The Novelist’s Survival Kit

Novel writing is like entering a new relationship—equal parts scary and exhilarating. All your insecurities will arise at the beginning, and you’ll find yourself worrying about the end before long.

The major difference between a relationship and a novel draft is that you have control over your novel’s outcome. With deference to the unruly power of the creative mind and the strange twists of your own imagination, as a novelist you can make people change, play overlord to their circumstances and create and destroy at your whim. However, you’ll have to loosen your expectations and be prepared to write something that might just be terrible at first. You wouldn’t expect to know a person completely overnight, so why should you expect to get your novel right the first time down, which likely contains multiple characters, plotlines and physical locations? Here are tips designed to help the commitment-shy writer make it through the most difficult part—writing the first draft.


Every new novelist needs a survival kit of things both physical and intangible, which will help you feel prepared for the journey and force you to stay on the path when you’re tempted to step off.

Blind faith. There’s one aphorism that’s, perhaps, most fitting when you begin to write a novel: If you could know what the process was like at the beginning, you might never begin. Hence, you must begin with an ample dose of blind faith. Faith that you have something important to say, that you’re competent and capable of writing a novel, and that if you don’t begin now, then when?

Two notebooks, fat and thin. Purchase two fresh notebooks before you begin. The first should be small enough to be portable but bigger than an address book. Keep it with you at all times during your novel-writing process; it’ll be your repository of inspired moments pertaining to your novel. For example, say you’re having lunch with a friend, and you notice a sad-looking elderly man eating alone, which strikes in you a feeling that a similar scene in your novel would reveal your character’s guilt about her elderly parents. Or maybe while driving to work, the explanation for a bizarre incident in your novel comes clear to you. Inspiration almost always strikes when you’re away from the computer, right? If you keep that small notebook handy, you’ll be able to capture it.

Your second notebook should be larger and heavy, so you’ll not be tempted to move it away from the computer, word processor or typewriter where you regularly work. This notebook will hold details you might otherwise forget. Perhaps there’s a timeline of events in your novel with lots of dates, or a character who has quirks that don’t show up every time she’s in scene, but which are important to remember. This notebook will be your self-created index to your novel; anything that you can’t hold in your mind during the process of writing, but which you don’t want to forget or might need to reference at a quick turn of a page, should go in here.

A reward system. Because there’s no paycheck, no cheerleading squad and no glory for the novelist- in-process, you need to reward yourself for sitting down to write—especially if this isn’t the first time you’ve attempted to write a novel. It doesn’t matter if the reward is edible or for the home, whimsical or practical. If you’re commitment-shy, you’ll need to be trained like Pavlov’s dogs just to show up.

A schedule. All of this is pointless if you don’t give yourself consistent time to write. You’re likely a busy person, with a job, maybe a family and sundry hobbies. But this novel is important to you. Set yourself a schedule and then stick to it. Whether you write once a week for 20 minutes, or carve out an hour each day, you want to do everything you can not only to motivate yourself to show up but also to protect this precious time. Shut doors, put up signs that say, “Writer at Work.” Make sure your family and friends know that you’re taking this seriously, because they probably won’t.


Now that you’ve assembled your survival kit, there are two details you won’t want to start without.

1. Plot. What’s a plot, exactly? In essence, it’s a sequence of events with consequences that happen to your characters. E.M. Forster writes in his famous book on writing, Aspects of the Novel, that a plot “demands intelligence and memory.” He means that for a story line to qualify as a plot, it must persist throughout your novel. A plot cannot be solved midway through a book. A quick and easy way to flesh one out is to use what Aristotle first called the “narrative arc.” By using this arc, you can divide your plot into three sections: complication, crisis and solution. In the complication section, you set up problematic circumstances that your characters find themselves in—the reason for this novel being written. Then you build on this initial complication with consequences that follow your characters’ actions. Finally, in the last third of your novel, you begin to find resolutions to these problems and bring everything to a close. This is a simplistic formula and only one way to write a novel, but remember, you’re writing a first draft here, so you’re allowed to take short cuts.

2. Characters. You can’t have a plot without characters. Begin by creating a simple biographical sketch for your main character(s). This will include basics like what they look like, their desires, fears and what/who they love. Remember your large notebook? That’s a good place to write down details like physical appearance and other character traits. Get a feeling for how they sound and talk. Are they timid or outspoken? Imagine how you would describe your character(s) to someone else.


Novel writing is a tender process. A great vortex of insecurity can rise up around you and threaten to pull you into doubt. You may start to feel slightly crazed as voices fill your head with negative slogans and antagonistic values about how you aren’t qualified to write so much as a grocery list. It’s wise to adopt a mantra of sorts, one like this: “I don’t need to save the world—just finish this book.” Or, “Doubt is just a form of procrastination,” or even just, “Shut up—who asked you?”

It’s important to remember that some of the greatest writers also wrote bad first drafts and revised repeatedly.

Writer Natalie Goldberg says this about the inner critic, or “editor,” as she calls it: “After a while, like the jabbering of an old drunk fool, it becomes just prattle in the background. Don’t reinforce its power by listening to its empty words. If the voice says, ‘You are boring,’ and you listen to it and stop your hand from writing, that reinforces and gives credence to your editor.”


If you made it through even one grade of school, you’re no stranger to procrastination—that wall of resistance that hovers between you and getting your work done. Procrastination is typically a fear that the process will be too difficult or possibly that it’ll be so good you’ll actually have to take yourself seriously. Either way, here are some quick tricks to avoid its traps.

Reduce research. One of the most effective ways to procrastinate, and therefore never finish that novel you’ve been dying to write since you were 12, is to launch yourself into research. You know how it is: You begin with a tiny piece of information you want to verify, like whether women’s stockings actually had a seam up the back in the 1960s. Then you stumble onto a tangent: Not only did they have a seam, but they were all made of 100 percent silk; none of that practical latex and nylon we have today. And suddenly you stumble into a fascinating history of the man who designed the first pair of stockings…but you’ve penned nothing more toward your novel. Research is useful and necessary in many cases, but if it keeps you from writing, it’s only hampering you.

Revision is for second drafts. There are likely p erfectionists reading this who haven’t yet written a novel simply because they can’t bear to do it imperfectly. Let me remind you that a first draft is imperfection embodied, and in this case, that’s a beautiful thing. Show me a famous painter who went to the canvas and came away with something like the Mona Lisa. Show me a sculptor who, after just a few tries, sculpted like Auguste Rodin. Art doesn’t happen that way. If you want to get a novel written, you must resist the temptation to be perfect. If you want to get off the Procrastination Express, you must resist the temptation to edit and revise as you go.

Scene-blocking. Pick a number between three and 10. This number will be your horizon—the number of chapters ahead you’ll allow yourself to see, as you lumber through the writing process on the road to your first draft. Maybe you’re the rare writer who knows the contents of her novel from beginning to end before you even start writing. More likely, you just have an intriguing notion, a compelling character or a powerful theme and are walking into the darkness of your novel with no more than a flashlight’s beam to light the way. Don’t worry! All you need to do is to take that golden number above and block out that many chapters forward. Blocking looks like this: Chapter One: Main character Hamlet learns that his father, the King, was murdered by his uncle. Goes berserk. Setting is a castle. A couple other characters are introduced. Maybe his hyperemotional mother and the cuckolding uncle who has just married her.

The point of scene/chapter blocking is to write down the basic details that will help you string together a plot. Then, when you sit down at your scheduled time to write, you don’t have to wonder or struggle with what comes next because you’ve given yourself a rough blueprint and taken the guesswork out of where to go next.

Quantity over quality. Once you take the leap from blocking to writing, you’ll again be visited by the goblin of perfection. This foul creature will whisper in your ear and make you want to quit. This is where you remind yourself that if you were building a house, you’d first work with beams of wood and nails to make walls and floors. Your novel is the same, only its walls and floors are made of words. To get them down, you must simply…get them down. One of the most effective ways to do this is to give yourself a word-count goal. Perhaps you fix on 75,000 words, or approximately 300 pages. If you write 1,000 words a day, it will take you about 75 days to get a first draft written. A number goal may seem to go against your writing nature, but you’ll be amazed at what a word count will do. It takes the pressure off the idea that you’re undertaking the lofty activity of novel writing. Instead, you’re just meeting your word count. If this offends your artistic sensibilities, well, then you’re likely to still be yearning to write a novel and not actually writing one.

If you stuck with this article, congratulate yourself—you’re ready to take the process seriously. Go ahead and tell your friends: You’re writing a novel!

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