For Those Writing Their First Novel

how to write your first novel

Wow! Is this really the year you’re going to sit down and finally write your first novel?
You’re all geared up, ready to rock ‘n roll, fingers poised over the keyboard waiting to channel your creative muse. There’s just one wee problem… how to actually transfer the best-seller in your head into a completed manuscript.

If this is your first attempt at novel writing, knowing how to turn your dream into reality can seem a daunting task. Well, fear not intrepid novelist. All you really need are a few fundamental steps to use as guideposts to keep motivation up, and moving in the right direction.

And this post is going to give you those steps. They’ll help to break down such an ambitious project so you’ll always know what your next step is going to be. But, be warned… once you’ve read this post, you’ll never be able to procrastinate with quite the same level of comfort. There will be no more excuses, so if you’re not really committed, maybe you should check your email. Or water the plants, or re-organize your desk again… Still here? Wonderful. Let’s begin.

Step 1 – Own Your Story

Sure, you know what your story’s about because it’s been rolling around in your head for years, but now it’s time to commit it to paper. Not the 1,000 page version, not yet. No, to make a strong start you need a condensed version that will encapsulate the core idea of your story in one sentence. That’s right, one sentence.

This is the essence of your story, its fundamental matter. And it’s around this central idea that all aspects of your novel will build upon – all the plot twists, character quirks, settings and moods will grow from this one sentence. Think of it as the ‘big bang’ of your novel – a point of singularity that contains every story element in potential form.

Keep it short, and make it as succinct and clear as possible – absolutely no frills at this point. If you’re stuck, read the “one-line blurbs on the New York Times bestseller list” for inspiration.

Step 2 – Own Your Writing Goals

This is your novel, so you get to set the rules. But, there’s a few questions you’ll want to ask to establish a clear plan for how and when you’re actually going to write. Once you’ve worked out the answers, put your steps into a calendar and stick to it. Here’s a few sample questions to consider:

  • How long will my novel be? What’s the final word count?
  • How many words can I write in a day? (check out this Lifehack post on calculating a daily word count).
  • Do I need ‘solitude’ to write? If so, when’s the best time to write without distraction?
  • What tools and resource materials will I need? Will I use a software program to organize my notes, and if so, which one?
  • Will I need an accountability buddy to stay on track?
  • Should I join a writers’ support group? And how much time will that take?
  • How am I going to deal with resistance when it comes up? (you know it will, might as well be prepared).

The clearer your goals are at the outset, the more likely you’ll be able to deal with obstacles in an efficient manner when they arise.

Step 3 – Brush Up on Fiction Basics

This being your first novel, you’ll want to spend some time in reacquainting yourself with the elements that go into creating compelling fiction: components such as voice, theme, character development, setting and dialogue. Read your favorite authors, or those successful in your genre, and study how they address and employ the basics of sound novel writing.

Step 4 – Sketch a Plot Outline

Now that you have your one sentence summation, it’s time to decide on the structure of your novel. Will your story follow the premises of a three act plot, or will it be more narrative in nature? This may change as you go along, but having a pre-established structure will guide your focus and keep inspiration strong.

Begin by jotting down some notes on post-its and arranging them on blank sheets of paper to describe the key events/crisis points for your main characters. Re-arrange as needed as your design takes shape, then move them through the story’s timeline to get an idea of how the plot will develop. This post by Victory Crayne has more details on sketching a plot outline.

Step 5 – Character Development and Writing Scenes

As an aspiring author, it’s helpful to have a good understanding of what motivates your characters before you begin writing scenes. One way to do this is to sit down and interview them. Determine their age, occupation, history etc. Next, determine their “core traits and values”. Create their personality ‘issues’ – what are their blind spots, fears, ambitions, strengths and weaknesses?

Once you’ve established a persona for your characters, you can begin the process of writing scenes. From your design notes, pick a character and event. Choose their particular attitude for this event and give him or her a problem, then write about how they would handle it. Include the basics of good story telling such as setting, emotional tone, dialogue etc to create well-rounded, enticing scenes.

Step 6 – Problem Solving

You’ll have days when resistance rears its ugly head. When you find that the words have dried up, the infamous ‘writers’ block’, just write anything that comes to mind. Yes, it will be drivel destined only for the garbage can, but at least you’ll be writing – which is infinitely better than giving into the inner critic’s formless fears and doubts.

And there you have it – the basics to successfully write your first novel. Now that you know what to do, there’s not really any excuse for not doing it, is there? So off you go, get to work, stay the course and celebrate when you’re finished.