Fifteen tips for writing your first novel

Here are fifteen tried and tested tips to help you finish that novel. Let me know if they work for you!

Write an outline of your book before you begin. This doesn’t need to restrict your creativity but you need a road map for where the story will take you. And you can change it at any time if you think of a brilliant new sub plot.

Write every day. Even if it’s only a paragraph. If you really haven’t time to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, visualise your next scene so you’re ready to go when you do have time to write.  

The middle of a first draft is usually when you fall out of love with your novel. Remember that it’s normal at this stage to think it’s a pile of poo and the way out of that kind of thinking is to write it anyway. At least you’ll have something to edit later. Find out more on how to how to combat ‘saggy middle’ here

Learn to accept criticism. You don’t have to agree with what your beta readers think of your novel but they’ve done you the favour of giving up their time to critique your work and you should accept their comments graciously. It goes without saying that, if two people make the same point, you should consider this carefully.

Get off that desk chair and move! When you’re in full flow, don’t forget to move for a few minutes every hour. Stretch, make tea, take a walk or run up and down the stairs. You can’t write with repetitive strain injury or without a good flow of oxygen to the brain. You can carry on thinking about the next few paragraphs while you move.

Finish the first draft as quickly as you can. Only edit what you wrote the day before to get you back in the zone for writing the next scenes. If you tinker with it too much at this stage you’ll never finish that first draft. Find out how to beat procrastination and making time to write here

Don’t forget to daydream. Imagine yourself as a character in your novel and allow your mind to wander. What’s worrying them or what are they anticipating with joy or dread? Is this linked with something in their past? Who can become their ally?

Steal your emotions. Use your memories of times when something made you ecstatically happy or utterly miserable. What made you fearful or ragingly angry? What achievement made you feel so proud you nearly burst? Scribble down your memories and harness those feelings to bring your characters to life.

Read. Read the kind of books you want to write, read books that are out of your usual comfort zone and see what there is you can find to like about them. Read books that are well-reviewed and then review them yourself. Be analytical. Learn how to write from the good writers and learn what not to do from the bad ones.

Keep a notebook on you at all times. You need this to write down character studies of people you see in a coffee shop or on the train, snatches of overheard conversations and thoughts that occur to you about your plot when you’re in Sainsburys.

Stretch your characters. Make them say that snappy one-liner you wish you’d said and make them find the courage to face unbelievable adversity. Make them the sort of people you’d like as friends but don’t, ever, make them perfect.

Visit the locations in your novel. One of your readers will always know that location better than you but if you can pick out some details of the landscape, the smell of the wild flowers that grow there, the tall factory chimney belching out smoke, the eerie sound of foghorns in the mist over the river, your location will carry authenticity. Take your notebook and write down your impressions while you’re at the scene. More on settings to hook your reader here

Accept that the first third of your novel will probably be too long. This is usually where you can cut out at least a quarter of your words or start later in the story. It’s normal to be too wordy at the beginning because you’re exploring your characters and discovering their world. But your reader doesn’t need to know it all.

Join a writing group. Writing can be a lonely business and it’s helpful to discuss your writing with other writers. Sometimes you need to get out of your writing cave.

Put your manuscript away before you edit it. A week is helpful but a month is better because you’ll be able to look at it with fresh eyes. You might find it helpful to ask a trusted friend to read it during the interim. When you start editing, aim to cut the word count by 10%.

These are only a few ideas to help you finish your first, or subsequent novel. Do comment and let me know your favourite tips!

2 thoughts on “Fifteen tips for writing your first novel”

  1. Draw sketch maps of locations so you know whether to turn right or left to get to the shops/church/train station.

    Create a time chart for each character (excel spreadsheet is good) so you can see what age your characters were in relation to each other when any particular incident took place.

    • Both are excellent ideas, Pam and I use these methods myself. A spreadsheet of character ages was invaluable for me when I was writing the Spindrift trilogy and had a large cast of characters spread out over a long period of time.


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