How to Write a Your First Novel

Following on from yesterday, supposing you sit down to write your first story (if you can remember this event I'd like to hear from you).

Maybe you're arrogantly assuming that you are the next big thing, or humbly supposing that this will be the first of many failed attempts, or anything in between. None of that really matters. What matters is that you get it onto the page.

My process with my first book was that I would write like a demon for a few days, then gradually lose interest, then be inspired anew a few weeks later, at which point I would re-read everything I had written so far, make a few small changes, and then carry on writing. This is a slow and painful process, but thankfully at the time I wrote it I was not a professional editor, and I tended to think everything I wrote was great. Many first time writers spend a great deal of time going back over previous parts of the book to "improve" them instead of doing what they should be doing, which is getting to the end.

When you write your first story, possibly even your second or third, getting to the end should be the first, second and third priorities of the writing process.

There are a number of reasons for this:

As soon as you complete a first draft, you have become a writer. This is a psychological nicety, but an important one. Few but the most arrogant can actually think of themselves as a writer until the first draft of the first novel is written. Once that watershed is out of the way, it becomes possible to devote more time to redrafting and to thinking about getting started on the second book.

You can't edit a story that isn't complete. Actually just having a completed first draft doesn't mean you have a complete story, but it does mean that the editing process can begin, and you can start digging about in there to find a complete story. I've never actually seen a manuscript that did not contain a story. Sometimes it isn't the story that the writer thought it was. Usually its just buried. Sometimes it has features missing.

As you write your first draft, your style will start to develop. It will develop very fast in your first book, and start showing itself (on approximate average) around the 50k word mark (give or take anything up to 30k words). In the first book, there is a conflict between what you think is good style and the style you are developing as your own. It is worthwhile to become conscious of your style, but expect it to take at least three books to find something both personal and natural.

In your first draft, your vocabulary will develop, both consciously and unconsciously. You will also begin adventures in grammar, syntax and punctuation. A little more consciously, in general, you will also develop your ability with imagery. Much of our language is figurative*, and we use imagery both consciously and unconsciously. If you are unaware that, for example, the word "beady" in "he fixed a beady eye on me" is figurative, then you need an editor, or at the very least, you need to sit down with a volume of poetry, and bring yourself up to speed.

THESE reasons and many others all point to your reaching the brow of the learning curve of writing. A curve that will continue indefinitely (but which is an inverse exponent) as you continue to write.

In practical terms, this means that the last third of your first draft will be substantially and characteristically different from the first third. In short: you will have to rewrite much of the first half of your book, just to make it as good as the last third.

People will frequently tell you that the first three chapters need to be the best so you can capture the reader's attention. This is true. It is also true that in the first draft of your first novel, the first three chapters will be dreadful**.

The next step, therefore, is to find some kind friends and family who are prepared to read it for you. I suggest that for your first 1-3 novels, you ask them to read with an open mind, to avoid dwelling on details, and just to tell you:

  1. what the story is about
  2. which parts they like the best.
Repeat several times that you expect there will be plenty to dislike, but that this is a first draft and what you want is to take from it what's good and rework it. People tend to think that they are being helpful by pointing out your mistakes. A first draft is too early for that. A first draft reader who points out all your typos is wasting their time, as half the typos might be in parts of the draft that get cut or wholly rewritten***.

The feedback to this will tell you the most important two things: what the story you wrote might really be, and what you are doing right. Proceed to the second draft with that in mind.

Repeat the process with the next working draft, but try to vary the readers. This can start to get difficult. There are limits. But if this is your first novel, it's well worth it. Each of these read-feedback-redraft cycles improves your awareness of your own writing.

All the time in redrafting, be on the lookout for that feeling I mentioned yesterday, that the story feels right. If it does, and you can explain why, then the shape of the story is starting to crystallize. Go back and re-read with that in mind.


Next time I will talk about the process of writing once you have 3 or more completed novels, as the sense of story becomes more conscious and deliberate.

* rather wonderfully, the word "figurative" it itself figurative - though it became so before the Romans started using it... figuratively.
** this is not an absolute, and if you are going to be a good writer sooner rather than later, then those chapters probably contain material suitable for a first chapter, with a little, or possibly a lot of, editing.
*** that doesn't mean you shouldn't bother with a spellcheck before you give it them to read; that's only polite.

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