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.

JAN ELLISON - featuredSmallIndistrectionThis 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.

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 book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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13 thoughts on “9 Practical Tricks for Writing Your First Novel

  1. JKMG

    I’ve been working on one particular novel for around eight years now. I first started it as a sophomore in high school, and have since gained an English Education degree. (I suppose I mention this because my age upon starting this novel seems relevant.) I have always loved to write, but it’s not something I do consistently, or have a lot of confidence in. Most of the writing that I do for this novel is simply making notes on the characters, plot, world, etc., in my journal that I keep for such things–not actual work on the manuscript itself. Often, I will go several months without adding anything into this journal, and even longer between bouts of “actual writing.”

    I tend to write in excerpts, just creating scenarios that I want to explore with the characters. I’m sure most of them won’t make it into the story itself, but that’s really all I have to show for the past 8 years of work. It was actually only two days ago that I discovered the (very basic) plot that I wish to go with. I’ve had a lot of ideas that I’ve dropped because they didn’t sit well with me, or required me to make changes I wasn’t willing to make. That becomes rather discouraging after a while, let alone over the course of almost a decade. It’s not even that I’ve put too much focus on world-building; I just have my characters and know that certain things won’t work well with them, but what doesn’t seem to work is pretty much every idea I have.

    I also tend to focus too much on what has been “done before.” I’m an avid reader and gamer, and I know that we all have that one book or whatever else that has inspired us or impacted our writing. But sometimes I’ll think I have this great idea and I’m proud of it and ready to do some major writing, and all of a sudden I think, “Wow, that’s actually really similar to -this game- or -this book-” and I’ll get upset and drop the idea right then. Or the idea will seem vaguely familiar but I can’t place why it feels already used.

    I remember watching a video posted by a YA author I really like, probably a year or so ago. She was talking about her writing process, and showed a giant stack of paper of manuscripts she’d ditched after hours and weeks and months of work. She was saying not to be afraid of dropping something and starting fresh, and I don’t think she meant it in the way number 2 of this list indicates (which is something I HAVE done, because I have other ideas). That kind of stuck with me and honestly haunts me, because I don’t think I could put that much effort into something and then just toss it away as hopeless.

    All of that being said, I really like this list and hope to take at least some of the suggestions to heart. As busy as I am, I want to write every day, and not go months in between. I want to finish this story.

    So, thank you for this. (:

    1. chyanngela

      Hi JKMG,

      Most of the webinars I listen to say you want an idea that’s been done because that proves it’s a popular idea. Their way of writing and your take on it will be different and will appeal to different people (and a few of the same).

      I don’t have much written because all my stuff seems to be 600 – 900 words.


    2. miketom

      If your writing reminds you of some other writing, it’s probably because there are no new ideas, just new spins or twists on old ideas. You need to put your unique twist or spin on your idea, make it your own.

    3. LariAtLarge

      I first came up with the idea for the novel I have just started seven years ago. Until December, when I found myself lying on my back under a gorgeous cloudy sky and everything suddenly feel into place in my brain and I knew where I wanted to take it, I did exactly what you describe above. Synopses, false starts, notes, hours of daydreams about little segments in the story. Never any real progress because the concept is a really complex one and I couldn’t make it work in my head. Also, I didn’t like my protagonist one bit. Also, let’s be honest, I was (and am) scared out of my mind of not being able to pull it off.

      I finally actually started it last week. Whether I finish it remains to be seen. But the point is that you are not unusual, or alone in this. The fact is that there is no way I could have written this story in the form of its original idea so without the years of thinking and brainstorming it simply couldn’t happen.

      That being said, it is important for you to write every day. This is something I battle with and have also been through huge swathes of time without writing a word! But the fact is that writing is like running. If you don’t do the daily jog around the block, you are never going to finish the marathon.

      Lastly, stop worrying about whether the idea has been done before. That was in someone else’s head, with someone else’s life experience, and someone else’s fingers on a keyboard. You will be hard pressed to find an idea that is unique. All human beings share life on Earth and are exposed to much of the same wrt political climate, environment, media, movies, etc. So yes, your idea has probably been done before. But as the most wonderful Neil Gaiman says, you are the only person on Earth who can tell the story like you can!!! So tell your story.

      Read: On Writing by Stephen King
      Watch: Neil Gaiman’s Make Good Art speech

      And then go open a document and write something!

  2. keleitha

    Writing 1,200 pages to get 300 is probably about right. My first draft consisted of around 100,000 words. The final will be around 54,000 (YA mystery).
    It’s a nice thought, but not everyone can afford to go on a self-styled writing retreat — single parents, carers, those on disability just don’t have the financial resources.
    I’m a member of a nine-person email writer’s support group, I’ve read for most of them and bought their books, but when I asked for some beta readers, there was only one who was willing to help. The rest were either too busy, didn’t feel it was their “calling” to read for other people or were otherwise engaged. You’ll have to forgive me if I say most writing groups suck 🙁

    1. mamalopez

      I agree with your post “not everyone can afford to go on a self-styled writing retreat” due to kids, households, and finances. My biggest problem is finding a quiet place to write. I had to resort to writing in my garage because my boys or hubby won’t leave me alone. When I announce “Garage Time People!!!” they know not to bug for at least 3 hours. LOL!!! :):)
      If you don’t have any beta readers, I wouldn’t mind being one. I love love love love to read. My downstairs has close to 300 books and my e-reader is up to 85 on it. I prefer book in hand, but sometimes a e-reader is the best thing to take with you while waiting for doctor’s appointments, kid’s baseball games to finish, hubby to show up on date night, etc…
      I agree with you on “writing groups suck” —when you do so much for others, but when it’s your turn others let you down. I haven’t reached the end of my book yet, but been doing research about beta readers for when the end is finally here. I have a few friends I have already ask to be my beta readers, but really don’t know if they will give their true opinions for fear of hurting my feelings. What does one do???

      1. keleitha

        Hi Mamalopez,
        I’m so sorry for the delay in replying, I had a bad fall while babysitting my three year old granddaughter and am finally getting back on track with everything. Oh, how I’d love a garage to lock myself in 🙂 I don’t have the problem of kids or husband, but I live with my daughter, son in law and 20 year old granddaughter. They only have three sound levels in their house… loud, very loud and extra loud. I usually overcome this by closing my bedroom door and use earbuds to listen to cafe/restaurant sounds while I write. LOL it’s cheaper than going to a cafe to write. You get all the same sounds (with volume control) and you don’t get people coming up and asking what you’re writing. I also use the same website for “absolute rain” to listen to when I’m going to sleep.
        I would be very happy to be a beta reader for you too when you finish your book. Is this your first one? You can contact me at churchylyn@gmail.com

          1. Lyn C

            Hi Mike, yeah, we have a library nearby, but you don’t dare leave the desk for any reason (like bathroom breaks) or else you’ll find everything vanish while you’re away. Also, the kids’ section of the library is in the same area as the “study” area and sometimes the noise is a bit like being in the middle of a playground :-/ I do sometimes go to our local Christian bookstore, which has its own cafe. The only problem going there is that the parking in the complex is only for 3 hours. One of the good points is the coffee and the food are good 😉

  3. Adventures in YA Publishing

    Excellent post. My favorite pieces of advice are 1, 4, and 9. Finishing the book is crucial to success. I can understand the urge to polish every word, especially when the manuscript will be sent to beta readers and critique partners, but spending too much time in early drafts on line editing can make it too hard later on to cut material that no longer fits into the story. Establishing realistic, achievable goals is also vital for success. Every writer works differently. Find what helps you achieve your best writing. Someone else’s plan may work great for them, but not so well for you–and that doesn’t make you a “lesser writer.” I also really like the advice to wait until you have received feedback from all three beta readers before diving into the critique. Having the different feedback while help keep the comments in perspective–especially if one is significantly more critical than the others. (I could have saved myself a lot of angst and upset last fall if I’d followed this suggestion then.)

  4. Katia.Snow

    This article is really helpful. I’ve been writing my first novel and it is definitely challenging at times, especially because I set writing goals completely OUT of my control. I’ll definitely try #3 as well; it seems promising.


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