9 Practical Tricks for Writing Your First Novel - Writer's Digest

9 Practical Tricks for Writing Your First Novel

Whether you're writing your first novel or are struggling with completing a second one (or more), sometimes you need some help focusing and figuring out how to reach your goal. Use these 9 tricks to help you go from first sentence all the way to completed novel.
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Whether you're writing your first novel or are struggling with completing a second one (or more), sometimes you need some help focusing and figuring out how to reach your goal. Use these 9 tricks to help you go from first sentence all the way to completed novel.

This guest post is by Jan Ellison. Ellison is the bestselling author of the debut novel, A Small Indiscretion (Random House 2015) which was both an Oprah Editor’s Pick and a San Francisco Chronicle Book Club Pick. Jan’s essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Narrative Magazine and elsewhere, and she received an O. Henry Prize for her first short story to appear in print. She was raised in Los Angeles and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband of twenty years and their four children. Visit janellison.com, follow her here on Facebook ad on Twitter @janellison.

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1. Get to the end of the story

One of the biggest mistakes I made writing my first novel was spending too much time polishing the language before I understood the story’s arc. I didn’t know if the words and sentences I was massaging supported the story, because I had no idea how it ended. I finally made a huge poster that read: “GET TO THE END OF THE STORY” and taped it to the wall behind my computer. This simple trick helped me push forward to the end.

2. Put the manuscript away for awhile and write something else

After five and a half years of steady work on my novel, I inadvertently set it aside for eighteen months to write 600 pages of material for a second novel. I thought my first novel was dead. Then I opened the file one day and started reading it from the beginning. What I discovered was that the time away allowed me to experience the manuscript as a reader instead of a writer. Not only did I find I liked what I’d written, I saw where the holes were, and how it might end. Ten months after its rediscovery, it was sold overnight to Random House.

[Want to land an agent? Here are 4 things to consider when researching literary agents.]

3. Set a timer for forty-five minutes, then take a fifteen minute break

This is a trick that emerged out of creativity research, and that I first heard about from another writer, Ellen Sussman. When you sit down to write, set a timer for forty-five minutes. Force yourself to begin putting words on the page immediately, and don’t stop until the timer goes off, even if you have to write about the weather. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!] Then reset the timer for a fifteen minute break. During the break, don’t check email; do something mindless like dishes or jumping jacks or cartwheels. This trick frees your subconscious to tackle bigger issues in the manuscript. You’ll find that when you sit down again for another forty-five minute session, you’ll have made breakthroughs without even trying.

4. Only set writing goals that are completely within your control

Some writers set daily word count or page goals; I find it simpler to commit to the amount of time I spend writing every day. If I get interrupted by my kids, I can always make the hours up at night when they’re asleep. I set a goal of three writing hours (45 minutes on, 15 minutes off) per day, five days a week. I keep track of the hours on a log next to my desk, and when I reach fifteen, I’ve met my goal.

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5. Keep a poem in progress on your desktop

Diving into your novel in the morning can feel daunting. One trick I’ve learned is to keep a poem-in-progress on my desktop. I don’t ever try to publish my poetry, so there’s no pressure to write well. I’m free to experiment, and the exercise loosens my writing mind and gets me working at the level of words. I usually find that after five minutes work on the poem, I’m ready to jump into my larger project.

6. Organize a self-styled writing retreat

I was only able to finish my novel because my mother took over my household of four kids (and a dog), and she and my husband sent me to the mountains for ten days to write. I holed up in a rented cabin and forced myself to sit in the chair all day and engage with the work. This week away helped me solve big problems in the manuscript that required the kind of deep thought that can be hard to find at home.

7. Read other novels, not short stories

Beginning creative writers are often encouraged to read and write short stories. This makes sense, because you have to start small and master the art of the image. But the short story form has a particular arc that gets in your head and can interfere when you try to write something longer. With a novel, you have to fight the impulse to wrap things up; you have to allow yourself to move forward without a clear direction for long stretches of time. Limiting yourself to only reading other novels when you’re in the thick of work on the novel plants the right shape for story-telling in your head.

[Here are 10 Questions You Need to Ask Your Characters]

8. Write 1,200 pages to get 300

In a brilliant post on Powell’s Books’ blog, Joshua Mohr argues that you might need 1,200 pages of writing to get to a 300 page finished novel. This was true of my first book, and I suspect it will be true of the second. You’re really writing two novels, Josh says, the one that finally emerges, and the one that meandered through a 1,200 page labyrinth. This larger work is “a thorough, often painstaking, often unreadable beast best never shown to anyone else, even our spouses and/or lovers, who may say it has ‘potential’ but they’re lying.” The work on the 1,200 pages is not wasted; it’s an essential part of the process.

9. Find three trusted readers, not just one

When my manuscript was ready, I sent it out to eight agents. Within a week, five had made offers of representation. I spoke on the phone, at length, with each of them, and jotted down their suggestions for revision. Reading is subjective, and when I reviewed those notes afterward, it was like looking at a Venn diagram in which none of the circles intersected. Relying on only one critique might have sent me in the wrong direction.

So when you’re ready, find three trusted readers who will review your draft at the same time. Don’t read their critiques until you have all three. That way, you won’t be crushed if one person doesn’t respond the way you’d hoped, and you’ll be able to pick and choose the suggestions that most resonate with you. It’s your novel, after all. Input is absolutely critical, but in the end, you have to sift through it and be faithful to your own voice.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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