How to Write Your First Novel: 6 Pieces of Advice

I’m no stranger to book writing, having written 28 cookbooks — but Island Apart is my first novel and writing it posed all sorts of challenges. During much of the process, I felt like a raw beginner. Hell, during much of the process I was a raw beginner. Here are 6 techniques that helped me go from aspiring novelist to published novelist.

GIVEAWAY: Steven is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: rampmg won.)


Steve Raichlen is the author of ISLAND APART, a debut novel
(June 2012, Forge Books) set on Chappaquiddick Island in Martha’s
Vineyard. Booklist said of the book, “A sweet grown-up love story …
Raichlen packs a lot into his first novel … the passages of locally
harvested food and intense cooking are gorgeous … A beach book
for smart people.” Before this novel, Raichlen was a New York Times
best-selling author of several cookbooks. Visit his author website here.


1. The world has two sorts of writers: people who talk about writing a novel and people who actually do it. I spent several decades among the former and I have to tell you, it feels great finally to join the ranks of the latter. To paraphrase Nike, stop talking about it and just do it!

2. Write a mission statement … and contract. When I started Island Apart, my mission was to use the skills I had acquired writing food stories and cookbooks over the years; the publishing and media contacts I had accumulated; and the promotional savvy I learned from dozens of book tours (and being married to a publicist—more on that in a future blog) to start, write, and finish a publishable novel within a year. Note the words “start,” “finish,” “publishable,” and “within a year.” These dictated a course of action, goal, and deadline, which made me take the process seriously.

(What a movie can teach writers about how to start a story strong.)

3. The secret to writing a novel—or any book—is writing. You won’t turn out elegant prose every day. But it’s important to keep cranking it out. Bad writing eventually leads to good writing and paragraphs eventually add up to pages, chapters, and a finished novel.

4. There’s no one right way to write a novel. Some writers start with a plot (vague or meticulously planned); others use as their point of departure a phrase, character, situation, or moral dilemma. Some writers craft meticulous outlines before they start writing; others let the characters drive the story. Island Apart began as a title—not that title (more how and why it changed in a future blog). My original title was The Hermit of Chappaquiddick and the minute I had the title, I knew the who of my story (my protagonists) and the what (what would happen). What I didn’t know was how to get from the beginning to the denouement. Fortunately, I didn’t have to make the journey alone—I had the characters to guide me. They knew where they needed to go.

(Agents get specific and explain what kind of stories they’re looking for.)

5. Write with your eraser (or delete button). In the course of writing Island Apart, I jettisoned whole characters, situations, and chapters. I probably wrote 1000 pages of manuscript to wind up with a finished book of just under 300 pages. It hurt and I fought every deletion (my wife was a ruthless editor), but the final book is better for all the cuts.

6. Take the time to celebrate the milestones in your writing process. When you finish a chapter, take yourself and significant other out for dinner. When you finish the first draft, uncork a bottle of Champagne. (Not prosecco, real Champagne.) I timed the completion of the first draft to coincide with my birthday. I made a great ceremony of typing the words “The end” just before my birthday dinner. I also took the time to make a sententious speech to my children about the value of setting goals and working hard. I’m sure the latter went in one ear and out the other, but it sure made me feel good.

GIVEAWAY: Steven is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: rampmg won.)



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47 thoughts on “How to Write Your First Novel: 6 Pieces of Advice

  1. AvatarWriter87

    Hello Steve, I have also talked about, thought about, planned, started, stopped, and wanted to write my novel. Lately I’ve been side tracked on writing a family history/memoir. Now trying to finish that so I can start(again!) on the novel. Soon. Thanks for your words of wisdom.

  2. AvatarElric F.

    Had a generic idea in my head back in 1986. it came and gone in various iterations over the years but nothing serious until my wife left me in 2012. So I am giving this a go. Why not eh? Btw my method is I create the backdrops and the chars and I just write what I see them doing. Sadly uneducated as I am I will definitely need an editor to make this even remotely possible as I seriously doubt I can write properly to save my life. =)

  3. Avatarbeanshank

    Thanks for the advice. The idea of a mission statement is something new to me, but would be immensely helpful. And celebrating milestones…that’s something I should do, but don’t. It encourages me to move on and reward myself with something other than to keep writing. It’s a good way to stop and look at what I’ve done.

  4. Avatarandresfragosojr

    Goals and contracts. Going out to dinner after each chapter. I like this better than taking a cigarette break after each scene. I have been trying hard not to smoke. I used to write a scene or a chapter and take a cig break before starting the next one. When I got writers block I would go out for a smoke. It gave me time to think of what to write next.
    I like your goals better. I will from now on try a different goal and new ways to get rid of writer’s block. Since I’m single, I can choose who I can take out to dinner next time.

  5. AvatarNicnac63

    Thank you, Steven! You’ve revved me up. I appreciate your sound advice and am encouraged to keep chugging toward my goals. Island Apart sounds like a great read and is going on my TBR list! (Love the cover art too!)

  6. AvatarPepper.Pilgrim

    Real good advice. Of course, following it, and actually overpowering ennui and disciplining my bottom into the chair, fingers on the keyboard, is quite another story. Hope your future blogs have all the answers.

  7. AvatarFred

    Thanks Steven: Your advice was reassuring in that I can check off 5 of the 6 “How to” statements as being in place in works in progress. The idea for my first novel has been percolating for quite, and when I actually starting writing, the creative flood gates opened. My mission of completing by the end of 2013, and getting my story ‘out there’ is on track. My ms will soon be ready for the painful #5.

    Thanks again Fred Ruark

  8. Avatarcatbr

    Just sitting down and writing everyday seems to be the advice of other authors too. Makes sense to me. It really does separate the wannabe’s from the people who actually do it. Like most everything else in life if you want to succeed or be good at something it takes hard work and dedication.

  9. Avatarvickielb

    Thanks so much for your tips. I, too am in the talk about crew. Your tips are right on the mark, and I look forward to reading your first novel. I have some some stories in the memoir category, and I am researching for a historical novel.
    It amazes me that sometimes it’s the person’s name or notoriety gets them published as a teen or star without all the hard work needed to do the job right. I will publish, and I’ll use your advice to help me move on from where I am today.
    Pick me! I want to see how yor ideas and past life affected your first novel!

  10. AvatarScott M

    I have one of Steve’s grilling cookbooks and use it often. The advice he shares here is interesting in that, despite being a successful writer of nonfiction, this first-time novelist had to do it the same way everyone else does – put your butt in the chair, get the words down – and then change ’em all later.

  11. AvatarJenniferKronstain

    Thank you for your kind advice, and congratulations. Unfortunately, I fall in the “always talking about it” category only because I’m trying to make a decent living while trying to write at the same time – a situation I’m sure many writers can relate to. I have a very detailed outline for one novel, for which I’ve written about 60-65 pages. I halted work on that for the time being, though, because I came up with another idea for a sitcom that I know is salable and is based on my own personal experiences. I don’t have an outline for this per se, but I do have a three page single spaced list of “situations” the character will find herself in. And given that it’s 23 or 24 pages per episode, I feel like I should be able to crank them out. For me, the roadblock is focus and time and, wherever possible, accountability, which as you point out requires structure and organization. I appreciate the article, thank you!

  12. Avatarjotokai


    From my experience with stories – the latest rewrite knocking on the size of a novella, still rough – I shudder to think what it must be like to write and edit a novel. I only hope, with practice, it becomes less Herculean; Sisyphean, I can handle.

  13. Avatarhoneykat

    When we built our house on a wooded lot in Wisconsin, we got invited to a neighborhood potluck hosted by one of the Heim’s Woods “hermits”…so I liked your original title. Though I’ve never authored a REAL cookbook, while teaching in Morocco, I collaborated on a Peace Corps one called “Moore Cooking With Joy.” I also met my future husband there and he became a chef after we returned to the States. Now retired, I’m dabbling in everything from short memoir pieces to flash fiction and limericks. I guess I need a mission statement/contract to take things to the next level! Thanks for the tips–#5 reminds me of Stephen King’s advice “to kill your darlings!”

  14. AvatarJoy Keeney

    Great ideas…making notes. I’ve written poetry, magazine articles am getting better with the short stories now…I’ve caved to peer pressure. My friends…also writers have me talked into taking one of my short stories and expanding it into a novel. YIKES…not something I ever thought I wanted to do…but the more we’ve talked about it the more I like the idea. I’ve been terrified to write outside my comfort zone so to speak. You’re article is just what I needed to remind myself I can do it..just have to start writing. Thanks!!

  15. AvatarBhaswati

    I totally relate to the first point, probably the most important one in order to make a novel happen. Indeed, as I prod on with my novel, the characters lead me from one point to the next, one word at a time. Thank you for re-instilling my faith in this process-less process.

  16. AvatarCMoore7274

    It’s great to know that someone, who actually makes his living writing, has the same stumbling blocks as the rest of us. Thanks for the inspiration to press forward!

  17. Avatarrampmg

    You’ve made me feel very good about myself, and for that I thank you. I have finished my novel and also joined the ranks of those who went from talking about it to having actually done. Now, we’ll see if anyone but me wants to read it.

  18. Avatardwmillersf

    Solid points and exactly the kind of thing writers (like me!) need to read and re-read. The next step is to continue writing. Once you’ve finished one novel, get writing the next. And the next. The market is so competitive today…quality seems to need to be combined with quantity!

    Thanks again…

  19. Avatarsuewag

    I loved reading your suggestions. The one that hit close to home is “to write”. I am the world’s best procrastenater with all sorts of ides for books wondering around in my head. I’ve just got to sit down and start putting those ideas on paper. One word at a time.

    thank you for taking your time to share with us.

    Sue Wagstaff

  20. Avatarcedras

    Steven — you will never know how timely these simple, straightforward pieces of advice are to me. After many, many years of writing what others wanted and needed me to write, I am finally writing my first novel. Your point #4 resonates like a bell with me and I thank you for that. I will also take your point #5 to heart because I can already see that I can get “down in the weeds” and no one wants that! So, thank you for this piece and now I’m off to check out all of your cookbooks — based upon the comments here, I can tell you approach cooking exactly the way I most love. Congratulations on the first of many novels, we hope!

  21. AvatarJoliedupre

    Thanks for this excellent article. I recently finished my first novella in a series of four. Once all of the novellas are complete, it’s on to my first novel. I agree the most with number 3 and 4. You won’t write that first novel if you don’t sit your butt down and do it. And, there really is no one right way to write a novel. Do what works for you.

    Jolie du Pre
    Author of Litria at Amazon

  22. AvatarEPFehr

    Great words of advice, thanks for them! I appreciate the one about writing goals and the contract. Action, goal and deadline. I need to have those words plastered on my wall in front of my computer.

  23. AvatarPatricia A. Hawkenson

    I am just sending out my first novel to my friends to beta-read before I do the final clean up editing it needs before sending to a professional editor! mX Xm Fingers crossed there won’t be too many issues! Thanks for a great post about the process.

  24. Avatarbevova

    Good. I like there’s no one way to write a novel. For years I talked about writing a novel. Never got it done. Then I became acquainted with the power of extreme deadlines. I’ve written two novel drafts in the past two years. Now, talk to me about editing. Ugh!

  25. AvatarSheriGraz

    Thank you for the jab to get going. I have been living with a rough draft of my first novel for about a year now. It is resting very comfortably in my computer. I don’t disturb it much. It gets lots of sleep. Sometimes I let it sleep for months at a time. Maybe it’s time I woke it up. Thanks again for your inspiring article.

  26. Avatarsimeon

    Good advice. I’m happy I now fall into the category of actually having written my novel, as now I don’t feel quite as foolish when I tell people I want to be an author for a living.
    And it’s great to remember that so much of what we write doesn’t end up in the final draft, even if we love it.

  27. AvatarLauralew

    Thank you, Steve. I currently am writing my first novel after, like you, talking about it for years. It feels good to see the story I’ve played with in my head forever appear on the page. I make a point to read novels by first time novelists in order to support them, and I am eager to read yours!

  28. AvatarELJ

    Congrats Steve…The BBQ Bible is the only cookbook I kept when I moved and if you pick my comment then forget the new book, I’ll buy it. Just send me ribs!

  29. AvatarJessica

    Steve, Congratulations on publishing your first novel! You have some very good advice. On a side note, my husband and I love your recipes. You are the one who taught us how to grill, now you are the one teaching me how to get started writing a novel. 🙂

  30. AvatarSailor661


    First and foremost – Congratulations. You have crossed a milestone I’m still heading for. Your advice really hit the nail on the head for me. I’m “borrowing” the steps and using them as my guide as I plow through my first novel. I especially like celebrating milestones, I going to incorporate that into my plan. I think my wife will like those celebrations too, and spur me on.

    Thank you and, once again, Congratulations.

  31. AvatarChaptr2

    As always Steven, your wisdom is appreciated. I have five of your cookbooks, which has transformed me into an excellent outdoor cook. Not to mention, how great it is to read about the history of a certain recipe or type of cooking method. Your cookbooks are more than just that, they are an easy way to learn while cooking.

    Now you bring more wisdom to another front. Not that I want to be a novelist and I still have a fear of not being able to write well enough. This helps if I ever want to get this little story out of my head and put it down on paper. This is another book of yours that I do plan on putting on my read list. Thanks Steven!

  32. Avatarcdub5371

    Thanks for the advice, Steven. I have several of your cookbooks and I’d like to read your novel, too. Like the other posters here, I’ve started numerous stories but never finished any of them. Thanks for the boost to motivate me to keep on writing.

  33. Avatarpstivers

    Steven, many thanks for your simple and short pieces of advice. I am still within the ranks of the majority (those that talk of writing), but I have been increasing my personal collection of 1-5 page “prompts”. Congratulations on your continued success. I hope to take a considerable amount of inspiration from your motivators.


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