First drafts How to start a book

Writing your first novel: 10 starter tips for success

Writing your first novel is fun but also a challenge. It helps to put in place the structure, habits and resources you need to keep going until you reach the final page. Whether you’re writing your first novel for NaNoWriMo or merely want to start a new novel on strong footing, here are 10 tips:

Writing your first novel is fun but also a challenge. It helps to put in place the structure, habits and resources you need to keep going until you reach the final page. Whether you’re writing your first novel for NaNoWriMo or merely want to start a new novel on strong footing, here are 10 tips:

How to start writing your debut novel:

  1. Choose your best story idea
  2. Schedule manageable time to write
  3. Be methodical and structured
  4. Get a writing partner
  5. Get your writing resources in order
  6. Accept that first drafts are imperfect
  7. Make each writing session goal-oriented
  8. Plan breaks and fun around targets
  9. Find creative solutions for days you can’t write
  10. Work on your writing productivity

1: Choose your best story idea

Before you start writing a novel, it’s important to find a book idea that will sustain your interest. A strong idea will be a fount of creative inspiration right to the final page of your book.

A great story idea generally includes:

  • A sense of direction and purpose (what are your primary characters’ goals and how do they set about reaching them?)
  • Tension and conflict (conflict doesn’t have to be combative – in a romance this could be the tension you create by placing obstacles between your romantic duo)
  • Questions that create intrigue (for example, in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, this would be the question ‘who is Pip’s mystery benefactor?’)
  • Memorable characters, settings and dialogue

Writing novel ideas is easier with brainstorming tools.

Once you have an idea, write it down in two to three lines. Print it out and stick it above your writing space so that you don’t wander too far off track when you draft.

2: Schedule manageable time to write

Winning NaNoWriMo - writing schedule tip

If you’re serious about writing your first novel and finishing, and want to develop a process that will help you build a writing career, divide your writing time into smaller increments. Why? Take NaNoWriMo, for example:

To win NaNoWriMo you must write 1667 words per day (on average). This will let you reach 50, 000 words within November. A lot to write in one sitting, especially if you’re juggling writing fiction with work, studies or other responsibilities.

Yet if you write approximately 417 words, four times a day, you will reach your target. A realistic writing schedule is an essential foundation for finishing your book.

3: Be methodical and structured

Although you could try writing your first novel without an outline, plot outlines help. Especially if you haven’t written long-format fiction before.

The beauty of plot outlines is that there are many ways to create them. Find a plot outlining method that suits your working style (and patience level). If you do write ‘by the seat of your pants’ (i.e. you’re a pantser), if you get stuck you can still go back and outline your story.

If you get to a point where you’re not sure where your story should head next, write short, one-paragraph summaries for each chapter so far. This will help you condense the overarching story so you can see where it’s going (and perhaps where it’s gone wrong).

4: Get a writing partner

When writing your first book, there are several things you need. An idea you’re excited to work on, a plan, motivation, focus, and something holding you to your goal. This last necessity is key to motivation – accountability.

A partner or writing coach will give you insightful feedback and cheer you on. Partnering up relieves the inherent loneliness of the writing process and yields useful insights. In addition, your partner will hold you accountable to your goal.

Structure your writing relationship so that it is immediately useful to you. Discuss how you’d like to work with your partner. You might want to send sections for feedback chapter by chapter or only share outlines or scenes in isolation.

5: Get your writing resources in order

When you’re writing your first novel, it helps to have all the resources you’ll need in an accessible place. If you’re writing a novel about a doctor, for example, create a folder for this character. Keep any medical facts or other details you will need for specific scenes in your story.

One useful tool for ordering character information and research is Evernote. You can use Evernote to ‘clip’ or save online articles in part or full to notebooks within the app. Create a notebook called ‘Characters’ and another called ‘Settings’. Do this for each element of your novel. You’ll create a resource for every element that offers useful research and/or inspiration. Here’s an example of how to use Evernote to write fiction by Walter Glenn from Lifehacker:

How to write fiction using Evernote

6: Accept that first drafts are imperfect

Before you launch into writing your first draft, remind yourself it won’t be perfect. The best first draft is a finished first draft. If the cutting critic in you won’t keep quiet, try methods for avoiding editing as you go. You can:

  • Make the text colour in your word processing program white so you can’t see what you’ve just written until you choose to reveal it
  • Approach your drafting as free-writing: Don’t allow yourself to go back to change anything, even a typo or grammatical muddle. Decide to leave it for revision

7: Make each writing session goal-oriented

Outlining your aims for every writing session at the start will keep you focused. Write down what you want to achieve in a chapter or scene. For example:

‘Emma finds a dropped letter while out walking in her neighbourhood. She notes the name of the addressee and resolves to find them. She doesn’t imagine the meeting will be as upsetting as it turns out.’

Remember, also, to give yourself elbow room. Depart from your scene summary if you feel the story should go in a different direction. The main point of pre-scene writing is to maintain a clear sense of purpose for each scene in relation to your story arc.

8: Plan breaks and fun around targets

It’s crucial, while writing your first book, to give yourself breaks and time to process story ideas. As part of your writing schedule, include breaks and fun activities you’ll enjoy to reward yourself for persisting. This will help to break up your routine and add some variety.

9: Find creative solutions for days you can’t write

If you have a busy day at work or can’t sit down to write for another reason, find another creative solution.

If you have a phone that has a voice recorder feature, dictate ideas for your story in spare moments. Take days of missed word count targets and divide the number of words you meant to write up between upcoming writing sessions. This is an important strategy during a deadline-driven process such as NaNoWriMo. You’ll make up for lost time easily.

10: Work on your writing productivity

To truly make strides, write your novel in stolen moments. For example, while waiting in line or on hold during a phone call, you could write part of a scene in an email to yourself on your phone, then cut and paste this into your manuscript. Find ways to be productive and not let other obligations and duties get in the way of reaching your writing goals.

Whether you’re writing your first novel, participating in NaNoWriMo or writing to a rapidly approaching deadline of another kind, taking the steps above will foster success.

Looking for a structured approach to writing a novel? Join the Now Novel community and get writing.

By Bridget McNulty

Bridget McNulty is a published author, content strategist, writer, editor and speaker. She is the co-founder of two non-profits: Sweet Life Diabetes Community, South Africa's largest online diabetes community, and the Diabetes Alliance, a coalition of all the organisations working in diabetes in South Africa. She is also the co-founder of Now Novel: an online novel-writing course where she coaches aspiring writers to start - and finish! - their novels. Bridget believes in the power of storytelling to create meaningful change.

9 replies on “Writing your first novel: 10 starter tips for success”

I want to start a novel but I do not have a settled idea in my mind for the story… in fact if someone gave me some random settings and characters and conflicts such… I would be entirely grateful- thank you

Hi Sarah – have you tried brainstorming ideas for characters and your story premise? You might find it helpful to go through the Now Novel idea finder as we created it to break up the task of building a story blueprint, one element at a time.

Really helpful post and I feel like you have some great tips in here for veteran writers too! I have nothing but the utmost respect for writers because I know how hard it is and how discouraging it can be. I find myself constantly looking online for advice as well as book recommendations too. I feel that this a craft that needs to be constantly worked on and I can never learn too much about it. I recently read a book that has literally changed me as a writer. You and your readers must read “Creative Visualization for Writers” by Nina Amir ( It answers the questions about one’s own writing that you may never even think to, or moreover, know how to ask. Nina Amir must have taken a hard look at her own writing to come up with something so outwardly helpful for the writing community as a whole. And to think that so many other untapped literary works could now be a reality thanks to this handbook of sorts? This book is a gem of immeasurable proportions; to give the gift of beautiful writing is one that cannot be taken back. One would be remiss not to at least give this work of art a once-over.

I am 70, and have been working on an autobiographical novel (?) of the many crazy and dangerous adventures of my youth. Any suggestions?

Hi Steve – sounds like a fun read! That would depend, is there anything specific about the process so far that you’re finding challenging? For now, I’d say just keep at it.

I have an idea for a science fiction series that I am really passionate about, but I am not sure where to start

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *