“Writing fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth.”
― Khaled Hosseini
“In writing a novel, when in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.”
― Raymond Chandler
“Do or do not. There is no try.”
The vast majority of people never attempt to write a novel. Of those who attempt, very few succeed (if by “succeed” we mean getting their work published). It’s one thing to have a bright idea but quite another to spend hours and hours turning that spark into a fully-fledged novel. And even then, all you have is the first draft. In almost all cases, you will then need to spend many more hours revising your novel until you are satisfied it is finished. Or more to the point (assuming you aim to get it published), until your would-be agent or publisher is satisfied it is finished.
If you think you want to write a novel, think again. Think about the massive investment of time and energy the process of writing a novel will require. Think about the self-doubt and mental anguish and frustration you will almost certainly experience. Think about the sacrifices you will have to make to achieve your goal, the nights out you’ll have to miss, the films and TV shows you’ll have to forego. Think about the fact that you are likely to fail, that even if you do finish your novel, it’s unlikely anyone will ever want to publish it let alone that it will become a bestseller. Think about all that and ask yourself the question: do I really want to write a novel?
If the answer is “yes”, then you could go on to ask yourself another question: why do I want to write a novel? But in all honesty, you might as well just get on with it.
For now, let’s leave aside the editing, revisions and refinement that will come later (and be covered elsewhere on the site). Let us simply get into the nuts and bolts of writing the first draft of your novel. How does one go from the decision to write a novel to finishing the first draft? When it comes down to it, you just have to write it until it’s done. But that might not be too helpful for those taking their first tentative steps into the world of novel writing.
Of course, if you are raring to get going and you feel confident and motivated, get writing immediately (waste neither time nor energy in the pursuit of your goal). But if you know you want to write a novel but you’re not sure where to start, let’s break it down into the following stages:
1. Preparing To Write
2. Planning Your Novel
3. Writing Your Novel
It should be noted that this is not the only way to go about things and all writers will work in slightly different ways. Some great writers argue that you should simply write, with no real planning, and certainly for a first draft, this method has its merits. However, for most beginners we recommend a more measured approach, and preparation and planning certainly have their place.
Preparing To Write Your Novel
Spending a little time preparing to write could save you a lot of hassle and heartache further down the line. The preparation stage is more about creating the time and the space that will allow you to write rather than planning the novel itself.
Creating an environment in which you can write with minimal distractions or interruptions is important. Whether you choose to write with a pen and paper, on a typewriter or using a computer, you will need a desk of the appropriate height and a chair that will still be comfortable after you’ve been sitting in it for a few hours. You might also want to include items that inspire or produce feelings of calmness such as plants, quotes from your favourite authors, pictures of loved ones… whatever works for you.
The space you create will be important. But so too will be the time you allocate to writing, which will ideally coincide with other members of your household being elsewhere. If you can get into (and maintain) a routine, you are more likely to get to the end of the first draft of your novel in a matter of months rather than years.
You will also need to make sure you have the practical tools you need to write. If using a computer, ensure you have up to date software and also decide whether you want to write onto a word processor (like MS Word) or you would like a more specialist writing and editing software option like Scrivener or Ulysses (we’ll give details of the various options elsewhere on the site).
Try not to spend too long in the preparation stage. The sooner you get on with your novel, the sooner you will finish it. As soon as you are happy you have the time, space and tools you need to write, move on to the planning stage.
Planning Your Novel
The amount of time you put into planning your novel will depend on the type of writer you are (which will in turn depend to an extent on your personality). Writers of novels fall somewhere on a spectrum when it comes to planning. At one end you have the extreme planners who plot every detail of their story and characters before they begin writing.
At the other end, you have those known as “pantsers” who fly by the seat of their pants; in other words, they don’t plan anything, they just begin writing and see where the story takes them. The vast majority of writers will be somewhere between the extremes, though many will have an inclination towards one end or the other.
We will cover the relative merits of each approach elsewhere on the site, but how much time and effort you put into planning your novel will ultimately come down to what feels right to you. Bear in mind though that the less time you spend planning, the sooner you can get on with writing. On the flip side though, those who write with zero planning are likely to face plenty of rewriting, restructuring and revising when they come to the end of their first draft.
Depending on the type of novel you intend to write, research will also be a part of the planning stage. Unless you are writing semi-autobiographical material that requires little research, there is bound to be some swatting that is required. Some things will require more than others, with historical fiction or that set in a geographical location with which the author is unfamiliar usually requiring more research than something set in a time and place with which you are familiar.
Some people will prefer to do their research as they go along as they might not know what they need to check up on until the story leads them in a certain direction. You are in control here so make a judgement about how much research the novel requires. Get it done. Then get writing.
Writing Your Novel
Now is the time to write your novel. Whether you’ve planned every plot twist and character trait to the nth degree, or you are simply going to surf the waves of whimsy and see what appears on the page, you need to get the words down. Here are a few top tips to help you make good progress.
Set A Daily Word Target
However well-developed your story is in your mind, to ensure you build up the momentum you will certainly need to get to the end, it is a good idea to set yourself a target for the (minimum) number of words you want to write each day. This number will depend on your life circumstances and how quickly you want to finish your book and of course how quickly you can write but a target of at least 1,000 words a day is not a bad starting point.
Writing a novel requires dedication, discipline and commitment and setting yourself achievable goals is key. Whilst “writing a novel” can seem an overwhelming task, by breaking it down into smaller, manageable chunks, as with any such endeavour, it becomes far less daunting.
With most novels containing something in the region of 70,000 to 120,000 words, writing 1,000 words a day would mean you will have finished your first draft in three or four months. This is significantly better than many aspiring novelists who spend decades thinking about writing their first book!
Finding your most effective writing pace could take a little time and you might well be more than capable of banging out 3,000 or more words a day, in which case, go with it. On the flipside, after 500 words you might feel drained and devoid of further inspiration. If this is the case, it will most likely prove counterproductive to attempt to force the words out. And though it might take a few months more to reach the end of your first draft, writing at your pace is likely to produce a book of better quality (which in turn will make things a lot easier when it comes to revising the first draft).
Of course, any target is only a guide and a minimum requirement, and if you are feeling like the words are really flowing and the story is developing nicely you should keep writing. On the other hand, if you are really struggling do not beat yourself up if you fall short. Setting a target and reaching it on a daily basis is habit-forming and gives you the discipline you will need. However, feeling guilty because you have the occasional off day is not going to help. Unless you have the luxury of being able to commit to your writing without the distraction of a job or family commitments, life is sure to get in the way every now and again. Rather than give yourself a hard time, simply resolve to get back at it the next day.
Writing a novel can be a lonely business. And what if you spend a year writing the thing only for it to be complete garbage? How would you even know? One option is to find a writing/critique partner; this would be someone who is ideally also writing their first novel, the idea being that you send one another your writing every week (or however often suits) and you give opinions (and hopefully encouragement) about the other’s work.
One way to find possible critique partners is to join an online or in-person writing group or course. Peer review and making connections with other writers are strongly encouraged on most courses and there are some excellent free options out there, including the Write Your First Novel course on Coursera (offered by Michigan State University).
Sharing your work with someone can be very motivating as you won’t want to “let them down” by missing an agreed date for exchanging your latest chapter and you will want to create something they will enjoy or that will move them. Assuming they begin as a complete stranger, it is also more likely you will receive honest feedback than from someone like a partner, parent or friend. And if you find someone who is willing to put in the time and effort to provide useful feedback (and criticism) of your work, your buddy or critique partner could be an invaluable resource.
Seek Professional Opinions And Advice
There are numerous mentoring, editing and critiquing services available to aspiring authors that could be worth considering if you are serious about writing a novel and getting it published. These services are often provided at a cost (sometimes a substantial one) and are offered by industry professionals such as agents, publishers or published authors. The type of service and the costs and timescales involved vary widely and it is a good idea to do your research and seek recommendations from other writers before signing on the dotted line.
It’s also worth noting that many of these services are better suited once you have finished the first draft of your novel and perhaps more so once you have refined your work to the point at which you are thinking about submitting it to agents and/or publishers.
Don’t Get (Too) Sidetracked
When you are in the writing “zone” – or attempting to be – it is a good idea to minimise distractions. Part of this goes back to the “Preparing to Write” section, but mostly it is about staying focused on the task at hand. Some people find this easier than others. For those who find this particularly difficult, it could prove a long, hard slog to get to the end of your first draft. Unless you find the strategies that work for you.
Some people like to write in complete silence, others prefer background music. Some people might choose to disconnect their computer from the internet so they can’t go down a rabbit hole of double-checking facts or dates or alternative words; others will naturally have the discipline to avoid such time-wasting activity.
However well you planned your writing space and time, you should also be open to tweaking things if they are not working for you. For instance, if you can’t get the peace you need in your house, why not take your laptop to a local café, bung some headphones on to shut out the world, and write to your heart’s content. Or perhaps you might find your most productive time of the day is before the sun rises or when everyone else has gone to bed.
When it comes to the story you are writing, it often pays not to get too side-tracked there as well. Even if you haven’t planned the details of your novel to the letter (see the section on Planning Your Novel) and you are allowing your imagination to flow, there is still a danger that you can focus too much on little details that cause you to lose momentum.
For instance, if you are writing a scene that is set in an orchard in Devon in which two characters meet for the first time and fall in love, does it really matter (at least at this stage) what variety of apples are growing on the trees? It perhaps won’t matter at all, but if you think such a detail might be important to the story, simply add a note into the margin and check the information when re-reading your (then complete) first draft. That way you can get on with the primary task of writing your story rather than trawling through websites about Billy Down Pippins and Cornish Aromatics.
Of course, simply getting words on the page does not mean the novel will be any good or that (good or not) anyone will want to read it. But if you don’t complete the first draft of your novel you can’t go through the subsequent stages: editing, refining, polishing, creating a synopsis, contacting an agent, getting it published, topping the bestseller lists, winning the Booker Prize… it’s all meaningless and indeed impossible until you write your novel.
And what better time to begin than now? Right now. This instant. Good luck.