve been quite lazy for a while.

        I’m one of those writers who for some reason feel so connected to the characters I’m writing that the story enters my psyche. I lie awake at night thinking what the characters or main protagonist are thinking.

        I did not recognise the reason why the first book wouldn’t let me go and suppose this was because some of the characters were a part of me, and based on past experiences. As most writers often do, I used some personal experience and dressed my protagonist with who and what I was as a child. Emotionally scarred and afraid. As I was writing, it felt liberating and was like some sort of therapeutic release. But forgot to actually just let it go afterwards.

        Although the novel is fictionalised it IS based on some true events. And for me fictionalising the whole experience was painful, but liberating. I spent many many nights pouring over Katie’s blog and Jane Friedman — stock piling what I needed to do to avoid writing mistakes, teaching myself to write; as I couldn’t even afford to take a Creative Writing Course. Katie is my hero because her blog is invaluable and free. Thank you Kate. I really appreciate your writing advice.

        Angela — Reading your comments just now, I realised that I was trying to do a repeat of how I wrote my first novel. And of course, discovered that the experience is not the same. Which means that I should have allowed myself to grow emotionally after the first novel, and then move on. And not recognising what the problem was, created a blockage and fear in my mind. It was almost as though the first novel, which was about sexual abuse and violence against women was too big for me come to terms with on my own.

        My second novel titled ‘The Misanthropy of Tangando’ is about a man who is self absorbed and pretty much hates everyone. I tend to write a lot based on a lot of people I’ve come in contact with. And oftentimes have been accused of being too perceptive and or sensitive about people’s problems. I see something wrong and I want to fix it, or watch those charity aid advertisements of children drinking dirty water or donkeys and animals needing shelter and care — and feel compelled to help. I have a very active imagination and my fear is offending readers with the stuff this man gets up to in my second novel.

        I keep thinking and believing I don’t even have a Writing degree, not even a Creative Writing Course to be able to do this really well. I can hardly believe I even managed to write that first novel and my confidence has taken a dive. Yet feel unable to do something else. I want to write novels and be taken seriously.

        I’d be interested to know what you think about how Writers should handle dumping their emotional baggage in their novels.

        Your comments are really helpful and I’m very grateful for all your help and taking the time to reply to my query.

        Thanks so much

        Regards

        Eratta

  12. This is awesome Angela. I am a super fan. 🙂 I have all of your books and live by them along with Katie’s Structuring Your Novel. There is no way anyone can be a bigger nerd than me. I like to lie in bed and read your manuals for fun the way other people read magazines. When my wife and I were in the Virgin Islands a little while back, I sat on the beach and made worksheets for myself on my tablet from The Conflict Thesaurus. Oh yeah, I am a nerd alright. Thanks for the column and thanks for all you do!

    • angelaackerman1 says

      David, you have TOTALLY made my day. I am thrilled you’re getting a lot from our guides! All hail us word nerds! 🙂

  13. This is wonderful, I continually get started, get a few pages in and then stop, or generate a short story only to realise it is hopeless. This really sounds a workable approach, I’m going to give it a try.

  14. I’m a newbie, a hobbyist who never planned to become a writer, until I saw a TV program in Mar 2020 during COVID lockdown, and decided that subject might make a good crime novel. So I joined a virtual Writers Group at my library. And have been developing characters ever since. And reading lots of crime novels and blogs to teach myself writing basics on the cheap

    • angelaackerman1 says

      That’s terrific, RD. I think Covid gave a lot of people time to try writing, and also a way to escape the reality of something outside their control, so a bit therapeutic too, I’d say.

      I think once we start writing, we see the potential in everything much more and it naturally leads to more story ideas. 🙂 A terrific cycle!

  15. Melissa Chambers says

    I have been out of the habit of writing stories organically for years. I need advice on how to start doing that again. Does anyone know what I’m talking about? Or do they have insight to help me? Thanks for your help!

    • Melissa Chambers says

      I mean that I am no longer used to writing organic stories and need help getting back into the swing of it.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        I’m just starting to ease back in after a few years off myself. I would just take it slow. Maybe start by rereading some of your old work, then ease back into your old process. For me, it starts with brainstorming for the outline.

        • Melissa Chambers says

          Thanks, I actually have started back into old stories today. I will definitely listen and get in gear for new ones like you said. Thanks for your help!

          • angelaackerman1 says

            Katie has great advice. You could also try writing something for fun, just for you, so there’s no pressure. Try a new genre, or a new type of story – mix it up a bit. 🙂 I think we need to rediscover the fun side of writing sometimes when we’ve had a long break.

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