Updated: Apr 22
In my 16 years of being a writer, I’ve come to learn that most people are naturally inclined to tell stories. Sometimes these stories are about dragon slayers or aliens or Big Foot’s cousin, Big Head. Other times these stories are about a personal tragedy or a terrific triumph. Whatever that story may be, people still have an inclination to tell it to other people.
When it comes to writing novels, a big book that contains these stories, it can seem a tad bit daunting, intimidating, or downright impossible for a person to do. So, here are some tips that I think will help you write that first novel—no matter what story you have to tell. If you have questions about any of this content, email me.
Note: This post is focused on fiction writing. Nonfiction writing will be discussed in another post.
“Perhaps I write for no one. Perhaps for the same person children are writing for when they scrawl their names in the snow.” – Margaret Atwood
Before putting ink to page or typing out a long page of text, there are three prerequisites, I think, that are required in order to begin the writing process.
The first one, brainstorming, consists of coming up with a solid idea for your novel. You can’t write a book without an idea. Use a mind mapping program like Mind Meister to throw all your ideas on the board. Remember, great ideas start out as awful ideas. So, don’t beat yourself up about bad ideas earlier on. Sometimes those bad ideas turn into something greater than expected.
Coming into this process you should have a knowledge of grammar. Language is complicated. There is a vast number of rules that must be followed in order to write in any language. Check out some English grammar practice exercises on Perdue University’s Online Writing Lab. It’s worth the time and effort to get it right the first time.
If you’ve brainstormed your idea, you’ll realize that you have all these great ideas, but you’re not sure how to get them written. Before writing takes place, you should write an outline of what’s going to happen in your book. Decide on the premise, characters and their story arcs (how they change in the book over time), major plot points (dramatic beats), subplots (secondary and tertiary stories), and the setting/story world. It doesn’t matter how you organize it as long as you know what direction you’re headed in.
It looks something like this:
You might even want to do a chapter by chapter outline. Your book, your outline preference. Oh, it if you happen to make changes during the writing process, that’s okay too. Outlines are never set in stone.
“If you do enough planning before you start to write, there’s no way you can have writer’s block. I do a complete chapter by chapter outline.” – R.L. Stine
Five Key Tips
The following tips are meant to help you write the first draft of your first novel. Novels are changed a lot during the editing process, so don’t fret if the first draft isn’t perfect.
Be transparent With Yourself
When it comes to writing a book, many aspiring novelists don’t face the reality of the challenge before them. For instance, they don’t ask the question am I really going to devote time and attention to this book?
Novel writing takes up a lot of time and a heck of a lot of attention. Be true to yourself about how much you’ll need to commit to this.
Ask yourself, do I actually have the time? If you’re working 80 hours a week and have two kids, a dog, and a loving husband, how do you expect to pull off writing a novel-length work (80,000+ words)? If you have too many responsibilities to count, maybe it’s best to work on that book when things calm down.
Make A Real Commitment
If you and your family have sat down and discussed how you’re going to work on this novel and what time and attention it will require, then make an honest, real commitment about what you want to accomplish. Making the decision to write is a fantastic feeling, isn’t it? You’re going to write this great American novel. The caveat is that, now, you actually have to be intentional about the way you spend your time.
A real commitment for your writing is to find moments in the day, even just 30 minutes to sit down at the laptop or desktop, and write. If you can’t do that, think about writing on the bus on the way to the office, or at your kids’ soccer practices, or even in line at the coffee shop. Writers’ brains never sleep. Therefore, you’re likely to always be writing, but the real commitment is getting up at 5:00 AM to start your day or typing up what you’ve been dying to put on the page at 2:00 AM.
Whatever time of day fits best for you, think about using Google Calendar, or some other type of calendar or time management tool, to plot out your day for those moments where you can write, undisturbed and unfettered.
Make A Few Sacrifices
Writing is very much about making sacrifices. If you’ve looked at your routine, you might have discovered that getting that book written might call for some personal sacrifices. These could include:
· Morning Facebook Time – Instead of spending the first hour of your day on Facebook or Twitter, opt for thirty minutes. By all means, enjoy your social media time, but don’t forget about your commitment to your book. Sacrifice some of that time to write. It’s up to you, though.
· Time with friends – When you begin writing your novel, make sure to inform your friends that you’re’ going to have to opt out of going to the bar or a movie every once in a while. It’s a sacrifice you must make.
· Nights out – Just like with friends, make sure to inform your family and your spouse (or significant other) that you will, at times, need to stay in or go to the coffee shop to write instead of spend time with them. Remind them that it’s just temporary.
· Weekends – If you’re a teacher or some other type of professional who is off on the weekends, don’t plan out the whole weekend for fun and cleaning out the garage. You’ve decided to write a book. Therefore, allot some of that weekend time to sit down at the laptop or desktop (or pen and paper, if you’re old school) and write your little heart out.
Once you’ve made those sacrifices, don’t forget to track the payoff of those sacrifices. That is, have a specific word count goal to reach each day or week. Maybe you want to set a goal of how many hours you need to write each day or week.
Guess what? You can set these goals as a MUST, but the earlier you meet those goals, the more time you’ll have to go out with the guys for a beer, join your significant other for a nice dinner, or host a dinner at your house. If you set a word count goal for the weekend, meet that goal as early as you can, and then you’ll have the time you want to yourself. At the end of the day, you have to prioritize your writing. Otherwise your novel will remain unfinished.
Do The Research, For Real
You will need to do research. Yes, even for fiction. If you’re writing a fantasy book, you’ll have to read other fantasy books. Otherwise, how will know what’s selling in the industry or what voice fantasy writers have come to use over the last 5 to 10 years? If your book has an interesting magical system, how do you create it? What are the rules?
What’s very true about research is that it is the best place to start in the writing process. Sometimes, writers start writing and get halfway through the process without realizing, they don’t know the layout of the New York Public Library and their scene takes place there! It's where Dave learns about magic for the first time. Perhaps you should look at a map of the New York Public Library. Google it. Get it right the first time—for your readers.
Also take some time to research the publishing process. There are a few options out there:
· Self-Publish – You do all the work. Write, edit, find a printer, pay for the copies, and sell them. This is ideal for certain writers and certain types of books.
· E-Book Publish – If you just want your book in an e-book format, check out Smashwords. You can also look to Kindle Direct Publishing as well. KDP also allows you to create a paperback version of your e-book.
· Traditional – The traditional publishing route is quite competitive and grueling. You can submit to certain publishers directly. All others, you’ll need an established literary agent.
· Vanity Press – Never ever use. Google vanity presses for more information.
The last thing worth mentioning is that you can ask friends about what they like to read, what’s popular, and what current event has shaken the community. Talk to people as you research too. People have a lot to say.
Plan For The Worst
Drafting a document, let alone a document as large as a novel, can be risky. As a writer, it is your utmost responsibility to protect your document in every way possible. If you don’t protect your document, you could potentially lose hours worth of writing and thousands of words. As a writer, plan for the worst. Ensure that you won’t risk losing all of the progress you’ve made. Keep a backup file on the cloud in addition to on your desktop.
A lot of writers use Google Docs as their cloud-based server to keep their writing safe and secure. It also wouldn’t hurt to keep an updated version of your document a flash drive or other external hard drive. You never know what can happen.
Be optimistic, but also be cautious. There’s nothing scarier than losing all the work you’ve put into your book.
“Write. Finish things. Get them published. Write something else while you're waiting for someone to publish the first thing.” – Neil Gaiman
When push comes to shove, the most important part of writing the book is finishing the book. If you don’t finish, why bother? You can’t improve or edit an unfinished first draft. Make sure you get transparent with yourself, make a real commitment, make sacrifices, do your research, and prepare for the worst. These are the key tips I can provide to you as a writer of 16 years.
If you need me, shoot me an email or leave a comment. I’m always happy to help.
The 12-Month Manuscript by T.L. Curtis - Write your book in 12 months
The Writer’s Little Helper by James V. Smith, Jr. - A clever toolkit for writers
Book In A Month by Victoria Lynn Schmidt - A great 30-day plan for writing your novel
Writer’s Digest - The best publication for writers
Zach King: The Storyteller In All Of Us - A great Youtube video about storytelling