Six Tips for Starting Your First Novel

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Me sporting my Ms. Frizzle inspired dress in homage to The Mutant Mushroom Takeover

I sometimes get questions about the publishing industry and how I got started writing. The person asking often has a story they’d like to share with a larger audience but isn’t sure where to begin. I totally get it. Writing a novel can feel like an overwhelming, impossible goal. But it is doable! I’m no guru but if sharing what I’ve learned over the years can help others, I’m glad to do it.

Find a Community

Writing is a pretty solitary pursuit and it can be hard to stick with it if you don’t have anyone cheering you on. Family can be a great support, but sometimes it’s nice to have others who are pursuing similar goals and understand the challenges to come alongside you and offer a word of encouragement (or a piece of chocolate).

If I hadn’t found fellow writers along the way, I’m not sure I would have kept at it. Encouragement can come in many forms. But the main thing is finding people who don’t think you’re completely nuts for wanting to sit alone for hours and make things up. 🙂

A few groups/conferences I’ve been a part of:

  • The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators – SCBWI has local chapters all over the world that offer workshops, conferences, and critique groups
  • Pitch Wars – I was part of this mentoring program in 2018 and had a great experience.
  • WriteOnCon – Online conference for KidLit writers/illustrators
  • Inked Voices – Online critique groups
  • Bookstagram – This is a link to my own account, but there are so many more. The book-loving community on Instagram has been a joy to be a part of over the last several years. You’ll never feel nerdy there for loving books!

Just Keep Reading 

1c0a7038fb355b9820747b20405a7ce0It might seem obvious but you’d be surprised how many people forget about this element. I think it’s fair to say it’s pretty impossible to write a well-crafted novel if you’ve never read one before. Reading teaches us about pacing, style, voice, plot, and so much more.

It’s particularly helpful to read within the genre you’re writing in. For example, if you want to write a fantasy book with a portal element that involves treasure hunting leprechauns, try to find as many treasure hunting leprechaun books as you can (okay, it actually doesn’t need to be nearly that specific, but hopefully you get the idea). Figure out what worked in those books and what you didn’t like and you’ll have a better sense of where you want your own story to go.

Also, remember that if you want to be published in today’s market it’s really beneficial to have a familiarity with what’s currently being published. I love classic books and I read them often, but I also read new things to understand what readers today enjoy.

Researching today’s book market helps you find fresh ways to tell your story. They say there’s no such thing as a new idea and that’s probably true, but there are new ways of telling an old story. Maybe you’ve got a story idea about a loner girl living in a small town who discovers she’s really a princess or maybe it’s a story of a mercenary who decides he wants to fight for justice. Those stories have probably been told before but not by you and not in the special way that your life experiences and vision will shape them.

Learn About Story Structure

I’m sure we all recognize that stories aren’t just a long series of disconnected happenings. They have main characters who grow and learn as a result of the events

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happening in the plot. There are internal arcs and external arcs. Sub plots. Beats. Midpoints and climaxes. It can sound a bit dizzying or maybe even confining. But structure isn’t a pair of handcuffs holding back your creative expression and none of the “rules” are set in stone, but familiarizing yourself with the basics can be immensely helpful. For example, here are a few questions you might ask yourself before you get going. Will your novel be written in first or third person, or maybe even second? What tense––past or present?  How many point of view characters will you include?  Will you have an unreliable narrator? What about using epistolary elements like diary entries and letters?

There are a lot of resources out there and I’ve included a few of my favorites below.

Online Resources:

 Books on Writing:

Know Your Audience

This section is particularly geared for those writing for the children’s market which encompasses everything from board books all the way up to YA. Each category has its own unique nuances surrounding word count, content, and themes.

Here’s a helpful article that goes over the specifics of what each category consist of and some basic guidelines for writing for that audience.

I won’t go into all the details here as the linked article does a great job of covering that, but I do want to touch on why knowing your audience even matters. For one thing, there can be a tendency to want to say our stories are for “every age,” or to say something like “Humans from 0 to 99 will love it!”  While it’s true that good stories can be enjoyed by people of a variety of ages, there isn’t an “Every Age” section at the library or bookstore. That’s because different readers are drawn to different types of stories. Knowing who your audience is can save a lot of frustration and time. For example, you wouldn’t want to spend to two years writing an 80,000 word chapter book about a boy who gets a new kitten only to learn the max word count for the category is more like 12,000 words. Same thing on the other end. If you’ve written 15,000 words about a seventeen year old girl who discovers she’s the heir to a war-torn magical kingdom, you don’t have a publishable length novel just yet.

Get Feedback on Your Work

It’s scary to pour your heart out and then risk somebody not loving it as much as you do. But I don’t know of a better way to improve the writing craft than getting feedback. But not all critiques are equal. There are a couple things to watch out for when seeking other’s opinions.

The Gusher

“This story is amazing! You’re a genius! Don’t change a single word!” While this is highly complimentary and makes our writer hearts swell with pride, it doesn’t do much for helping us improve. This is the sort of feedback we might get from people who love us and are closest to us. This can be great for a pick me up, but really shouldn’t be the stopping point.

The Grump

Another example of unhelpful feedback goes something like this: “None of this made sense. I didn’t like your characters and thought the whole thing was super dumb.” Not only is this just plain mean, it doesn’t give the writer anything actionable to go on. Knowing someone thinks our stories are dumb isn’t just a downer, it also fails to give us any idea of what steps we can take to improve.

A method of critique I like is called the sandwich method, which goes, praise, critique, praise.

Like this: “I loved the unique setting of your underwater bread and butter pickle farm. They made me hungry in the best way. I did wonder why the evil dill pickle seemed so bent on destroying all the sweet little pickles. Perhaps you could expand on his motives a bit? Overall, this was an engaging read with lots of witty dialogue.”

Now the writer has some specifics to go on!

The best way I’ve found to get feedback is by joining a critique group. It could be one that meets online or in person. What matters is finding a supportive group of writers who are able to help you understand what’s working in your writing and what might need a little improving. If you don’t already have writers in your life, a great way to find them is by joining one of the organizations I mentioned above. Try to find people who will lift you up while at the same time giving you advice that helps you grow.

Keep At It

When I first decided I was going to write a novel I thought I could hammer it out and be query ready within a matter of months. Ha! That didn’t pan out the way I expected. I ended up starting several novels and shelving them, before I wrote a YA novel that I’ve also since shelved.

By the time I got the idea for The Mutant Mushroom Takeover, I’d been seriously 20200203_180115pursuing fiction writing for a couple of years. And then it took even more time to complete the draft and revise it before querying agents. And that’s okay. It takes time to figure out what you’re trying to say and how you want to say it. Like anything else, learning to write books is a process. I find setting goals for myself is really helpful. I use a program called Scrivener (which is specifically designed for writers) and one of the features I love the best is the ability to set word count goals. I love seeing the color change from red to orange to green as I get closer to my target.

I also find having a consistent time set aside for writing really helpful. Even if it’s only thirty minutes a few times a week, starting somewhere is a great way to make progress on your goals. If you miss a week (or a month or a year), it’s okay. The page is always there waiting for you when you’re ready to come back.

And that’s all for now, friends. Perhaps, in another post I’ll cover later stages in the writing process like finding beta readers, writing query letters, signing with an agent and getting a book deal. Publishing isn’t any easy business. Agents can be hard to come by and book deals even more so. It can take years before the hard work pays off. And even then, there are still lots of things that are out of our control. But I think it helps to remember why you write. Hopefully, it’s because you have a passion for it and because it feels good to create.

 

 

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