How I Actually Sat Down And Finished My First Novel
Whether you’ve been writing short stories for a while or you’re brand new to the art of fiction, you’ve come to this article because you want to know one thing...
How do you write your first novel?
Before I completed my first novel, It’s A Long Way Down, I had accumulated two dozen short stories, over a hundred poems, and two attempts (read: failures) at novel-length stories.
Luckily, I went through the trials and tribulations of false starts and failures, learning what to do and what not to do, so that you don’t have to.
After this article, you should have a clearer conception of how to sit down and write your first novel.
Are you a gardener or an architect?
George R.R. Martin, the creator of Game of Thrones, explained the difference this way: “The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they're going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there's going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don't know how many branches it's going to have, they find out as it grows. And I'm much more a gardener than an architect.”
In other words, a gardener has an idea, like “what if there was a regular boy who suddenly found out he was a wizard?” and begins writing with nothing more than that idea. He or she has no idea where it will go or what it will turn into. They simply start writing and let it evolve naturally.
An architect, on the other hand, is meticulous, planning out each character, setting, storyline, and chapter at length and in harrowing detail.
Why is this important?
Knowing what kind of writer you are will help you begin writing. If you are an architect, you can’t just start writing your first novel. You need to do the work before hand. If you are a gardener, you’ll find the tedious work of planning maddening to your overall creative process. It will stunt the progress of your first book. You’ll find that when you sit down, nothing comes out.
But there’s a problem—and one I dealt with when I began to write my first novel. How do you know which you are when you’ve never written a book before?
My solution? I wrote a very brief summary (3-4 sentences) of each chapter and allowed myself the room to break from that summary. That way, I knew where I was going and what kind of story I had, which allowed me the creative freedom to actually write the story.
So, as you write your first novel, I’d suggest taking a little bit of the architect and the gardener mindset, because the most important thing is that you start.
Once started, you’ll quickly find out which way you’re leaning. Do you find that the small summaries aren’t enough or that they are restricting your creativity?
Track Your Daily Progress
There is nothing more motivating than seeing progress over a span of time and there are a variety of ways to do this. Some options include spreadsheets, calendars, or journals.
Personally, while I wrote my first novel, I used a combination of both a calendar and journal.
Tracking a year’s progress on a calendar (actual picture):
At first, I experimented with using an ‘X’ or ‘/’ before moving into what I do today, which is a daily word count. Some prefer time spent writing or daily streaks.
As I wrote my first novel—and this still remains to this day—I shot for 1000 words a day, which took me anywhere between 1 and 3 hours. I also created a personal writing schedule, which was 8AM - 9AM (before work) and 7:30PM - 9:30PM (after work) on weekdays and 8AM - 12PM on weekends.
If I missed a day, I gave myself a big fat zero for the day. Get a few zeros in a row and you can bet you’ll be itching to get some numbers on the board. I got to the point where I wrote out beside my writing desk, in big white letters, “momentum is everything, protect it at all costs.”
However, I would recommend building up towards bigger numbers. As I started the project, I quickly realized that I had to ease myself into 1000 words a day. An ideal building month would look like: 500 daily the first week, 600 daily the second, 750 the third, and 1000 daily the fourth.
Remember: everyone has an off day. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Just get back on the horse and start typing.
>> READ A CHAPTER FROM "IT'S A LONG WAY DOWN" <<
While the quantitative data of a calendar was immensely valuable to my writing process, I also tracked it within a journal, but instead of using quantitative data, I used qualitative feedback.
On a daily basis, I measured how I was feeling, what was blocking or stopping me from completing my goal, and how I could prevent that from happening in the future. This helped me identify potential roadblocks and reoccurring issues. It also kept my butt in the chair and my hands on the keyboard.
Don’t Look Back
If I had to pinpoint one thing that caused my first two attempts at a novel to fail, this would be it. I looked back constantly, editing the first few chapters until my fingers bled, rereading it over and over, believing I had to make it perfect before I moved on.
Then I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and it changed the way I wrote.
In it, she tells a touching story of a dinner table conversation between her brother and her father. Her brother was working on a book report about birds and couldn’t gather up the muster to get started, so he asked their dad how to begin. His reply?
“Take it bird by bird, son.”
That is, put one word after the other and don’t look back until you have completed your first draft. Here’s why:
- Your story will change and develop as you go. Why get something perfect that you may have to change?
Great novels aren’t written in one draft. They’re built during the editing phase.
You might take so long perfecting the first few chapters that you’re sick of the story before you’ve even finished your first draft.
Of course, you’re going to find this painful to do, screaming at the god awful sentences you’re puking onto the page. But the secret?
First drafts are about letting yourself suck. That’s it. Allow yourself to suck, but get it all out. Make magic on the second, or third, or fourth draft.
It’s masochistic, I know, but it works. If you can allow yourself to suck, you’ll have the first draft done of your first novel before you know it.
Read The Books You Want To Write (and don’t be afraid to steal!)
There’s an old quote, which goes “good artists copy; great artists steal,” and I believe, on some level, that’s true.
(Ironically, that quote has been attributed to a variety of people, including T.S. Eliot, Steve Jobs, Pablo Picasso, and Igor Stravinsky.)
What I did, before I began writing my first novel, was make a list of about 15 to 20 books on my novel’s subject, or in the same genre, or books that had a writing style I wanted to emulate.
From that, I created a document that included all the quotes that I liked, turns of phrases that I enjoyed, or subjects and situations—if they were to occur in my book—that I could mimic or adjust slightly, to match the events of my own novel.
For example, I once read about a woman who, after hearing distressing news, pulled at her face like little bees were stinging her from the inside out. I loved the imagery of that and wrote it down, to be used at a later date.
It’s also a great method for dealing with writer’s block, unfamiliar concepts, hard-to-describe emotions, or ideas that you can’t quite find the words for. You can consult your list of quotes, ideas, and phrases and see if anything hits. If not, open up a book and start reading, keeping that idea in the back of your head. If you’re reading a book in a similar genre, something is sure to spark your creative juices.
It’s All About The Editing
As I said before, first drafts are meant to suck, but you’re supposed to end up with a first novel that eventually doesn’t suck. So how do you get there?
That’s where the magic happens. You take your very first novel and edit it into print.
Here’s the basics of my editing process:
While writing your drafts, always note words or phrases you don’t like, or words you use too much, or themes you use too much.
Write your first draft.
Go over your first draft and make sure the story is exactly as you want it.
Rewrite the story, filling in any missing parts or overarching story changes.
Now that your story is exactly as you want it, print it off. Take the printed version and write it out again, doing a line by line rewrite of each sentence, to make it sound like the story you want. Note: The printing isn’t necessary here, but I find it easier to do a line by line rewrite using this method.
Print it out a final time and read it out loud, noting spots that you stumble on or sound off. Your ear will catch things your internal dialogue did not.
Finally, consult the list of words you created along the way and use command + f (or ctrl + f on a windows) to find those words you don’t like and remove them if necessary. It’s also a good opportunity to find all your ‘-ly’ adjectives or look for ‘by’ to quickly find the passive voice, and so on.
Now, to be fair, there’s a lot more detail that goes into each stage of the editing process, but that could (and does) take up entire books worth of writing. But we’ll save that for another day and another article.
Through this article, you should have gotten a pretty good conception of how to begin writing your first novel, how to track your daily progress, why it’s important to not look back during a first draft, why it’s important to read the books you want to write, and a general blueprint to editing.
The last thing you need to do is close this article and get to work. Good luck writing!
(Check out my first novel, It's A Long Way Down.)