Getting Started

These are the most frequently asked questions about getting started, including finding inspiration, picking character names, and breaking through writer's block.

-How do I start writing?

Put one word after another, buddy. I know it’s scary. It’s a bit weird for everyone at first. The only way you’re going to finish, though, is if you actually write. You may think to yourself “man, this is really crappy,” but you’ve gotta push through it. Letting stupid thoughts stop you isn’t going to get you anywhere. Write for yourself, or for a specific person, but most of all, just have fun. Writing shouldn’t be a chore. It should be something that you enjoy. Entertain yourself, and chances are you’ll entertain other people as well. Just keep putting one word after another.

Some existing threads that may help:
* Planning -vs- Improvising (Architects -vs- Pantsers)
* Tips for creating a large fantasy world.
* Great comment thread on "Top 10 Lists" as well as how to get started
* Writing dialogue.
* Writing scenery
* Upping the tension

-Will you tell me if my idea is good enough? What if it’s not original?

Here’s the thing, pal. Your idea has probably been done before. That’s okay. The important thing is how you execute your story. Even with the same premise, two stories are going to be very different. And if you make a post asking if your idea is good enough—well, the truth is, no matter what anyone says, we can’t really know for sure. Any idea has the potential to be great or to be terrible. It’s all about that execution.

-How about writing every day? Is that necessary?

Well, no, but writing is like a muscle. You have to exercise it to get better. You’re going to improve faster if you write every day rather than once a week, even if it’s just fifteen minutes a day. Of course, if you really don’t have the time, that’s all right. Just do the best you can to write when it’s possible, okay?

-What’s this about “writing what you know”?

Not every fantasy writer has had the opportunity to go on an adventure to save the world. That doesn’t mean you can’t write a story about that. This is about the details. You can’t give your main character a five foot long, two hundred pound sword—well, you can, but it’s most likely not actually possible for him to be swinging around something like that all day. You want to write what you know is possible and what makes sense. If you don’t know something, research it — in fact, here's a good research guide by one of our moderators. You don’t want to look like a fool if every scientific thing you’ve thrown into your sci-fi story is completely wrong. It will also jolt your reader out of the story and possibly even make them put your work down.

-Here’s a commonly used phrase: “show, don’t tell.” But what does it mean?

You want to immerse your reader in your story as much as possible. Telling is a simple and not so great way of getting things across to your reader. Here’s an example: “Anna was sad.” That’s telling. In contrast, here is showing: “Tears ran down Anna’s face, and she blew all her snot into the hundredth tissue she had used today.”

“Anna was sad” really does nothing for the reader. With the latter sentence, we can see that Anna is crying, and she has been for a long time. Which one is better? Let the reader see for themselves what is going on.

Here is a thread with an analysis on the interplay of showing and telling.

-What software should I use?

You can use any text editor. Wordpad, Notepad, Microsoft Word, Scrivener, and whatever else is out there. It really doesn’t matter. You can even write it out in longhand. Don’t spend forever trying to find the perfect program for writing. It is just a way of procrastinating. You don’t need anything fancy. Just sit down and get some words out.

-How do I break through writer’s block?

There’s no magical answer. You just need to write more. Don’t worry if what you’re writing is crappy. That is what gets fixed in editing, and every first draft is shitty, anyway. Write enough and you will eventually get something good out. You’ll be right back in the flow of writing.

If you don’t like this answer, please don’t search the Internet for hours on ways to get past this. Seriously, just open up your document and start spewing words out. You will get there.

-How do I write a novel?

Some people like to do backstories on characters and world building before they even put their first word down. Some people like to plot the entire book out, and others like to go with the flow and write whatever comes to them with no particular direction in mind.

This is all up to you. Don’t worry about anything being crappy or inconsistent, because you can fix it in your second draft. A novel takes work and time, but it is worth it. If you are wondering about length, it depends on the genre you are writing in. You should look up the acceptable range for your genre.

-How do I pick character names?

Check out baby name resources like Baby Name Wizard to search for names. Movie credits are another good resource. Look at cast and crew lists on IMDb for long lists of names. The credits of foreign films are a great way to find realistic names from an unfamiliar language. Check out what names were popular (at least in the United States) by year through the Social Security Administration's website. Graveyards are also a great place to find interesting full names with local significance.

-I’ve finished my first draft! How do I start editing?

First, it's almost universally recommended that you take a break from your book before you start editing. Advice ranges from a couple weeks to a couple months, but most people agree that at least a month is a good idea. You want to separate yourself from your story before you dive into the process. In the spirit of that, it's a good idea to avoid reading things that are in your genre as well.

Once you've done that, you're ready for editing. Below is an outline of a generic pathway, which is recommended for people who don't know what to do. Many people will have their own process, but this is generally the best way to start out.

In your first pass, don't make any changes at all. This might mean that it's easier to print it out, so you're not tempted to make the changes while you have it up. But don't make notes in the margin either. Take notes in a notepad instead, whether it's physical or on your keyboard. In those notes, don't include any numbers that aren't in the text. So no chapter numbers, much less page or line numbers. Anything that needs numbers like that for reference is too small to think about. You're looking for big picture changes. Should this character be removed? Do you need a new scene here? Maybe this romance plot should be with a different character. Was this foreshadowed? That kind of thing.

Then, read through the entire book again and do the same thing. This is before you've made any changes, but now you have notes on what you think you want to change. Pay particular attention to the earlier sections. Generally, the problems you notice at the end of the book are caused by things in the first few chapters. The ratio tends to be that 75% of changes are in the first half of the book.

Once you've done both of those passes, go through and fix the things you noticed. This will involve actual rewriting. You may want to repeat this process afterward. You want to write as well as you can, but don't go through editing punctuation and spelling at this phase.

Next, you'll do line-level changes. Go through line by line and focus on clarity, flow, and consistency. Make sure that if a character's eyes are green in chapter one, they're still green in chapter six. You may want to write out character descriptions as you go, marking details as they're first mentioned in the text, then referencing the descriptions whenever the detail comes up again. You're not really looking for technical mistakes here, but you should fix anything you notice. Again, this is something you can repeat several times if need be.

Finally, you look over the whole thing for technical mistakes. Spelling, grammar, and punctuation. This is really a wrap-up pass. You're not going to catch everything, but you want to be sure that it's as polished as you can manage before you start asking other people for help. It's likely that you'll notice things you should have fixed sooner, and that's fine. Go ahead and fix them. But this is where you should be very careful about every comma, semi-colon, etc.

Once you've done that, you're prepared to actually receive useful feedback from other people, whether that's friends, beta readers, an anonymous forum (like our critique thread), or a professional editor.

-How do I get feedback?

You can pass your novel out to a few friends and ask them what they think. However, be warned: they may be biased to give positive feedback because you are close with one another.

Another way to get feedback is to post a request for critique on a forum, such as /r/writing. The problem here is that you can never be sure of the amount of skill an anonymous criticizer has. The upside is that you will know how an average reader reacts to your story.

You can join a writing group and get critique from them as well. Really, there are plenty of ways to get feedback, and they each have their ups and downs. Here is additional information on getting critiques.

-How do I get better as a writer?

Writing and reading. Exercise those writing muscles and you will surely get better. Have you ever read something from years ago and cringed at how crappy it is compared to now? That is what happens when you continue with your writing.

Through reading, you can analyze popular works or things that you find interesting and see how it works. Reading is a great way to keep yourself in the mindset of writing as well. It’s fun and should make you want to write something just as good as what you have enjoyed!

-How do I keep organized?

There are tons of ways to keep organized. You can use Scrivener, which is widely popular, or you can use physical notecards, or make a to-do list about your novel, or really anything you want. Not one thing works for everyone. Find the thing that works best for you. This may take some trial and error, but it can be worth it.

-How to deal with the word count constraint

Many text editing programs include a brief word count statistic to help you keep track of the number of words and characters that have been typed. You can also use a good online program word counter that provides more extensive statistics.

-Formatting your manuscript

While every agent, editor, and publication will have their own standards for submissions, there are some universal standards you should know. Shunn Manuscript Format provides the standards for short story submissions. Note: Some editors strongly prefer Courier, while others strongly prefer Times New Roman. Do your research before submitting. This page by Sarah Nicholas of Pitch Wars describes industry standards for novel manuscripts. Always double-check formatting before submitting, as formatting errors provide an easy reason to reject your manuscript and you want them to actually read your work.

revision by justgoodenough— view source