Start Your Book Today: Three Steps to Your First Draft | Amy Stewart | Skillshare

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Start Your Book Today: Three Steps to Your First Draft

teacher avatar Amy Stewart, Writer & artist

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.

      Intro: Start Your Book Today


    • 2.

      First Step: Find Your Literary Dream Team


    • 3.

      Project: Share Your Literary Dream Team


    • 4.

      Second Step: Index Cards!


    • 5.

      Index Cards: Getting Unstuck


    • 6.

      Third Step: Just One Page!


    • 7.

      Final Thoughts and Congratulations


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About This Class

I'm the New York Times bestselling author of over a dozen books, including The Drunken Botanist, Wicked Plants, and Girl Waits with Gun. I've been a full-time author for twenty years, and in that time my books have sold over a million copies worldwide and been translated into 17 languages. 

When I'm on book tour, the question I hear most often from aspiring writers is: "I have an idea for a book, but where do I begin?"

I get it! Starting a new book is daunting for all of us. In this class, I'm going to walk you through the three steps I take to start a first draft. I promise it'll be easy, fun, and low-pressure.

--You'll get to hang out at your favorite bookstore or library.

--You'll get to tear open a fresh new package of index cards.

--Best of all, you'll start filling a notebook (or a computer screen!) with pages.

E.L. Doctorow said, "Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

I want to help you get started on your journey! Think of this class as the headlights that will guide you down that first mile.

Let's get started!

Meet Your Teacher

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Amy Stewart

Writer & artist



Welcome! For the last twenty years, I've devoted my life to making art and writing books. It gives me great joy to share what I've learned with you. 

I love talking to writers and artists, and bonding over the creative process. I started teaching so that I can  inspire others to take the leap. 

I believe that drawing, painting, and writing are all teachable skills. Forget about talent--it doesn't exist, and you don't need it. With some quality instruction and lots of practice, any of us can make meaningful, honest, and unique art and literature.

I'm the New York Times bestselling author of over a dozen books. When I'm not writing or traveling on book tour, I'm painting and drawing in ink, watercolor, gouache, and oil. Come f... See full profile

Level: Beginner

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1. Intro: Start Your Book Today: Hi, I'm Amy Stewart. I'm the author of over a dozen books, including four New York Times best sellers. I've written historical fiction, memoir, literary nonfiction. My books have sold over a 1,000,000 copies worldwide have been translated into 17 languages . You know, every year I go on a book tour where I speak to audiences at bookstores, libraries, universities, museums and it almost every one of those events. Someone in the audience raises their hand and asked some version of this question. I have an idea for a book, but I don't know where to start. What should I do now? I get it. This is daunting. How do you go from an idea to a 300 page book? Even the most experienced authors find this process to be messy and confusing. And honestly, it's just different every time when the truth is, there's no one right way to begin this journey so I can tell you what's worked for me, and it comes down to three things. Inspiration, ideas and the ability to take it one page at a time. So I'm gonna break this down into bite size pieces for you. Come along with me on this three part journey to get yourself launched into the process of writing your book. And remember, this works for any kind of book. It could be fiction or nonfiction, a memoir, a self help book, a professional book, even a technical manual. You know, the author, E. L. Doctorow, said that writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way, and by the end of this class, you'll be on the road. So are you ready? Let's go. 2. First Step: Find Your Literary Dream Team: for your project, our way to post a picture or a list of the three books you chose and tell us why those books inspire you by sharing the books you've chosen and telling us a little bit about why you'll be giving ideas and inspiration to other students in the class. So it's an absolutely vital part of this process that you share your inspiration and join in the discussion. You'll learn a lot from each other, and I really want to see what you've chosen to. I'm gonna give you a few examples in case you're feeling a little bit stuck here. Maybe you're writing that parenting book for parents of teenagers, but you might be really inspired by an LaMotte's Operating Instructions, which was a diary of her first year is a Mother Now that is not a self help book. It's a memoir. It's not about raising a teenager. It is about raising a baby. So it's kind of close. But, you know, maybe the thing you really love about it is her sense of humor, her self deprecating voice, the way she sort of builds this cast of characters around herself and her newborn son, great. Put that on your stack. The point is, cast a wide net. Find books that connect with your idea on a deeply personal and just really heartfelt level . And, you know, it really doesn't matter about categories if you're writing a futures dystopian thriller. And the book that most speaks to you is Girl With a Pearl Earring, which is a very beautiful, simple novel set 400 years ago. That's wonderful. That is fantastic and amazing. You know, these are the kinds of books that can guide you and only you. So go get him. And remember, you are not getting married to these books. You can change your mind later. It's fine. This is just a place to start. So please share your ideas with the class. Let me know what you've come up with and check out the projects cause I'm gonna post a project of my own there, too. 3. Project: Share Your Literary Dream Team: The first thing I want you to do is go to the library of the bookstore and find three books that speak to you personally and the kind of book you want to. Right now, your choices don't have to make sense to anyone else. They can and should be highly personal and idiosyncratic are going to think of these is your literary dream team. I always have a set of books like this to guide me and just inspire me as I'm writing my book. They sit on my desk every day for a year or two at a time, and I read from him almost every day. In fact, I couldn't write a book without this kind of inspiration close at hand. So here's the kind of process that I go through. First of all, get an inkling of what genre of book you're writing, and the best way to do this is to go to the bookstore of the library and just browse the shelves. Where would your book fit? Is it a biography of an artist? Is the memoir about your family? Maybe it's maybe you're an accountant and you want to write a book about personal finance or you're a parenting expert and you're gonna write a self help guide for parents and teenagers. Go find those sections and remember, it's okay if you're not sure what sexual your book belongs in yet, and it's also okay if your book might live in more than one spot in the bookstore. In fact, that's happened with almost all my books. Now, to assemble this literary dream team, you're probably gonna pick one or two books that are just recent popular books that live in the same section of the bookstore where your book will live. But I want to make an important point about these choices. Thes air, not cops. Ah, comp is a term your publisher is going to use when they talk to their sales team. When a publisher says, Oh, this book is like gone Girls meets Big Little Lies. Those were cops. That's the sales team, and it's telling them how they're going to market the book, and that is for later. We're not doing this now. When it comes time to market the books, there are a lot less interested in what inspired me and more interested in how to fit my book into what they see is the marketplace in that moment. So forget about that concert for marketing and for finding an audience for a finished book . What you're doing, your literary dream team. That's just for you. It's what makes your book unique. It's what will help it to be so much more than just a copy of every other book that's ever been published in your genre. So for that reason, I also want you to bring in books from outside your genre. Maybe you love the voice or the sense of humor. Maybe they connect to your book in ways that make sense on Lee to you and that you can't even explain to anyone else. That's great. That's perfect. In fact, that's exactly what I want you to dio. So go to a bookstore and make your selections. Even if you read e books, please don't do this project online. Get away from the computer screen. Go out into the world, be around the books, touch them, open them, look through them. Look at what's on the shelf next to them, talk to booksellers, talkto librarians. You know, even though I read e books, I always buy physical copies of the books that are gonna inspire me as I write, because I want him sitting on my desk. I want to be ableto flip through them and put post it notes in, um and I I just Sometimes I just want to do something other than look at a screen for a while during my day, so I hope you'll do the same. You're gonna be using these books throughout your writing process so it will help to have him close at hand. 4. Second Step: Index Cards!: all right. The next thing we're going to do is to start to get some ideas down on paper. If the idea for this book has been rattling around inside your head for years and you've never known how to take the leap and start writing it down, this is how you're going to do it. Um, or maybe you've already been writing and maybe you've made some false starts. You filled some pages. They don't seem to be going anywhere. Well, this will get you back on track. So for this exercise, the first thing you're going to do is go out and get yourself a big package of index cards . I have an entire desk drawer filled with index cards. I love them. I like him to all be the same color because I don't want to fall into the trap of starting to just organize and categorize too soon and sometimes color code and can do that for you. I want these cards to all feel like they're the same one. Doesn't mean anything Mawr or less than another one. So I want you to start putting your ideas down on index cards every day. Just take any idea you have about this book you'd like to write? Put it on an index card, toss it in a box. Now, these could be grand ideas, like the story of my grandparent's immigration from Poland. Or they could be small ideas like, I don't know, the time I put salt in the cake batter instead of sugar. Some of them might not be suitable for the book you're writing at all. Some of them might be too big, too broad, overly vague. Some might seem like they're too small and specific and just not interesting. But you know what? It doesn't matter. These air Onley index cards just right him down anyway and toss him in the box. Now, if you have a very busy day when you have no time to write a single thing down on an index card, I want you to force yourself to take one minute and see if you can get one word down on one card. Look, you have time to brush your teeth, right? You have time for this. You can do this. On the other hand, if you just hit the mother lode and you come up with 40 great ideas all at once. Fantastic. Fill out 40 index cards and put all those in the box that is great. You will definitely have days like that. Sometimes an ideal hit me and I don't have an index card handy. So put it down on any scrap of paper. Type it into the notes app on your phone. Email it to yourself. Leave yourself a voicemail. Whatever you need to dio and at the end of that day, just transfer those ideas toe blank index cards. There's just really something powerful and cumulative about writing your ideas down on real paper in the same format by hand every day. Now listen, sometimes you're going to write down an idea. Let's say it's that parenting book about raising teenagers, and the idea you write down is screen time. Okay, fine. But then you realize you actually have dozens of more specific things to say about screen time, and it's a way more than you can fit on that one index card. That's perfect, right? Each of them down. Give them each their own index card. One of them might be, ah, study out of Harvard that you want to be sure and talk about. Maybe one is an anecdote that a friend told you about screen time or a concept in neurobiology that you want to be sure to explain, or an app that helps parents monitor their kids screen time. Maybe you have a script that you use to help parents to begin a conversation about online bullying. All those things might come out of one simple index card that had screen time written on it . Perfect. Sometimes that'll happen. A big idea will open up a Pandora's box of little ideas, and that's wonderful. Write all those down now. Please don't worry at this stage about sorting them or categorizing them. Please give yourself this gift of a stretch of time when you're just gonna commit a little bit of your attention to your book idea every day. This is so powerful it gets you into the habit of coming back to your book idea every day and just staying in conversation with it. Listen, you're gonna need this habit when you comes time to start writing. So just just to get into the rhythm of it, give yourself some time. Um, I will often take a month or several months to just jot down ideas like that. That's okay. It can take as long as you need, um, at the end of this process, I hope you'll have hundreds and hundreds of cards, and you can keep adding cards all the time, even after your into the writing process. 5. Index Cards: Getting Unstuck: OK, but wait, what happens if you run out of ideas? That's when I want you to consult your literary dream team. It might tell crazy but reading other people's work. Even if the book is very different from the one you're gonna right, it's a powerful source of inspiration. Just by taking your mind off your own work, you'll make fresh connections and you'll catch stray ideas that just sort of float by when you're not expecting them. So pick up those books you found that inspired you and read them out of order, opening up in the middle. It doesn't really matter. But read him with an idea. How did that author put their book together? Why did they decide to tell the story in this particular order? How much background they give us? How do we get a sense of time passing any sort of question? You can ask with a little bit more of an analytical mindset, it'll prompt ideas about what you haven't yet written down about your own story. Another way that I kind of get get my ideas going is you can talk to other people about your book idea. Now, some people very much want to keep an idea private and give it time to germinate. And that's fine. But, you know, let's say you're writing a family history. For example. It might be helpful. Teoh, talk the story through with some people in your family. If you're writing a professional book, maybe you want to discuss it with some colleagues, and that'll prompt some questions you haven't thought of, er even just just chatted up with a friend and see if it gets any ideas going. Here's another idea for generating things to put on your index cards, and this is something I learned from Lin Manuel Miranda, who wrote the musical Hamilton. He said in an interview that after he read Alexander Hamilton's biography, he went and talked to Stephen Sondheim about his idea to create a musical. And he said, You know, the problem is, I don't know where to start. I mean, this is such a massive, sprawling story. How do I get it down to Ah, what is it? A 2.5 hour musical and Stephen Sondheim gave him some really great advice, he said. Just write the moments that meant something to you personally. don't worry about covering Alexander Hamilton's and dire life. Just focus on the pieces that touched you the most and just write those songs because those are the songs that only you can write and the story will come out of all those moments. I love that idea. So think about what speaks to you personally and why you want to write this book in the first place and make sure all those moments were covered. So okay, do you have a big pile of index cards? All right, you're ready for the next step, but before we go on, I want to congratulate you on starting something that's even bigger than this book. What you've done is that you started a regular writing practice just by taking a few minutes every day toe. Think about your story and put a few lines down on paper. You've made a little routine for yourself. Now you're thinking about your book every day, and you're making it rial by writing it down. And it's so important, you know, it's just that's That's what writers dio. In fact, really, that's kind of all we dio we just write a little bit down every day or every chance we get . And if you've made it this far, you're already writing a book. So onward. 6. Third Step: Just One Page!: Okay. Remember, no writer ever sits down and says today I'm gonna write a book. It's way too intimidating and overwhelming. Instead, what we say is today, I'm gonna write a page, and that's all you're gonna dio. Just write one page. Now you might be thinking, Well, that's pretty obvious, isn't it? Of course you have to write pages if you're going to write a book. But listen, this is really where people get stuck. Um, we got hung up on all sorts of things. When we're trying to write a first draft, we get stuck on where to start literally. That can be, you know, what is the first sentence of this book? And what's the first paragraph thinking about? That can really paralyze you because you want it to be perfect. We get stuck on what to write next. I got this far, but I don't know what to do now. And we get stuck on story issues, you know? What about questions of continuity of drama? Suspense? Is this even interesting? Is there even a reason for readers to keep reading at this point? We get bogged down in the research and and all the things we don't yet know this is a huge problem for me because I do a lot of research. So I'm speaking from experience. We worry about the language in the style, in the tone, in the point of view. And sometimes we just stop because the whole thing feels like such a mess. But guess what? That is the point of the first draft. You're supposed to be making this big, glorious mess. So I'm gonna suggest a different approach for you. You're going to write this thing out of order. You're going to write it. Just how you talk. You're gonna skip over the stuff you don't know. You're gonna put every idea you have down on a page one page at a time, a page a day or a page every writing session that you can make time in your life for. So here's how this works. Take out an index card and write one page about what you wrote on that card. Tell that story whatever it is, no matter how big or how small. And it's a double space page of that. We're talking 300 words. Anybody can get 300 words down on paper um and you know, writing this page, Mike, if you ideas for more things to put on index cards great, go ahead, make more cards. You should be adding to your ideas and generating new ideas, making more cards the whole time. That's perfect. Also, if you pull out an index card and you don't feel like writing about that particular thing today, that's fine. Toss it back in, pick another one. You're gonna do them all eventually. It doesn't really matter where you start now. Some days you might pull out a card and you start telling that particular story and you can't get it all written in one page. Fine. Write two pages or you know what's even better. Leave yourself a few notes and come back tomorrow and write the second page. This was Hemingway's trick. He liked to stop writing in the middle of a good sentence so he'd know Rightward have picked back up the next day, and I love this. I do it all the time. I'll stop writing in the middle of a line of dialogue, so I have no excuse for not just jumping right into it. When I come back to it. Don't write until you've just exhausted the idea. It's much better to stop while you're really cooking along, because it'll be so easy to jump back in the next day. Now these pages can be wildly different from one another. Some pages will be nothing but dialogue. You know, if you're writing a novel or memoir or even reported journalistic nonfiction, there's gonna be a lot of dialogue. Some pages will be anecdotes, you know, like maybe you're writing that self help book for parents. You might have a lot of anecdotes from your work with clients that could be useful. To help illustrate your point. You're gonna want into votes and pages to the setting like, what is the interior, that restaurant like, What was your grandparent's house like? What's it like down on the banks of that river? And you know, whether you're writing fiction or nonfiction, you're gonna have a lot of character descriptions. There are people in our books, So who are these people? How do they walk and talk and dress and act? Spend some time with those questions now. You might also have some action scenes, whether it's a car chase or you know just somebody running to catch the bus. So right, some action. And then what about historical background? Is there anything we need to know about what happened before your story begins? Go ahead, tell us that. And listen, use your literary dream team for ideas. Open any one of those books to any random page and just ask yourself what's going on on this page. That's right. I could be writing more of that. I do this all the time. It just helps stimulate me and just reminds me of all the different elements that I should be bringing into my pages. Now don't worry where these pages fall in the chronological timeline of your story. In fact, I hope you'll write everything out of order. It will be really fresh and interesting that way. I also don't want you to worry about the style of your writing at this stage. Don't get so caught up in pretty language or voice or point of view, or any of that. Just put down what you know and don't worry too much about how it sounds. That's that's what the second draft is for. We're going to get there, but listen If you're having trouble with this idea, just imagine that you're writing an email or a letter toe somebody you know really well. You might even pick a particular person and write directly to them. Think about how informally and easily we right when we're just firing off an email. That's all you need to do in this draft. If you can write one page a day and remember, it's a double space page than at the end of the year, you'll have a complete first draft that even allows for some time offered holidays, illnesses, whatever you might be thinking. Wait a minute. This isn't a first draft. It isn't even readable. It's all out of order. The language is kind of clunky. There's no style or flow or coherence to this thing. It's just a pile of pages. But believe it or not, that is perfect. That's exactly where you want to be. A. This stage. I want you to think of your ideas in your early writing, like bread dough. As long as it's still dough, you can knead it. You can work it over and shape it and change it and add ingredients to it. But Once you put it in the oven, it will never go back to being dough again. I think about this a lot with my first drafts. You know, books can kind of If you try to make him too polished and perfect and feel to finish the first time out, you really have a tough time changing them and shaping them and rethinking them. But that's exactly what you need to be doing right now. This is why I encourage you to keep it as loose and flexible as you can for as long as you can. So by writing these pages out of order with no rules about style or chronology or continuity, where you're doing is you're actually tricking yourself into moving ahead. You're tricking yourself into getting it all down, and you're not allowing yourself to get stuck. This, above all, is the secret to finishing your first draft 7. Final Thoughts and Congratulations: Hey, I wish I could say that were the end, but you know, a first draft, it's only the beginning. The important thing is that you've made a start once you've written those pages and you might have hundreds of him by the time you're through, then it'll be time to read it over. Organize it. Start grouping ideas and two chapters or sections filling in the missing pieces, making some cuts, working on the language. But that's all for later. If you've come this far, Congratulations. You're a writer at work on your book, just like me, Just like every other author you admire. This is how we all do it, and we're so thrilled that you've joined us. You know, at the beginning of this class, I quoted E. L. Doctorow, who said, The thing about how writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. So I hope this class has helped you to start navigating through the fog, and I want to wish you the best of luck on your journey. Now there's a lot more to come so please post your questions and comments in the discussion . I will be back with more classes and more tips and ideas to guide you along, so stay in touch and let me know how it's going for you.