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How to Write Your First Novel in 7 Easy Steps

1. Before you put pen to paper or start typing, it is always worthwhile thinking about what you are doing. Firstly for yourself, and then identifying your target readers.

Why do you want to write a novel? What is your definiton of success? Do you just want to hold your book in your hands? Perhaps you have a burning desire to change people’s lives? Do you want to make an income from your writing? The answers to these questions will shape what you write, how you get your book to the readers and whether you will be pleased with the result.

When you consider your potential readers, remember that your book will not be for your eyes only. At some point, readers (hopefully lots of them!) will pick it up. Who will they be? Which other books and authors do they enjoy? Where do they find your novel on the bookstore shelves or online? These are important questions because, however you want to publish later on, you need to be aware of where your book fits in with the millions of others already out there. Considering this now will help you shape your story as you move forward.

To do this think about the best selling or award-winning books that are similar to the story you plan to write. Consider the authors who write the books that are similar to yours. Write out your list and check them out on Amazon. Look at the Product Details section and find the Amazon Bestseller Rank. This will include its detailed sub-categories and the book’s genre.

When you know where your book sits from the outset, you will know more clearly what you are aiming for. You may want to write what you love, but you also want to write a book that will attract readers.

2. Writers are often asked 'Where do you get your ideas from?' I used to struggle to find an answer because I spent many years in an environment where creativity and original thoughts were not only unnecessary, but frowned upon. I needed to retrain myself to recognise ideas because you cannot write a book without them.

Consider when you walk into a bookstore, which sections do you browse? When you stroll past a magazine rack,what draws your eye? If you overhear a conversation, what do you notice about the people? When you decide what to watch on televion or choose a film, what interests you?

If you go to a new city, where do you want to go first? What do you want to see? Do you like architecture, museums or historical places? Do you want to eat the local food or go dancing or to cultural performances? Do you want to talk to the people there?

These instincts may be things you take for granted, but becoming aware of your curiosity is the first step to finding ideas. Once you begin to notice what interests you, then you can take the next step and write down your ideas. I have notebooks anf journals all over the place. They are not necessarliy filled with fully-formed ideas. They can be anything from quotes to feelings, or places or things that you see. These ‘sparks’ can become part of a story in the future.

Whatever you find interesting be aware that there are people who love those things too. Your ideal reader does not have to be in your town. They might be on the other side of the world, but they will share your passion. Once you have focussed on your curiosity and started writing down your ideas, you will find that they provide the backbone to stories over time.

3. When you are writing make sure you produce something cohesive and not just a bundle of ideas. You need to give your editor a manuscript that contains a story, not just a load of typing. Perhaps author Flannery O’Connor put it best when they said, “Most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.” Even if you have read thousands of books, it is still hard work to write a story that readers will love. Too many writers try to start a novel by writing words on the page with no direction and soon run out of steam, wondering what is wrong. This is where you need to understand the basics of story structure but do not worry, it does not have to be complicated.

Think about what you like best about your favourite novels. How do these books begin and end? How do they make you want to turn the page? Is the book part of a series? Why do you enjoy these types of books? When you have thought about this, use classic story structure to expand your ideas.

For example, the Three Act Structure goes all the way back to anciant Greece and Aristotle’s Poetics. Many of the best-loved stories follow this tried and true path. Research it and see if it will work for you too because structure and boundaries often help you to be more creative, and you may find it easier to come up with the various aspects of your story if you follow it.

As an example, consider The Hunger Games. The book opens with Act One in the ordinary world of Panem, where Katniss is hunting for food for her family in a district oppressed by a central government. Then Prim is chosen for the Reaping, which is the Inciting Incident as Katniss has to make a choice that then propels her into the story. In Act Two of the book is the preparation for the Games and the obstacles of the arena itself, where Katniss has to fight to survive. She faces death rather than leave Peta behind and in the Climax of Act Three, defeats President Snow and wins the Games, returning to the real world of the district at the end, forever changed. This same story structure is used for many bestselling books and films, so it’s definitely worth using to help you finish your first book.

4. When you are creating your characters, write about characters that your readers will want to spend time with. This is necessary because if you want readers to want to spend their precious time and money on your book, then you have to write characters that keep them engaged. This does not mean that you need a perfect person who is always nice, but you do want to write a compelling, authentic protagonist that hooks the reader, so they are desperate to know what happens next in the characters' world. There are some useful questions to consider:

What do your main characters want and why?

What/who stops them?

How do they overcome the obstacles along the way?

How are they changed as a result of the journey?

You are likely to find that these are the core aspects of most stories.

5. What happens, why and where? Think about these questions when you have a main character, and you have considered what they want and why, you can start fleshing out the details of what or who stops them from getting it. You can also think about where this will happen, otherwise known as the setting. You cannot just have characters talking to each other in an empty white room. There needs to be action that takes place somewhere specific, so use setting to bring conflict to your plot.

Game of Thrones provides a fine example of this. Take Jon Snow at the Wall in the North. The wall keeps out the Wildlings, who fight the Knights’ Watch; then it becomes the site of a huge battle and then becomes the only thing stopping the White Walkers. The ice and snow bring a dark, cold tone to the experiences of the characters and makes life much harder than those who live in the golden city of Kings Landing in the sunnier south. Also, The Hunger Games uses setting to derive plot, with much of the first book taking place in the games arena where Katniss must survive the deadly traps set for the Tributes.

Of course, it does not have to be all death and destruction, though even in Gone Girl, Nick must find his missing wife Amy, and figure out the psychological games she has been playing as he falls into the domestic traps she has set. Remember that plot and setting is experienced by the character and the closer you get to the emotions of the protagonist, the more your readers will resonate with the story.

6. Bear in mind that getting the words down onto the page is the most important thing about a first draft. When you read a book that makes you think, ‘I could never write something like this,’ stop for a minute. Because, believe me, that is not what the author wrote the first time they put pen to paper. The reality is that everyone starts with a first draft, and most authors would never show that draft to anyone.

Even Ernest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” Once you understand that, writing becomes easier as you know that you will always rewrite your work later. Let go of any sense of judgment over what you write in that first draft. In my experience, the amazing ideas I have in my head turn out to be a mess on the page. Finding the right words is difficult. And I wonder how the hell my characters got into this mess in the first place. But nobody can edit a blank page, so just try to get as much down as possible. Do not obsess over your word choice or how cliché your characters are, just get black on white and work it out later. I try not to re-read my words until I am ready to write the second draft.

And remember, to be fair to yourself, schedule your writing time. After all, you schedule your gym classes, your work meetings and your social life, so why would you not schedule your writing time if it is that important to you?

Choose a specific place at a specific scheduled time, then you need to focus. This means, noo Facebook, no email, no social media, no texting. You are there to write. You may want to set a timer and start small, since writing takes stamina and you have to build it up over time. Try ten minutes of typing and just write down what your character is doing in a particular place. Allow yourself to write a load of crap without censoring and I guarantee you that there will usually be something there worth saving. Take a quick break and then do another ten minutes. Repeat this until you have your first draft. It may take weeks or months, but it really is that simple, but not easy.

7. Last but not least, be aware of what Michael Crighton, author of Jurassic Park said, “Writing is rewriting.” This is especially true when you first start writing fiction because there is a huge gap between the books that you love and the pitiful first draft you have created. But that is honestly okay because you can now edit the manuscript into something much better.

This should start with self-editing. I like to print out my entire draft and then edit by hand.

I end up with pages of scribbled notes, arrows, lines, and extra scenes, strike-through marks across whole pages, as well as grammar and typos fixes. Then I put all those changes back into the document on my computer and back up my files along the way. That first edit is often my most significant one, and then I will print it out and go through it once more before working with a professional editor.

Do not skimp on editing costs. The best way to improve your writing is to work with a professional editor on your manuscript, choose one who knows your genre well. If you want an agent, then improving your manuscript before submission is a good idea. If you are going to self-publish, then this step will make your book more likely to work for your readers.

Be aware there are different types of edits. A story edit, or content edit, is a great way to check whether your structure is working, whether your characters are engaging or whether your plot has massive holes. The editor will give you a report with details on how to improve the book. Many writers think editing is about fixing typos, but that is the least important thing at this stage. Readers will forgive terrible writing if your story is amazing. Seriously consider getting a story edit as it is often the best way to improve your work and well worth investing in. Then you can do another rewrite based on the suggested changes.

The next stage is a line edit or copy edit. This is the classic ‘red pen’ approach when an editor pulls apart your whole manuscript, and you make the changes that will improve the book further. After this you will have to do more rewrites and then your book will need proofreading which is the last stage of checking for typos, grammatical errors and anything else that may impact the finished product.

Then your book is complete and you can now finally hold your novel in your hand and say, “It’s finished, I did it!”

Val Penny

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