So You Want to Write A Book: Part 0 — Ready, Set, Don't Go Yet

So, you want to write a book, eh? Did I hear that right? I bet I did. After all, you did click the link to this article.

Well, here's something to help you out. A new column, all about the mechanics of sitting down to write the great American (or British, or Brazilian, or whatever) novel, written by a girl who knows. I mean, who thinks she knows. I mean, I've written five (GAH!) novels already, have two published, and one about to come out. Whether or not I'll ever be a commercially successful novelist remains to be seen, but for the moment, you can trust me. I'm there, in the trenches with you, and if you've never begun a book before, or if you've gotten started and floundered after a week, trust me. I understand.

Thus, this column. Over the next few months, as I work through my next novel-length project, I plan to leave you some tips, tricks, and various pieces of unsolicited advice. And as I only just started myself (okay, confession: I actually started this particular novel back in May, but then my daughter got out of school for the summer and life intervened and I'll be sitting back down to it later this week), it's all going to be very fresh in my head.

Still want to write a book? Here are some tips and tricks and things to do before you ever even sit down at your computer/notebook/typewriter.

If a picture can say a thousand words, it can also help you write them.

Are you an outliner, or a seat-of-your-pantser? 

This is one of my favorite questions to ask whenever I interview a writer. It offers insight not only into a writer's process, but also into their brain. I can almost guarantee: writers who are outliners are also list-makers in real life. Seat-of-pantsers are more like me — they figure it out as they go, let the wind take them where it deems necessary. 

For you, beginning a novel, you need to know the answer to this question! There is no right answer, but you need to know yourself well enough to say, "I need an outline," or "I don't care, I just want to explore!" 

If the answer is a resounding "outliner," then drop everything, step away from your computer, and start outlining. A lot of people I know like to outline manually, using arrows and circles and squares to change path mid-outline, before typing out a final plan. They map out each chapter, each scene, and know the end before they ever write the beginning. 

For many of us, though, the answer is likely some sort of mash-up of both. For me, I hate outlining. Hate it with a passion. I rarely know the ending of a book when I start it. I like to see where a story takes me and, more importantly, where my characters decide to go.

BUT (and this is a big BUT which is why it's in all caps)...even if you're not an outliner, it still helps to do some list-making or note-taking ahead of time. So regardless, even for all you pantsers, let's talk about that.

Know your characters (at least the main ones)!

Look. I can't stress this enough. All great novels have great characters, and no great characters appear out of nowhere, fully-fleshed and ready to go. Characters take time to develop, to age like a fine wine or cheese. 

For me, one of the lists I always make is a character list. I like to know names, basic visual data (tall/short, hair color, eye color), and some of my characters' main strengths and weaknesses (others I'll determine along the way). For my first couple of books, I didn't know to make this list, and I was forever changing things mid-story, and trust me: there's nothing more embarrassing as a writer than to have an editor point out that your main character has blue eyes in one scene, brown eyes in another, and green eyes in still another. It sounds little and trivial, but it really makes a difference later on. There's only so much Word's Find and Replace function will fix for you.

Get to know your characters. Write stuff down. Draw pictures in your notebook if you must. Know if someone likes coffee versus tea. Know if they're vegetarians. Know some funny little quirks, and write 'em down to reference later on. You'll thank yourself mid-novel, I promise.

Build your world ahead of time!

If all the great novels have great characters, then for sure, all the great fantasy/sci-fi novels have great worlds. But it doesn't stop there. A contemporary YA novel exists somewhere, even if it's not on a foreign planet a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Think about it. When Tolkien set out to write The Hobbit, he had a plan in place for Middle Earth. He knew everything, down to the language of the Elves, before he wrote a single word. That planning is what gave us Orcs and Goblins and the sulfury-smell of Smaug's breath.

Next, picture New Crobuzon in China Mieville's Perdido Street Station — it's rich and thick and full of detail. There are bird-headed creatures and aliens that live in stale, nasty, stinky water. There are foods and drinks and entire societies within those pages. It's a world-building masterpiece.

You can even look closer, to our own LitReactor instructor, Delilah S. Dawson. The world fleshed out in her Blud series feels alive with blood-sucking bunnies and carnival-caravans. When you're reading her stories, you're in her world. You can see things, hear things, even smell things you don't here on Earth. A good world does NOT get built overnight, and you want your story set in a good world.

Again, the level to which you record/plan is going to depend on your own preferences, but before you start writing, you need to at least know some basics. 

Is it set here on Earth? If yes, what country/state/city/town? If no, what's the name of the planet? Where in the solar system is it?

What does your setting look like? Is it hot/cold? Rural/urban? Will your characters be navigating rocky terrain, or running through fields of wildflowers, dancing in warm breezes?

But that's not all! You need to know things like financial infrastructure. How do characters pay for things? You need to know how the government works. Is there a police force? An evil dictator? This is important stuff, writers! If your world doesn't mesh together, and one character works for the city government while another character who lives next door spends his/her days in a rural outpost light-years away, it'll never feel real. Not to you, and especially not to your readers.

Write what you know...or do your research first!

We've all heard it said a thousand times. "Write what you know." Right? 

The truth is we usually can't just write what we know, but a good, well-researched foundation can set any novel on a good way.

But what if you want to write something you don't know, and you don't want to make it up? The only answer then is to research. 

Imagine writing a scene set in Nazi-held Lithuania (I'm speaking from experience here...this book I started and am re-starting is set there!). Imagine being in the groove. The scene is flowing. Your characters are at a dinner party, and the conversation is crisp and Sorkin-esque. One of them is about to give a toast to a bridal couple. He raises his glass. It's filled to the brim, you don't know what people drank in Nazi-held Lithuania, do you? 

So now you have to stop, leave that scene that was flowing so well with the Sorkin-esque dialogue, and you need to Google it.

This is, perhaps, a trite example. In theory you could write through the scene and find the answer upon editing.

Or, instead, while you're busily answering the questions above and building your characters and world, you could research as much as possible. If you're writing historical fiction, this is exponentially important. The last thing you want to do is unintentionally muck up historical facts and figures. 

For this go-round of novel-writing, I've immersed myself as much as possible in the culture of a small, Jewish village (shtetl) around the start of World War II. I've read books on the subject. I've listened to the music. The only thing I haven't done is cooked the food because my Aunt Ev was the best Jewish cook in the world, and I grew up tasting the foods of the Old Country. 

The truth is we usually can't just write what we know, but a good, well-researched foundation can set any novel on a good way. 

When in doubt...Pinterest!

So. Outliners, you're already outlining in your head, aren't you? You're planning your research. Pantsers, you've probably also got some ideas, but you're not sure where/how to write them. So now I'll let you in on a little trick of the trade, and one which I reluctantly began using, and on which I now rely.


I know, I know. We all think of crafts and #NailedIt memes when we hear the word, but for a writer with a visual inclination, Pinterest can be a godsend. Seriously. For my last novel, set on a foreign planet, I created a private Pinterest board and filled it with pictures of landscapes that looked like the planet in my head. I filled it with deserts and mountains and cities crumbling to ash. I filled it with people who came to life in my pages, faces that matched the characters I'd created. In short, I filled my Pinterest board with my story.

Throughout the writing of that novel, I referred to that Pinterest board often, using the visual cues to navigate a tricky scene or figure out a proper facial expression. It helped with the flow of my writing, to have something to look at whenever I got a little stuck. If a picture can say a thousand words, it can also help you write them.

Writing a book is not easy.

There. I said it. Writing a book isn't easy, but it can be very fun, very exciting, and so very rewarding it makes me want to scream. And although writing a novel isn't easy, getting these few things squared away ahead of time can make it easier, and improve your chances of following through to the end. 

Me? I've done these things (although I think my new novel's Pinterest board could use some love...I'll check that out later today), and I'm all set to get started again. I'll check in with you next month with some more tips and things I've learned, and I wish you all the best of luck in your new book! Happy writing!

Leah Rhyne

Column by Leah Rhyne

Leah Rhyne is a Jersey girl who's lived in the South so long she's lost her accent...but never her attitude. After spending most of her childhood watching movies like Star Wars, Aliens, and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and reading books like Stephen King's The Shining or It, Leah now writes horror and science-fiction. She lives with her husband, daughter, and a small menagerie of pets.

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L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami August 21, 2014 - 7:55am

Writing more than one book is definitely a qualifier.

Recently I found I work best by the concept "people living life, then a bad guy is thrown in." It minimizes the work by mainly fleshing out the bad guy.

Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On August 21, 2014 - 10:06am

Love this article, and I hope you continue with it as a series!

I'm your complete opposite: I outline like a fiend. I even outline flash. I find only then do I feel the complete freedom to dive right in and let things deviate from the outline if it feels right in the moment and flow. The times I've tried to write from the seat of my pants have been unqualified disasters. Bear in mind I have a degree in architecture, so pre-planning is kind of hardwired in me:)

One of the biggest things I do before writing anything--even before plot or characters or setting--is theme, i.e. why am I writing this? Why does/should it exist? What is this about, beyond the plot and other surprising, juicy goodies you might uncover? I find that once I have theme, the corresponding story, characters, and setting just happen.

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. August 21, 2014 - 10:09am

Hahahaha, Dino! We ARE exact opposites! I never even THINK about theme until I'm done with that first draft. Then I read and ponder: what the heck am I talking about for REAL, and only then do I find my themes.

That said, this particular book is pretty theme-laden already. Life, liberty, love of a child...that kind of stuff. So maybe I'm learning from my friends? :)

Sarah - I love that. Throw a bad guy in there, mix things up! I do that sometimes too!

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami August 21, 2014 - 10:31am

It's interesting, my experience outlining depends on the story I'm trying to tell. Like for example a short story collection with a shared antagonist, requires less outlining than if I were to have a single story that sprawled over 60 pages. (That sounds small, but keep in mind I'm more of a poet and short story writer.)

Like my children's book I outlined to death, yet reading over it the characters were not as well developed as in my two story bundle, Father Out Of Time and Samantha's Gambit. I seemed to develop character more easily when I was 19.:/

I'm not saying outliners can't develop character, it's more what I've found. my recent work feels emotionally shallow by comparison.

Deets999's picture
Deets999 from Connecticut is reading Adjustment Day August 21, 2014 - 10:47am

Good article, Leah - will keep my eyes peeled for future installments - good luck getting back to writing the novel.

I'm a very organized, Type-A person, though oddly fall into the category of seat-of-their-pants writer, whether its a novel or short-story. I typically know the key plot points I need to hit in a story, but quite often totally make up how I get to them with zero preparation our outlining. I have written many stories having no clue how they would end - I just try to enjoy the process and see where it takes me - probably why I like the chaotic nature of it is because it's totally contrary to my life outside writing.

I also found that with the novel writing process (or really any writing for that matter) a bit a cliche advice comes in handy - writer's write! So if you're tired, had a lousy day, hung-over or whatever, and you just can't envision sitting down and producing anything good - you still have to drag yourself to Starbucks, library, basement, home office,etc and try - stare at that white paper and try damn it! I can't say how many times I've done this and two hours later I  had pages and pages completed that I never thought I'd get through. It's a lot like working out, anybody can hit the gym or go for that run when their firing on all cylinders, but it's getting through those slog-sessions that will really build your endurance towards completing a long project.


L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami August 21, 2014 - 11:10am

Also as is often mentioned, being offline is best. Big reason? Well no twitter and listening to people make arbrutrary "writing rules" on there. For example, don't have a character that is a writer.

The concept of "old stories told in a new way" almost makes the concept of cliche moot, if not ironically cliche itself. They might as well make writing rules against having sibling rivalry, or if you doing middle grade having incompetent or missing parents.

The conception of revision is moot while writing draft one.

Chacron's picture
Chacron from England, South Coast is reading Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb August 21, 2014 - 12:46pm

I especially like the 'know your characters' section. I usually do know them but always change them in some ways, and I never write anything down apart from what goes in the book itself. The rest I keep in my head. I too don't do outlining but the strange thing is that I often know the ending long before I get there. Again, it always changes. I always know the beginning before I sit down with it; it's the middle part I never have much clue about on Draft 1.

Stephen McCusker's picture
Stephen McCusker August 21, 2014 - 1:35pm

That Pinterest trick is a great idea honestly. Might I add the SFWPorn network from Reddit to the repertoire? (, the links to the rest of them are on top of the right column). Lots of pictures of landscapes, life, and everything in between.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami August 21, 2014 - 3:49pm

I actually use pinterest for such outlining to find things I want to research further.

big_old_dave's picture
big_old_dave from Watford, about 20 miles outside London, Uk August 22, 2014 - 5:48am

Great article, been thinking about starting on the first novel a lot recently so this is just adding fuel to the fire, very inspiring! 

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. August 22, 2014 - 8:16am

Thanks, you guys! Dave, I hope it helps! Stephen - thanks for the link!!! Deets - these columns *should* be up monthly, provided I have helpful data to share!! :D And Chacron - isn't it funny? I used to be the same as you, but now I have to write some things down before I get started. Otherwise I get all kinds of lost. I guess we all change as we progress, in so many different ways.

Regardless, it's fun to see so much conversation spawned by this column! Yippee!

Len Kunz's picture
Len Kunz from Los Angeles is reading The Kybalion November 3, 2014 - 1:41pm

Great advice, Leah. Can't wait to read the forthcoming installments. 

But writing a book in Word? No thanks. In fact, I never touch Word unless the project is only a few pages.

You owe it to yourself and any value you place on your time to give Scrivener a shot, because it will simplify your writing life in dozens of ways.

Scrivener houses all your reserach in the same project file as the book... plus it outputs your final draft in whatever file type you want autmatically formatted for submission... plus it outputs in .epub or .mobi if you want to read it on your Kindle to see how your book "feels" on a platform other than your computer... plus all sorts of other fancypants goodness you can watch a video about over at the Literature and Latte website.

Yes, it takes some time to learn but you can get up and running with the basics in less than 20 minutes, and it puts Word to absolute shame.