Getting it done — how to write your first novel

by Patricia McLinn

Hands down, the top issue beginning novelists encounter is they don’t begin.

This problem comes in two flavors:

  • Not starting your writing session
  • Not starting your novel.

Take those in reverse order.

Not starting your writing project.

How should a writer start writing? With an outline/plan/synopsis? Or diving in with words?

Countless would-be writers have spun writerly wheels deep into inescapable ditches while contemplating these questions. Don’t let wondering where is best to start keep you from starting at all.

Some folks see this as Story vs. Craft or Characters vs. Structure. Pfft. Good writing needs both. I view it as writing from the Inside Out (from connecting with characters at a gut level out to story structure) or the Outside In (from structure into character.) Either way, you need both inside and outside. The difference is how you get there.

I’m an Inside Outer. Outlines stop me dead. How do I know? Because I’ve tried. I have writer friends who are Outside Inners, who become lost in the wilderness if they start with characters. How do they know? Because they’ve tried.

Only you can figure out which approach works for you. You figure out by doing. So get in there and start something (outline or scene), then try something else (the other one.) Which feels better? Which makes you want to keep going? Go with it. But also know that at some point, you will need both. Where you start is just that – a start.

Beware I: How-to books, charts, writing exercises. These elements are helpful if they aid your writing, not if they replace writing.

Beware II: Over-researching. Research is fun. It looks like you’re doing something productive. It can also be a grand excuse to not write. I do broad-brush research before starting. Only after I’m into a story, do I know what details it requires – I research those. Remember, research serves the story. Not vice versa.

Beware III: Thinking you need to be a better writer before you can start writing. Nope. You have to write to be a better writer. What you write doesn’t have to be perfect or even good at the start. It just has to be that way at the end.

Not Starting Your Writing Session

Paraphrasing John Gardner, the hardest 15 minutes in writing are the 15 minutes before you start writing.

There’s a good reason for that, as shown in two quotes about writing. Legendary sports writer Red Smith said all you had to do was “sit in front of a typewriter and open a vein.” Variously ascribed to Gene Fowler or Doug Adams, the other quote advises “staring at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

We’ve left typewriters and paper behind (mostly), but blood’s still part of the program.

You dig into the guts and souls of characters who live in your head with the hope of connecting them to unknown readers. How can it not be hard? How can it not be wonderful? How can it not be terrifying to sit down in front of the computer and prepare to do this?

So don’t. Instead, put the big, terrifying, wonderful important stuff out of your mind and concentrate on other matters. In other words, play mind games with yourself.

Find a routine. Keep your writing place and time sacred and only for that. Play the same music over and over until you’re as conditioned to write when it plays as Pavlov’s dogs were to salivate.

Use guilt. For many of us it’s a renewable resource, so don’t stint. You have an ability to write and you’re not using it? How dare you waste that. You have a dream to write and you’re not pursuing it? What kind of example are you to your children. You have characters in your head and you’re not letting them out? How cruel of you to condemn them to everlasting solitude.

Most of all, remind yourself of this writing essential: BICHOK.That’s Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard. I do an entire workshop on BICHOKing. But here’s one trick:

In each writing session, leave something unfinished. Don’t polish the end of a chapter, then close your file and be done for the day. That leaves a wall of inertia to climb the next time you sit down. Instead, go on to the next chapter, next scene, next whatever and start writing. Doesn’t have to be a lot. Then – and this is vital — write whatever else you’re thinking about or know about that chapter/scene/whatever. Think notes, scraps, fragments. This is for you alone, so the next time you open your file, you have reminders of what was percolating in your brain. I particularly like fragments of dialogue strung together with ellipses. Filling in those ellipses, along with supporting notes and comments left like breadcrumbs from the previous session return my thoughts to where they were at the end of the previous session. That makes the next writing session much easier to start.

So get started!

************

pa-mclinnPatricia McLinn, or PA McLinn as her readers know her, is a writing instructor and the author of several romances including the Bardville, Wyoming series.
See her finished work here.

Comments

  1. I enjoyed the post, especially the part about research. I wasted an entire day of writing doing research and felt horrible because of it. I think that I served the research more than the manuscript. Research is essential, but writing is paramount.

  2. What we really need to do is abolish the Internet. My most productive spurt of writing was in 1996, I believe. Ever since then, this thing called The Web has proved the ultimate distraction.

    • LOL. Let me know how you’re doing with that Internet-abolishing effort, TJ. There are apps that will block the Internet for a period of time for you. You might try that. I tend to use my laptop for Internet-related stuff, and my desktop for writing. I also use music to signal to my brain: We’re Writing NOW.

  3. Rob Olive says:

    I have self-published one novel and am struggling with beginning the next. I’ve read many “how-to” books and have been banging away at this for a dozen or so years. I’ve never seen a more cogent and sensible treatise on getting started than this. Thank you very much! Rob Olive, Author, Essential Liberty

    • That’s terrific to read, Rob. Thank you! Having written one book, your brain knows what you’re in for this time. (Ignorance was bliss, the first time around.) Try to trick it, by narrowing your focus to as small an increment as possible. One way to do that is to say: All I have to write today are 100 words. That’s it. When those 100 words are done, then I can quit for the day. … But do it ~every~ day. Some days 100 words might be all you get. But other days you’ll fly by those 100 and keep going. I also use a timer. “All I have to write today is half an hour.” The timer goes off and I usually reset it for another session. If it goes off again and I’m still writing, I just turn it off and keep going.

      The point is the reassure your brain/creativity that it doesn’t have to come up with/commit to the whole darned book right now — just today’s small increment.

  4. Very good article! I’m an Inner/Outer type of writer!

    • What I didn’t mention in the article, Pamela. Is that the business side of traditional publishing is NOT gears to us Inside Out writers. So recognize you could have more difficulties there. (For example writing a synopsis before the book’s done, or a traditional proposal of the first 3 chapters and synopsis — I rarely write the first 3 chapters first.) But if you’re writing complete manuscripts it doesn’t matter. Besides, I’m convinced we have more fun ;-).

  5. I’m an Inside Outer, too. Love the idea of using music to signal the brain it’s time to write. Fantastic article.

  6. Dear Patricia,
    Thank you for that article, i only wish it were longer lol. If i may, a little about me…i come from a family of artists (writers, painters), my Mother was an excellent sketch artist and piano player, my Great Uncle ( i do not know his name, only what i have heard about him) was an accomplished Nature artist in Northern Ontario,, and the list goes back even further, but supposedly everyone knew i had talent for the arts when i was very young..i used to write short stories in public school, some very imaginative stuff from what i read of them later in life, i had quite the imagination as a child i saw, but didnt know at the time of course lol, I grew up in a house in Huntsville Ontario that had no cable TV..that is relevant because i moved up north from the city, i spent alot of my free time watching cartoons when not in school or playing outside. I was forced to find new things to do as i didnt live in a suburban community anymore, i was living in rural Ontario now, no one lived close enough to us that had kids my age, so one day, i had an urge to pick up a pencil and draw something. The very frist thing i ever drew with any seriousness was a Ferrari, my dream car. From that very first picture, my mother knew i ahd inherited the talent for art. I began drawing everything i could see, cars, planes, jets, helicopters, and that was at the age of about 12. Needing more of a challenge, i began to draw some of the characters from the books i had recently begun reading. As a boy with a wide imagination, i was drawn towards Fantasy/Sci-fi ie. Margaret Weiss, Tracy Hickman, Ed Greenwood, R.A. Salvatore, Robert Jordan etc. and i foun d those to be more challenging, but just as enjoyable to do. One day, i read a book that i thoroughly enjoyed, for the life of me i cannot remember the title, but i remember the main Character in it, and when i finished reading the book having completely connected to the main Character ( an Elf which had been turned into a Vampire) i was VERY unhappy with how the book ended, and i wanted more then anything to continue his story, figuring there is no way he could have died at the end. I came up with a way for him to have survived the ending of the book, thus creating another chapter in his life (or un-life? :P) Anyways, for the next several months, i wrote page after page about him and his new story…i took a few pages downstairs to my mother as i was always seekign her approval as she had written a 600 page Sci-fi novel in a two week period once when i was 8 yrs old, and it was REALLY good, and i wanted her input…she was blown away! She made me take it to everyone she knew, her friends and our family and read it aloud to them, not believeing how well i articulated ( i think that was the word she used) for a 13 yr old, and even though it was a fantasy novel i wanted to write, people liked the character, as i knew they would because he was very relateable, even for an Elven Vampire, which is what drew me to him in the first place. Eventually i hit a spot where i couldnt continue, for the life of me i couldnt concentrate anymore! I couldnt figure out how to move on! IT was like i had written myself into a dead end or soemthing. Eventually, i lost all the pages i wrote, but have ALWAYS wanted to write another Fantasy novel. I have been acknowledged in the past for my natural writing ability, even having a letter i wrote in public school to our PM win a competition our school was having, about an issue we were having at the time as a country, and my letter was chosen out of everyones to be mailed to the PM ( i think it might have been Mulroney at the time, it was a long time ago lol) Anyways, i know were i to actually be able to sit and write, to stop the procrastination and believe in myself and my talents again, i would LOVE to write or attempt to write another novel. I truly enjoyed your article, it was inspiring to someone like me, but i need to know more! Any advice you can give me to help me get over this hurdle i have erected in my mind that says i cant do it, i would love to hear! A part of me KNOWS i can do it because i have done it before, but i think maybe im too afraid to try again because of what happened the first time i tried…i was on a role, and then it just disappeared…i was very upset and disappointed in myself then, i dont want that to happen again…there must have been something i did wrong to write myself into a block like that…anyways, i apologize for this VERY long comment, but i saw you were answering most of the other comments people made here regarding your article, and i wanted you to know as much about my situation as i could tell you at this time because maybe you have taught people in the past who are in the same predicament i am. ANY advice would be greatly appreciated….feel free to e-mail me at ganookian@gmail,com Thanks for your time!!!

  7. Hi Patricia
    Your counsel is indescribly helpful and timely. After five years of writing in my few spare moments I hired a freelance editor to critique my first novel. A humbling experience. Your article helped me realize I’m an outside-in writer. I’ve been struggling for a few weeks about how to fill in the characterization details (the inside). Any advice from your author friends who are outside in writers?
    Best
    DJ

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