I spent last Fall doing what I never have done before: I wrote my first novel. I’ve enjoyed writing since middle school and have a lot of experience writing from years of creative writing classes to multiple internships that involved blogging. Through the years, I shied away from the idea of writing a novel with these various excuses: it’s not the right time, I don’t have a good idea, it’s too much work, I’m not cut out for it, etc. But soon I got sick of my excuses and I decided to carve out some time to write the first draft of my first novel, Dead Ringer. I’m now finishing up revisions and l will start the beta reading process shortly. Here are my top tips for surviving writing your first draft of your first novel.
Pick the Right Deadline
The first thing you need to know is that writing a novel is a very strenuous mental activity and shouldn’t be taken lightly. To succeed at any goal, it’s important to have a deadline to hold yourself accountable. But in order to create the deadline that best works for you, you have to do some self-reflection. Are you disorganized and need a lot of structure provided for you or do you naturally have a lot of self-discipline? Do you tire easily and need breaks to re-focus, or do you have a lot of mental endurance? If you need structure and have a lot of endurance, I’d recommend doing a one month novel writing challenge such as NaNoWriMo. But if you’re like me and tire easily, it may not be the best fit. I know that I need lots of breaks and downtime to recover from strenuous mental activity and something like NaNoWriMo would only wear me out and leave me with a half-finished novel.
Knowing this, I gave myself from late August to Christmas to finish my first draft of 65,000 words. I knew this would give me a deadline to work towards but it wouldn’t tire me out. To keep my motivation up, I created a plan where I gave myself a small reward such as a bubble bath or a small purchase on Etsy for every 5,000 words I completed. I recommend creating a similar plan to keep your spirits up when you feel like procrastination will get the better of you. Consider your strengths and weaknesses before setting a deadline and create a plan that will reward you as you progress.
Be Prepared to Prioritize
Since I have a full-time job, I used most of my free time on the weekends for writing and my work nights for essentials like laundry and going to the grocery store. This left very little time for socializing. You probably will run into similar issues when you start your first novel. Be clear with your friends and family members that you won’t have a lot of time over the next few months (or how ever long you choose). Pick and choose which social events are important enough to impinge on your writing time and which ones can be put off. You might want to be sure you can attend your sister’s wedding but it might be a good idea to pass up a few lunch invites so you can spend your Saturdays writing.
You also might notice that your house will be a bit more messy and you might gain a few pounds. Things like keeping a tidy house and staying a size 0 took a backseat to my novel when I was writing the first draft. Plus, as great as writing is, sitting still for many hours at a time is not healthy. Try to get exercise in when you can but don’t beat yourself if you gain a little weight from sitting all the time. Just be sure to increase your activity level as soon as your deadline has been reached.
Do ALL Your Research Ahead of Time
This tripped me up when I was writing the first draft and I will definitely keep this in mind when I start my second novel. My protagonist, Taylor, in Dead Ringer has led a life of crime but as someone who has never even gotten a parking ticket, I couldn’t accurately write about how drug-dealing or cyber-crime rings actually worked. But I was too hopped up on the excitement of starting my novel to take the time to do the research. I started on scenes that didn’t directly involve the information I was missing until one day I just couldn’t write any further without doing proper research. This slowed me down and put me at risk for not meeting my deadline. Thankfully, I was able to get back on track but I felt foolish for not thinking of researching what I needed to know first. You may not be able to predict all the information you need but if there is a significant portion of your book that deals with a topic you are unfamiliar with, research before you write.
Outline and Summarize
To make sure you have a clear vision for your novel, practice writing summaries for your book. Write a small paragraph describing the plot as if you were writing it for a publisher. It should be short, sweet, and makes the reader want to buy the book. Then narrow it down even further to just two lines of summary. If I hadn’t done this before I started writing, I would have felt like I was lost in the woods without a compass. Of course, as you write, you may decide to change elements of your story but at least you started with a clear vision.
When you’re new to novel writing, it can feel overwhelming to structure your novel. As someone who has an easier time writing short stories and articles, I found this to be the most challenging part. Having no experience with novel writing before, I strung together a skeleton of an outline and promptly ignored it. While I did get some bursts of great ideas when I was just winging it, it led to a lot of trouble in revision. Since I didn’t stick to an outline, the chapters of my story were scattered around my first draft with no indication as to where they should be placed in the grand scheme of the story. I don’t think I could have done better but I know that next time, I will take more time to create a clearer structure for the draft. Make a detailed outline for yourself before you drive into to Chapter 1.
Let Go of Perfection
The point of your first draft is to just get something out there. It will be impossible to write the most beautiful prose and lively dialogue every time you sit down to write. Turn off your self-critic and just let your creative side get the ideas out on the page. You can always return to sharpen things up later. As you continue to write, your skills will sharpen. This might make you become critical of your writing and want to delete everything you’ve written so far. Don’t! You could have a good idea lingering in those lines or you could save yourself time by editing later instead of starting from scratch. Don’t be harsh on yourself, you’re learning. Let yourself be creative and write without the pressure to be perfect.
Best of luck with your writing adventures!