Advice on Writing Your First Novel

So you’ve decided to finally start writing that novel. Congratulations! Whether your dream is to be a bestselling author or you’ve just kind of always wondered if you could do it, it’s quite a journey that will teach you a lot about yourself (if you’re willing to learn).

I am currently working on my third novel. At the time of writing, I am not yet published, so I am not going to tell you that following these tips will land you on the bestseller list. But I do know what it’s like to be writing that first novel, and there are things I wish I would have known when I started.

You can do it!

I know this is a little cheerleader-y, but embarking on such a daunting project can be a serious case of mind over matter. Just like any goal (from losing weight to going back to school), it’s going to take time to achieve it. It might not be the Great American Novel. It might even suck! Don’t let yourself get bogged down in questioning yourself. You can complete a novel. If you don’t think you can, walk into any Barnes & Noble in the world and just THINK about all the people behind the books that line those shelves. They all had to write a first novel, too. And they all finished one, (probably more like six) before their pile of pages was bound and displayed proudly on those shelves.

Schedule the Time

People who don’t write (this might still be you at this point) have a somewhat romantic notion of what it is to be a writer. They think how nice it must be to be walking along and suddenly have an urge to write that is so powerful we have to stop and spend the next 36 hours hunkered down with our chosen writing device (in this fantasy, it’s almost always a pen and paper). That sounds lovely. It’s also complete propaganda. Because in real life, you have bills to pay. Dinner to get on the stove. Relationships to tend to. You can’t drop everything just because you’re inspired (although maybe you can carve out ten or twenty minutes here and there if you’ve really got the itch). And to be honest, even though I truly love writing and feel like it’s what I’m meant to be doing, 99 times out of 100 I would rather go home at the end of the day and space out to Wings on Netflix (and that’s not even that good of a show), than turn my computer on and write. Once I’m doing it, the time flies, hence why I still do.

Now, a lot of writers have a word count goal, and I think this works well if you are writing full-time. But for those of us who have day jobs, especially those of us just starting out, it’s probably more realistic to have a time goal based on the other things you have going on in your life. I have to write for AT LEAST an hour a day, and if the words are really flowing I’ll extend it. Some days I write a paragraph in that time. Some days I write three pages. But on the days where only a few sentences come out, I’m not staying up all night just to churn out 950 more crappy words. This leads me to my next point.

You’re Allowed to Care about Your Quality of Life

There is a popular school of thought out there that if you really want something, you have to basically make yourself miserable and give up everything you love in order to get it. Some people think the idea of balance is complete crap if you are really committed to your dreams. I call bullshit. Trying to strike a balance in your life, by scheduling time for all the activities you love (including some Netflix time, and, you know, SLEEP), doesn’t mean you’re not committed. It means you want to be happy and healthy. It might take you a little longer to get to THE END, but hey you didn’t completely destroy your relationships and your body while you holed up in some room hunched over a keyboard, so you still WIN. And be honest with yourself, do you really think you’re going to keep something up if you feel like you have to sacrifice everything else that makes you happy? Don’t think so.

Do What Works For You

I did a whole post on the wonders of Twitter for writers. I do think it will be great tool for you as you’re writing (AFTER your hour is up though, right? Right.) for the sole purpose of connecting to other writers who can encourage and inspire you, or even serve as resources for your book or beta readers when you’re finished. But I urge you to take it all with a grain of salt. Behind every 140-character post, there is a human being. And that human being is coming at writing from their own perspective. From what works for them. (Including me!) There is no one trick or secret to writing the perfect novel. There is no right way. Some people are plotters; before they even sit down to write the words Chapter One, they know everything that’s going to happen in their story. That’s great! Some people are pantsers; they “fly by the seat of their pants” (at least I think that’s where this comes from), not knowing where the characters will end up too. That’s great, too! Me, I’m a combination. I sketch out a few things I know I want to happen, but when I try to plot out every little thing and every character arc, I freeze. I end up stuck in that land, doubting my ability to write because I can’t see everything ahead of time. Once I learned this about myself, I started doing a little of each. I plot out a little, and then I write, and a lot of times the story goes in a completely different direction than I thought it would. Then I plot a little more, and then I let it fly. You have to do what works for YOU. If you’re feeling stuck, try switching to the other method.

Just Write the Damn Thing

In the end, no matter what your style is, no matter what your goal is, just write. Block out all the noise, all the self-doubt, all the statistics that say you’re not going to make anything out of it, and especially all the worry about the end reader. All that stuff is for your second, third, fourth and umpteenth draft. For the first draft, your job is just to write the shit out of it. Let your fingers fly, and don’t worry so much about getting every sentence exactly write, every punctuation mark perfect.

I have two post-its by my desk. One says “It doesn’t have to be perfect. That’s what editing is for,” to remind me when I’m being too finicky about sentence structure or the exact right way to describe the specific shade of blue my character’s eyes are. The other says “You’re getting closer. Every day you’re one step closer than you were the day before,” to bring me back to Earth when I’m stressing about getting to the end.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither were any of the great books of our time. Do what you can. Every day is not going to be a spectacular writing day. Sometimes you’ll get stuck. Sometimes you might even put it down for awhile (my first book took me over two years to write because I kept abandoning my writing schedule when life got in the way). But as long as that story is in your head (or better, your heart), and as long as it feels good when you’re in the flow at least some of the time, stick with it. And feel free to whine about it on Twitter occasionally. We all feel you.



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