10 Tips for Starting Your First Novel

Scott SummersGuides & Lists, On Writing

Getting started in fiction is a tricky thing. Creating a believable plot, lovable characters, and a realistic world is more than the sum total of life experience and hearsay. If you’ve got an idea in your head that you just need to get out, it might seem as simple as pulling out a piece of paper, calling it Page One, and starting your first chapter.

That’s not entirely the case.

The truth is that penning your first novel can be a challenge. It’s a mentally demanding activity that requires countless hours of dedication. That journey is fraught with pitfalls, from burnout to writer’s block to sloppy writing. So put that blank page away for just a second.

Here are a few tips if you’re just starting your first novel:

1. Get it on the page.

The first thing you have to do when you write is, well, write. It might seem pretty straightforward, but a lot of beginning writers get intimidated by that empty page staring back at them. If you let the blank page get in your head, it’ll bother you throughout your first novel and beyond. They see that blinking cursor on their word processor and freeze. As the minutes tick by, they start asking themselves a thousand existential questions.

Should I be telling this story? What happens if I get it wrong? What if I don’t write it the right way?

If you find yourself doing this, stop right there! Just start writing. Get it on the page. It’s not going to be perfect, and you shouldn’t expect it to be. But if you don’t type it out (however terrible the writing might be), you’ll never be able to get to the real part of writing: editing.

It’s called a first draft for a reason.

2. Learn to love editing.

Once you’ve gotten your first draft out of the way, writing isn’t actually writing. Editing is writing. Editing is life. Editing is what makes your story the thing that people actually want to read.

So why is tip near the top if you’re just starting on your first novel?

Because you should know that editing comes next. It’s the literary equivalent of “we’ll fix it in post” that you hear in movie and photographic lingo. Just remember, when you stall out or you can’t think of anything and you’re staring at that blank page, go ahead and writer. You’ll fix it on the next pass.

3. Make it a habit.

Some people will tell you to write every day. My suggestion: Write most days. Get into the habit of carving out a block of time, sitting down, and hammering out some words.

Personally, I started my first novel with a half-page per day. That’s it. Just half a page. Then it was a full page. Then it was two. Then three. Four.

You get the idea.

Nowadays, even on days when I don’t write, I’m usually fiddling around with something. Toying with ideas, thinking over the next chapter. Once writing becomes a habit, you’re always tinkering with your project in the back of your mind.

4. Don’t read the subject matter you’re writing about.

Maybe some people can do it, but I’m not one of them. If you’re writing a spy thriller, don’t actively read spy thrillers. The ideas and plot lines from those stories have a habit of finding a way into your fledgling manuscript.

Everyone struggles to be new and original,. Don’t undercut your own creativity (especially on your breakout first novel!) from the start by unintentionally borrowing from other beloved authors in your genre. Pull your ideas from somewhere else.

I often read nonfiction or fiction on the opposite end of the genre when working on larger projects. So if I’m writing fantasy, I’ll read hard science fiction. If I’m writing magical realism, I’ll go read a book on automation. Something that’s far afield of whatever I’m working on.

5. Don’t save ideas (unless they don’t fit into the story).

This is something a lot of authors do. They’re working with a story and they get an idea in the same genre and they decide that they’ll “hold it” until the next book or series that they write. To me, it’s a great way to make sure that idea never sees the light of day.

Did you think of a cool plot twist for a character? An interesting mechanic that will change the entire dynamic of the story? Awesome! Figure out a way to work that into your existing piece. See if it fits. Don’t immediately throw it into the “maybe later” pile. If you just can’t work it in, definitely hold onto it.

Granted, this doesn’t work if your ideas aren’t related. If you have an idea about Excalibur, it may not fit in with your futuristic science fiction piece.

But then again, it might.

6. Take careful notes. On everything.

The best thing you can do for yourself as a writer is take notes and earmark your own manuscript for the things that matter later. This is especially true for your first novel, as it’s unlikely that you have a working process or workflow for tracking all the things that matter.

Why do this? Here’s a great example:

In Chapter 2, you describe the main character’s room. When the character and his friends return home in Chapter 15, you’re going to need to remember exactly what that room looked like so that you can describe it again. It’s harder on writers, because it takes much longer to write a piece than to read it. The time space between writing those two passages could be months, depending on your pace.

So make careful notes about character and location descriptions, so that you can refer back to them when you have any questions. You can use a separate word processing document for this, but some programs, like Scrivener, have note keeping built right in to help with this sort of thing.

7. Longer isn’t always better

The unedited manuscript of the first full novel I ever wrote was 250,000 words.

That’s too long. That’s WAY too long for all but the biggest doorstop fantasy novels. And many of those authors have a reputation that helps them get those books out the door.

I’m a big fan of telling the whole story and writing until the story is done, but editing should help trim excessive word counts down to something a little more manageable. My current piece went from 150k, which was my initial goal, down to 130k in the first round of editing.

Definitely more comfortable.

8. Research all the things!

They say the devil is in the details, and that’s more or less the case in writing.

Whether you’re writing about politics or how car engines work, make sure that you can talk your way around the topic. On a first novel, especially if you’re new to the genre, it’s worth taking the time to get the details right.
Almighty Google has made this easier than ever in this regard, as the technical names for this component or that can be located in a few seconds.

But you might want to stay away from complex subjects if you don’t have the proper technical experience. For example, if you don’t know the minutiae of a surgical operation, maybe that’s something that should take place outside your character’s point of view. Or maybe you should interview someone who has some experience in that field. You might even be able to use Hollywood to stretch the truth a little bit.

There are ways to get the information that keeps it authentic and relatable to the layman. Treat your reader’s experience with care.

9. Set realistic goals.

You’re not going to write that first novel in a week. Even a month is pushing it for most people. Set realistic goals for yourself, both for your mental health and that of others around you. Writing can take a toll. Set your goals and stick to them, but realize that life happens.

Sometimes, you have to miss a day.

10. Take a day off once in a while.

Something it took me years to figure out: A day to recharge is worth more than three days in the hot seat.

If you never take a day off, you’ll burn out (a greater challenge on your first novel than on subsequent work). If you’re forcing yourself to keep going when you should walk away, your writing will suffer and you’ll be forced to spend extra time revising it (assuming you don’t just throw it out in its entirety).

So save yourself the trouble and take a day off once in a while. Live a little. Your draft will still be there when you sit down again. It’s better than burning the candle at both ends day in and day out. When you come back to the keyboard, you might find that your writing has improved a bit and that you’re in a better place, mentally.

Can’t put a price on that.

Good luck!