How to Start Writing A Book (The Hard Way)

2016 was the hardest year of my life. Objectively, 2020 is worse (in so many horrible ways!), but it’s worse for everyone. It’s a global, impersonal worse. 2016 was very personal.

At the start of the year, I was struggling with my job. My husband was working in another city, meaning I was alone most weeks. Uncontrollable panic attacks plus insomnia left me in poor shape during the day. I started antidepressants for the first time, just in time for the Siege of Dragonspear controversy to hit me.

The trauma of that spring pushed me to advance my plans for moving to the Okanagan. I quit my job. I uprooted from my home of 10+ years, leaving behind my parents and closest friends, and moved to a small town. I turned 40 and received word that Paizo would no longer be publishing my novel, due to losing their contract with Tor Fantasy.

The repeated shocks of 2016 caused me to question my entire identity. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a writer. I’d always dreamed of being a novelist, but here I was, 40 years old and 15 years into my career, and I seemed no closer to my goal. The thing I wanted most in the world had been in my reach and then cruelly snatched away from me.

Maybe it was time to quit.

So I did. I stopped taking freelance jobs. I started working in a winery. I penned the occasional short piece about my Shadowrun character, but never shared my work outside of my gaming group. I tried to decide what the next half of my life would look like. I’d defined myself as a writer for so long that I didn’t know who I was without it.

A collage of pictures. Top left: a vineyard under a sunset sky. Top right: a black cat pawing some dice. Bottom left: Amber Scott and Mark Meer at the Siege of Dragonspear launch party. Bottom middle: Amber Scott toasting the camera. Bottom right: Amber Scott working in a winery.

Direction came from an unexpected source: NaNoWriMo. I’d participated in National Novel Writing Month before, but had never finished. My problem had never been how to start writing a book (I always have a million ideas), it was how to maintain momentum and finish.

But now, I had trouble starting. I had trouble motivating myself to do anything writing-related. My husband was the one to encourage me. “You like writing about your Shadowrun character,” he said, of the half a dozen two-page backstory sketches I’d done over the year. “Why don’t you write a novel about her?”

I did, and I crushed it. I wrote 52,000 words in November 2017. I woke up thinking about my book and fell asleep dreaming about my character. It was the most fun I’d had in two years.

Writing my NaNo project taught me something I’d forgotten—that writing should be, first and foremost, fun. Writing to the market is not fun. Writing in other people’s worlds is sometimes fun (I’ve loved writing games over the years) but writing my own world is more fun. Putting pressure on myself to be literary, to be prolific, to be unique, to be famous—none of that is fun.

Writing a good, solid story about a character I love is what matters. Anything after that is gravy.

Now, two years later I’ve revised WIREGIRL to be an original novel set in my own universe and I’m shopping it around to agents. I’ve already finished the sequel, DEATH RACE, and I’m planning a third. Last week, for my 43rd birthday, my husband and I took a (short, safely distanced) weekend trip. One night in the hotel, staring out at the Rocky Mountains and the quiet twilight, I mentioned that I had an idea for a new book. A modern psychological thriller, unlike the over-the-top action of my previous two books.

“It’s a great idea, but I really just want to write the third WIREGIRL,” I said. “That doesn’t make sense, though. I haven’t even sold the first one. Why spend time and energy writing a third? This other book might actually have a chance at publication.”

“You should write it because you’ll enjoy it,” my husband replied wisely. “And even if it doesn’t ever sell, you’ll learn a ton from the writing.”

I’d almost forgotten the lesson I’d so painfully learned. How to start writing a book. It doesn’t begin with a great idea, or a flash of inspiration, or careful outlining, or a hole in the market.

It starts with my heart. With what I love. If I follow that, I might not ever be famous, but I know I’ll be happy.

A mockup novel cover showing a city skyline through a hole in a chain-link fence. The book title is "Wiregirl" across the top in hot pink letters.
What will my novel cover look like one day? I have no idea. But this is pretty cool.
Photo by Kehn Hermano from Pexels.

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