“I have an idea for a book, but I don’t know where to start.”
People ask writers for advice on starting a book all the time. I’m sure a lot of writers get tired of trying to answer that question. There you are, behind a table at a booksigning, at the end of a long evening, trying to summarize the incredibly messy and frustrating process of making 300 pages come together as a coherent whole while a dozen other people wait in line to get their book signed. Where to begin?
But I have an answer to this question! Last week, when a woman at my event in Wisconsin told me that she wanted to write a memoir but didn’t know where to start, I told her exactly where to start.
With a box of index cards.
Pick a month in which you don’t have tremendous demands on your time and attention. Every day during that month, write down any idea you have about this book you’d like to write and toss it in a box. These can be grand ideas (“The story of my grandparents’ immigration from Poland”) or small ideas (“That time I put salt in the cake batter instead of sugar.”) Some of them might not be suitable for the book you’re going to write. Some of them might be too big, too broad, overly vague. Some might be too small and specific and uninteresting.
Doesn’t matter! They’re only index cards. Write them down anyway, and toss them in the box.
If you have a very busy day in which you have no time to write anything down on an index card, force yourself to take one minute and write one thing down on one index card. C’mon, you had time to brush your teeth, right? You have time for this.
If you hit a mother lode and come up with 40 ideas all at once, great! Write them down on 40 index cards and put them in the box.
If an idea hits you and you don’t have an index card handy, write it down on any scrap of paper. Type it into the notes app on your phone. Email it to yourself. Leave yourself a voice mail. And at the end of the day, transfer those ideas to index cards. There is something powerful and cumulative about writing your ideas down, in the same format, every day.
At the end of the month, I hope you have HUNDREDS of cards. You should keep adding cards all the time. Don’t stop just because the month is over.
Now what? Well, remember, this is the short version, the standing-in-line-at-the-booksigning version. But the next thing you should do is to pull out an index card and write ONE PAGE about what’s on that card. Tell the story, whatever it is, no matter how big or small it is.
Just one page. A double-spaced page, at that! We’re talking 300 words. Anybody can get 300 words down on paper.
Writing this page might give you more ideas for more index cards. Good.
You might not get the whole story written in one page. Fine. Write two pages. Or (even better) leave yourself a few notes and come back tomorrow to write another page.
Don’t worry about where that page falls in the chronological timeline of your story. In fact, I hope you write everything out of order. It’ll be fresh and interesting that way.
If you can write one page a day–a double-spaced page!–then at the end of the year, you’ll have a book. That even allows for some days off for holidays, illness, whatever.
Now, I promise you that it’ll be a terrible book, a real mess, and it’ll be completely out of order, and there will be a million things about it that are wrong and out of whack and in need of some serious fixing–but now you have some pages to work with.
That’s how you start.