Writing Your First Novel


Writing your first novel is a dream for authors of all ages. The simple truth is that writing your first novel is like riding your first bike: painful, awkward and often filled with pratfalls.

Before You Write

The most basic piece of advice authors give to aspiring novelists is to finish the book. It sounds simple, and it is simple. Sit down, write a book, read through it, revise, read it again, send it to a critique partner, and revise again. When you write your first novel or your fiftieth, it's a one-person job. You sit down and you write.

Where Ideas Come From

Novel writing begins and ends in your imagination. You may begin by hearing a song or a phrase or even reading another novel. Author Jim Butcher found his inspiration in a series of books that he thought he could write better. The first three books he wrote in that effort were absolutely awful, but the fourth showed promise. Ten books later, he's a New York Times best-selling novelist.

You may think you have to write from an outline, but author Patricia Briggs wrote on her website that she writes and lets the characters tell the story. She doesn't use outlines or plot devices. It can hamper her sometimes as stories may take a 180-degree turn when least expected, but the multi-book novelist knows what works for her.

Neil Gaiman will tell you that he makes up his ideas, they come from his head, so there isn't an easy answer to the question of where ideas for books come from. When you're looking for inspiration, consider these sources:

  • Writing Prompts - These story starters can get you going.
  • Dream - Keep a dream journal; your dreams can often offer you fanciful ideas but you need to write them down when you wake up in the morning.
  • Go to a museum - Museum and historical sites are filled with history and creativity. Check them out and let your muse play.
  • Listen to music - Find music that inspires you, or find a song lyric that you love and use it as a launching point for a story.
  • People watch - Too often creativity is stifled by staring at a blank screen. Go to the mall or a coffee shop or bookstore. Watch the people walking by and write their story.

Everyone finds ideas in different places. Don't be afraid to let your creativity flow until you find the idea that's right for you.

Pre-Writing Tasks

Freshmen novelists don't always know where to start and there is no one "true" place, but the following tasks can help you organize your writing before you start. The following checklist gives you a place to start.

  • Title your book - Some authors will say the title changes or the publisher can change it, but you need a title to help you create a mental bookshelf for your novel.
  • Write a blurb - A blurb is a 250 to 300-word description of what happens in the book. It's provocative and invites the reader to buy the book, or for the author, the blurb invites you to write it.
  • Determine the inciting incident - This is the moment everything in the book goes wrong, it's usually the best part to start the story because it sucks the reader into the action, romance, mystery or whatever your book is about.
  • Define your characters - For most books, you'll have at least a hero and heroine. You need to know what you know about them before you start writing. Most of the time, you need just three to five key facts including a physical description.
  • Define the book's conflict - Is it a romance? A mystery? A thriller? A young adult? Is there a hunt for a killer? Are they trying to save the planet? Are they fighting for survival against the end of the world? Defining the conflict also helps you define the stakes in the book.
  • How many major events have to happen - Every story has key moments that have to happen. Confrontations, resolutions, knowing what has to happen can create a GPS for plotting.
  • Identify the worst thing that can happen - Identify what are the worst things that can happen to your character. These are usually things that make everything else go wrong.
  • Discover your characters' wants - What your characters want isn't always the immediate conflict or issue in the book, but they can drive it, so you need to know.

Each of these items helps you clarify your story. Do not obsess over the details, these tools should help you write, but not be the goal of the writing.

Start Writing

While there are plenty of writing techniques and tricks, it's important to find what works best for you. Two popular writing methods are pure free writing and guided writing.

Pure Free Writing

Set aside a designated amount of writing time every day. Perhaps you take your laptop or notebook to the library or the local coffee shop. The location is important; you must feel comfortable there and you must be able to work there relatively uninterrupted. If you have a story idea in mind, get to work and write every day. You can go back during your edit and correct any issues.

  • Do not censor while you write.
  • Do not edit as you write.
  • If you change your mind about a character, make a note and write that way from that point onward.

During pure free writing, you do need to establish goals. A writer's mental muscles are very much like the other muscles in the body. They grow stronger with use.

  • Start with a goal of 500 words a day, build to 2000 or more.
  • Do not get hung up on a scene. If you're stuck, move on to the next scene or use a writing prompt to launch the scene.
  • You do not have to write a book in order.
  • You can write the last chapter before the first.

Whatever your word goal, it is important that you meet it without fail and that means if you sit down to write and you feel stuck, free write on another portion of the book. This may seem counter-intuitive, but a book does not have to be written in order. You can write the last chapter before the first and the middle before the beginning.

Guided Writing

Guided writing is a little more structured. Join a writer's workshop or any number of online writing groups that provide you with prompts and goals. November is National Novel Writing Month and the NaNoWriMo is a challenge that supports first time and experienced authors produce a book in 30 days or less. The techniques, support mails and forums provide authors with the resources to make that dream happen.

The key to guided writing whether you go to a writer's support group, a class, an online workshop or participate in an online writing group is to have the support to produce the work via outline, assignment or prompts. Ultimately, whether you free write your novel on your schedule or rely on the inspiration of others, the goal is the same. Write. Write. Write.

Creative Balance

Don't get lost in the minutiae, because writing your book means writing. While you're writing you'll find a theme developing, but focus more on the story rather than the theme. Themes develop organically and can be fleshed out in editing. Free book writing software is available for novelists that can help you organize your pre-writing tasks, writing, and final product if you find you're having trouble balancing your thoughts.

There is never a perfect time for starting a book and writing a book cannot take every hour of every day. Maintain balance with your family and work life, because the balance will keep your muse fired up.

Post-Writing Tasks

You've written your novel and typed those two fantastic words: "The End." While it is true you are done writing, you are not finished with your book.

  • Put it away - Take a few days away from the manuscript. A good rule of thumb is at least three to seven days, two weeks is even better. This helps you step back from the story and will make revising more effective.
  • Read it - After your break, print your manuscript out or put it on a reading device such as eReader or digital tablet and find yourself a spot away from where you wrote and read your book.
  • Check it for content - While you read, check your story content. Are all your loose ends tied up? Have you handled problem resolution? Do you have character development? Does your book begin in the right place?
  • Take notes - Don't make any changes until you've read all the way through the book.
  • Edit - The first round of edits should focus on any story or content issues you noted in your read through.
  • Line edit - Once you're happy with the story, review every sentence for showing versus telling, passive writing, spelling and grammar errors.
  • Beta reader - Now that your manuscript is polished, it's time for a critique partner or beta reader to read it. You want someone to put fresh eyes on it and you need to trust the person you ask to read it because their feedback will be invaluable.
  • Revise and submit - Take feedback from your beta reader or critique partner and apply it to the manuscript. Now you're ready to shop the manuscript for submission.

Don't be afraid of multiple revisions. The average published book has been revised four to five times before it was submitted and another half-dozen afterwards. Writing the book is only part of the journey; polishing it to make it the best possible story takes patience and the effort of more than one person.

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Writing Your First Novel