If you want to be an author, there is one thing that you must do to make that journey. It doesn’t require being a genius. You don’t need to be the world’s expert on literature. These days, you hardly need to know how to spell, as the software will help you learn that. Honing your craft is important as time goes on, but to start off, you need only one thing:
You must FINISH the first draft.
This can be the most daunting part of the process for the novice, but it’s also the fun part. Being prepared for the process will certainly help. The better you are prepared, the smoother the whole process will go.
Why is it so scary? Word count. Most people attempting to write their first book might be surprised to learn that a good novel length is around 80,000 words. I may put up a post later to clarify that number a bit, as it varies depending on the kind of story you are telling. Still, it’s a good starting point. Compared to some 500-word essays most of us had to write in high-school, 80,000 is a heck of a number.
What will you say? Is your story even worth all those words? Can you actually leg out that high of a word count without losing interest? These are all questions that you’ll need to consider, but the basic equation involves two important steps.
You start writing. You keep writing until the story is finished. These two topics will be discussed in detail in further segments, but the mental training starts now, while your story is still an idea. You absolutely can do it, and your final word count may shock you, but you can do it.
When I started writing my first novel(the first one I finished, at least), I didn’t have anywhere to turn. I started it on a whim with a story in mind and just kept going. But there were some important details that I needed to consider right from the start, and I knew myself well enough to set very strict limits on what I needed to do in order to finish.
How Long is Your Attention Span?
If I start a project, any project, I give myself about 90 days to make some progress, six months at the most. If I haven’t met an important milestone in that time-frame, I get bored and move on to something else. I’ve done this my whole life, with just about everything.
I was delighted to learn from some minimal internet research that a novel draft could be completed by most people in 100 days, so I set that as my target. I decided to write every single day, adding something to the story.
I had also read about that 80,000 word marker. Take that number divided by 100, and you get 800 words per day on average to finish the first draft of a novel. With NaNoWriMo (which I learned of later), the goal is 50,000 in a month, catering to a much wider audience, but with the same concept in mind. Writing is a daily task. More on this in a moment.
I had to develop the habit of writing, more than the technique. If I couldn’t get my word counts dialed in, then I would fall short, lose interest, and like so many other attempts to write a long-format story, fail. This was something I planned on.
Added note: In the beginning I rarely hit 800, but by the time I had established my writing habit and let go of the baggage, I was cranking out 2000 plus per day, which made up for my early low numbers.
Research is Important
…but never quite finished. If you wait to start until you have every possible little blip cleared up, then you will never start. Having said that, it’s important to clear up major issues you might encounter. Develop the world elements, the main characters, and other tricky stuff ahead of time. By doing so, you’ll spend more time writing and less time looking things up online. But don’t wait forever. At some point you’ll need to hit the “go” button.
At the very least, you should be well acquainted with what type of person your main character is. You should have a clear view of the problem they need to solve, and their motivation for solving it. Simply treating your main character as a living, breathing, person will pull you out of a few jams when you get stuck and don’t know what to do. You can hand the story reigns over to them and simply write down what happens.
Daily Writing is Important
I cannot stress this point enough, even though plenty of writers out there might disagree. Your writing time should be absolutely sacred, and you need to add some words to your story every day. Even if it’s just one sentence, get it down before you go to sleep. Scheduling time for writing before you start is probably the most grossly overlooked part of the process, and probably the most important aspect leading you toward success.
Part of the planning process is being prepared to do this. Without fail, you will have family emergencies, important events, holidays, last-minute time-wasters, outings with friends, etc. It happens to all of us, and seems to infect new writers the most.
Set aside not one writing time, but several each day. Where there are breaks in your daily routine, allow yourself even more time. Shoot for a short burst in the morning, maybe some note taking while you are at work, time to jot down ideas as they come to you, even if you aren’t at your writing desk, and a little time before sleep and after supper. Try to plan out longer sessions on weekends or off-days. Do the planning before you start, and accept that writing a novel is going to take up an enormous chunk of your time. There’s no getting around that.
The more slots you have, the more you will be able to worm around the facts of life. If you have sudden plans for a dinner party, you can wake early and make the most of your morning session. If your morning gets thrashed, you have backup times. Not every session will work the best for you, but any attempt to get words down should be made. This is the momentum that will keep you moving through the writing process, so plan for it, and then plan again daily once you start writing.
Make Target Goals
Decide on a total word count. You can use any number you like, but 40,000 should be attainable for any story that will be made into a novel. 100,000 or more might be setting your hopes a bit high, but if you are writing sci-fi or fantasy there will be a lot of material to cover through the course of your book.
Next, give yourself a deadline for finishing the first draft. Keep in mind that it doesn’t need to be pretty, but it does need to be a whole story, from the start to the end.
Divide your word count across your time-frame and figure up a word average. Better, figure up a couple. Perhaps a session count, a daily count, and a weekly count. Try not to bog yourself down during the process. These numbers are meant to be guides and goals, not deadlines and necessity. Some parts of your story will move slower, others faster, but in general you will be able to see where you stand as you approach the end of the work.
Remember, make this part fun. Maybe reward yourself for meeting certain milestones, but never get too down on yourself for coming up short, unless you get a goose-egg. Write half a sentence if you must, but write something, every day.
You could even treat yourself just for that part. If you get a paragraph, then you did your writing duty for the day. Those days are typically hard and full of frustration, so the little pick-me-up of knowing you still got some words down can score you an easy win, no matter what else is happening in your life.
Write Character Bios
If not for all the characters, at least do up a quick bio for the main character. Jot down some notes about their background, their history, failed relationships, food allergies, favorite color, etc. Spend some time getting to know your main character. This is the point of focus for the story, and it should be as polished as possible come story time. Anything that makes them unique and interesting should be noted and studied.
You might also consider writing a bunch of short little stories about the main character, placing them in different situations and taking note of how they respond. Is your MC a hot-head, a turn-the-other-cheek, or somewhere in between? Do they value their car more than their significant other? Do they have hobbies? How good are they at math?
It boils down to this. Your main character isn’t you, unless you are writing an autobiography. You will either see this at the beginning, or they will let you know at some critical point in the story. Modeling after yourself is fine, and makes the process easier, but at the end of the day, there is something special about this character that makes them the perfect person for the problem that must be solved. Spend some time learning who that person is.
Know Where the Story is Heading
Some say to write the last chapter first, some simply say to decide on the ending in the beginning. To complete a draft on time and on target, there needs to be some goal. A final battle scene, and then some wrap up. You need to know who-done-it, who won, and the general outcome before you begin.
Need is a strong word here, as I’ve changed countless endings in my own stories as they evolved. This isn’t written in stone, but it should be a compass point to drive your character toward the ending of the story by knowing where they need to be and what they need to do.
If you come up with a better idea halfway through drafting, that’s cool. All you have to do is tweak the compass setting and keep moving forward. No big deal, as long as you have somewhere to go.
Sometimes, a theme fills this purpose nicely. Other times (especially with non-fiction writing), knowing who the story is for and what it can do for them will be enough. Just print out your 10-second elevator pitch for the story and tape it to the wall behind your writing station. Look at it every time you sit down.
Where to Begin
My favorite into to any story comes from the movie Fallen, starring Denzel Washington. I’ll quote it here:
“I never thought it would happen to me, not at this age. Beaten, outsmarted, poisoned. How did I get into this mess? How did the whole thing begin? No. If we go back to the beginning, that’ll take forever. Let’s start somewhere more recently.”
That pretty well sums it up. Don’t start when your character was born. Don’t bother talking about their first memories or high-school dramas. Start where the story starts. Every tale has a starting point, including true stories told to you by your friends. A person doesn’t begin talking about a car crash by telling you about their favorite puppy (unless the grown dog died in the crash? Maybe?) They start with something like, “I was cruising down highway 95,” etc. They set the stage. That’s your chapter one.
It’s really that simple.
I can’t harp too hard, because I struggle with this part, but the beginning of a story should set the stage for the story, not the entire universe and everything in it. Do yourself a favor and skip the prologue.
Reading the opening chapter of a few books, or watching the first 10 minutes of a few movies should be sufficient to make this stick, but that isn’t always the case.
In the end, you’ll have to dig deeper into the story you want to tell to figure it out, and the best time to do that might not be when you start drafting. If it’s really hanging you up, then pick any point along your stories early timeline, and just go from there. After the first draft, chapters can be added or removed, important world-building details can be shuffled around, and you can always fix the starting line later (so don’t hang up on that either). Pick a point, and start there.
The next word after the above movie quote is, “anywhere.” Pick a starting point, and move on.
The biggest talking point, it seems, and the one of least value. An outline doesn’t have to be some pretty little draft of your high-school science class notes. It doesn’t need to have a structure at all. The only thing an outline is for, is giving you a frame of reference, and to help you keep your bearing as you write.
This can be the above 10-second elevator pitch for the story. I can be a paragraph outlining who your character is, what they want, and what they must to to get it, along with a little note on how they get it and whether they win or not.
It can be a 1, 2, 3; A, B, C process too. If that works for you, then go for it. Start with beginning, middle, and end. Then fill in the details as much as you like.
My personal favorite is to write my whole story from start to finish in a couple of hours, glossing over all the dialogue, details, clever words, etc. I can jot the whole base of the novel from start to finish on 5 to 10 sheets of paper. A fountain pen or old-timey typewriter works amazing for this purpose, at least for me. There’s no begrudging what I need to do or nitpicking over the right word, I simply plot out the whole story from start to finish in as little time as possible, and then use that as my cheat sheet while drafting.
There are other ways too, and everyone has their own style, so just do what comes naturally. Even if you are a pantser, there’s no reason to not have any idea where you want to go. Even if your targets aren’t places or times, your character should be motivated by something. Make detailed notes about that motivation, and perhaps the problem they face, and why it’s important.
I think that about covers the topic of novel prep. If you have any other ideas for what writers should consider before they start writing, leave them below in a comment.