Are you about to write your first novel?
Stop right now and read this first.
I wish I had stumbled upon an article like this before I started writing my very first draft. I wish somebody had told me those 10 things.
And especially, I wish I had taken them seriously. Now that I am editing my first draft, and looking back at the process and the things I have learned, I see how much work I could have spared myself by taking those 10 things into account and integrating them into my process.
Learn from my mistakes. Here is a treasure box of those 10 things that can spare you lots of hours if you understand and implement them before writing the first draft.
1. Craft the ending & the beginning first
One thing stuck with me when I listened one to of the Creative Penn Podcast Episodes:
I know the beginning, I know the ending, and the rest is just everything in-between.
Rachel Aaron advises in “2k to 10k”: Write down everything you know, then fill the holes.
So when preparing for the outline, it’s important to know where your story starts and where it needs to go. If you don’t know it yet, figure out before you start.
Nothing is as bad as having to change the ending and accordingly the whole book to set it up. Believe me.
I’ve been through this, and I won’t make this mistake again because it turned my book upside down.
Craft a strong beginning and a strong ending first, then fill the holes.
2. The Outline is the book
This realization came to me during the James Patterson Masterclass.
Reading the outline is like reading your book. So put a lot of work into it.
I tried to be a “pantser”, but I know I’m not, and I really admire the people who can crank out a bestseller just like that. I need my outline! And it better be a good outline.
During the process of outlining, I could not wait to start writing, because outlining is not really writing, right? I felt like I was wasting time because no actual letter of my book had been written yet.
But this is a huge mistake.
The more detail you put into your outline, the more time you’ll save editing later.
My outline was not working when I began writing. But I thought: I’ll figure the rest out as I go.
You have to read your outline and see the book in front of you. It has to work. Your plot holes and inconsistencies have to be fixed by the time you start your first draft.
Once you write it out, your story will inevitably change. But the changes won’t be as global and empower you to finish the book sooner.
3. What is the question you need to be answered?
When I started to write, I had a concept. But I had no theme.
What is the difference between concept and theme?
“[…]theme is what our story means. How it relates to reality and life in general.” Brooks, Larry. Story Engineering (S.118).
Stephen King argues in his book “On Writing” that his theme emerges when he has finished his first draft. This is a fascinating way of finding your theme. But I wish I had known the theme sooner because it would have saved me so much work.
What can help you understand the theme is Ted Dekker’s advice on writing a bestseller: What is the question about this world that is bothering you? When you set out to write a story, this story has to be your quest as well. It has to challenge you and answer a question in your own life.
This is your theme.
So don’t think about a topic that you can preach to readers. Think about a question that is bothering you and that you want to try and answer in your story on a deeper level.
4. Create more than one villain
Many story writing books teach us about the hero and the villain. How to craft the perfect, strong and believable villain.
But one villain is not enough.
Your story has to have one main villain, the one your struggle begins and ends with. But he will never be enough to hold the reader’s attention and carry the story through the middle.
For this, you need at least three different villains that have both similarities and differences and challenge your hero on different levels.
This will make your story so much richer. In order how to draft the four-corner-opposition, see more here.
5. Secondary characters are variations of the theme
I was only able to form my secondary characters into real people in the third draft because of a principle I failed to realize before.
There are many rules on how to create rich secondary characters, GMC amongst my favourites. Debra Dixon describes this method in her book, which in short means that every character who appears in your novel needs to have a goal, a motivation, and a conflict.
But one amazing technique is to make your secondary characters a variation of the theme. If your theme is “fear”, give those characters completely different approaches on how to cope with fear. If your theme is “romantic relationships” (f.e. in romantic comedies), all of your secondary characters need a different outlook and experience concerning relationships.
Amongst all those great techniques of how to craft them, make sure to give them at least a subtle hint of the theme to make your story and their part in it richer.
6. The first draft is just one layer
Only when editing did I realize that with every draft, I added another layer to my story. The first draft is the first layer, and this can be both a liberating as well as a challenging thought.
Liberating because this means that your first draft is only a layer, and you can add or subtract as much as you like in all of the following drafts.
Challenging because at the same time, it’s the foundation you lay to your story, and a good foundation saves you time, headache and makes your story sustainable.
I thought: As soon as my first draft is ready, it’ll need a little tweaking here and there, but will basically hold the finished book in my hands.
Far from that.
Consider the first draft only the first layer of what is yet to come. Make sure you lay a firm foundation, but at the same time, don’t stress out about it needing to be perfect.
7. Fall in love with your main character
In the middle of my first draft, I found myself unsympathetic to my hero, for one reason only: I did not really know him. I was not close to his heart.
Sometimes we get so lost in the technicalities of the craft that we forget to love our characters. Do you care for what happens to your hero? Do you care if he fails? Are you feeling his joy and his sorrow?
Because if you don’t, the reader won’t.
It might sound crazy, but you need to make the hero your friend. Spend time pondering on his motivations, his thoughts. You need to become fascinated with him. Find (or create) characteristics you admire, and if he hurts, make sure you hurt as well.
This process takes time, as every good friendship does, but it’s a time well invested because it will make you fall back in love with your story, and ensure that the readers will stick to it as well because of your characters.
8. Have an action plan and a deadline
Especially if you are self-publishing, it’s hard to set a deadline and stick to it. Consider your writing business.
Just recently, my online mentor Joanna Penn said in her podcast that one novel a year won’t ensure a full-time living. This scared me. It meant that I needed to write at least three novels a year, alas one novel in four months. How is this even possible?
The key is a solid action plan.
You need to write this plan before you set out writing your book, and you need to stick to it. However your daily life looks, create a realistic plan from the outlining up until the publishing date, and stick to it. Take your own deadlines seriously. Because if you won’t consider your writing a professional business, no one else will.
9. WHY do you want to write? – Your mission statement & your book statement
Answer this question now, before you start writing.
The answer needs to be rock solid. It needs to take you through all the ups and downs of the creative process. It needs to get you through the darkest moments.
There can be many layers to the answer. But it needs to be more than money. Here are some of my reasons:
– I want a life where I can have financial freedom and time to do the things I love: write, work out, travel, be with my family, create.
– I want creative expression, evoking change in my readers by helping them, inspiring them and making them see life from another perspective.
Those are your mission statements. Before you set out for a writing or any other creative career, you need to craft those mission statements. Pin them to a board or anywhere else where you can read them when times become tough.
Then, you need to answer this question for your book specifically. Because every book is time-consuming and you will need an unshakable reason to stick to the idea. Test your story writing idea to the bones, honestly asking yourself: Is it really worth it? Do I like the idea enough to stick to it for months and invest all this labour? Be honest with yourself. Find the reasons why you love your concept and your idea. If you can’t, don’t be afraid to throw the idea overboard.
Both your mission statement as well as your book statement will help you get through the times when writing life is especially tough.
10. Push, push, push!
So you know why you want to write? Good. Now, make it a habit.
The process of habit making often means that you need to push yourself in the beginning. You don’t feel like writing? It doesn’t matter. You think that all you are producing is pure rubbish? It doesn’t matter.
What matters is that you sit down to do the work.
This is why you need your action plan so desperately, the same way you need a workout plan. It frees you from the decision making. You look at your plan, and you do the work. Period.
Sometimes you’ll love it, sometimes you’ll hate it. That’s how we humans are wired. The point is that you are doing the work no matter how you feel.
And you know what? Eventually, the emotions of satisfaction will become addictive. If you pushed yourself and met your daily deadline, you leave the desk with a feeling of satisfaction.
Don’t be afraid to write. Be afraid NOT to write.
Knowing and applying those principles would have spared me a lot of trouble. This is what I want to do for you.
Are you ready to set out on a new writing adventure? Because this is what your first draft really is. A yet unknown but exciting journey.