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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

How to Write Your First Fiction Novel

Your grew up finishing books with a flashlight under the covers, and now you want to write one of those wild reads you remember so well. Whether it’s closely felt contemporary realism or high-stakes, high-concept adventure, you know you have a tall tale inside you.

Having just published my second YA novel, Parched, I know novel writing is a long and difficult road that will drive you crazy and compensate you poorly. But nothing compares to the thrill of crafting a story that is entirely, uniquely yours. Plus, everyone wants to meet you at parties. So here’s how to make it happen.

Love Your Project

Novels are the longest of the long game. It can take months (or, more likely, years) to write the first draft, turn it into a second draft, find an agent, go out on submission, and land a deal—which is only the beginning of another very long process. To maintain a connection to and passion for your project, it must be meaningful for you. The ideas must excite you, the characters enthral you, and the message speak directly to your soul. You must love it (even when you hate it).

Love Your Genre

If you don’t read the heavy-hitters of your chosen genre, do not pass Go, do not collect publishing contract. Gone are the days of authors writing alone and in a vacuum. Being well-read in your genre won’t just help your writing, it will help you connect with your biggest ambassadors: your fellow writers. Writers champion each other. Connect with your favorite authors on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook. See them read. Start a book club. Get involved.

Start With a Vision

When I start a project, I write a short pitch for it. For example, the novel I’m working on now is “a funny, dark, and truthful look at female beauty in the modern world.” This is a powerful intention you’re setting for yourself. As Gloria Steinem once said, “Dreaming is planning.” Your novel will take on a life of its own, but being clear form the get-go about what it is about for you will help you stay anchored. If you’re lost in a scene, ask yourself: How does this scene relate to my vision? Am I exploring that vision, or have I gotten lost?

Your vision should be something you yourself would like to read and tell your friends about (because, when the book comes out, that’s all you’ll be doing for months, trust me!).

Create a Road Map

Some writers revile structure and end points. Not me! I thrive on order, deadlines, and maps. While I’ll still let myself be surprised and discover what’s working in the moment, I love sitting down and knowing exactly what scene I’m writing.

No matter where you fall along that spectrum, I’ve found that it’s helpful for first-time writers to have at least a little bit of structure. Typically, I start big—the emotional arc I want to take someone on—and slowly work down to a more granular level until I have a scene-by-scene breakdown. Sometimes, this isn’t more than just which characters will be in the scene, but I’ll know what I need it to do emotionally. (I’m more like a screenwriter that way, so it’s no accident my novels have three-act structures inspired by the Heroes Journey.) I use index cards on a noteboard, color-coded for each character, to have a big-picture look at my latest book.

Find a Routine That Works For You

Here’s mine. I work four days a week in digital media, so I have three days free to write. On my writing days, I get into the NY Writers Room between 10 AM and midday. On the commute in, I mentally run over where I’m up to and what I’ll be working on that day. Once in, I turn the internet off using the app Freedom, and work in two- or three-hour blocks until around 6 PM. That’s drafting: writing out scenes. Then I go home, make some dinner, open a bottle of wine, put on the TV. As I relax, my mind wanders back to the day's work, curious and excited. I flip open my laptop and read over it. I make notes. I pour another glass of wine, and allow more scenes to show themselves to me. I fantasize about my characters and record their dialogue in notes.

This is my process, and I love it. Your routine will likely be different, but once you’ve found it, you must stick to it. Think of writing like a commitment as serious as having a job. Deciding not to do because, uh, you just don’t feel like it? Not an option. Success is persistence. It’s as simple as that.

Challenge Yourself to Think Harder

When creating a character specific or plot point, I find it’s helpful to list out five to 10 options. You’ll often find your best idea is not your first idea, because it’s a bit of a cliché (the first idea that springs to your mind probably sprung into everyone else’s, too).

It’s also essential you find spins on your genre’s tropes. For example, in my new novel, Parched, I wanted to explore the first world-third world divide through having a domed city that housed the wealthiest 1%, while the 99% were left to starve. The Hunger Games has shown us a decadent and frivolous 1% in the capital, so I knew I couldn’t replicate that. Instead, I made my domed city my version of a utopia: a sustainable, socialist society that celebrates art and civil liberties. This ended up being much more interesting a space to critique, because it forced me (and my characters) to think about giving up on a “perfect,” and in many ways perfectly good, existence. If you surprise yourself, you’ll surprise your readers, and they’ll love you for it.

Be Kind to Yourself

As an author, remember that you are both the talent and the manager. And what kind of manager screams at the talent that she’s no good and she’ll never be published? Fire that manager, and replace her with someone who’s firm but kind, who understands when the talent is most likely to work and arranges her schedules to reflect it, who rewards meeting deadlines, and who doesn’t let the talent wallow in setbacks. The most important thing you can do as an artist is learn to manage yourself well.

As a final note, while you’re working on a project you’re this passionate about, remember to keep things in perspective. Repeat after me: A book deal won’t make you happy or successful. You can choose right now to be happy and successful! (For more on this, check out my recent blog post.) Good luck comes to those who keep going. Write on!

Photo of woman reading courtesy of Shutterstock.

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