Writing the First Draft of Your Novel

Tips for Your Process

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

I still remember the feeling of finishing my first draft. It’s an intense sense of accomplishment, like you’ve built a tower by hand. And while I wouldn’t consider the journey done (I’m still looking for a publisher) the reward of finishing is something I’ll always have.

Today I’ll share what I’ve learned. These suggestions are a huge part of what got me through the process. Some I figured out by trial and error, some I found out from tips online. Some came from meeting people who were doing the same thing and others just came naturally, my own personality put into the process.

1. Get yourself some notepads.

Notepads, notepads, notepads. My house is bloody full of them now, they’ve invaded the rest of my life as well, something I’m profiting from organisation wise. First thing I did was pop down a supermarket and buy a nice A4 notepad, preferably something ring-bound. It’s obvious I know, but if you have an idea for a book, getting a notepad is your starting point.

I ended up needing four by the end. Don’t expect to be writing prose straight away, start with a good brainstorm, writing down your ideas. Expect to develop a relationship with it. Keep it in your bag, take it to work, and when inspiration breaks, always have a pen on you.

Your notepad doesn’t have to be physical. A good notepad app on your phone is a great way to take notes on the go. I use Notepad for Android by Dmitry Nazarov, but feel free to test out the free apps available and find one that suits you. On your commute inspiration might strike, and you can get it down quickly on your phone.

I found I used a combination of notepads. The paper one is good for an intense think and deconstruction of your story. A phone app is for that spur of the moment idea, capturing it quickly before it disappears. It’s particularly good for that strike of inspiration just when you go to bed. Don’t lie there and wait, get it down.

Finally, make sure you use an online word processing tool like Google Drive, One Note, Dropbox or One Drive for saving your notes and prose. Add the task of saving your notes in digital form. That way if you lose anything it’s all backed up.

2. Choose your notes and prose tool.

While we’re talking about online tools, it’s good to have one for your prose experimenting too. It's best to keep all your documents organised. When I wrote my novel, I used One Note Online. It’s free, and great for developing categories for your notes, giving them tabs. You need an outlook account to use it. Microsoft will try and redirect you to the full download (which is paid I believe) but you can try One Note Online and be directed to the purely online service, which is free. Bookmark it to avoid messing around in Google.

However, I had trouble with One Note further on in the project, so I’ll share one mistake to avoid. It's great for organising notes, but do not use it for the main prose documents. It will slow right the hell down every time you open it. For organising your notes use One Note, then for the main prose document, use Word, Google Drive or One Drive in a separate word document. I would recommend the online services for word documents, as they have a sodding autosave feature. Which you will want.

I pay 6 pound a month for Office 365 now, which is your best bet, as you can use Word and save your prose to One Drive (with the autosave feature) and use One Note as well. However, if you want to do things for free, try Google Drive and One Note Online. Google Drive has the same word processing and autosave as Word/One Drive, and you can work in One Note separately with it.

You will need an email address for whichever service you use, so to go free you need one in Google and one in Outlook/Microsoft.

Other writers recommend Scrivener. I found confusing, I didn’t like it. However, some writers I met swear by it for organising their projects and notes.

3. Find a spot to think and write.

This is the bit I like. If you want to think about your book, you need a place to do it. This can be your sofa, with some music. Your bed, your desk. Although the best advice I can give you is to go out and find somewhere. A cafe, a beach, a park. Wherever is good for you, as long as you go out.

When I first started, I would walk down to the local park in Moulsecoomb to find a spot. I took a deck chair with me over my shoulder, and a ruck sack, wandered out into a nice spot in the park and cracked out my notepad. That was two years ago, when I decided I wanted to write a book. Since then I’ve written on benches by Brighton beach, in Costas, Prets and Café Neros, at my desk at home and at work, even on buses and trains.

But that’s me. Think about your town or city and figure out a good place for you to just sit there with a notepad and scribble stuff. Somewhere peaceful, and somewhere you like being.

4. Choose your soundtrack.

Music helps me write, I don’t know about you. Spotify, YouTube, or an old collection. Get it on your phone in a playlist. I tend to go with Synthwave, Acoustic and Chill-Hop. It helps to choose something instrumental, as songs with lyrics don’t leave space for your own thinking. Listen and drop into your story, visualise your characters, get involved.

5. Get your character names from baby names websites.

This is an odd one, but it’s probably the best tip I can give you. Eventually you’ll have some characters, and you’ll go through the arduous process of naming them. Thanks to the internet, you don’t have to think of names for your characters by yourself. Try baby names websites.

I tend to end up on Baby Centre, but if you Google ‘Baby Names’ you’ll find lists of websites to serve your purposes. They have huge lists of names to scroll through, categorised alphabetically and by gender. When you’ve got a character in mind, you’ll end up calling him or her something generic ‘the protagonist’ or ‘the detective’ for a while (don’t waste your brain power doing anything else until you’ve got a name). Then when you have an image of the character in your head, pick a letter and just scroll through until something speaks to you, and start a list in your notes.

I would write short lists like this:

Tobey, Nathan, Graham, Franklin, Frank, Fred, Rhys, Richard.

Then eventually one of the names will speak to you as you stare at it long enough. Before you know it, you’re referring to 'Rhys' all over the page.

6. Set a target word count.

For the long-term purpose of finishing, it’s a good idea to choose a target word count. It helps you structure your work, give you something to work towards. From looking online, I found that 85,000 is the middle ground average to aim for, as agents claimed they prefer books around this word count. My book came to 94,000, although I let that happen for the sake of the story. Don’t worry about being exact, the story will come out the way it does. Picking a count is about having something to aim for, and to give you one less thing to worry about so you can focus on writing.

For reference, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was around 77,000 words, whereas Lord of the Rings was 455,000 words. Commonplacebook.com put together a good list if you’re interested.

7. Try writing groups and retreats.

There’s something about doing tasks with other people that helps. If you go to the gym, it’s a satisfying release. But if you take a class with others, seeing other people working hard helps motivate you and often you’ll work harder than you would on your own. The same principle applies to writing. While writing groups and retreats aren’t something I feel like I need at the moment, it was great to get me started and motivated early on, or for refreshing myself when I felt as though I dropped of the wagon a bit.

If you’re local to Brighton or Worthing in the UK, Writer’s HQ are a great bunch of ladies who run one. They put you in a room with no Wi-Fi and feed you tea and sandwiches while pushing you to work on whatever project you set for yourself. I found myself extremely productive when I went, and you meet other writers there, writers who have their own story and own process for writing which you can learn from.

I paid about 35 pounds for the day. If you can’t get to a Writer’s HQ retreat, do a Google Search for writing groups and retreats in your area and see what’s on offer. You’d be surprised how many people are into writing in your area.

8. Develop a routine.

An important thing to keep in mind is your own resistance to work. People are busy, and people are lazy. We are drawn to the familiar and the path of least resistance, and we have to work against ourselves to make sure we don’t give in. Writing retreats and groups will help you get motivated, but there will be times when you need to motivate yourself.

It seems fitting to compare writing to the gym in this respect, dedication and turning ‘I don’t want to’ into ‘Yes we’re going good’ is crucial for getting results in either. You don’t have to be stupidly strict with yourself, it’s more about being motivated, and developing behaviour that makes you feel like writing.

I used a tally and going out as a means to motivate myself. I wrote it down on my notepad like this:

Writing 1 2 3 4

Each number represents an hour of writing. I started a timer on my phone for the hour and stopped when it went off.

Don’t bother with word counts. They’re limiting, they make you feel like a failure when you don’t hit them. Failures to hit them will become demoralising, and it’s important to keep morale up to concentrate on the project. I found when I said screw word counts and focussed on time, I would often write more than the word counts proposed by some blogs.

That’s my method anyway. Sit there for an hour and concentrate. Strike each number off through the week or month. If you hit one or two, you’ve put in the time, if you hit 4, you’re kicking ass.

Other people prefer to try the ‘live in your diary’ method, something I haven’t done, but could work. This means you write the time you want to do the writing hour into your diary ahead of time, and then get to work. For very busy people this could be a good method, and I’ve come across research that says living in your diary is a better way of self-organisation than to do lists. Feel free to test out whatever method works for you.

Combining this with finding your spot is a good thing to do. If you found a nice place you like to go, develop a routine of going there. Maybe start the hour timer when you’re settled into your nice park or beach spot, or in the cafe. Design it for yourself. Bottom line is, this routine is for you, so whether you use my tally method or the live in the diary method, or even word counts, it’s good as long as it’s working.

9. Embrace failure and the inner argument.

This one is sort of abstract, more of a warning than anything else. Basically, you are going to have big problems writing a book. Things will not work. Storylines will come out stupid, things won’t make sense. Characters will act in ways that you don’t want them to. Embrace it.

When I wrote my book, I went through a very strange process. I started with something close to my original idea (something involving a VR world). Then I scrapped it for something completely different (dystopian society). Then I came back to my original idea and went forward with it. I kept at this idea and before I knew it I had 45000 words.

Then I realise that they were written wrong, that a character was introduced far too late. So, I scrapped all of it and started again. Here’s where the test is. It’s easy to give up when you reach this point, I found it very depressing. But if you’re obsessed, if you want your book enough, you’ll take the hit. A few months later, I had 93,000 words of book, ready to show people. And guess what, they liked it.

For the best summary of writing, I turn to this quote from a meme.

What people think writing is about: careful planning and thought out plotlines

What writing is really about: being possessed by an idea that you are constantly arguing with

I pissed myself laughing reading this. It’s utterly true. You have an idea, and you will spend two years arguing with it until it all fits neatly into your pages. That’s the reality of writing. So, accept it, and all the frustration and back tracking that comes with it. It's something that will either stop you writing, or reinforce your need to.

So that’s my list. As someone who can’t compare the feeling of finishing a book with any other experiences, I want others to get there and share the same feeling. I hope you find something in this list that helps you. Good luck, writer.

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