If you’ve decided to write your first novel, you are probably excited; eager to start the journey and keen to get your words on paper. But your subconscious is going to try to talk you out of it.
This is perfectly normal.
The entire process is huge if you look at it as a whole. But breaking it down into manageable tasks will make it seem less intimidating.
Don’t try to try, edit and publish a book straight away. Merely focus on writing your first draft.
Even a first draft of 60, 70, or 80 thousand words can be a bit daunting, but here are some pointers to help you through the initial stages.
Focus your energy on the first draft, and keep moving in the right direction.
- Knowing what to expect from start to finish
- Choosing a story and sticking with it
- Good writing habits
- Common pitfalls for a new writer
- Looking after yourself
1. Knowing what to expect from START to FINISH
Writing your first novel is not the same as fully editing and publishing it.
To begin with, I’ll define these two words:
Start = A blank screen or piece of paper. Finish = The end of your first draft.
To give full disclosure and to manage expectations, writing a novel will take months.
It all depends on how much time you can dedicate to your story, and it also depends on how fast you write. But most writers will spend around six months writing their first draft.
The First Few Words
Now, it’s easy to allow your mind to picture the size of that mountain, and visualising the struggle is enough to put a lot of people off, but you need to dismiss doubt by getting some words down on paper.
The very first thing you need to do is write a rough outline of your story. Use bullet points or chapter numbers.
Here is a picture of my notebook and what I did for my first chapter.
Despite the state of my handwriting, I enjoy jotting things down with pen and paper. For me, it makes it real.
When I wrote this, I wasn’t trying to write a full and detailed chapter. I was merely giving myself a scope to work within. All I wanted to do was give myself an overview of what chapter 1 would accomplish.
Doing this for each chapter of your novel will give you “waypoints” on your journey. They are not permanent fixtures that you have to hit. They are guides to help you.
I had fifteen chapters laid out in my notebook when I began writing. But as the story matured and things were added and removed, the outline and waypoints were adjusted.
By the end, August-Lost sat at twenty-two chapters.
Creating waypoints for your story will help you with the point number 2.
And if you’re stuck on what things to think about at this stage, check out this article for some keys point to consider.
2. Choosing a story and sticking with it
If you’ve joined a #writingcommunity on Twitter or any other platform, you may have seen the occasional author talking about their WIPs, or Works in Progress.
They too have feelings of doubt, writer’s block, trouble writing in certain points of view, etc.
It’s quite encouraging to see that so many other writers share the same feelings, and we all face the same troubles. But there are a few who bring trouble on themselves.
They try to write too many things at the same time.
A good way to slow your progress and complicate the writing process is to have multiple WIPs.
If a bolt of inspiration hits you but the idea doesn’t fit into this novel, jot the idea down in a notebook or a document on your computer. You can always return to it in the future.
If you try to outline or write or plot more than one story, you risk overwhelming yourself.
You don’t need to have dozens of plates in the air at this stage.
Trying to write snippets of different stories is like being part of too many conversations.
They will be hard to follow. Especially if this is your first novel.
To date, I haven’t seen any awards for “most books written simultaneously.”
Stick with your story and see it through to “The End.”
3. Good Writing Habits
The first and foremost habit is this: Give yourself time
Identify a time when you will be able to commit to your writing.
I would sit on my sofa with my laptop and begin writing. Then, I’d have to get up and let the dog out. I’d take a seat and begin writing again. Then, the love of my life would ask me to help with something – cooking, doing the dishes, ironing my son’s school uniform, etc.
Not a problem. I’d help. Then, I’d go back to the sofa and try to write again. Then, my son would ask for a lift to town… disruption after disruption.
Over the course of a few hours, I would write a grand total of zero words.
I am not complaining here. I love doing my fatherly duties and taking on my share of responsibilities around the house. But sitting in plain view of everyone; it was easy to be disturbed or distracted.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a spare room to use as a writing den. But I do have a voice.
When it was time to write, I would simply ask everyone to leave me alone for an hour or two. And it worked.
Every night, between 7.p.m and 9.p.m was my writing time.
Tell your spouse/partner/children/friends, to leave you in peace during these times. Switch off your phone so you don’t get distracted by phone calls or messages.
Carving out some dedicated writing time will foster a good writing habit and help you achieve your goal.
The second habit: Mood matters
Choose your scene to suit your mood.
Never put off writing because you’re in a bad mood or “don’t feel like it today”. Some elements of your story will benefit from your state of mind.
Pick a part of the story and unleash your mood on it.
Writing a book isn’t always a linear process. Some writers will draft the ending first, and tie the rest of the narrative to it. Others, like me, will think of certain scenes throughout the book and write them in no particular order.
For example, if you’re up to chapter four and you know the next chapter is a feel-good chapter, but you’re not in a very jovial mood, then your writing might not suit the scene. Instead, write something that will benefit from your state of mind.
My chapters are written from the POV of certain characters. However, when I write from Val’s POV, I have to be in a good mood. If I’m cranky, it seeps through to her character, and she’s particularly unpleasant when I’m in a bad mood.
That being said, when I am grumpy, it’s a good time to write from Matt’s POV. He’s a stoic guy who is hyper-focused. And this benefits from my moodiness.
Strangely enough, I write my protagonist’s scenes when I’m in a very good mood. Even his most brutal elements. (Maybe this says something about me?)
The third habit: Don’t be critical of yourself
Give yourself credit for what you accomplish.
Not really a habit, but it’s worth thinking about.
Beating yourself up about writing will become a habit if you don’t give yourself credit where it’s deserved.
There are so many in the #writingcommunity who post things like, “only wrote 400 words today,” and put a sad face next to it.
Well, 400 is better than forty words. And forty words is better than ten.
No matter how many words you write, you should celebrate them. Kicking yourself is not going to help.
That being said, don’t allow yourself to be happy with a lack of productivity. Instead, ask yourself, “did I take my foot of the gas today or were those words hard-earned?”
If you did actually take your foot of the gas (scrolling through Twitter or playing sudoku), then yes, you should kick yourself. Identify what slowed you down and avoid it in future.
But if those words were the result of hard work, then you should be proud of them.
4. Common pitfalls when writing your first novel
Comparing yourself and work to others
Comparing yourself to other writers can be inspiring and prompt you to push forward. But all writers aren’t equal.
There are some out there who can bang out two-thousand words a day, and self-publish their novel within three months. And if you try to stand shoulder to shoulder with these writers, you risk putting too much pressure on yourself.
There are others that spend a year or two on their idea, and take another twelve months to edit it.
There’s no clock on the process.
With your first novel, you shouldn’t measure yourself against anyone.
You don’t know how much experience other writers have. You certainly don’t know what commitments or support systems they have. The only thing you know for sure, is what you have.
Fretting over your work can lead to doubting yourself. Or worse. It can lead to imposter syndrome.
So, trust yourself and write to suit you and your book.
Googling questions over and over
If this is the third time you’ve googled and read a post about “how to write a novel,” then you probably already have all the answers you need. And doing too much “research” is more likely going to dissuade you from starting.
Recognise when you are procrastinating.
Researching writing instead of actually writing will lead to delay. And eventually, that delay will lead to never starting your book.
Draw your outline and start writing your narrative.
Trying to be perfect from the start
There has never been a perfect first draft. Everything has been edited and polished. So, write your book and then edit it.
Do not try and edit and polish as you go.
There are literary snobs out there who do a great job at intimidating new writers.
They say things like, “that the first sentence must be the most powerful phrase of you book. It must grab the reader instantly and resonate deep inside them to keep them reading.”
This very sentence stops most new authors in their tracks.
The task of shaping a memorable and enticing first sentence is overwhelming for a new writer, and most ponder long and hard before eventually walking away.
My advice is simple – don’t worry about the first sentence. You can come back to refine the first sentence after the first draft is finished. This is what editing is for.
And a word of warning… literary snobbery is rife. Someone will always try to portray their “art” as the most complex thing that no one else could possibly understand.
Don’t let them put you off.
Write your book… You ARE good enough.
Looking after yourself
Writing your first novel is very exciting.
You’ll find yourself thinking about the story, the characters, the end product, over and over again. This is great.
Writing is one of the most rewarding hobbies out there. You can do it anywhere, any time because you simply use your imagination.
Plan, plot, and ponder your narrative as much as you like. But if you begin to stress over elements of your writing, take it as a sign to walk away and take a break.
This doesn’t mean an hour or a day. I mean a real break.
When I began writing August-Lost, I acknowledged that I was starting a big task. It was a story that had played out in my mind over and over again; each time, becoming clearer every day.
Writing was great to begin with. But after a few months, I found I was forcing myself to write. I began resenting the process.
One day, my wife asked why I was frowning. According to her, I looked really annoyed. It was then that I realised that I was frowning at the thought of writing.
I had written every day for more than two months, and adding self-induced pressures.
At that point, I made a conscious decision to leave the book for ten days.
When I came back, I was eager to write. And best of all, I was able to see past all the things that were bugging me.
Give yourself a few days off here and there.
If you find your mind drifting back to your book, actively dismiss the thought.
Your book will only be as good as you. And if you push yourself into a blackhole of stress and anxiety, it will seep into the pages.
If you are thinking of writing your first novel, you will find help in the #writingcommunity and #indieauthor community on Twitter.
Pintrest is also a great place to look for good quality advice.
Self-published authors, or indie writers; call us what you will; we love to help.
Just ask and we will share our experiences with you.
Please let me know in the comments if this article was of any help, and feel free to add your own tips/tricks/advice for the writers of tomorrow.