7 unforgettable lessons from writing the first draft of my first novel

Yesterday, I reached a major milestone as an aspiring author. My first draft of my first novel is complete!

Luna wearing a t-shirt that says "all write, all write, all write!" celebrating the first draft of her first novel
celebrating the completion of the first draft of my first novel in my writer shirt

It’s hard to believe that, this time last year, writing a book was nothing but a dream bouncing around my head. Now, I have more than 75,000 words written, saved, and backed up (twice). I can’t wait to get it printed and hold the manuscript in my hands!

A first draft is a far cry from a finished novel, and I know there’s still a lot of work to do. There will be self-edits, professional edits, and formatting to take care of before you get to lay eyes on it. Regardless, this feels like an amazing achievement! If you dream of writing a novel one day, here are some hot tips for getting through your first draft.

The desire to write your first novel is more important than having a brilliant idea

The first time I said, “I really want to write a novel,” out loud, was during a session with my life coach, Cat. It felt like a breakthrough. As excited as I was, I also had no effing clue what the story would be about.

But I didn’t let that stop me.

Instead of waiting for a spark of genius to strike, I started intentionally setting time aside to brainstorm, or as I prefer to call it, “collect ideas.”

I would go out for a hike by myself and record bits and pieces of plot lines or character ideas in voice memos on my phone. Carrying a pocket-sized notebook and pen around with me made it easy to jot down ideas when I was reading, watching movies, or even just hanging out. I found that some of the best ideas came to me in the middle of the night or right as I was about to fall asleep, so I also kept a notepad next to my bed.

After several weeks of collecting ideas, I had enough notes to start writing. I spent some time researching some of these ideas in greater depth but found that many of them never made it to the first draft. 

Going down a research rabbit hole is something you need to watch out for. Maybe I’ll use the info I gathered for another story, but, for now, I’m going to stick with the method that works for me — leaving myself notes in my first draft to go back and do more targeted research later.

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There is no one right way to write a novel

When you listen to authors talk about writing novels, the terms “plotter vs. pantser” often come up. These words describe people who write from an outline (plotters) and those who might not know what will happen until the words hit the page.

I’ve listened to many podcasts and interviews with authors who swear by one method or the other. This brought me to the conclusion that no single approach works best for everyone.

Plotting and pantsing are opposite ends of the spectrum. You’re likely to fall somewhere in between the two. After pressuring myself to try to conjure an outline for my entire novel, I finally gave up and learned to love my place in the pantser group.

I began to think about writing my novel the same way I created a lavender spiral in my yard. The process started with collecting a pile of rocks that looked nothing like the finished project.

Similarly, my novel began with 30,000 words of freewriting. After I had several dozen pages of word vomit, I used it to extract a rough “outline.” I put that word in quotes because my outline was just a description of my main characters and a bullet list of maybe ten plot points. Only one scene from that initial 30K word dump made it to my first draft.

I wrote in Scrivener, which has a small side window you can use to write a few sentences about the setting and plot of each scene. This helped me stay on track by reminding me what I wanted my characters to do before the scene ended.

It doesn’t hurt to brush up on the basics of writing and storytelling

Before I began writing my first novel, I consulted some pros. I listened to On Writing* by Stephen King and took the “How to Write a Novel” e-course by Joanna Penn at The Creative Penn. I found both helpful and inspiring and highly recommend them to anyone interested in writing a novel.

They both go over the fundamentals of a story structure and stress the importance of mastering grammar.

I’m lucky that I was a professional writer for nearly a decade before trying my hand at fiction. I’ve also taught English and writing to speakers of other languages, so my grammar is pretty decent. However, I still use an AI tool for proofreading. Currently, I use Grammarly, but I want to switch to ProWritingAid because it works in Scrivener. These tools are great at catching spelling and grammar errors and common style mistakes.

Claim your writing time and show up for it

No one cares about your novel more than you do, so you’re the one that needs to carve out time to work on it. Because we still haven’t found a way to add hours to our days, you’re probably going to have to give up something else (at least temporarily) to find the time.

It took a lot of trial and error. Even though I’ve worked from home as a journalist and copywriter for years, I found that writing fiction was a whole new beast.

I tried writing early in the morning, late at night, at home, and in cafés. What ultimately worked best for me was writing from 7-10 am  Monday-Friday. My brain is most creative in the morning, so I had to show up at my keyboard during that time. I also started carrying my laptop around so I could pick away at it wherever I had 5-10 minutes of free time. 

Understand that your first novel probably won’t be your best

Perfectionism is the enemy of progress

– Winston Churchill

This might be a tough one to push past. Perfectionism can have deep roots in unhealed trauma and is far too complex of a topic to cover in one small subheading.

However, when I realized that perfectionism was something many creative folks struggle with throughout their lives, taming my meticulous tendencies became more manageable.

At the early stages of writing my first draft, the therapist I was working with suggested keeping a worry notebook to record my feelings of worry, stress, and anxiety. On one page, I wrote, “I’m worried my first novel will suck.” As I penned those words, something came over me. I felt like I was possessed. I started scribbling in all caps, “OF COURSE IT’S GOING TO SUCK. THAT’S THE POINT. JUST DO IT!!!”

Much as I’d love to drop you a nugget of wisdom as quotable as good ole Winston, I don’t have any better advice than that stream-of-conscious blurt.

Strive for balance and forgive yourself for letting it slip

Writing a novel is s a big commitment that requires a lot of time spent alone. I realized I couldn’t take phone calls or respond to messages during my blocked-off writing time. Engaging with the outside world pulled me out of the fictional sphere I was creating. For an introvert like me, this wasn’t much of a challenge. But it’s something to consider if you don’t like spending time by yourself.

To finish writing my first draft and avoid going crazy, I decided to keep my evenings and weekends open to catch up with loved ones and spend time with my husband. We moved to a rural area a the beginning of the pandemic, so managing my social life isn’t an issue because I don’t have one.

However, there have been noticeable changes around my house since I started devoting time to novel writing. I spent less time on chores like washing the dishes and cleaning the house. I also cut down my gym time with shorter workouts, YouTube yoga videos, and kettlebells in my writing studio.

Start to think about the next steps before you get to them

One of the most important things I learned from Joanna at The Creative Penn is to start thinking about book editing and publishing options sooner rather than later.

For many reasons, I decided to self-publish my first novel. It’ll grant me more control over the creative process and ensure my book gets out in the world before I’m 60.

Now that my first draft is finished, I’ll get it printed and then put it someplace out of sight for about a month. Then, I’ll go back and do my first round of self-edits with fresh eyes. I’m also going to use this time to look for an editor so they’ll be ready when I have a revised draft to send them.

That’s all the advice I have for now. I’ll keep you updated with my progress as I dive into the editing and publishing processes. I hope you found this post helpful, inspiring, and informative!

XoL

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