How to beat the fear and (finally) start your debut novel

Written by Lizzie Pook

Have you long harboured desires to write a book, but haven’t quite found the motivation (or confidence) to start? Author Lizzie Pook shares her tips for getting started.

I have a confession to make: it took me seven years to start writing my debut novel after I’d had the idea for it. I told myself and other people that, as a freelance journalist, I was simply ‘too busy’ to fit in writing a book as well. But the truth is, I was too scared. I was terrified of failure, convinced that I would put pen to paper and realise that this long-held dream of mine was simply never going to work out because I was not good enough to make it happen.

I’m very glad I overcame that fear. Because earlier this year, my debut novel Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter – a historical mystery about a young woman searching for her missing father in a lawless pearl-diving town in Western Australia – was published in the UK and Australia. Soon it will come out in the US, Canada and other countries including Germany and France.

It took me a while to get here though, with countless discarded versions of my manuscript, some truly low points in my mental health and plenty of (big) bruises to my ego. But I do believe that I have learned some helpful things along the way that show that, if you want it enough and can muster enough discipline and stamina, you can beat the fear and start writing your debut novel.

So, here are just some of those things – as well as advice from other debut authors who managed to bite the bullet and make their dreams a reality. Pens at the ready!  

Seek out idea-sparkers

I often get asked where my book ideas come from, and if there’s one overarching piece of advice I can give you, it’s to write everything down – every single bit of inspiration that comes your way, even if it’s a line from a song, an advert or a TV documentary that makes you think, “Hang on, I could explore that.” 

Take tours of old buildings with expert guides (you may learn a piece of hidden history that sparks a book idea), go to exhibitions and scour the catalogues for interesting stories behind paintings, keep notebooks on your bedside table so you can write down your dreams when you wake up in the morning.

Don’t be afraid to look to existing books for inspiration, either. Take, for example, the subplot from that thriller you loved – the background character with the fascinating job that you wanted to know more about; the sister going through emotional turmoil that you felt could have been fleshed out more fully. They can be extrapolated and explored differently to create the main plot for your book.

Once you’ve got into the habit of being open to ideas, inevitably the right one will be the one that never stops tapping on your shoulder. This happened to me with Moonlight. I had the first idea for it while travelling through Australia many years ago. But it never left my mind. I kept a Word document on my computer which I added to every time something new came to me about the book – if I read an interesting research article online, saw a great picture that sparked the inspiration for a character or even if I met someone who reminded me of how my main character might speak. That Word document felt like hope to me and I clung to it for years.

If you’ve got an idea that refuses to budge, even if it’s not fully formulated yet, go with it. It wants you to write it. 

Read crappy books

“Read, read, and then read some more,” says Nikki May, whose debut Wahala is due to be turned into a BBC series next year. “Read brilliant books – they’ll inspire you to aim for greatness. And read awful books – they’ll remind you that your writing isn’t so bad after all.”

‘Awful’ is subjective, of course, but identifying what you dislike – whether it’s an unrealistic plot or too many characters to keep track of – in fiction can actually be really helpful (and knowing that books you think are ‘bad’ actually got published can be a good motivator – if they can do it, why can’t you?). I’m also a big fan of annotating books. Arm yourself with Post-it notes if you don’t want to sully the pages, but identifying what does (or doesn’t) work in the book you are reading will help you apply that to your own work, too. Are you finding yourself eagerly turning the pages during a particular scene, for example? Do you love the sentence structure that the author uses? Try and work out why and replicate that in your own manuscript.

Equally, have you stopped reading a book halfway through? Try and put your finger on the reason – are you not invested in the characters? Is there not enough forward motion? Are the stakes too low? – then make sure you don’t make the same mistakes in yours.     

Work out if you’re a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’

This is the great authorly-divide – whether to carefully plot out a book before writing, or to ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ and see where your characters decide to take you. I would love to say there’s a sure-fire way of knowing which one of these you are before you start writing, but there isn’t. You just have to test the waters and see. But if the blinking cursor and a blank page is enough to terrify you into writer’s paralysis, then chances are you’ll need to create some sort of outline before you start.

Books like Into the Woods by John Yorke and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder are brilliant guides for beginning to plot a novel – giving you tangible frameworks to build your own book around. Margaret Atwood runs a brilliant online Masterclass on the writing craft and there are also some great podcasts around in which authors are interviewed about their own writing processes – I personally love the Honest Author’s Podcast, Confessions of a Debut Novelist, Writer’s Routine and The Bestseller Experiment.

Some authors plot extensively using Excel spreadsheets or with Post-its on their walls (I have one crime writer friend who does this and calls it her ‘murder wall’). But I find just a Word document with a paragraph per chapter, loosely laying out what will happen, is enough to give me the confidence to at least start writing.

When planning, think of your structure like this: each chapter should ask a question or tell the reader something they don’t already know (this can be information that furthers the plot, but it could also be deeper insight into a character’s psyche or motivation). While planning, I treat each chapter like a sandwich: an opening (first piece of bread), followed by the meat, which is the majority of the scene, followed by the closing (the second piece of bread, which should be something which makes the reader want to find out what happens next). 

Set your ‘non-negotiables’

“I swear by writing to a timer,” says Chloe Timms, whose literary debut The Seawomen will be published in June. “I’m so bad at concentrating for long periods without having a quick scroll on Twitter, so I set a timer for 20 minutes, put on a white noise soundtrack from Spotify, then allow myself a five-minute break afterward. It’s amazing how many words you can get down.”

It’s easy to see writing as a whimsical and lovely process, where you wait for the inspiration to strike then sip endless cups of tea while the words simply flow. But no, most of the time it’s graft and maths – getting enough words down on the page so that you can then turn them into something ‘good’. I personally made the most progress on my novel when I told myself I had to write 1,000 words a day as a non-negotiable target. I know lots of authors and this number fluctuates (some do more, some do less), but set a target that feels right and then re-evaluate what’s doable after a week of trying to hit it. 

I did mine in the evenings after work, sometimes starting at 9pm (tip: if you live with someone, ask if they’ll pick up the slack when it comes to cooking dinners for a while. If not: meal prep is your friend). I also used to think feeling resentful towards writing meant that I wasn’t doing it right or that I didn’t deserve to be doing it. Turns out, feeling resentful is a HUGE part of writing, so get used to it. Everyone finds it hard but ultimately, you tell inspiration when to turn up. You summon your creativity. So get your bum in the seat and start writing.  

Remember, first drafts are supposed to be bad

There is nothing more freeing than this. Believe me. I remember actually laughing out loud when I was writing my first draft because it was so excruciatingly bad. But it didn’t matter. I knew I was going to change it all later. The only thing that truly matters is getting those first words down. After all, you can’t edit a blank page.

Tell yourself this: forward motion is key. “Writing is like running, do a little bit each day and you’ll find that it gets easier and that you can write for longer in much less time,” says Saara El Arifi whose much-anticipated fantasy debut The Final Strife is publishing in June. “I call the 30k word mark the ‘deadzone’,” she says. “It’s a hard milestone to cross, but once you’ve breached 40k words it’ll get easier and new plot points will germinate.”

You can even leave yourself notes in your manuscript if there are problems you know you are going to have to fix later. Things like, [ACTUALLY, HE’S SUPPOSED TO BY DEAD BY NOW], or [SHE’S TOO SPIKY IN THIS SCENE, SHE NEEDS TO BE SOFTER]. My first drafts are littered with these random notes to myself, but they allow me to just keep going and get the words down. Forward. Motion. Is. Key.   

All writing involves re-writing

I must have written upwards of 15 drafts of my book before anyone saw it (not all authors take it to this extreme, but I’d say it’s rarely fewer than three). I wanted it to be as good as it possibly could be before an agent set eyes on it. I even did specific drafts that focused solely on things like insects and bugs (prevarication, moi?) as my book was set in Australia.

But seriously, once you think you’ve finished, once every typo has been caught and corrected, give it another pass. There are always things you can improve – does the plot truly hold together? Do your sentences really sing? Is your main character development convincing? Even if you’re tired, don’t give into the ‘good enough’ urge. Then, once you’ve finished, put that book in a drawer and leave it for at least two weeks (some authors swear by six!). Coming back to it with fresh eyes will help you give it the final interrogation it needs before it goes off to agents. 

Be an agent detective

Once it’s good to go, draw up your list of dream agents. You can buy the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook to find their information, but I identified my shortlist by reading the acknowledgements of books I loved and those I felt chimed well with what I wanted from my own career. Look on the agent’s websites to find out their submission requirements and spend time tailoring your cover letter, this is a good template to build off (just don’t be tempted to cut and paste, personalisation is everything).

It’s best to send off your manuscript in small batches, perhaps 6-10, because if you get the same ‘nos’ or same negative feedback from each, you want to have the chance to work on this before you re-submit to other agents. But be prepared to wait for a response. This is totally normal. Some agents have response times of three months or more (they are busy people) and will say in their submission guidelines if no response means ‘no, thank you.’

But, remember, stay positive. Your dream agent might very well fall in love with your novel. It happened to me! So do the work, polish that manuscript to within an inch of its life, then let it fly. This is your big shot. Take it.

Lizzie Pook’s Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter (Mantle, £14.99) is out now 

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