How To Write Your First Novel

Becoming a writer is the dream of many, but most don’t actually follow through and write. I know this because I was that person for many years, the constant dreamer that spent my days imagining what it would be like to have my novel on book shelves and in the hands of millions of readers. I can’t say that I have accomplished all of my goals yet, but I certainly intend to and I want everyone else that has ever dared to dream about something to accomplish their goals too and that I why am writing this post.

So, many of you may be asking, what makes you such an expert on writing your first novel? The truth is that I am no expert, but I have just finished writing my first novel and I am in the process of preparing it for publication. When I first started on this journey, I was bombarded by so many different ideas about what it meant to be a writer I almost let all of the information deter me from what it was I was trying to accomplish. This post will discuss what I found to be true while I was writing and to debunk any myths about the practice that may be holding you back from taking the next step towards your dreams. First let’s address some myths.

Myth: You need to spend your time writing short stories and try to get them published in literary magazines to get your name out there.

I have read stuff like this in blog posts and magazines and I call it rubbish. I started writing short stories and one day I had to ask myself, what the hell am I doing? I don’t want to write short stories, I want to be a novelist. When I realized that I was wasting valuable time I said to hell with the short stories and started working on my novel. Then there was the idea of publishing in a literary magazine idea. Trying to do that was also a waste of time considering I wanted everyone reading my words. Think about it, how many people go to the store to buy a literary magazine? Not many. For some the lit mags might be the thing that they need to feel validated as a writer, but I don’t believe that. In the age of self-publishing and blogging there are a million other ways to reach readers that don’t include submitting your work to a magazine that may or may not accept your work. Spend your precious time developing your platform and writing good stories. That is how you reach readers.

So the take home point here is to write what you want and determine what applies to you because there is a sea of information and a lot of it isn’t helpful. Determine YOUR goals and focus on them.

Myth: You have to have a degree in English or creative writing to be a writer.

This is complete bull. There are many people out there that are writers that have degrees in other things or no degrees at all. Not having a degree in writing should not determine whether or not you can be a writer. Besides, there are hundreds of ways to educate yourself on the craft of writing such as blogs, books, and good old fashioned writing practice. If you are interested in more of an educational environment, seek out writing conferences and local writing groups. You’ll gain writing knowledge and it will be more affordable than applying to an undergraduate or master’s program at a university. Your wallet will thank you.

Myth: You have to write every day to be a writer.

This is the biggest load of crap I have heard about writing period. If you look up any big time author and read their “advice for writers” section, the first thing they say is that you need to write every day. Let me make this very clear. I do not write every day and I don’t think I ever will. When I started working on my novel I was working a full time job and enrolled in graduate school full time so focused writing time for my novel every day was not going to work. Now that I am finished with graduate school I only work full time, but I honestly don’t want to write every day.  I enjoy filling my time with other things like engaging with friends or having days that I dedicate to reading books instead of writing them. Now, let me make it clear, you cannot be a writer if you don’t write at all, that is impossible. The key is consistency.

When I am in novel writing mode I’ll sometimes write every day and take a few days off here and there to catch up on reading or to connect with friends after being solitary for so long. It all comes down to incorporating writing into your life when it works for you and your schedule, which for you may be first thing in the morning when you get out of bed, on your lunch break, or in the car during those free ten minutes you have before you punch the clock.

Alright. Now that we have gotten through the myths that bother me let’s discuss how you write your first novel.

Decide what kind of story you want to write and study the craft.

Before beginning, it is important to have a basic understanding of the craft of writing, so study it and continue to study it because there is always something new to learn. It is also important to understand what genre your story falls into because there are certain structural elements that need to be understood in different genres, such as historical fiction, steam punk, erotica vs romance, women’s fiction versus chick lit, and I could go on. There are many writers whose work isn’t easily classified because they blend so many different elements which is perfectly fine, but at the end of the day basic story structure must be respected, beginning, rising action, climax, falling action, and end. You get the idea.

Find a way to organize your story.

This was the most difficult thing for me because I had no idea where to start. There are many books out there that teach you how to outline your novel so you can write it in 30 or 90 days, but I tried and failed at that because the outline and daily writing quotas were too restrictive so I had to implement something else. For me, traditional outlines were also too restrictive so I separated everything by scene and included the characters, location, and a description of what was going on in the scene. That was it. No dialogue. I went through each scene in a linear fashion and just wrote.

Now, this may not work for you so the key is finding what works best for you. Some may want to write organically and forego the outline all together. I’m currently working on my second novel and I don’t have an outline. I only have a list of scenes that I know I want to put in the story and I write them in no particular order. However, I do have Scrivener, a writing software that allows me to easily order and organize things when I’m finished.  If you are using Microsoft Word, compiling everything at the end might be very tedious.

I cannot say it more passionately. Write. Write your story and do it with intense focus and get your story down. I know when I first started writing I wanted to go back immediately and edit everything, but what I have noticed is that this disrupts me. However, when I am finished I’ll go back and correct any mistakes. In the famous words of Anne Lamott, “write shitty first drafts.”

For me the first draft was just the bones of my story, and when I went back subsequent times I added the meat. After four drafts I finally felt good about sending my work to my editor.

Lastly and most importantly, don’t be afraid.

I will not lie. I have had the most fear and anxiety writing this book because I felt like a fraud.  I was plagued with self-doubt, but when those feelings pop up tell them to kick rocks with opened toed shoes. Fear limits so many of us, but we will never see our dreams through if we let it paralyze us.

This concludes Harlow Hayes’ tips on how to write your first novel. Below are some book recommendations that will provide you with more detail in how to get started. I hope reading this was the kick in the butt  you needed to get started. Now get to it my fellow dream chasers. Happy writing!


Book Recommendations

  1. The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing by The Editors of Writer’s Digest.
  2. Your First Novel by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Lehane.
  3. From First draft to Finished Novel by Karen S. Wiesner.
  4. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.
  5. 90 Days to your Novel by Sarah Domet
  6. On Writing by Stephen King
  7. You’ve Got a Book in You by Elizabeth Sims

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