How to write a first novel: 10 Do's and Don'ts - Now Novel (2023)

When you’re starting out, nobody shows you how to write a first novel. Writing a novel requires focus, planning, motivation and discipline. Here are 10 do’s and don’ts for writing your first book:

When you write your first novel, do:

Plan and structure your book and your time

Writing a book is a mid- to long-term project (unless you are one of those rare authors who can churn a book out in a week or two). If you don’t want writing your novel to drag on, planning is essential. Planning also makes sense because an underlying plan will help to avert writer’s block.

To begin planning your book, set a deadline for completing your first draft. From here you can work out how many words you need to write per day on average. If, for example, you give yourself a year to finish, your necessary word count per day will be (length of your novel)/365. If you want to write a standard length novel (80 000 to 100 000 words), your word count will be 220 to 280 words per day approximately. When you look at it this way, it’s entirely possible to write your book in a year (or a much shorter period if you have more time to write).

If possible structure each writing session in advance so that you have a clear plan of what you will be working on and where it fits into the larger picture. If you already have a story outline, build which parts of the story arc you will work on during each session into your plan. In a week or month planner, write, for example, ‘Write first scene (protagonist receives word of an approaching army, forms party to defend the village)’. If you are not sure how to outline, try one of these 7 outlining methods.

Keep any research you need in an organized, accessible place

Some books demand more background research than others. If you are writing about an unfamiliar location, take a tour on Google Street View and note down landmarks and what the architecture or natural environment is like.

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One way to organize your research is to keep a master document that is like an alphabetized dictionary of your story-in-progress. Under each letter, add any relevant information. For example, under ‘L’ you could have ‘Locations’. Write down each of the locations of your novel as you write your story and create new ones (or use real places). Note any important features next to each entry, for example:

‘Cape Town, South Africa: Seaside city. Center of tourism. Wine-growing region. Ethnically and culturally diverse. Wide wealth gap.’

Having an overview of the individual places, themes, characters and other elements of your novel that you can refer back to will keep you focused on the details that bring your fictional world to life.

Write every day, without fail

As author Steven Raichlen says in his post on how to write a first novel for Writer’s Digest:

‘The secret to writing a novel — or any book — is writing. You won’t turn out elegant prose every day. But it’s important to keep cranking it out. Bad writing eventually leads to good writing and paragraphs eventually add up to pages, chapters, and a finished novel.’

Write every day, even when you least feel like it. When you don’t feel in the mood to write, your writing might feel stale, forced and not worth keeping. Persist and keep the ‘bad’ writing for now: You may find later that it is not that bad or simply needs a revision with fresh eyes to be transformed.

‘I don’t have time to write’ is one of the most common reasons for not writing that we hear from Now Novel members. If this is a challenge while you write your first novel, divide your writing sessions into smaller units. It’s much easier to squeeze in 15 minutes than a full hour. If you write every day, even if for only a short while, your writing can only improve.

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Put excuses for not writing and put them to one side

As writers we find endless reasons why wecan’twrite: “I don’t have the time” and “my writing sucks” are two common ones. Yet as author Susan K. Perry says ofwriting your first novel:

‘Distractions are powerful. Writers are famous for coming up with buckets of rationalizations for not writing, including the suddenly-urgent need to thin out who you follow on Twitter, decluttering old files you had forgotten existed, or dusting the back of your printer. If you must, build in an allowable pre-writing period of miscellaneous tasks, but make it short.’

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If you’re writing your first novel (or your second, third or fourth), it’s helpful to journal about the process itself. Write down doubts, surprises, insights, self-discoveries – anything that is worth keeping in mind. Sometimes simply writing down the doubts makes it easier to put them to one side and focus on the most important task: Finishing your book.

Write out helpful questions to ask yourself as you go

If you’re detail-oriented by nature, you might get lost in describing the particulars of a scene and lose sight of how your novel will read as a whole. On the other hand, if you’re focused on the whole plot arc and not individual characters, motivations and scenes, your novel might meander. Neither is a catastrophe, but you can keep a balanced perspective by keeping a list of useful questions to ask yourself as you write:

How to write a first novel: Questions to ask as yougo

  • Are my characters’ distinct from each other: Does each have an identifiable voice and set of goals and motivations?
  • Am I including enough sense detail – can the reader see, smell, touch my fictional world in her mind’s eye?
  • Am I being original enough? (No ‘dead as a doornail’ and other clichés). As Joanna Penn says, ‘Keep in mind that fans of sci-fi read a lot of sci-fi, fans of chick lit read a lot of chick lit, and so on. They’ve seen many variations of the same story. You don’t need to recreate the wheel, but a fresh voice or a new approach to a tried and true formula will delight the reader.’
  • Is it clear to my reader who’s talking, where the scene is set, why x event is occurring?

Make sure that your story events show cause and effect (x leads to y) and that your characters are interesting. Create enough intrigue and detail to draw readers in. Show as much as you can without telling in a way that blocks the reader’s imagination.

When you’re working on your first book, don’t:

Continuously change your mind about your story idea and start over

If you are just working out how to write a first novel, committing to one story idea can feel daunting. Resist the urge to continuously abandon your novel for a ‘better’ story idea. It could simply be that the better idea appeared superiorbecause it promised an escape fromwriting challenges you are currently facing. Instead, get help from a writing group or writing coach to find a way forward with your existing idea.

The risk of starting your novel over perpetually is that you’ll end up with twenty-something story starts and no finished book manuscript. Each time a great new story idea occurs to you, write it down and store it away. Be disciplined and start on it once you’ve finished your current project.

Underestimate what it takes to write a novel

Some aspiring writers have visions of publishing success and acclaim from the start, but it will take hard work and perseverance to get to the submitting and publishing stage. Writing your first novel means having to find strategies for maintaining the following things:

  • Motivation
  • Discipline
  • Focus
  • Direction
  • Confidence in your story

These are all essential aspects of writing a book a fiction writing coach can help you with. Read our best posts on how to maintain your motivation to write a book, as well as how to improve and increase confidence in your writing.

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Focus on building your world to the exclusion of compelling relationships

This important advice on writing a first novel is courtesy of author Robert Twigger. Twigger cautions against focusing so much on descriptive detail that you neglect to create vivid relationships between your characters:

‘Nabokov informed us, convincingly, that a novel is a world. Reading this, a new writer of fiction hares off and starts describing this world in intricate detail, inventing all manner of places and events. But think of your own world – it isn’t about detail, it’s about relationships.’

Whileyour fictional world stimulates the reader’s senses, the relationships in your book will anchor the reader’s feelings, letting them invest something in your characters’ lives and choices.

Make everything fit your preconceived plot

Sometimes writers learning how to write a first novel follow commonplace advice to put plot interest first. Yet if every event in your novel is made to fit a template, it can feel forced and over-cautious. Instead, come up with the main events of your novel and describe each separately – you don’t even have to write them in sequence, necessarily. Combine them at a later stage when you have a clearer sense of how they will all fit together. This will make sure that no unnecessary scenes are included.

Tell the reader everything about your character at first introduction

When you first meet someone new, they are a mystery to you. Over time you discover details – their backstory, their core beliefs, values, likes, dislikes and details such as their favourite sayings and expressions. The same should go for characters in a novel. If you begin a character description with details of the character’s face, feelings, wants, fears and beliefs, this can be overwhelming. It also is less likely to leave the reader tantalized – the reader has less reason to want to get to know your character better.

Keep the above do’s and don’ts of writing a first book in mind and the writing process will flow smoother.

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FAQs

How do I start writing my first novel? ›

Here's a rough plan of how to write your first book, step-by-step:
  1. Write the first draft. Once you've figured out your book idea, the hardest thing is to just start writing. ...
  2. Commit to a rewrite. ...
  3. Get feedback. ...
  4. Publish your novel. ...
  5. Market your novel.
Nov 4, 2021

What are the rules for writing novels? ›

The 10 Rules of Writing a Good Novel
  • Read voraciously. Writers are shaped by other writers. ...
  • Make checklists of details. ...
  • Develop good habits. ...
  • Use your limited time wisely. ...
  • Build a relationship with an editor. ...
  • Don't stress your first draft. ...
  • Seek out surprises in the second draft. ...
  • Start with characters.
Aug 9, 2021

What makes a good first novel? ›

Write something you're passionate about, but also think about your audience and why they read. Without a fundamental understanding of story, I think it is very easy for a book to meander. No matter how good the writing itself is, if the story isn't strong enough, many people will struggle to read on.”

What makes a novel good? ›

Compelling characters: Most great works of literary fiction have one thing in common: rich, compelling characters. Good characters draw readers in, giving them someone to love, hate, or identify with.

How can I start writing? ›

8 Great Ways to Start the Writing Process
  1. Start in the Middle. If you don't know where to start, don't bother deciding right now. ...
  2. Start Small and Build Up. ...
  3. Incentivize the Reader. ...
  4. Commit to a Title Up Front. ...
  5. Create a Synopsis. ...
  6. Allow Yourself to Write Badly. ...
  7. Make Up the Story as You Go. ...
  8. Do the Opposite.

How do you begin a story? ›

Try one or more of these strategies.
  1. Strategy 1: Begin with action or dialogue. ...
  2. Strategy 2: Ask a question. ...
  3. Strategy 3: Describe the setting. ...
  4. Strategy 4: Begin with background information. ...
  5. Strategy 5: Have the main character introduce himself or herself.

How long should your first novel be? ›

If you're writing your first novel, the general rule of thumb for novel writing is a word count in the 80,000 to 100,000 range. While anything over 40,000 words can fall into the novel category, 50,000 is considered the minimum novel length. Anything over 110,000 words is considered too long for a fiction novel.

How do you write a strong first chapter? ›

An ideal first chapter should do the following things:
  1. 1) Introduce the main character. ...
  2. 2) Make us care enough to go on a journey with that character. ...
  3. 3) Set tone. ...
  4. 4) Let us know the theme. ...
  5. 5) Let us know where we are. ...
  6. 6) Introduce the antagonist. ...
  7. 7) Ignite conflict.
Jun 9, 2013

How can I make my novel interesting? ›

17 Ways To Make Your Novel More Memorable
  1. Your protagonist drives the story. ...
  2. Structure your book as a roller-coaster ride. ...
  3. Tell the story in a linear way. ...
  4. Write from your heart. ...
  5. Start your novel at the end of the backstory you've created. ...
  6. Include only the most important parts of the story. ...
  7. Always remember the end.
Oct 17, 2014

What are the 7 Elements of novel? ›

You can turn the slightest concept into a gripping tale by mastering the seven essential elements of a story — theme, characters, setting, plot, conflict, point of view, and style. To help you better understand how stories come together, here are seven elements you'll find in almost any story: 1. Theme.

What are the 5 elements of a novel? ›

These five components are: the characters, the setting, the plot, the conflict, and the resolution. These essential elements keep the story running smoothly and allow the action to develop in a logical way that the reader can follow.

What are the 4 basic of writing? ›

Your audience and writing purpose will determine your writing style. The four main types of writing styles are persuasive, narrative, expository, and descriptive.

Is there any rules for writing? ›

The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it's definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written.

How do I begin to write a book? ›

Following these step-by-step writing tips will help you write your own book:
  1. Establish a consistent writing space. ...
  2. Hone in on your book idea. ...
  3. Outline your story. ...
  4. Do your research. ...
  5. Start writing and stick to a routine. ...
  6. Finish your first draft. ...
  7. Revise and edit. ...
  8. Write your second draft.
Mar 2, 2022

How much can you make on your first novel? ›

Independents pay an average of $1,000 to $5,000 for advances compared to the $50,000 to $100,000 advances that major publishes had typically paid for debut literary fiction. For popular fiction, major publishers generally pay advances of $7,500 to $10,000, or as high as $15,000 if a novel has a good marketing hook.

How long does it take to write your first novel? ›

On average, a first-time writer can take up to 6-12 months to write a book, unless you use our 90-day book writing system. The typical timeline to write a book is between 4 to 8 months otherwise. How long it takes to write a book largely depends on how much time the writer puts into actually writing it, though.

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1. HARSH WRITING ADVICE! (mostly for newer writers)
(Alexa Donne)
2. What to do while writing your book? With top literary agent, Mark Gottlieb and host, Beth Worsdell.
(The Witty Writers Show With author, Beth Worsdell)
3. How to write an award-winning bestselling first novel | Nathan Filer | TEDxYouth@Bath
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