“If I’m just getting started with writing, what are some things I should focus on?”
“What are some of the things I should avoid doing if I actually want to finish my book?”
These are questions I get asked all the time! And in today’s post, I’m going to share the three things to focus on if you’re a brand new writer—or if I was coaching someone who was brand new to writing.
We aren’t going to go too deep into the things you should avoid if you’re just starting out, but that’s only because I have a free training on this very topic! It’s called The 5 Little Known Mistakes Most Fiction Writers Make (and What To Do Instead). The training is about an hour long, and it’s totally free. You can click here to get instant access!
The very first thing I want you to focus on is your mindset. And the reason I say this is because I really believe that mindset is one of the biggest things that can prevent someone from finishing their novel.
So, before you start writing any new novel, whether it’s your first or your third, you need to have the right mindset going into the process. And what do I mean by the “right” mindset? Well, two things really…
First, you need to understand that your first draft is not going to be perfect. No matter how much time you spend thinking about your story, outlining your story, or re-writing those first few pages, it’s never going to equal a perfect first draft.
I meet so many writers who go into the writing process with this super heavy expectation on themselves to create the perfect story right out of the gate. I have been guilty of this myself, and it used to totally prevent me from making any kind of progress with my story. It was horrible.
And I know why we have these kinds of expectations—most of us writers are also readers. And the books we read are very often really, really good. But they turn out this way because they’ve been through multiple drafts, multiple rounds of revisions, and the author has no doubt had feedback from outside sources during at least one point in the process. But we don’t always think about all of that, right?
We just see the final product, and then we set out to write a story that looks like the books we read. And that’s not realistic. Eventually, our stories can get there—but not at first. That’s just the way it goes. So, what is a more healthy mindset? What would I recommend if I was your coach?
Well, I love the idea of calling your first draft a discovery draft. This is not a term I made up, but I think it’s the perfect way to describe the purpose of a first draft. Because the real purpose of your first draft is to discover your story—it’s to discover your characters, your story world, what’s actually going to happen in the plot, the theme or takeaway you want to leave readers with—all of that.
So, I would love for you to go into your first draft with this in mind. Go into your first draft with the goal of discovering your story, and let the process be fun. Because guess what? Writing can actually be fun if you take some of the pressure off yourself, and if you don’t expect yourself to write the perfect first draft.
And if you’re like me, and if you’d like to have some guardrails to keep yourself on track, then I have a solution for you—and it’s the second thing I’d like you to focus on if you’re just starting out.
The second thing I’d like you to focus on is your story’s genre. So, if you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, you’ve probably heard me say that I think about genres in two different ways—commercial genres and content genres.
Commercial genres are sales categories that dictate where your book is placed in a bookstore or how it’s sold online.
So, as an example, we can think about something like Young Adult Fiction. That would be a section in a bookstore or online, right? But if you set out to write a Young Adult story, what kind of story would you be writing? A YA romance? A YA mystery? A YA thriller? A YA action story set in a fantasy world? It would be really hard to write a Young Adult novel if you don’t know what kind of story you’re actually telling.
And this is where content genres come in. Content genres tell writers what type of content needs to be in a story to satisfy readers of a particular genre. So, in other words, they provide an entire framework that will help you craft a story that works.
Your content genre can tell you:
And that’s a lot of stuff, right? This is why genre is such an important thing to focus on for new writers—it can honestly take so much overwhelm out of the writing process, and in my opinion, it’s an under-utilized and under-appreciated tool.
So, if you’re just starting out, or even if you’re starting a brand new story, figure out the type of story you want to write. What is your story’s content genre? And then use that as the framework to craft your story within.
In my Notes to Novel course, I have a whole module dedicated to content genres and everything that each of the content genres require because it’s that important. This module tends to be a student favorite, too, because the genre framework gives you a container to be creative within. It takes a lot of the guesswork out of the process, and because of that, writing can actually start to feel super fun.
So, anyway, that’s the second thing I recommend focusing on if you’re a brand-new writer. Let’s move onto the third area of focus.
The third thing I’d like you to focus on is learning how to craft a scene. This is another thing that I think we don’t talk enough about in the writing community—and it’s such an important topic! You’ve probably heard me say it before, but if you can write a solid scene, you are definitely capable of writing a solid story.
And I say that because scenes have their own structure. They need a beginning, middle, and end, and your character needs to have a goal. They also need the agency to pursue that goal. All of these things are also required to write a story. So, if you can execute all of this on the micro-scene level, you will be much better equipped to tackle them on the global story level.
But beyond practicing writing scenes that work in your own draft, I highly recommend studying scenes in published novels. So, think about your favorite book, and then think about a few memorable scenes from that book. Go look for the scene structure in those scenes, and pick them apart to figure out what made you like them so much. This exercise will be so invaluable to you, I promise!
And the more you study scenes that work, the better you’ll become at identifying the structural elements and the craft elements that make them work. It will be slow going at first, but you will get faster over time—trust me.
I’ve had a lot of feedback about the podcast episodes that Abigail K. Perry and I record where we break down the structure of each scene, and first of all, I’m so glad you are loving them, but second of all, we were not able to analyze scenes like that when we first started. It took a lot of practice, but now, it doesn’t always feel so hard—and it’s almost something we just do instinctually. So, the same thing can and will happen for you if you just dig in and start breaking scenes down one by one.
So, that is the third key area I would focus on if I was just starting out. And honestly, no matter how experienced a writer you are, I think mastering the art of writing a scene is so, so important. This is actually another topic I dedicate a whole module to inside of my Notes to Novel course. And we go deep into writing scenes that work—we talk about structure, weaving backstory and exposition into scenes, showing and telling, and revealing your character’s inner life on the page in each scene—I mean, we really dig into writing solid scenes in the course. It’s that important.
So, that wraps up the three main areas I would focus on if I was a brand new writer—or if I was coaching a brand new writer. There are of course many, many other things you can and will have to worry about later, but these are the three places I would start digging in.
If you want to hear my take on the most common mistakes I see writers make, go sign up for my free training called The 5 Little Known Mistakes Most Fiction Writers Make (and What To Do Instead). It’s about an hour long and I know you will take away so many things from it. Enjoy!
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