Writing Your First Novel

Sweeping away those plot holes …

The lure of writing a novel is something that most people dream of, and it is said that everyone has a novel inside them bursting to get out, so I guess it was inevitable that I decided I was going to write one too.  I’d written a handful of short stories and I was getting the hang of this fiction thing, it would be easy right?

Not so fast soldier …

I was under the naive assumption that writing a novel would be just like writing the short stories – just with lots more words.  Nope.  Not even close.  They are two completely different beasts and like it or not, so far the novel has been both exhilaratingly fun and painfully frustrating.

You see, it’s not just about the amount of words you have to write.  I probably write the word count equivalent of many novels a year when it comes to the blog posts, articles, stories, and emails claiming I’m a Nigerian prince.

Instead it’s about writing something that’s interesting, unique, structured, compelling.

The bright-eyed naivety of a new novelist …

I was very gung-ho when I started, all full of eagerness to begin.  And the first chapter or so went fairly well too.  I was on a writing roll!  But by the second chapter I had started to falter.

I had a plan.  Didn’t I?

I knew what was supposed to happen next.  I had compiled an outline of how I wanted the story to go and had it all nicely mapped out including word counts to aim for each chapter, where I wanted to bring in new characters, where major plot points were to happen.  In outline form it was perfect.

But, as I was soon to discover, writing isn’t really an exact science and having a plan doesn’t mean your characters want to go there.  Those pesky little people that I had made up started to take on a mind of their own.  They were overtaking my lovely outline and bringing out their own personalities apart from those that I had written for them.

And here I was thinking I was the one in control!  Nope.  It seems that sometimes I’m just the typist.  Talk about putting me in my place.  (Note: Non writers will right now start to call the authorities because they think I’ve gone mad – writers will be nodding their heads – yep yep – told you so.)

For example: I wanted a kick-ass knife wielding female protagonist – a real tough cookie.  The character that I’ve written however is sweet, caring, and cares about the plight of small animals.  And although I’ve made her keep the knives, she came up with her own sad back story as to why she prefers knives over guns.  What the heck happened?

First Drafts Are SUPPOSED to Suck.

Another thing I’ve discovered is that all first drafts suck.  But they are supposed to, so don’t stress I get on with it.  (I don’t want any writers commenting here how their first drafts are perfect because for most people this isn’t reality – it only comes good after the 2nd, 3rd and 4th drafts in the following months).

Chris Baty said in his book No Plot No Problem that a good first draft is like bread.  You need to bash the shit out of it for it to rise to something delicious.

I think this is the reason so many people give up writing a novel.  Because they start writing and the characters start taking things in different directions, or they write a chapter or two which isn’t working and bemoan the fact that they can’t write.  So they give up.

I read somewhere that only about 5% of people who start a first draft of a novel ever finish it.  I’m not really sure about the statistics because I can’t find any proof to back that up.  The closest I’ve come up with is the results from last years NaNoWriMo in which around 14% of the participants ‘won’ (that is they finished their 50,000 words within the month) – for those that like stats – 256,618 participated in 2011 and 36,843 finished – source: http://www.nanowrimo.org/en/mediakit).  That doesn’t of course count those that finished it at a later stage, and of course that competition is biased towards those that are probably experienced writers to begin with (which kind of skews the results favorably or not depending on which way you want to look at it).

Knowing that I don’t have to write a perfect (or even a good) first draft is freeing, and has allowed me to keep slogging at it.  I’m determined to finish it (and if my writing schedule goes according to plan I’ll be typing the words THE END on my first draft on 25 September).

Then I can start the weeks or even months of rewrites, cutting, adding, and shaping – before it’s anywhere close to being publishable.

Writing Fiction Changes Who You Are

When I started this journey into fiction I thought it would be a good way to make some extra cash using the throwaway writer method.  But something changed during the process – I began to want to be a better writer – it wasn’t just about the money anymore (although don’t get me wrong, I still obsessively check my kdp report more than once a day to see if I’ve made a sale and then do happy dances if I do).

I now devour books such as Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.  I’m not longer in a rush to get things published before they are ready.  My whole mindshift has changed – and writing fiction has done that to me (and I’m not even halfway through the first draft yet – yikes! what is going to happen to me by the end of this?)

What I’ve learned so far.

  • Writing a novel is hard.  Much more difficult than I thought it would be – no wonder people give up!
  • The characters seem to have a mind of their own.  A good structure can help you – but don’t expect things to always go to plan.
  • Know that the first draft will suck.  It is supposed to suck.  Probably you will only use about 50% of what you first wrote anyway, as the rest will be added to, cut, polished and exorcised during the rewriting process.

I’m looking forward to see how all of this all plays.  Each day my routine is blogging, promotion in the morning then writing one hour of the novel in the afternoon (usually about 1,000 words – sometimes more, never less).  I’m taking it one day at a time.

I can’t seem to write more than 1,000-1,500 words a day on the novel.  I need that other time for the story to speak to me at the times I’m not at the keyboard.

Am I becoming a real writer or just completely insane?

Only time will tell.  I’ll keep you informed of my mental state (and the novel progress) in latter posts.

Keep writin’

Tracey :)


  1. Skyward says

    Gah, did you say, MONTHS of rewrites? I think that would drive me insane. I have almost 20 books so far. The longest, at 20k words (horror), took me about two weeks to finish. I did two edits: the first one being a slow reading where I looked for holes in the plot, lack of character development, etc, and the second one a quick read as I formatted. Though I could see if you are Piers Anthony or perhaps the Game of Thrones author, then yeah the edit process will be a right pain in the ass.

    Also, my favorite part of the entire process is creating a snappy book cover. :)

    • Tracey says

      I’m only assuming months of rewrites since that’s what I’m seeing from authors, but now that you mention it the short stories took a week or two to write and only a day or two of fixing, so perhaps it won’t be as long as I think. I’ll soon find out I guess!

      You took two weeks to do a 20K novella? Impressive Indeed! Makes me wonder what the heck I’m doing with my day 😉 Your editing process does sound similar to what I used for the short stories though so perhaps it will be the same for the novel. I hope so. :)

    • Tracey says

      Yeah, I subscribe to Dean’s blog, and for short stories I agree with him. But there is no way this novel is ready as it is now. While I did have a rough outline, for the most part I just wrote things as I thought of them, so it WILL need rewrites because right now the story is a bit of mess.

      But on a positive I should have the 1st draft finished by the end of next week if all goes well. Then I’ll start fixing it which I’m hoping will be a much quicker process.

  2. Jeremy says

    Good thoughts here, Tracey. I stumbled upon your blog while writing for my own. I am working on my first novel, which is a three-part series for young adults. I have to admit I never felt I had a novel “bursting to get out.”

    Up until the time I started writing it in January of 2011, I swore I would never write fiction…mostly because I love it so damn much and I didn’t think I could write anything worthwhile. So now I’m almost two years into my part-time project and I’m nowhere near a first draft.

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