Captivated man in eyeglasses writing in notebook at table

10 tips for first-time novel writers

Starting to write your first novel can be an intimidating process. There are so many words between you and the end! Not to mention you have to come up with a story idea, a plot, and characters.

It might seem insurmountable, but today I’m going to give you some tips if you’re writing a novel for the first time. This is the advice I wish I’d had when I first started writing a novel.

Tip 1: Learn your craft

Writing a novel is very different to writing short stories or poetry, and so it will make it easier for you if you take the time to learn about novel writing. I expect you already have read a lot of novels, but make sure you’re reading widely in the genre you want to write. Borrow some books from the library on the craft of storytelling. Learn story structure.

While I went to university and did a creative writing course, you don’t have to go to college or uni to be a writer – you can take a course at your local writers centre or online.

Tip 2: Take your time

Writing a novel takes time, so allow yourself time to think of an idea and to research your book. Many people want to rush into the novel writing process and start straight away, but a bit of planning goes a long way. I find reading non-fiction books about the topic I’m writing about really helps spark the imagination to come up with ideas for my novels.

Tip 3: Document your process

Even if you’re the smartest person on planet earth, don’t rely on your brain to keep in all the information about your novel. Novels are around 80 to 120000 words long, so it’s much easier if you write your story and character notes on paper or using an online notebook. Keep it all in one place – you’ll thank me later when you’re looking for that note you made on the ending three months ago.

Tip 4: Make time and space to write

One of the biggest difficulties facing first time novelists is getting distracted. You might start with a lot of steam, but when you’re 40,000 words in facing the middle-slump of the novel, you will get tired of the book and likely want to throw it out the window. When I’m writing, I have two dedicated writing days where I’ll work from 8am to 1pm, or until I’ve met a 1500-2000k word count.

This might look different to you – I know some mums who fit in their writing time while picking up the kids from soccer practice. Block that time out in your calendar, and let your family, friends and flatmates know that that time is sacred. No interruptions, no exceptions.  

Tip 5: Get an accountability partner

Your accountability partner could be someone else who wants to write a novel, or just a friend who is interested in your work. You don’t need to outline the entire idea to them – I like to be cagey when I’m writing so I don’t jinx myself – but make an agreement with them to check in regularly on your progress.

Tip 6: Don’t self-edit

When you write, don’t self-edit. It’s a noob mistake, but if you keep self-editing chapter one, you’ll never finish the book. Just write. Don’t edit. Leave that for when you’ve finished the book. It’s important that you get the story out.

Tip 7: Write 500 words a day and keep track of it

Commit to writing a certain amount of words in your writing session. Make it a reasonable goal, like 500 words a day. This is an entirely achievable word count – I used to do this on a small computer on my way to work on the bus. You can do it in a lunch break at work.

I’m not very good at using excel, but I use it to keep track of my word count on every novel I’ve written. I use a chart so I can see the word count going up and up and up. This simple motivation tool helps me to keep writing. It’s so satisfying once you pass those big markers – 10,000, 40,000, 80,000… It’s also helpful to see when you haven’t been writing as an accountability tool.

Tip 8: Start with characters, then plot.

When I was studying writing there were a lot of discussions about whether you write character driven stories or plot driven stories. This is a false dichotomy: all great plots are character driven. Characters will always drive a plot because the character determines their response to the story which then determines the plot. You can’t have one without the other.

Tip 9: Accept that your first novel probably won’t get published

This is hard advice, but I’ve written four novel manuscripts, and I kinda cringe at the first two now, even though when I was writing them I thought they were the best things ever. But I wouldn’t have been able to write any other novels without those two. They were what I call my apprenticeship. You can only learn to write novels by writing novels. You might get your first one published, or you might not, but it’s an important traineeship for all novelists.

Tip 10: don’t let fear stop you

There are a lot of reasons people don’t write books, even though they want to. A lot of this has to do with the fear of failure. Push all those what if questions to the side and focus on your goal. You want to write a novel, so you should.

The first novel is always the hardest one to write, because you don’t know if you can do it yet. Every time I write a new book, at least I know that I have done it before – it really is like climbing a mountain. You don’t know if you can get to the summit, but at least you’re going to try. Even if you fail, you can always pick yourself back up again and try again. If you’re determined to write a novel, you will get there.

If this is your first time writing a novel, I hope these tips have helped you. If you’ve got any questions, just hit me up in the comments.