In my last post, I gave you some tips for getting started with your first novel. Here, I take a look at some of the things that will help you to keep going once you’ve started.
One: write now, edit later
As I’ve said previously, you’ll need to write several drafts of your novel before it’s good enough to submit to agents and publishers. Your first draft may not be any good. It certainly won’t be good enough to submit to an agent or publisher. And that’s fine, because first drafts are not meant to be perfect examples of polished prose.
Your first draft is about writing your way into your story, getting to know your characters and how they interact with each other. It’s about getting an imperfect outline of a plot down on paper, giving you something you can rework until it’s as good as it can possibly be.
When writing your first draft, the biggest mistake you can make is to constantly go back and edit what you’ve already written. It’s far better to keep writing, keep moving your story forward and see where it takes you.
Two: plan first, but only if you find it helpful
Some authors can’t write without a plan. Others need to write first, and work out the plot details later. Often, these two types of writers are described as ‘planners’ or ‘pantsers’ (because they write by the seat of their pants).
It’s worth understanding early on which type of writer you are. I’m a pantser who has wasted too much time trying to be a planner. Why have I done this? Because I’m convinced the planner’s approach is a more time-effective way to write a novel. Unfortunately, it’s not one that works for me.
The only way I can work out my plot is by writing my way into it. I need to let the writing guide me, let my characters come to life as I write them, and see where it all takes me. Other writers don’t work like this. My all-time favourite author, PG Wodehouse, didn’t work like this. He was a meticulous and detailed planner, who would plan for up to two years before writing a novel.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a planner, a pantser or somewhere in the middle. However, it is important to know what process works for you. Don’t be afraid to experiment – try plotting and see how far it gets you. Separately, try writing with no plan and see where you end up.
Who knows? You might surprise yourself!
Three: take breaks when you need to
Writing a novel is exhausting. The sheer determination required to sit down, day after day and week after week, can lead to burn out. The only way to avoid this is by taking plenty of breaks. Go for walks, watch a film or take in a play, meet friends and do all the lovely things that bring you joy and comfort.
My writing is always better after I’ve taken a break from it. Often, these breaks haven’t been by choice. There have been times when the demands of family and the day job mean I simply don’t have time to write as much as I’d like to. As frustrating as this can be, my writing is invariably better after one of these enforced breaks.
So, while it is important to stick to your weekly writing routine and word count, it’s equally important to take breaks whenever you need to. Your book will still get written – it might just take a bit longer than you’d first hoped. I have no doubt it will also be better because of it!
Give yourself time to really know your characters – not just what they do in the story. Think about them as real people, with likes and dislikes, with families and friends, anxieties and fears, hopes and desires. What motivates them? What would they die (and kill) for? Who is the greatest love of their life? What would their desert island discs be?
Early on in my writing career, I worked with crime writer JJ Marsh on developing a character questionnaire. When we’d finished the questionnaire, we each sat down and answered the questions in character. It was a hugely useful exercise and I’ve used it many times since.
You can find the questionnaire on Jill’s website, along with an excellent follow-on activity she has developed – looking at how your character is perceived by other people.
Jill is a hugely talented writer; if this process works for her, it’s definitely worth giving it a try for yourself.
Five: don’t give up
There will be many, many times when you’ll want to quit. Days and weeks will pass when you’ll think that everything you’ve written is nonsense. You will grow tired and lose momentum and you’ll start thinking about how much easier life would be if you simply stopped.
When you feel like this, here’s what you need to remember: yes, it is true your life might be a little easier if you stopped. You wouldn’t be as tired and stressed out as you are right now. You will have more time for friends and family, and you’ll have a better social life.
But if you stop, you will never achieve your dream of becoming a published author. Your novel, that you have already worked so hard on, will never get written. And one day, you’ll be lying on your death bed wondering what might have happened if only you’d kept on writing…
Out on 22 June, and available to pre-order now!