Writing a story: How to get started and how to finish


Photo by: Wassim LOUMI

Many studies suggest a large number of people have a desire to publish a story (one such study even suggests the number being over 80%). However, an equally large number of people often feel they don’t know how to get started, let alone have the skills or knowledge to take a story across the finish line of publication.

NOTE: When I mention “publication” in this post, I am referring to traditional publishing, not self-publishing. That said, I feel the concepts and information in this post applies to both and encourage you to read on regardless of your stories final destination.

If so many people want to write books, how come there aren’t billions published each year?

There are many “reasons” why so many stories go unwritten and, sadly, the reason often comes down to a general lack of focus or allowing inaccurate perceptions to derail the story.

I am (un)happy to say that I used to be one of those poor souls above:

1. I’m unhappy because, looking back, I wasted SO much time (often because of lame excuses) that could have been spent towards the craft that makes me happy.

2. I’m happy because, unlike those who never get started or have quit, I have recently been able to focus and have seen real progress as a result!

That’s not to say that I have been able to devote unlimited hours towards writing, nor have I found some shortcut or secret to making it all happen instantly. To do anything great, a person typically has to put in a notable amount of time and effort, which often requires some sacrifice. And like many of you, I have a full schedule — demanding full-time job, a family, side projects, friends, etc. — all of which steals MANY hours of my “free” time.

While those things are still present, I can honestly say I no longer allow myself to use them as excuses not to write as I once did and I firmly believe balance can be struck between sacrificing for one’s art/craft and living a demanding life also.

So… how does one do this?

The answer, sadly, is it depends. There are so many factors impacting people nowadays and I feel it’s impossible to make a blueprint for success that will fit every individual. However, I feel there are several key factors that do fit the majority.

But rather than write another generic “top ten ways to publish a story” or “5 stupidly simple tricks to writing a book” article (of which, the Internet is pilfered with), I thought it would make more sense to just give you an idea on how I’ve gone about things, what I’ve learned, and ultimately, what I suggest for anyone getting started.


1. READ: You’ll see this time and again from those who have come before you. If you want to write well, you must read — a lot. I suggest reading several stories that are similar to your own, ideally from authors you enjoy. Read it as a writer, not a generic reader. When you see something that works or doesn’t work for you, TAKE NOTES! This will go a long way towards making the writing process easier and your story publishable.

2. DOCUMENT YOUR IDEAS: First things first – you probably have at least one idea, if not a hundred. What got me started on the writing path is my creative mind crafting up dozens of “great” story ideas. In fact, I have story ideas exploding in my head all the time (just as I’m going to bed, of course!) and so it became crucial to capture at least the essence of the idea in some sort of tracking log.

NOTE: I use a spreadsheet application, with each line covering the basics of the story idea: type of story (flash/short/novel) – Brief Summary (often log line, more on this later) – Detailed description (which often contains a short scene) – Status (eventually, you’ll need to know if you’ve started writing, revising, or sending out the story for publication).

3. GET SERIOUS: No more excuses! Set a writing/reading schedule and stick to it. Go with whatever works within your life at this time. If the only time you have to give is an hour a night, or a couple of hours each Sundays, then go with it. But don’t break from the schedule! If you treat this like side hobby, you’ll likely never treat writing as anything but a passing fancy – and thus, NEVER FINISH!

4. LEARN THE CRAFT: Take time to find blogs to follow (like this one, of course!), grab a good “how to” book or three (ex. On Writing by Stephen King), scour the Internet for learning materials (there are LOTS of them), and/or, if you can swing it, take a class somewhere (not that I think this is necessary). Do whatever you can to build your writing prowess.

NOTE: I am only suggesting you get started with this versus waiting to write until you feel you are some sort of expert. After gleaning a couple of great resources and taking down a lot of notes, I feel you are safe to get started on writing your story. Just don’t stop the learning. Set aside time to hit up blogs or other learning content regularly.

5. (OPTIONAL) START WITH SHORT STORIES: So many authors start with short stories (like the aforementioned Stephen King). The benefits to starting with short stories include:

– Keeping it short: Short stories teaches you to keep things concise. New writers tend to bloat their work versus taking the time to make sure each word counts. This is crucial in the short story realm, considering most publications like short stories range of 3000-7500 word range.

– Faster feedback: Knocking out a short story can be done in a few hours. This allows you to get feedback on what works and what doesn’t from your critique partners, beta readers, etc. This faster feedback loop will greatly speed along your growing skill sets and set you up for better success when you start your novel. (at least, IMHO)

– Recognition: Since you can produce short stories much faster, you will have more opportunities to submit them to more publications and contests over writing a single novel. This can lead to you earning credibility and marketability when you go to write your novel. Win a big enough contest and the publishers may come to you versus the other way around!

NOTE: Now, if you are against short stories and solely want to focus on writing novels, you can absolutely do so. This is just something that has worked for me. Had I stuck with just writing a novel, I wouldn’t have the knowledge or skill I have today as the feedback loop is too focused on just a single story line.

6. CHOOSE AN IDEA: Once you are ready to put pen to paper, to write your story (whether short or novel length), make sure you are PASSIONATE about the idea. If you’re not totally enthralled with the idea or you’re simply trying to make money (example – just writing for a “hot” genre), then chances are good you will fizzle out before you even come close to finishing.

To kick things off, I think it’s a good idea to come up with a “log line” in which you cover the main theme of the story. This will help you keep the story on track, as well as serve as potential marketing material for when you need to pitch the story. Example: Two lovers, each from different social classes, fall in love aboard an ill-fated sea voyage. (ie Titanic)

As far as what constitutes a “good idea”, the key for me is to have an interesting character(s) and overall plot, a solid beginning/hook, a good inciting moment, and a rough idea for the ending before getting started.

NOTE: If you are pantser (more to come on this), you likely only need a good overall concept to get started.

NOTE 2: Once you have an idea, do a little digging and see if it’s unique. Chances are good that someone has written a story similar to yours (at least, in theme, world, plot, etc). But don’t fret! Most “originality” comes from taking old ideas and making them new again. Just be sure to write your story with a unique angle or in a new light, and I’m sure it will come out just fine.

7. WARM-UP: Create yourself a checklist to prep yourself before you start each writing session. The checklist will serve as a reminder and get you warmed up before you go to work, which should make your initial writing stronger. This checklist will change as you write, morphing into whatever tips or tricks you need at the time to make your writing the best it can be.

8. HOW TO WRITE: You have a decision to make on how you want to write. Are you going to take the pantser approach (someone who writes without planning, just letting the story come alive with every word/sentence you write) or take a plotter’s path (someone who plots out the milestones or structure before starting) – or some hybrid of the two?

If you’re a pantser, then set a schedule for writing and stick to it! For the plotters out there, use the Internet — there are MANY articles online on how to do plotting/structuring.

Now me, I consider myself a hybrid. I line up the high-level milestones/plot points. Next, I create some small character profiles, covering major personality or physical traits. Then I put a little thought into world building. Afterwards, I get started with the writing! Then I start writing.

NOTE: None of this prep work is fully fleshed out as the full-on plotters often do. There’s just enough info to get me started and keep me heading in the right path. Some plotters spend HOURS on end detailing out their story structure, plots, characters, worlds, etc. and I am sure it probably helps to make the first draft pretty solid. However, I am a firm believer that I’ll have to rewrite my first draft at least 5-6 times, if not MANY more times, and so spending all that upfront prep time seems like a waste. Plus, I feel it stifles the creative process as stories often morph as I write them, requiring me to be flexible to create the most interesting story possible.

9. FINISH THE FIRST DRAFT: I DO NOT RECOMMEND revising as you go. I know some authors do this and are successful at it. But in working with other writers, and from my own experience, I see this leading to writers getting stuck in endless revision loops. The “i gotta make it perfect before moving on” mentality nearly led me to stop writing all together, as I couldn’t seem to get past chapter 3 without going back and changing chapters 1 and 2 in some way.

NOTE: Accept that your first draft will likely be crappy and that the most important thing is to get it down — THEN REVISE AFTERWARDS! Outside of writing savants, the truly great author’s tend to be truly great editors and their stories tend to find their way more often in rewrites than from the first draft. In short, don’t get stuck trying to make the first draft perfect.

10. LET IT REST: Once a first draft is down, put it on the shelf and start a new story (another short story, perhaps). For novels, I suggest letting it sit for 3 to 6 months before starting the revision process. This will help avoid demotivation (which for me comes by having to slog through the same story for months on end after all the time it took to write the thing in the first place!), allows me flex my creative muscles in a new direction for a time, and then come back to the first draft novel with fresh eyes (which allows me to see all sorts of things I wouldn’t likely have caught if I was still “too close” to the work).

11. REVISE IN REVERSE: Once I come back to it, I edit in reverse, starting at the end and going back through my notes to the beginning. This way, I incorporate the newest ideas first versus revise in some older idea that may get superseded later by a newer idea.

12. GET FEEDBACK: After a revision or two, you may want to think about recruiting some help/feedback to ensure the story is on the right path. I suggest you get feedback from other writers versus from friends, as fellow writers will help you with the major concepts (plot, character dev, world building, etc) that non-writers don’t realize to look for. Use your non-writing friends as BETA readers.

NOTE: Consider joining or starting a critiquing group – one that focuses on your intended story genre. This will help accelerate your learning curve on how to write.

13. MARKETING: When you feel your story is gaining momentum (often after it’s gone through a critique group or friend at least once and they are raving about it), and you’ve settled on the major plot points, characters, theme, etc.) you may wish to begin your marketing campaign. This can range from networking at writers events/conferences, creating an author’s website, using social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc), participating in online groups, follow book reviewers’ blogs and comment often to build a relationship with them, start a writing blog, etc.

NOTE: There are so many options here, as well as so many articles on how to do all of these things. In general, I would recommend starting at least a few of these things in advance of your book being ready to pitch – that way you have some kind of presence established that you can use as motivation for someone to accept your submission.

14. EDITING: Once you’ve put it through your critique friends and have finalized your own edits, I highly recommend finding an editor to put your story through its paces. A good professional editor will find issues and make suggestions that you and your critique friends will just not find. To me, this is a necessary step no matter if you self-publish or not, as it will only make your finish product even better!

15. SEND IT: Once your story is done, it’s time to send it out into the world. This may involve self-publishing, or pitching to an agent or publisher (which you can find via many resources online to help you with all of these scenarios).

NOTE: If you go right to the publisher, just be sure to follow all the submission rules you find and then send your baby out into the world.

16. PATIENCE AND FAITH: Now, it’s time for you to have a little patience and faith that it will find a new home to grow in! But don’t wait to hear back. Start something new! The fact is that the majority of first-time novelists do not have much luck in getting their debut novels published (outside of those who self-publish). Publishing houses are just too strapped for time or budgets to take risks, which often leaves a lot of new authors on the outside looking in.

It’s not impossible to get in the door, but just don’t get your expectations so high that a rejection undercuts your determination.

Note: Submitting is the most agonizing experience a writer will face (IMHO) as the chances are REALLY good you will be rejected… OFTEN!  Most famous authors tout dozens, if not hundreds of rejections before their stories are finally accepted. So when you get that first rejection, take heart in knowing that you are in damn good company, then send that story out to the next target!

If your story never gets published, don’t take it as some sort of failure. Accept that you’ve gained a tremendous amount of experience, all of which you can put to good use on your next story. And as with most things in life, anything worth doing is not often easy, but boy-howdy it’s a great feeling when you do finally succeed!


There you have it, a look into one author’s experience and suggestions on how to get started and how to finish. I hope this information helps you in some way. If you have any thoughts or ideas to share, please leave a comment or like this post.

If you stuck with the article this long and still have some life left in you, please take a moment to swing by my author’s website or Facebook page and leave a comment. I’d appreciate the visit!