How to write your first novel

By Joe Moore

It seems like every time I meet someone and they learn that I’m a writer, they always comment that they had often thought of writing a book, too. Sometimes I think the prospect of being a published author may be the number one goal or dream of everyone who has ever been excited by a good novel. It’s natural to think, “I could do that.” And in reality, they can. But most don’t or won’t. Why? Because the dream far exceeds the labor. Like most specialized occupations, the average would-be author will remain in the dreaming stage. Few proceed to the next step: actually sitting down and writing a publishable, contemporary work of fiction.

But for those that really want to take the next step, here are a few tips on getting that novel “inside us all” onto the page.

First, become an avid reader with the eyes of a writer. Read as many novels as you can get your hands on. But try to read from a writer’s viewpoint. Read for technique and style and voice. Keep asking questions like: Why did the author use that particular verb? Why is the writer using short, choppy sentences? Or long, thick description? As you choose new books to read, cross over genre lines. The genre you wind up writing might not be the one you first imagined. Reading other’s work can also be inspiring. It is a source of ideas and helps to get the creative juices flowing.

Next, know the marketplace and write for it. The end product must be sellable. This goes back to being familiar with your chosen genre. You may love westerns, for instance, but they can be way down the sells chart and not a good choice for a debut author. Having said that, any story in any genre can be a hit if it’s built on strong characters. Always remember that your characters make your story, not the plot. Stay on top of sub-genres and if your work falls into them. Example: Do you what upmarket fiction is?* How about YA crossover?* Middle grade fiction?* Many agents are looking for these right now.

A third tip is to be true to yourself. Don’t try to push against what you feel in your heart and soul when it comes to your story. This may sound like the opposite of the previous tip, but that one deals with the business side of writing; this one the emotional. Beyond understanding the market, realize that if your heart is not in the words, the reader will know it. You can’t hide your lack of love for your writing.

Another tip is to have proper training. Being a devoted reader is only a portion of the task. I’ve had the opportunity (or drudgery) of reading many first-time writer’s work. It’s astounding how many people simply don’t know how to write. I’m not talking about style or content. Forget coming up with a cool plot or unique cast of characters. I’m talking about constructing a sentence with proper use of grammar and punctuation.

If you’re still in school, make sure you give your writing classes as much attention as possible. After all, they teach you the tools of your future trade. If you’re out of school or later in life, consider taking an adult course in basic English and perhaps in creative writing. They won’t teach you how to write a bestseller but can help you get your thoughts down on paper properly. Consider it a refresher course. Some colleges and universities offer degrees in writing. This is by no means a requirement to writing a novel, but it’s always a direction to go if you feel the need. And don’t forget attending writer’s workshops, conferences and joining a local critique group. Workshops are usually taught by pros; conferences have lectures and topic panels dedicated to strengthening your skills; and critique groups offer a new, fresh set of eyes to help improve your work.

Finally, once you’ve finished the first pass through your manuscript, the real work begins: rewriting, editing, polishing, and finishing. There’s nothing that will turn off an agent or editor quicker than an unpolished manuscript. There are tons of books available out there on how to self-edit your work including outstanding books by James Scott Bell, Larry Brook and TKZ emeritus Jodie Renner. And getting others to take a look at it will help to reveal possible problems you missed. Edit, revise, edit, revise, repeat.

There’s a saying that everyone has at least one book inside them. But writing a book is hard. It takes firm commitment and dedication. Let your story out, but do it by following these logical steps. Skipping one of them usually results in frustration, disappointment and a half-finished manuscript collecting dust in the bottom of a drawer.

So what about you guys? How did you managed to finish your first book? Were you able to skip a step and jump right to a publishing contract and advance check? Any other tips to pass along to first-time authors?

* Upmarket fiction blends the line between commercial and literary. YA crossover targets adults but are likely to be of interest/suitable for teens. Middle grade fiction targets ages 8-12 and has content restrictions such as no profanity, graphic violence or sexuality other than crushes.


29 thoughts on “How to write your first novel

  1. I think I broke most of your rules, Joe. While I read widely, at least half is non-fiction. I haven’t taken a grammar class in thirty-five years. I did analyze the marketplace, but only after I started the novel. I don’t like critique groups. I haven’t tried a live workshop.

    The one rule I did follow was to listen to my heart and tell the story that moved me. I started that story, learned as I went (30+ craft books read in 6 months), and finished what I started.

    Then I started again. And again. . .

  2. I wrote, and rewrote, four novels before I was published. I did read piles of craft books, fiction, and seek advice from critique partners and beta readers, conferences, workshops, etc., but only after I wrote that first novel. It’s a right of passage. In order to succeed, you need to fall, scrape your knees, bruise your ego, and then get up and try again.

  3. Good advice, Joe. The one constant I find among beginning writers is they don’t really understand the real daily world of the novelist. They might be a little romantic about the writing process itself (ie: not understanding you can’t take 10 years to write a book) or they have no clue about the business of it all. I see these struck-dumb expressions on some folks faces as the roam the halls during writers conferences, sort of like, “I had NO idea it was going to be this HARD.” Some are intimidated and give up, but others get inspired and down to business. I will never forget the words of one of my workshop students when I said it might take a decade of hard work before you get a foot in the door. (this was before self-pubbing). He said, “I don’t have time to wait years to get published.” Oh yeah? Good luck!

    Kelly told me an interesting story about a recent panel she was on up in Michigan. Two other writers (self pubbed) were going on about they couldn’t control their characters, that they just did what they wanted, blah blah blah…” Someone in the audience finally asked, “Well, how do you even write a book if you can’t control your characters?” Kelly finally said she had to say something: That writing was a constant series of making hard decisions and that it was the writer’s responsibility, through the power of craft, to keep control of everything.”

    If you know my sister, you know she’s really nice and polite. But she couldn’t let that one go by without slapping someone aside the head.

    • I know Kelly, and she’s a sweetheart. but I always had the feeling she could slap away when needed. BTW, when a beginning writer envisions a dream writer’s life, they might imagine traipsing around the wilds of France sipping wine and looking chic. Just sayin.

      Regarding word count needed to become a writer, here’s some additional advice:

      “Write a thousand words a day and in three years you will be a writer.” – Ray Bradbury
      “Your first million words don’t count.” – Robert Heinlein
      “You had to write a million words before you really knew what you were doing.” John D. McDonald

  4. I’m not a good example–I was recruited to write my first book (under a pseudonym) by an editor friend. The only thing going for me was that I knew the series inside out, so I had no difficulty “channeling” the voice. Some people who wish to be published, I have observed, display a surprising lack of awareness of how their own work measures up against professional-level work; they also don’t focus enough on seeking out craft solutions to make their work better. As a result, they keep repeating the same mistakes, even after the issues have been pointed out by others. I think a writer needs, most of all, a keen ear for publishable prose. They also need to be ruthlessly honest about the merits of their own work, and they need to actively seek out craft improvement to close any gaps.

    • Kathryn, what you said about repeating the same mistakes over and over…so true! I have an acquaintance like that who has been lucky, through his work contacts, to have his WIP read by several published writers, inc one mega bestseller. They all tell him the same thing, that he needs to work on such and such. (I told him to get rid of the backstory in the first two chapters for example).

      Last year, he sent me a copy of his book, which he finally self-pubbed. He had barely changed a thing. I don’t get it.

    • Kathryn, I find it interesting that some people will watch Tiger Woods and decide they can do what he does. So they go out and play golf every weekend for years, and never get any better. And yet, when they decide to write a book, the expect to have a bestseller right out of the box. I think it’s because they can “see” Woods practice and play, but they can’t see an author write. You can take golf lessons and writing courses, but if the talent is not inside, it’s going to be tough.

      • Even more than talent, I’d call it “knowing that you need to learn, determining what you need to learn, and seek out those who know.” I heard a similar thing said about Will Smith, when he first became an actor. One of his colleagues said that when he was starting out, Smith knew he had a long road to travel to become a decent actor. He made a point of learning everything–as quickly as possible–from his fellow cast members. The important thing was, he focused intensely on figuring out what he needed to learn. He didn’t assume that he could just waltz onto the stage and be successful as an actor, simply because he’d gained celebrity as a rapper.

  5. Like you, Joe, I hear from lots of people who have “always wanted to write” a novel, but when you share advice or talk about learning how to write, their eyes glaze over. They simply want it to be easy, like authors get paid to write “by the pound.” Your advice is spot on.

    Another element to add might be a certain amount of luck. Despite all my hard work, writing for long hours after my day job (doing this for 3 years), entering contests, attending conferences & craft workshops, countless submissions & rejections, etc (like Sue mentioned), it felt as if I had a stroke of good fortune that came into play.

    I had finished my 4th MS and in my writers group I could pick from a list of “finish the book incentives.” Rather than choose a special read from an editor or agent, I picked a light critique of a full novel ny a pubbed author. She played a significant role in getting me published and kickstarting the bidding auction for my debut. She also scored me her agent. So I think there is a certain “perfect storm” that took place for me. Everything needed to be there but a touch of magic and fairy dust didn’t hurt.

    • Mentoring is so vital in developing writing skills. You’re lucky, Jordan, to have had that. A critique group is also important, but new writers tend to believe that their words are gold and no one can tell them anything. Temperament is also important. Thanks for sharing.

      • Personally I’m grateful for the vetting I went through. The rejections thicken the skin and crit grp/professional feedback gives you something to work on if you keep an open mind and have a sincere desire to improve. And the hard work develops discipline and the tenacity an author needs for a career.

    • Jordan,
      Re: rejections. The guy who just won the Man Booker Prize, Marlon James, got 83 rejections before someone took a chance on what even James calls “a hard book to like.” James said he got so discouraged that at one point, he destroyed all copies of his manuscript. But then one day he found one surviving version on an old computer and decided to try again.

      • Joe, you’ve prompted an interesting discussion about a topic that resonates b/c once upon a time, all of us were new at this I-should-write-a-book gig.

        Jordan and Kris, great point about rejections. Years ago I attended a workshop by novelist David Cates who offered advice that initially sounded counter-intuitive: “Make it your goal to collect 100 rejections.”

        At the time, I wrote short fiction and learned it was a terrific way to collect LOTS of rejections, second only to poetry. But occasionally an editor wrote back, “Doesn’t meet our needs, but I like your work, try again with a different story.” Okay, I wrote another, and another, honing craft.

        Moving to nonfiction, I still received rejections, but also acceptances. After I achieved the 100-rejection goal, I stopped counting b/c there were deadlines to meet.

        David’s point was if you don’t send your work out, it never sees publication. Rejection is painful, but it goes with the territory. Thick skin is mandatory. Sometimes, a few encouraging words from an editor who sees promise motivate you to rewrite one more effing time. And that seventy-hundredth rewrite gets published.

      • Great story, Kris. When I was struggling to be pubbed, I’d love to read newspaper articles featuring debut authors who boasted about surviving 100 rejections. I made up my mind that I wanted to be “that guy” who was still standing. The victory would be that much sweeter. The problem is, when you’re going through it, you don’t know when or if you’ll turn a corner. You just have to keep the faith in yourself and your work. Nothing wrong with that.

  6. “The genre you wind up writing might not be the one you first imagined.”

    So true. I imagined I HAD to write and publish “literary” fiction. For some inexplicable reason, it never occurred to me to write the kind of stories I enjoyed reading, spec fic.

    And funny thing – when I devoted myself to writing what I truly loved to read, I started getting acceptance letters from editors. Guess that validates Joe’s third point.

  7. I was extremely lucky to have the first novel I’d ever written published – although that’s not to say I hadn’t started any number of incomplete ones:) I do think luck played a part but I also worked damned hard to make the book the very best it could be – and that included with my agent and editor (by the end of it my ego was firmly slammed in a drawer). I think now it’s even harder to make an amazing impression on an agent or editor and I do think, all too easily, some writers fall into the trap of not taking the extra ounce of flesh it takes to edit and revise to the extent needed. When you type ‘the end’ on that first draft, the hard work is only really beginning!

  8. Everyone has got a book inside them. And that is usually the best place for it.

    It’s the second, third, and fourth book, written all the way through, worked over and revised, vetted and analyzed, along with a parallel track of studying the craft, that begins the breakthrough.

    I am constantly flummoxed by writers who show up at the same conference year after year with the same manuscript.

    There’s an old saying about golf – you hit the ball, find it, then hit it again.

    Write your book, finish it, then write another one. Repeat over and over the rest of your life. If you’re not prepared to do that, don’t bother writing the first one.

  9. If I may, what “flummoxes” me are the books that get through/the system. I started one that I am currently red-lining~ so many passive verbs, adverbs, awkwardly constructed sentences, unclear subjects, repetitive backstory, poor or inappropriate word choices, jargon,… Everything (and more) preached and “teached” here… If nothing else, I’ve become more attentive to my scribbles, because, and this is not bragging (’cause it’s true) – I can do better than that~


  10. I like this article. I found the part on editing and polishing was useful. The first draft (“vomit” draft) of my novel was quite easy. I had a hand written outline and a daily word quota, which I followed religiously. Then the draft was done. What a feeling! Now I see the real work is just beginning…

    It was a tough decision, but I committed to hiring a professional editor. We’ll see what happens. But, your point about making sure it is polished, well edited, etc… made a lot of sense. Glad to know that I’m on the right path.

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