I’ve never written a novel.

I imagine that a lot of people are writers, through and through, but are yet to publish (or even finish, in my case) their first novel.

And that is absolutely fine, of course!

Whatever stage of your journey you’re at is great.

But, up until a few weeks ago, I had never even attempted to write a full novel-length piece before.

I had considered it, and even thought that I was writing a novel, but it turned out that what I was writing was much shorter. And that is because I didn’t think it through properly.

The flash fiction, short stories, and poetry I had written in the past needed a lot less forethought than a novel does.

That doesn’t mean to say there is any less skill involved, or that they are less worthwhile writing.

Just that I…didn’t really know what I was doing when I sat down and decided now was the time for that novel.

And damn, did I learn a lot.

Plan as much as possible

For me, planning is EVERYTHING now.

I know that sounds a bit dramatic, but I had no idea how useful and essential planning was before.

When I think of flash fiction pieces, the story normally just comes to me based on a scene, a person, or an idea that I’ve been throwing around my brain.

When I plan short stories, there’s a lot less to it than planning a novel. And a lot of it comes from the short message I’m trying to get across rather than working out every little detail beforehand—a lot of it comes as I write.

And poetry, as cheesy as it sounds, just kind of flows out of me. It is never planned, probably to the detriment of the pieces.

I had been doing some research and decided to actual plan-plan this novel. Like really plan.

Novels require plots and subplots. They require you to think about pacing to make sure you don’t end up with the saggy middle that makes readers close your book. They also require you to know what is going to happen at the end so you can more effectively write the beginning.

I knew I couldn’t do all of that without having planning to refer to. I don’t have enough space in my head to remember all of that without having it down somewhere.

So, I got to planning.

I worked out every plot and subplot, where they need their own peaks and troughs, made sure the pacing was good, planned out every scene with scene cards, made notes on the themes throughout and…

Honestly, not a lot of it went exactly to plan.

But it was so helpful!

Getting stuff out now so I at least had a rough idea of what was going to happen and when meant that when I came to write scene one, for example, I knew what needed to happen by scene twenty and that I needed to plant that seed now, so I amended it as I was writing.

And having that framework helped me to work out where I needed to up the pace, or bring in my Save the Cat moment, or reveal the main character’s mentor, etc.

For me, being able to articulate it onto the page and discuss it with my writing buddies helped me to develop the plan in my head more, and build on what I’d written down.

The other major thing that I had not had to worry about as deeply before was character arcs. Which brings us onto…

Get to know your characters inside and out

As I mentioned in my blog about how to plan a novel:

Characters are so important that they can either make or break a story.

I knew this was the case as the character is what I based my previous stories around, no matter how short they were.

But characters are much, much more than just the details of what they look like, aren’t they?

The biggest attraction is the interesting character, right? You want to read on, you want to know what happens to them, you care about their lives.

If you can create an emotional attachment and investment in your character for your reader, then they give a crap about them. And, in turn, want to know what happens to them.

But I had never done that on this scale before.

As well as the main plot in a novel, there are subplots that your character experiences.

For instance, the main plot is about defeating a fire-breathing dragon and rescuing the treasure from their lair.

But is there a subplot where your Prince Charming falls for his handsome bodyguard? Well, that’s going on throughout and you need to make sure it’s progressing and interesting.

Then there’s another subplot where said Prince has never been told who his birth mother is, and the results of that can have a huge impact on his attitude towards different aspects of the story.

(Damn, I want to write this now…)

There was NO WAY I was going to be able to make sure that all of that was spaced out and worked-in properly without planning all of these things for my character in advance.  

So I had to plan the timelines for the plots and subplots for all my primary and secondary characters.

Once I’d done that, it made me feel like the story was more substantial—it gave me more faith in the idea that it might actually end up being good.

As well as that, I planned all their wants, needs, past history, desires, and motivations.

I felt like I really knew them, and I was ready to tell their story.

Figure out your motivation

Character motivations are important, but no one is going to get to read about them unless you manage to finish the piece.

You need to make sure you know what’s motivating you to write this book, and make sure it’s enough to sustain you for the entire length of it.

I don’t think I had that. This is where I messed up.

My novel idea suffered from a lack of identity, so without a clear idea of the message that I wanted to write, I struggled to keep motivated in writing it.

That doesn’t mean I’ll give up on it, but the message I was trying to bring across was the main reason for the storyline. I had faith that it was worth telling. When I realised it wasn’t working, I knew I hadn’t portrayed it properly, so I lacked the motivation to continue.

I lost faith in it.

Your motivation for writing this novel is most likely something completely different, which is good.

Everyone has their own reasons for writing a novel.

Equally, almost everyone you meet has an idea and thinks they’re going to write a book ‘one day.’ So what makes you different from them?

You’ve already started down that path, so you’re already at least one step ahead of those people.

But what is it that motivates you? What is it that’s going to keep you going with it ‘til you reach the end of this project? It could be something like you needing to get the idea out of your head and wanting to do it properly. You could be writing it for someone important to you, or for yourself to prove that you can. Or something completely different.

In fact, one of the biggest motivators for me was finding a writing group that has really great members. I feel like we’re all in the same boat. Knowing they’re there too has kept me going and helps me to feel supported in what I am doing.

Whatever it is, you need to know how to keep yourself motivated.

That involved everything from snack rewards for word counts to staying strong through all those upcoming rewrites.

Expect drafts, drafts, and more drafts

No piece of writing is good the first time around.

As Stephen King said in his memoir, On Writing, the first draft is for telling yourself the story. Meaning that the first draft is not to be read by anyone but you, and I am a firm believer in that.

Good writing takes many drafts and edits.

But that’s part of the process of writing. You’ve got to be there, ready and willing to keep reworking it until it’s good enough.

Notice I say good enough and not perfect, ok?

Nothing is perfect. If you strive for perfection, you’ll never get anything published. There are small mistakes or issues in every single piece of published work out there.

Even if you can’t see them, I bet if you were to ask an author about one of their first published pieces, they have things they would change now.

But this also ties into progressing as a writer—you’ll continue to improve throughout your writing career if you keep writing. That’s the nature of it.

I spoke to a handful of authors who said that on average, their latest in a line of published books still takes 3-5 full drafts. They had to get through more drafts when they were starting out, some of them 10+, so bear that in mind.

Keep going, keep writing, keep pumping out those drafts.

Consider your writing environment

Last, and absolutely not least, is your writing environment.

One of the first things I did a couple months ago was to get a corner desk.

It wasn’t crazy expensive, but it has made a lot of difference. I feel I have enough space for everything I need now, and I also like to rest my elbows on either side as I write in the corner bit. Very satisfying.

But this was because every time I looked at my old desk, my immediate thoughts were, ‘too cramped, no room to do anything, let alone write.’

The corner desk arrived and I put it in the alcove in my lounge, separating myself off from the sofa and TV side with the classic Ikea Kallax bookshelf filled to the brim with my books. You know, ‘cause I’m fancy.

But the longer I spent in the corner, the more dark and dingy it began to feel. The book collection stopped almost all the light coming into the corner, meaning it was way too dark down there to be staring at screens for any length of time.

That, and the cat litter box was down there. While it is a covered one, they never smell 100% amazing, even when freshly cleaned.

I did not want to be there at all.

I ended up rearranging my entire lounge once I realised I hated the location of my desk.

Now, my desk sits in front of a big window. It means I get a lot of light (which I knew I needed and somehow forgot), I get to feel the breeze of the open window, and, while I don’t have the ever-desirable greenery to stare out at, there has always been something about red brick and black slate rooftops that I’ve found to be inspiring.

This change around has been very conducive to writing! (Can’t you tell? I’m writing this blog from that very location!)

I also know that I need generic background music at a low volume, I need to not be too cold or warm, I need snacks or a fancy drink (read: wine) as a reward, and I need my wrist rests for my mouse and keyboard.

(I also need the damn children outside to shut up, but that’s a different story. Yes, I know a car is coming. Everyone can see the car. Everyone can hear the car. Why do you all, in unison, have to screech ‘CAR!’ every time one goes past? My poor ears.)

Your list may be longer and more diva-esque; yours might be simply that you need a writing device and a chair. Or anything in between.

Whatever it is, working out the best environment to help you get all those words on the page is more valuable than I can imagine. Everyone is different—you’ve got to invest time in finding what works for you.

And if you’re going to be there for a long time, writing and editing 70,000 words or more, then you need to make sure you’re as comfy as can be.

No one wants to work in cat poo corner, and no one should have to.

To summarise…

Good, worthwhile novels take time.

Time to plan, time to get to know characters, time to draft, edit, and everything in between.

If you want to write a novel, as I still do, then I recommend all these steps as a starting point.

If you can nail the above five things, you’re well on your way to getting it finished.

I believe in you!

This post was originally published on The Writing Society.

5 things I learned writing a novel for the first time