Writing your first novel is hard.
I remember when I wrote my first novel way back in 2010.
It was terrible… no, really. I read through it in 2018, and it will never see the light of day, because I had no idea what I was doing. I knew nothing about character development, plot, setting, or any of the things that make a novel great. Clueless is putting it mildly.
Four novels later, I feel like I finally know what I’m doing, and I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I did.
With that in mind I wanted to share 6 tips for writing your first novel, so you can get drafting with confidence.
So, let’s get into it!
Tip 1: Start your novel later than you think you should
This was a brutal lesson for me to learn.
When writing your first novel, as much as you, the author, might want to spend every minute of every day with your characters, your readers don’t.
Readers don’t want to sit on the sidelines while your protagonist:
- Bushes their teeth
- Gets dressed
- Eats breakfast
- And so on…
Readers are only interested in events related to the story arc or the character arc.
Your first scene (and indeed your entire novel) shows a slice of you character’s lives.
The most interesting slice.
Your aim is to hook the reader in with an interesting event the point of view character is experiencing, which is why writers are often advised to start in medias res, or in the middle of the action.
Tip 2: Know how your story ends
Now you know how your story starts, you need to know how your story ends.
Remember, a story takes your protagonist from point A to point B, from the start to the end, and there are two things to consider to discover your story’s ending.
- The External Story Arc (what the protagonist wants, which creates the external conflict)
- The Internal Story Arc (what the protagonist needs, which creates the internal conflict)
So, the questions you should ask yourself here are:
- If the external story arc starts with an event (Point A) what is the most logical conclusion to the external conflict (Point B), and;
- If the main character starts the novel with this internal flaw (Point A) what state do the need to be in at the end of the novel to have overcome that flaw (Point B)
Next, it’s one of my favourite things.
Tip 3: Create your cast of characters
Whether you’re writing your first novel, or your fiftieth, character creation is one of the most interesting parts of preparing to write, because readers connect with characters.
But how can we create characters readers relate to?
You give each major character (emphasis on the words major character) the five foundations of a relatable protagonist.
Give them a:
- Wound: an event that happened before the novel started that wounded the character physically, mentally, emotionally, or all three
- Scar: the flawed belief about themselves or the world they live in that’s holding them back (resulting for the wound)
- Desire: the external thing they’re pursuing throughout the novel
- Need: the lesson they need to learn to heal their scar and conquer their flaw
- Uniqueness: a skill or symbol that belongs only to them and differentiates them from all the other characters
Once you have these five foundations in place, you’ll have a cast of characters readers can relate to.
Tip 4: Structure Your Story Skeleton
Once you have your characters, you can get to work on structuring the 5 key scenes of your plot.
If you want a detailed breakdown of how to outline a novel, check out How to Outline a Novel, Episode 1 of The Fictionary Podcast here, where I go into this in a lot of detail.
I’ll give you a high level overview now.
The five key scenes are:
- The Inciting Incident: the event that disrupts your protagonist’s everyday world and engages them in the central conflict of the story. This scene usually occurs somewhere within the first 15% of a novel.
- Plot Point 1: the point at which the protagonist chooses to leave the everyday world and can’t go back to the way things were before the inciting incident, which is why some people call it the point of no return. This scene usually occurs around the 25% mark of a novel.
- The Middle: where you raise the stakes and the protagonist shifts from a reactive to proactive state. Surprising nobody, this scene should occur as close to the 50% mark as possible.
- Plot Point 2: the protagonist’s lowest moment, where they lose everything and hit rock bottom. It happens around the 75% mark. And, last but never least…
- The Climax: where your protagonist faces the greatest conflict and either wins or loses to the antagonist. Your grand finale should start at about the 90% mark.
Now you’ve got character and plot. Next, it’s time to look at settings.
Tip 5: Shore up Your Settings
Settings are vital to writing a great novel. If you don’t anchor readers in setting and provide clear mental pictures for them, they’ll suffer from White Room Syndrome and won’t be able to visualise the scene.
So, the question here is, how do we create settings readers can easily visualise?
We use the 5 senses.
Shocking absolutely no-one, the five senses are the same senses we canny humans use to navigate the world around us.
- Taste, and;
Take each setting you’re thinking about including in your novel and ask yourself the following questions.
What might my point of view character
- Taste, or;
In this setting?
You’ve got the start and end of your novel, your skeleton plot, character profiles and settings.
Now it’s time to get on with the writing part of writing your fist novel, and to move on to my final tip!
Tip 6: Get writing as soon as you know enough
My final tip for writing your first novel is to spend as little time outlining as possible, because your story isn’t going to write itself.
The key is to know enough about your characters, plot and setting that you can get writing. And remember, anything you planned ahead of time can change.
As you tell the story, you might find that:
- two characters serve the same function, and you need to combine them
- Or you might come up with a way better Inciting Incident and work it in
- Or maybe you’ve got a setting idea, but halfway through the draft you discover a new setting that has more emotional impact
So, what do you do if something about the story changes as you’re writing?
No, of course not!
Here’s what I do.
Make a note of the change you’ve made to either character, plot and/or setting, then carry on writing your first novel as if you’d planned that change from the start. Keep these change notes, then you can go back and write them into earlier parts of the novel when you edit.
Don’t stop writing.
The final thought I’ll leave you with is that the key to finishing a first draft is momentum.
Writing your first novel can be hard… but it doesn’t have to be.
I hope you can see that, by following these quick tips, you’ll be able to write that first novel with confidence and ease.
The Fictionary blog is full of useful articles to help you write your first novel. Here are a few to get you started:
First and Last Scenes: https://fictionary.co/journal/how-to-craft-the-first-and-last-scene-of-a-novel/
The Fictionary Story Elements: https://fictionary.co/journal/ten-elements-of-a-story-you-should-know/
The Story Arc: https://fictionary.co/journal/key-scenes-and-examples/
Article written by Shane Millar
Shane Millar is a Fictionary Certified Story Coach and the author of the Write Better Fiction craft guides. He is also the author of the Myth & Magic and Chosen Vampire urban fantasy thriller series.
Shane holds a BA in journalism and is a member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). He lives in Buckinghamshire, England.
He has taken too many writing courses to count and enjoys reading as much as possible. Shane is obsessed with five things: the writing craft, mythology, personal development, food, and martial arts movies.
Want to hire Shane to edit your novel? Visit: https://swmillar.com/editing
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