Friday, February 19

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.

Here’s my advice for anyone who's brave enough to pick up the pen and start writing. These elements can help you build a strong foundation on which you can develop your skills. They also applies to those who are still trying to get their writing legs under them.

Read a Lot

One of the best ways you can develop your writer's ear is to read widely, both in your genre and market and without. 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. When you find a book that particularly wows you, analyze it and figure out why it appeals to you so much.

(Here’s more on analyzing our favorite books)

Write a Lot

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

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 quotation marks and em dashes, learn how to use commas and semi-colons, know how to punctuate dialogue, etc. Writers break grammar rules all the time, but to do it well, you first have to know what those rules are. Make sure you're using your tools correctly so you don't develop bad habits that will be hard to break later.

(Here’s more on what you need to know about grammar)

Point of View

I'm a firm believer that understanding POV early on will help you eliminate 90% of the common problems new writers face A strong POV helps you show, not tell, prevents infodumping and backstory, makes it easier to know what to describe so you don't have tons of exposition, and helps create goals and stakes to keep the plot moving. Study what makes a good first person or third person point of view, the differences between limited and omniscient third, and how past and present tense narrators work.

(Here’s more on understanding point of view)

Scene Structure

Knowing how scenes work provides 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 the building blocks of a novel, so understanding those gives you the skill set to write good chapters and complete novels. Learn what goals are, why stakes are so important, and how to use both to create a plot that moves your story forward.

(Here’s more on basic scene structure)

Plotting and Story Structure

It's a lot easier to write a first novel with a framework to guide you—even if it’s the barest bones of structure. Plotting is one of the hardest aspects for new writers to figure out, and it’s common for their novels to wander aimlessly, or hit a wall about 100 pages in. Illustrating an idea through plot can be challenging even for veteran writers.

Story structure offers just enough plot turning points to keep you focused and give you a target to write toward. It’s a proven method for telling a story, so it takes some of the guesswork out on how best to tell that story. Depending on the type of writer you are determines how many point you like to have before starting a novel.

(Here’s more on basic story structure and plotting)

Why I Suggest These Things

Grammar, POV, structure, and plotting are all tools that build a 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. It's also easier to polish a well-built novel so it reads well, than to build a story under a lot of 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. We all dream that our first novel will sell (and sell big), 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

Write the best you can, but trying to do too much at once is a good way to get overwhelmed. Don't worry about the writing quality while you’re still building your skills. 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.

(Here’s more on well-written books vs. great stories)

Being Perfect

Only the rare few writers 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. Don’t worry if your first attempts stink. That’s normal, and even seasoned writers write bad first drafts.

These things are by no means the only things new writers have to learn, but 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 steps easier to absorb.

Are you considering writing your first novel? What are you worried about? If you’re past the first novel, what do you wish you knew when you wrote your first novel?

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  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!

  17. I'm totally agree with your tips, but grammar makes me bored and slows my fantasy down (

    1. For a first draft it doesn't matter. Write it as messy as you want. But if your goal is to one day publish or be a professional writer, those are skills you will have to develop.

  18. Janice; how do you feel about semicolons? I get mixed advice, some say never use them as it stops a sentence, others say they're fine. I've taken to eliminating them.

    1. Use them in the narrative, not in dialogue is what I've always done (and been told). But if you don't like them, nothing says you have to use them.

  19. My biggest concern is that English is not my native language, which makes me very insecure about my writing. I love the story I am working on, but whenever I am actually writing it down, I feel like I'll never be good enough.

    I love your blog though! It has really improved my understanding of story structure.

    1. Glad it's been helpful.

      You might find some good English-speaking beta readers to help you there. Then you can relax, write as you feel like it, and know that they'll help you catch and fix any issues.

  20. All good reminders. I'm now in the 5th (I think?) draft of my first novel. Am just now getting to sink into beautiful language. I wish I'd read this post when I first began--would have saved me some pain in trying to get it perfect the first time through. I'd add: Leave BLANKS when you don't know details and keep writing. You might end up deleting that scene and wasted time finding out the make of the car, material for her dress, etc.

    1. I leave lots of (add detail) or (research) in my first drafts. Good tip!