The only advice you need to write your first novel

Here’s the best advice out there on how to write your first novel. I know because I wrote it. You should still ignore it.

Eighty-three percent of people want to write a novel.*

* Like 97 percent of statistics, this number is made up.

But perhaps you do want to write a novel. You’ve always loved to tell stories, and fantastic lands and tortured characters clamour in your head. You must set them free in the world for the good of all mankind.

Being the intelligent person you are, you do some research on how to write a novel and are promptly overwhelmed.

Amazon gives over 2000 results for “how to write a novel”, Google gives nearly 800 million. It’s probably not feasible to read all those before dinnertime.

But fear not, because I have the only advice you need to write the masterpiece that’s fermenting in your head and bubbling out your ears.

Step 1: Accept your first novel will not be a masterpiece

It won’t win you a Nobel Prize in Literature, a Hugo Award, or even an East Sandfly Point Best New Writer Award.

You probably shouldn’t publish it.

It may not even be readable.

And that’s as it should be.

Like playing the violin or taming a feral gryphon, writing a novel takes practice, and this first novel is your starting point.

Three gold medals.
Not yet.

Step 2: Ignore all the advice on how to write a novel

I know I said all the advice. Yes, that includes this advice.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to study writing advice. But the time it’s useful isn’t before you start your first book.

Don’t try to understand it, don’t even read it. It will be contradictory and overwhelming, and as helpful as a steering wheel on a lounge suite.

Step 3: Decide what you want to write about

If you ignored my previous advice to ignore my advice and made it this far, here’s my next piece of advice that you should also ignore.

Come up with an idea for your story.

Maybe that’s “a seven-year-old saves a herd of horses” or “a depressed accountant quits her job to write a novel and discovers it’s harder than she expected” or “a dyslexic snail must save his penpal from a flock of hungry seagulls”.

A snail reaches its head for a strawberry.
Dyslexic snail examines a strawberry.

What kind of idea, you might ask. How do you know if your idea is good?

The only criterion at this stage is that the idea excites you.

Step 4: Find a cheerleader

Your cheerleader should be a friend who follows advice better than you, given you’re still reading the advice I told you to ignore.

They should be positive, be able to follow instructions to the dots on the i’s, love reading, and love you.

It’s even better if they’re writing their first novel too.

They don’t need to know anything about writing craft. They just need to be a positive force to encourage and cheer you on. (That’s why they’re a cheerleader, not a critique partner or beta reader.)

Step 5: Write your first chapter

But how?

You’ve read books you enjoyed. Don’t overthink it, just try something like that.

Cherry blossoms. They don't know how to write their first novel either.
You’ve seen cherry blossoms. Now don’t think, just be one.

Start writing, and when you think you have a chapter’s worth, stop.

Step 6: Have your cheerleader read your first chapter and enthuse to you

If they’re writing too, read their first chapter at the same time.

Then their job is to talk to you about how excited they are to be reading your book and how they can’t wait to see what happens next–how Mrs Halliday deals with the potato thief or whether Myrtle finds her lost toothbrush.

They won’t be lying – they will be excited to be reading your book because they love you.

Remember, they’re not there to critique your work or say anything negative about it. They’re just there to add fun and rainbows to the process of writing it.

Step 7: Keep writing more chapters

Pumped with all your friend’s enthusiasm for your writing, keep going and keep sending them chapters.

Perhaps you want to agree on a timeline, say, a chapter a week. Accountability can be good, and it’s motivating to know someone is waiting to read what happens next.

At some point you might think of things you want to change in what you’ve already written. Don’t stop. Make a note of them and keep drafting.

Eventually the story will come to a natural end and you will type the last word of your final chapter.

Congratulations! You wrote a whole book! Eighty-nine percent of people who start writing a book never get this far.*

* Yes, this statistic is also made up.

Celebrate! Have some cake, a drink, or a sail in the Bahamas.

Sailing boat at night with stars.
You’ve finished a book! Celebrate with a sail in the Bahamas.

Just don’t publish it.

Step 8: Bask a bit longer

Little dog with its nose up and eyes closed - does not know how to write his first novel.
You are the mighty hound. Bask in it.

Step 9: Really don’t follow this advice

Next, don’t follow this advice.

But you might want to sit down and read your novel from start to finish in as close to one sitting as you can manage. Notice things that make you tingle and things that make you itch.

Again, marvel in the fact you wrote a book.

Step 10: Maybe now you can start to read writing advice

If you want to. And note I said “maybe”.

It will still be easy to get overwhelmed, so perhaps start with just one reputable book aimed at beginners that tries to cover a bit of everything.

It should present you with basic answers to some questions that might have started to zipline around in your head. For instance…

How long should a book be? How about a piece of string?

What are the essential elements of a novel?

How do I know if I have a story-worthy idea?

How do I structure a satisfying story? Does it make a difference if it has to stand up in a windy city?

How do I make characters readers will care about?

What is a scene and how do I write one?

How do I write dialogue? Description? What is interior monologue?

Why is everyone always talking about conflict?

Where have all the sea lions gone?

And many more.

Then it’s up to you. You might decide you now have the knowledge to revise your draft and the diamond inside makes that worthwhile.

You might decide they were right in not giving you the Nobel Prize for Literature, and your efforts are best directed towards writing something new.

Or you might decide you hated writing this book and never want to write so much as a shopping list ever again.

In conclusion, to be rich and famous

If you plan to write a book to be famous, you’ll have a better chance if you dismember and eat a celebrity.*

* Note I’m not recommending this. In many countries it’s illegal. It can also cause cancer, especially if you barbeque the meat.

But if you want to write a novel because you love to write, this advice might help you nurture the joy in writing and prevent you giving up before you even start. (Or it might not. You can’t say I didn’t warn you.)

How did you approach writing your first novel? Just write? Research until your eyeballs bled? Did you use a cheerleader? The people need to know!

Subscribe to my blog for more advice you shouldn’t follow.

Author: A.S. Akkalon

By day, A.S. Akkalon works in an office where the computers outnumber the suits of armour more than two-to-one. By night, she puts dreams of medieval castles, swords, and dragons onto paper.

6 thoughts on “The only advice you need to write your first novel”

  1. Of all the advice out there on writing a first novel, I believe yours may be just the thing. You could further incentivize prospective novelists with the tempting thought that, once they embark on a thorough revision of their first draft, they’ll have the endless fun of trying to nail pudding to a tree. Guess what stage I’m in right now.

  2. Definitely the right sort of advice about how to write. I’ve managed a complete second draft of two novels, one of which (my first) I will definitely never look to publish.

    1. I’m glad you like it, As I mentioned in the post, I love writing advice, but when I thought about it I realised I wrote for years before I ever knew writing advice was a thing, and I’m almost certain it was good for me.

      Two complete second drafts is awesome! And if you’ve realised your first is unpublishable, it sounds like your story sensibility has come a long way in the writing of them.

  3. I’ve written and published eight books (if the poetry one counts as a book). Here are my thoughts on writing a book. Get old enough to retire with some kind of an income. Now you don’t have to worry (much) about where food and shelter will come from. And you have time to write.

    Write a story you love. Because you are going to have to read it more times than you can imagine as you edit.

    1. Hi Judith. Thanks for jumping into the conversation. 🙂 With eight published books (and I totally count the poetry) you definitely know what you’re talking about.

      I love this advice! Writing is so much better without the stress of worrying how you’re going to pay rent. There’s just one thing I would add to it – get old OR RICH enough to retire. Personally, I’m working on the latter while trying to avoid the former.

Comments are closed.