How to write a first novel: 10 Do’s and Don’ts

How to write a first novel - Now Novel explains do's and don'ts

A common question we receive regards how to write a first novel. Whether you are writing your first novel or your fifth, writing a novel requires focus, planning, motivation and discipline. Here are 10 do’s and don’ts for writing your first book:

When you write your first novel, do:

Plan and structure your book and your time

Writing a book is a mid- to long-term project (unless you are one of those rare authors who can churn a book out in a week or two). If you don’t want writing your novel to drag on, planning is essential. Planning also makes sense because an underlying plan will help to avert writer’s block.

To begin planning your book, set a deadline for completing your first draft. From here you can work out how many words you need to write per day on average. If, for example, you give yourself a year to finish, your necessary word count per day will be (length of your novel)/365. If you want to write a standard length novel (80 000 to 100 000 words), your word count will be 220 to 280 words per day approximately. When you look at it this way, it’s entirely possible to write your book in a year (or a much shorter period if you have more time to write).

If possible structure each writing session in advance so that you have a clear plan of what you will be working on and where it fits into the larger picture. If you already have a story outline, build which parts of the story arc you will work on during each session into your plan. In a week or month planner, write, for example, ‘Write first scene (protagonist receives word of an approaching army, forms party to defend the village)’. If you are not sure how to outline, try one of these 7 outlining methods.

Keep any research you need in an organized, accessible place

how to write your first book - organize your researchSome books demand more background research than others. If you are writing about an unfamiliar location, take a tour on Google Street View and note down landmarks and what the architecture or natural environment is like.

One way to organize your research is to keep a master document that is like an alphabetized dictionary of your story-in-progress. Under each letter, add any relevant information. For example, under ‘L’ you could have ‘Locations’. Write down each of the locations of your novel as you write your story and create new ones (or use real places). Note any important features next to each entry, for example:

‘Cape Town, South Africa: Seaside city. Center of tourism. Wine-growing region. Ethnically and culturally diverse. Wide wealth gap.’

Having an overview of the individual places, themes, characters and other elements of your novel that you can refer back to will keep you focused on the details that bring your fictional world to life.

Write every day, without fail

As author Steven Raichlen says in his post on how to write a first novel for Writer’s Digest:

‘The secret to writing a novel — or any book — is writing. You won’t turn out elegant prose every day. But it’s important to keep cranking it out. Bad writing eventually leads to good writing and paragraphs eventually add up to pages, chapters, and a finished novel.’

Write every day, even when you least feel like it. When you don’t feel in the mood to write, your writing might feel stale, forced and not worth keeping. Persist and keep the ‘bad’ writing for now: You may find later that it is not that bad or simply needs a revision with fresh eyes to be transformed.

‘I don’t have time to write’ is one of the most common reasons for not writing that we hear from Now Novel members. If this is a challenge while you write your first novel, divide your writing sessions into smaller units. It’s much easier to squeeze in 15 minutes than a full hour. If you write every day, even if for only a short while, your writing can only improve.

List rationalizations for not writing and put them to one side

As writers we find endless reasons why we can’t write: “I don’t have the time” and “my writing sucks” are two common ones. Yet as author Susan K. Perry says of writing your first novel:

‘Distractions are powerful. Writers are famous for coming up with buckets of rationalizations for not writing, including the suddenly-urgent need to thin out who you follow on Twitter, decluttering old files you had forgotten existed, or dusting the back of your printer. If you must, build in an allowable pre-writing period of miscellaneous tasks, but make it short.’

If you’re writing your first novel (or your second, third or fourth), it’s helpful to journal about the process itself. Write down doubts, surprises, insights, self-discoveries – anything that is worth keeping in mind. Sometimes simply writing down the doubts makes it easier to put them to one side and focus on the most important task: Finishing your book.

Keep a list of helpful questions to ask yourself as you go

If you’re detail-oriented by nature, you might get lost in describing the particulars of a scene and lose sight of how your novel will read as a whole. On the other hand, if you’re focused on the whole plot arc and not individual characters, motivations and scenes, your novel might meander. Neither is a catastrophe, but you can keep a balanced perspective by keeping a list of useful questions to ask yourself as you write:

How to write a first novel: Questions to ask as you go

  • Are my characters’ distinct from each other: Does each have an identifiable voice and set of goals and motivations?
  • Am I including enough sense detail – can the reader see, smell, touch my fictional world in her mind’s eye?
  • Am I being original enough? (No ‘dead as a doornail’ and other clichés). As Joanna Penn says, ‘Keep in mind that fans of sci-fi read a lot of sci-fi, fans of chick lit read a lot of chick lit, and so on. They’ve seen many variations of the same story. You don’t need to recreate the wheel, but a fresh voice or a new approach to a tried and true formula will delight the reader.’
  • Is it clear to my reader who’s talking, where the scene is set, why x event is occurring?

Make sure that your story events show cause and effect (x leads to y) and that your characters are interesting. Create enough intrigue and detail to draw readers in. Show as much as you can without telling in a way that blocks the reader’s imagination.

When you’re working on your first book, don’t:

Continuously change your mind about your story idea and start over

If you are just working out how to write a first novel, committing to one story idea can feel daunting. Resist the urge to continuously abandon your novel for a ‘better’ story idea. It could simply be that the better idea appeared superior because it promised an escape from writing challenges you are currently facing. Instead, get help from a writing group or writing coach to find a way forward with your existing idea.

The risk of starting your novel over perpetually is that you’ll end up with twenty-something story starts and no finished book manuscript. Each time a great new story idea occurs to you, write it down and store it away. Be disciplined and start on it once you’ve finished your current project.

Underestimate what it takes to write a novel

Some aspiring writers have visions of publishing success and acclaim from the start, but it will take hard work and perseverance to get to the submitting and publishing stage. Writing your first novel means having to find strategies for maintaining the following things:

  • Motivation
  • Discipline
  • Focus
  • Direction
  • Confidence in your story

These are all essential aspects of writing a book a fiction writing coach can help you with. Read our best posts on how to maintain your motivation to write a book, as well as how to improve and increase confidence in your writing.

Focus on building your world to the exclusion of compelling relationships

Portrait of Vladimir Nabokov to accompany advice for first-time authors

Portrait of the famous author Vladimir Nabokov

This important advice on writing a first novel is courtesy of author Robert Twigger. Twigger cautions against focusing so much on descriptive detail that you neglect to create vivid relationships between your characters:

‘Nabokov informed us, convincingly, that a novel is a world. Reading this, a new writer of fiction hares off and starts describing this world in intricate detail, inventing all manner of places and events. But think of your own world – it isn’t about detail, it’s about relationships.’

While your fictional world stimulates the reader’s senses, the relationships in your book will anchor the reader’s feelings, letting them invest something in your characters’ lives and choices.

Make everything fit your preconceived plot

Sometimes writers learning how to write a first novel follow commonplace advice to put plot interest first. Yet if every event in your novel is made to fit a template, it can feel forced and over-cautious. Instead, come up with the main events of your novel and describe each separately – you don’t even have to write them in sequence, necessarily. Combine them at a later stage when you have a clearer sense of how they will all fit together. This will make sure that no unnecessary scenes are included.

Tell the reader everything about your character at first introduction

When you first meet someone new, they are a mystery to you. Over time you discover details – their backstory, their core beliefs, values, likes, dislikes and details such as their favourite sayings and expressions. The same should go for characters in a novel. If you begin a character description with details of the character’s face, feelings, wants, fears and beliefs, this can be overwhelming. It also is less likely to leave the reader tantalized – the reader has less reason to want to get to know your character better.

Keep the above do’s and don’ts of writing a first book in mind and the writing process will flow smoother.

Start and finish writing a book with the help of the Now Novel process now.

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  • Kassie

    wow! I love your blog.

  • J. Rachelle Greene

    I can’t thank you enough for thorough posts; this one was especially helpful! The tip about world building and character relationships is great.

    • Thank you so much, J. I’m glad you found that tip helpful. All speed in your writing.

  • There are some nice tips, but I disagree about writing every day, “without fail”. Some of my best story ideas as well as solutions to story problems have come when I stepped away from the computer. Sometimes for extended periods. If you have to force yourself to write, rather than feel excited at the opportunity to do so, you shouldn’t be writing. How and when a writer writes is as individual a decision as writers themselves. This is why I don’t believe in generalized word-count goals. The schedule that works for me might not work for others.
    Additionally, writing doesn’t improve simply by continuing to do it. A writer must receive constructive criticism, both from within and from others if he or she expects to improve. Should you self-edit to perfection as you go? No, but you learn through the editing and proof-reading processes. Writing is the creation and assembly of ideas into words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and books which others will find engaging upon reading them. It’s supposed to be fun.

    • That’s fair comment, B.L. Thank you for adding your perspective. As I’ve said elsewhere, taking time out when you need to is important too. Just not so long that you lose momentum altogether. However, it’s true that every writer has to find the set of practices that work best for their creative process.

  • Having the discipline to write every day is so hard, especially with a very active family, but I can see why it is so critical. Thanks for this post. I needed it.

    • It’s a pleasure! It truly is a challenge, Erin, and I can relate on that count with two toddlers. I find waking up earlier while everyone is still asleep affords some valuable distraction-free time.

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