Friday, April 2

Under Development: Writing That First Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Writing can be a daunting task, but it can be even more daunting for those who know they want to write, but just aren't sure how to start. What do you focus on first? Should you worry about how publishable the idea is? What's the fuss about query letters and do you need to write one?

It can make you crazy.

So, here is my advice for anyone who's brave enough to pick up the pen and start writing. The things I feel will build a strong foundation that you can develop your skill set on. This also applies to those who are still trying to get their writing legs under them.

Read a Lot
It may sound silly, but one of the best ways you can develop your writer's ear is to read as many great books as you can. You'll start seeing (and hearing) how to put together sentences and what makes a great dramatic scene. It'll also familiarize you with your genre, let you see what else has been done, and make it easier to spot cliches.

Write a Lot
And the only way you can practice those skills, is to write. Don't worry about how good or bad it is, just get it down. You have to start somewhere, and just like you skinned your knees learning to walk, you'll make mistakes and fall down as you start to write. But every time you put words together, those words get better and you learn.

Now for the more specific stuff, because that's what you really want to know, right?

Grammar and Punctuation
Brush up on the proper usage of things like quotation marks and em dashes. Learn how to use commas and semi-colons. Know how to punctuate dialog. Writers break grammar rules all the time, but to do it well, you first have to know what those rules are. You don't have to go back to school or anything, but make sure you're using your tools correctly so you don't develop bad habits that will be hard to break later.

Point of View
I'm a strong believer that understanding POV early on will help you eliminate a big chunk of the common problems many new writers have. It helps you with show vs tell, info dumping, too much back story, makes it easier to know what to describe so you don't have tons of exposition, and helps with goals and stakes. Study what makes a good first person or third person, the differences between limited and omniscient third, how past and present tense narrators work.

Scene and Structure
I'm a framework gal, and I think it's a lot easier to "color within the lines" so to speak when you're starting out. Understanding how scenes work provide structure not only for your stories, but for your leaning process. You have something specific you're trying to do, which gives you something you can check your progress against. Plus, scenes are just the building blocks of a novel, so understanding those gives you the skill set to write good chapters and completed novels. Understand what goals are, why stakes are so important, and how to use both to create a plot that moves your story forward.

Novels are stories first, and the plot is how you tell that story to your reader. Figuring out what pieces go into making a plot go a long way toward putting together a novel that makes sense and a story that unfolds in a compelling way. Not everyone likes to plot out their stories, and that's fine, but understand what makes a good plot and how stories unfold so you know what you're aiming for as you write.

Why I Suggest These Things
Grammar, POV, structure and plotting are all tools that build the novel. If these are weak, it won't matter how well you write on a sentence level, because you probably won't be able to tell a compelling story. And the story is what the reader if after. It's also easier to polish a well-built novel so it reads well that to build a story under too-pretty-to-edit words.

What Not to Worry About

When you're learning your craft, it doesn't matter what you write about, because the goal is to learn, not publish. While we all have that dream that our first novel will sell, it's rare when that actually happens. Odds are your first novel will be your starter novel and where you'll develop your skills. Knowing that going in takes the pressure off. It's just practice, so if you make a mistake, it doesn't matter.

Beautiful Writing
While you'll want to strive to write the best you can, trying to do too much at once is a good way to get overwhelmed. Don't worry about how the writing sounds at this point. The goal is to learn how to tell a story. Once you can do that, you can learn how to make that story read as smoothly as possible.

Being Perfect
Only the rare few are perfect when they first put words to paper. And even those who have dozens of books on the shelf still write first drafts that can make your eyes bleed. Writing is revision, and chances are you'll edit just about everything you ever write.

These things are by no means the only things you have to learn, but I think they're a great place to start. Trying to learn it all at once is a lot of information to process. But if you take it layers at a time, you'll build a strong foundation that will make the next step easier to absorb.


  1. If [Grammar, POV, structure and plotting] are weak, it won't matter how well you write on a sentence level, because... story is what the reader if after. It's also easier to polish a well-built novel so it reads well that to build a story under too-pretty-to-edit words.


    It doesn't matter how fabulous a situation you have, how wonderful a scene is, or how witty your narrator, if you can't produce a coherent plot that needs them.

    And yes, I'm speaking from experience.

  2. Great post. Now if only newer writers knew to look for this sort of thing. :)

  3. Great post! Great points! I'm certainly taking notes!

  4. Great advice. You are so right that reading and writing a lot teaches us so much. And yes, everything needs revision many times.

  5. From the number of new writers asking questions on the Absolute Write forums, I think they're out there Googling what they want to know. :)

  6. I really appreciate this post! It's pinpointing exactly where I am right now, and I'm learning a lot from this. Thank you!

  7. This is an awesome post, thanks for the detailed notes. Do you have any good advice on seamless transitioning from scene to scene, especially when you're trying to bridge a significant time gap (more than a day)?

  8. JEM, I have three posts on transitions:

    If they don't help, let me know and I'll do something more specific :)

  9. I love love love how you made reference to us AW people! In fact, it was from AW that I got access to your wonderful blog! I can't tell you enough how much I'm appreciating your expertise and how hungrily my eyes are reading your advice. (My hublet is on threat of death if he tries to close my window when I have your blog up since I'm referring to it so often now that I have access to it!)

    Now that I'm reading all of this I'm going to go back and revamp what I've written and see what I can do to make my writing better than it has ever been. You are an absolute Godsend!

  10. Monica: I love AW! Been a member for years. I've been a bit absent the last few months due to deadlines and life craziness, but starting to get back to my regular check ins.It's a wonderful site for writers. And thanks so much!

  11. Great Post, Been digging around a bit. What's color within the lines" mean? Is it a way you color cordinate you're writing?

  12. A Mom's Choice: It's more like a coloring book. I like to get my basic structure down so I know the overall arc of my story (even if some later events are pretty vague). Then once I have that "outline" of the story, I color it in and flesh it out. So it's like taking a flat black and white line drawing and turning it into a full color illustration. Can you tell I went to art school? (grin)

  13. Janice,
    Great idea do you have one you've done to share. It's a good idea. Color brings out creativity.

  14. I don't because it's just my process. But I might have to keep an eye out for a good scene to "save" at each step/layer of my writing. It might be a fun post to see what I do and how I layer in everything.

  15. I just finished my first novel. I can honestly say that what I have read here is true. I was a commercial script writer and yes ,yes, yes! It's just as you say. My scripts got better with time to the point that I could juggle quite a few at a time. I think one key is to finish what you start and thank the writer Gods I did. I have some experience,but,what I really needed was your good advice! Thank you

  16. William, most welcome :) Glad I could help. Good luck with your writing!