“What advice do you have for someone just starting out?” This question comes up at every literary event that includes a Q&A with published authors. Answers vary, and everyone’s writing process is different, but here are five common pieces of advice to help you start and finish your novel.
Loosely Outline the Main Scenes
Writers are often split on the benefits of making an outline. While it’s true that sticking too closely to a detailed plan can take some of the life out of writing, it’s also an effective tool when you get stuck. We recommend making a loose outline of pivotal scenes and plot points. Say you know your protagonist needs to eventually run into their estranged father—put that first meeting on the outline, but allow yourself to write several paths that could lead up to it. This compromise gives you room to discover the heartfelt and powerful moments borne from organic writing while making sure you keep moving forward.
An outline also lets you see the movement of your novel. As you write scenes that feel important, put them on your outline, and then try rearranging the order of events. A program such as tooleybook can help you easily outline and move your content around. You might find that the scene you thought was the emotional climax of your novel might actually work best in the beginning, turning your work from a sequential examination of family dynamics into a gut-wrenching look into your characters’ pasts, slowly revealing them like paging through a photo album in reverse.
Make yourself a map, but don’t forget to stop and look around.
Establish Your World
World-building isn’t just for the sci-fi and fantasy epics like Game of Thrones. It’s important to understand the world in which your characters live. Contemporary fiction often has little need for meticulous maps and sweeping inventories of local flora and fauna, but if your story takes place in Anytown, USA it will also lack authenticity. Treat your setting as though it’s another character. A passing mention to the flickering neon sign of the corner gas station will give your setting a mood and help set the tone of your story. A town with well-paved roads and no sidewalks signals more to your reader than “easy driving.”
Even if your novel takes place in a fictional city, pull details from real life to make it tangible. For example, your main character may live in a town somewhere in the middle of Indiana. Go ahead and give it some small town flavor—the world’s largest ball of hemp, or an old elm that a local, eccentric arborist once grafted with fruit-bearing branches. These details not only give life to your setting, but they also make room to build metaphorical significance. Your main character, feeling lost and different in this tiny town, is not unlike this elm tree, it’s branches heavy with non-native fruit.
Knowing your world will also give you something to come back to. If you find that your novel is starting to drag, bring your character somewhere else. Build up the setting there, and then figure out how they would react.
Find a Community
The act of sitting down to write is a solitary one. You sit down and tell the story back to yourself until, eventually, you get the chance to tell the story to someone else. However, finding or developing a community of fellow writers can help you grow as a writer, and give you some people to talk to when the inevitable self-doubt creeps in. If you don’t already have friends who write there are plenty of resources to help you find your people.
Lots of contemporary authors use Twitter. It’s a great way to learn about the industry, and get introduced to other authors you may love. Common writing hashtags like #amwriting can get you in touch with other authors in your genre. There are also online databases and associations, such as AWP, that can help you find workshops, fellowships, and groups.
If you’re more inclined to work face-to-face try checking in with your local library. Many libraries will host writing groups, workshops, and book clubs. Try checking their calendar of events, or asking a librarian. Additionally, a quick google search for “writing groups in [your city]” could yield some surprising results!
Having other people to turn to when you’re stuck on a draft—or just stuck—can help motivate you to keep on trying. No one understands the work of writing like other writers.
Give Yourself a Break
Writing is hard. It’s a slow, vulnerable practice, and writer’s often feel that every second they don’t spend writing is a wasted one. However, it’s important to rest your mind and come back fresh. Academic writers often swear by the Pomodoro Technique, where you work for set blocks of time with scheduled breaks. However, sometimes creative productivity cannot be willed into existence.
Get up, take a walk, listen to some music. Consider putting together a playlist of music that has the same tone as your story, or that reminds you of a certain character or place in your book. Writing isn’t just the act of sitting down to write. We pull inspiration from our lives, and the best cure for writer’s block is to continue living. It may be uncommon for an idea to come to you in a dream, but it’s not uncommon for it to come in the shower while the remnants of that dream are still clinging in your mind.
Take physical breaks, but take mental ones too. Don’t beat yourself up if you sit down to write and nothing comes. You can try again later in the day, or tomorrow, or a week from now. The terror of the blank page can be paralyzing, but remember that for every word you write you’re moving forward. So many people express an interest in writing books, but never put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).
Look at you! You’re doing great.
Stay in the Chair
It always sounds like a cop-out, but the advice published authors give most is that to write a novel you have to actually write it. Try and make yourself a schedule. Every writer has a different routine—Stephen King famously said that he starts writing in the morning and doesn’t allow himself to stop until he has written 2,000 words, but it can be hard to maintain a steady schedule with your life getting in the way. Between working, family, and keeping tabs on your health it can sometimes feel like a daunting task to find time to write.
You have to find what works for you. If you have to write in ten minute pockets while your toddler is distracted then try to make the most of that time. Take the rest of our tips into consideration. Maybe you don’t have time to write out three pages today, but you do have time to read a few articles about your book’s theme. Look for a writing group while you wait in line for coffee. Buy a notebook and take notes throughout the day. Then, when you finally get that time to sit down, you can stay in the chair. Don’t give up and you’ll have finished your novel before you know it.