How to start (and finish) your first novel!

June 4, 2022

Have you got aspirations of being a writer? If so, you aren’t alone.

According to Google a massive eighty-one percent of Americans believed they had a “book in them”. Of this vast number however, only twenty-four percent will start writing their book, six percent will make it halfway through and less than one percent finish. Which is all to say, if you find yourself still kicking along the proverbial can, you’re in good company. Writing a book is a daunting task.

Completing my first novel

My aspirations to write a book first surfaced when I was a teenager. I bubbled with ideas – from a dystopian sci-fi where men were used as breeders to a brooding array of poems. Yet despite embarking on a series of first chapters none of my writing came to fruition.

Several years ago however, I had an idea that stuck. I wrote the first couple of chapters and despite putting it to one side my mind continuously came back to it. I had no choice but to finish it. That opportunity came during lock-down when I found myself trapped at home with more time than usual at my disposal.

What I quickly realised however, is that completing a book goes far beyond having a great idea and the writing process requires a huge amount of commitment.

So now that my book is published, and I reflect on everything that was involved what have I learned?  

My top tips for completing your first (second, or third) book

  • Get your head in the right space: other than having a concept and being able to construct a decent sentence your mind is the biggest obstacle to writing. All your fears of being judged, not being good enough, not having a worthwhile story, wasting time and money – every single fear will come to the surface and urge you to give up. You need to deal with that fear and as Zadie Smith stated in her ten rules of writing “Avoid your weaknesses. But… don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.”

In my case the biggest barrier was a sense of futility. If it wasn’t going to be a bestseller, why bother? What value was I creating? To overcome this though and keep going I had to shift my mindset from the result to the process. Ultimately, I wrote Our Twisted Fates for me. Not to prove anything to anyone else, not to be lauded or to make money. I did it because it’s something I needed to do for myself. By taking the focus off the outcome I found it easier to keep going even when I felt uncertain about the result.

Key point – write because you want to, not because you expect a specific outcome. And don’t stop writing because you have doubts.

  • Focus on the step in front of you: when I ran my first marathon I remember completing an excruciating five-kilometre training run and thinking “how on earth am I ever going to run 42km. There is just no way.” It seemed inconceivable. The way I kept going despite the doubt was to just focus on being able to get through the next training run without worrying about how I would finish the final race.

I used the same approach when writing my book. Rather than worrying about how I would write, edit, format, publish and market my book I instead focused on the next chapter, the first draft, the first edit. Progressively I completed each step and then figured out the next. By the end I had run the marathon, and published a book.

Tip: don’t overwhelm yourself by worrying about how you’ll complete the end-to-end process – just focus on finishing the next step.

  • Make sure your subject interests you: while the goal might simply be to write a book, loving the topic you’re writing about – whether that’s fiction or non-fiction – will make it far easier. It’s like launching a business. If you have a concept that grips you, you will find it easier to commit to the process. If the idea feels lukewarm then you are likely to give up at the first obstacle. I couldn’t shake my story from my mind – it just felt like it had to be completed – and that’s what helped me get it done.

Tip: write about something that inspires you, that you need to share with the world.

  • Make time to write: It sounds obvious but if you’re going to write a book consistently putting aside time to get words down on paper is essential. Writing regularly also helps you to build momentum. Even if it’s fifteen minutes a day or one hundred words – write something. I set myself the goal of writing a small amount each morning and put aside a couple of dedicated weekends to make bigger inroads.

Tip: it sounds obvious but if you want to finish your book make regular time to write.

  • Be accountable: a big game changer for me was buddying up with a friend who was writing her first book at the same time. We committed to supporting each other, completing our first drafts in parallel, and sharing experiences. Knowing she was making inroads gave me confidence and vice versa. If you’re writing try and find someone else who is doing the same, and if not then someone who has a big goal they are working towards. Commit to checking in with each other and stay accountable.

Tip: as with any other habit an accountability buddy makes success twice as likely.

  • Hire an editor: one of the best decisions I made was to hire professional editors. They helped me identify gaps in my narrative, address thematic errors and feel more confident about what I had created. It’s an investment but a worthwhile one.

Tip: You can hire freelance editors from top publishing houses through websites like Reedsy.

  • Don’t let fear of the unknown stop you: if it’s your first-time publishing you will find yourself in new territory trying to publish. What software should you use? How many words should you write? How do you format your book? Should you self-publish or go the traditional route? Whatever the obstacle might be remember it’s been overcome a thousand (million) times before. You are treading on well-trodden ground and the answer is out there. Don’t let fear stop you from taking the next step.

Tip: the answer to all your questions, and all the support you need is out there.

Final thoughts

When it comes to publishing a book possessing an idea and the ability to write well is only part of it. Completing the process goes beyond skill to encompass resilience, planning, commitment, and high level of personal investment. By recognising the demands upfront, confronting your self-doubt, and dedicating yourself to process you will have a far greater chance of success.

And in the end the reward of holding a copy of your book in your hands makes it all worthwhile!

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