Writing Your First Novel
One Step at a Time

What an overwhelming thought it is to be writing your first novel! If that's where you are, my hat's off to you for trying. No matter how much you want to do it, it's still a huge job.

So how do you get past that enormous blank manuscript? By taking it one word at a time. Come on, I'll show you how I do it.

The Bits and Pieces of the Novel Puzzle

The first thing to do when you tackle any large project is to break it down into its smallest possible pieces. Like a giant puzzle, each piece looks small enough to handle, so you quit feeling like the little engine that... couldn't.

When writing your first novel, you may find, like I do, that characters create the story. An idea for a character pops into my head, and tied to that character is a plot - something that happens to that character.

 (More often, since I write a series, it's one of the characters I already know barging into my mind again with a scene or story that has to be written RIGHT NOW! Kind of like my kids interrupt me...)

So, step one: create your cast of characters. This may take more than one sitting, more than one day or more than one week. That's alright. Play around with the characters a bit until you get to know the most important ones well enough to move on.

Step two: create the basic plot line. What's the main conflict? When does it start? Which characters are involved in that conflict? Toward what climax are these characters climbing? How will this conflict be resolved at the end?

You can see that step two can be broken down into answering each of those questions. Break things down into the largest amount you can manage at one time - the smallest amount necessary. And if you can't answer all those questions the first time out, tell your subconscious to work on it. You'll be amazed at what your mind can create, if left to its own devices.

Step three: Decide where and when your novel is set. Jot down all the details of place and time you can think of. Again, do this in stages, if that works best, and let your mind percolate your ideas on its own time. It will give you the answers you need eventually.

Step four: begin novel writing. This is where the "one word at a time" approach comes in. Though it's more like one thought at a time. Choose your "hook", the place the action really begins, and just start writing.

If you have writer's block, start writing down that you have writer's block and you're so frustrated and why can't you ever write when you want to, and... you'll probably become unstuck. Either way, you've begun writing your first novel.

Goal-Setting 101

I find I don't get much done on my novels if I don't set goals to get done. So take those steps outlined above and give yourself a deadline for each.

While in the fermenting mode (where characters and plot and setting are all coming to you), set a goal to write for half-hour per day. Less if you have to, but half-hour is usually the least amount of time I can accomplish anything worthwhile.

When you're actually writing your first novel, give yourself a word-count goal for each day. I can slam out four or five pages in half-hour to an hour, depending on how well the thoughts are flowing. So my usual daily goal is a minimum of two pages. On my best days, I can write entire chapters.

If you have a larger block of time you can devote to your writing, do so. But be realistic. If the goals you set are consistently not being met, try setting smaller ones. Once you accomplish a few, your momentum will keep you going. Then congratulate yourself on a job well done, and keep going, one word at a time. The end will eventually be in sight.

The Finish Line... You're Not Done Writing Your First Novel, Yet

Once you've typed "The End",
you're not really done. Now, don't whine at me. This is your first draft, and I don't personally know anyone who writes a first draft that's ready to publish. You have a few steps to finish.

First, walk away from it. I recommend letting it sit a week or so. It's a novel, not a term paper.
It needs some time and space to settle all the dust and be fresh in your mind.

Then, you can do one of two things. If you're brave (I'm not that brave), let someone (or two) who enjoys your type of novel read it. Ask for specific feedback. What parts did he or she like? What parts didn't your reader like? Why? Where was she (or he) confused?

This is not the time to have them critique grammar and spelling, yet. Just the overall quality of the the book. After all, you're not really done writing your first novel.

If, like me, you're more of a chicken, re-read it yourself. You may want to print it out so you can make notes to yourself on it. Highlight the parts that confuse you, or that just don't seem right. Set your mind to work on fixing those parts. Rewrite them when it's ready.

This may take longer than punching out the first draft. But be diligent. Be strong. Your readers will thank you - profusely.

You're still not done. Go back and turn on your grammar checker (if you turned it off, like I do with mine), and your spell checker. Fix what's wrong. Try to be sure each sentence is written with the best words possible to convey exactly the meaning you want. No extra words, no confusing images.

Now, if you're like me, this is when you call in a reader to give you her opinion.

Take the comments to heart. Fix what you feel should be fixed. Leave what you know has to be left. Then let the book sit again for a week or two, and do it one more time. I did tell you that writing your first novel was a huge task, didn't I? Didn't you believe me?

Now you're ready to consider publishing. If you go the traditional route, be prepared for more revisions. If you decide to self-publish, you may want another reader or two to pass the novel through their radar before you decide you're done tweaking it. After all, better to revise ten times, then to pick up a published copy of your book a year from now and groan at the obvious mistake you missed.

Only when its gone to the publisher are you done writing your first novel. Then it's time to start your second.

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