Getting started on a novel for the first time can be a daunting process. Or is it? Perhaps we should rephrase that to, starting a novel for the first time doesn’t have to be daunting if you follow a few of the well-oiled paths others have tread before you. Writing should be fun, while also being challenging. And a bit of structure, methodology and good habits really help.

If you are writing your first novel, or just want some tips on how to get started, consider this check-list.

Writing a novel

Have a clear idea

All novel writers should have a solid premise about what they are writing and why they are writing. Everyone has a story in them, as the old saying go, but it needs to be a good one.

How do you get a good idea? Well, it does happen organically. J K Rowling apparently got the idea for Harry Potter when delayed on a train (delays sometimes inspire all sorts of creativity). She then spent five years planning it out, and it was reportedly longhand on pieces of paper. Stephenie Meyer said the idea for Twilight came to her in a dream.

You might not want to mull over your idea as long as J K Rowling, but once you have an idea, like a teenage girl in love with a vampire or a hobbit who finds a ring that needs to be destroyed, you should consider where the story will go. What will happen? What other characters are needed? How can you build suspense? How will the characters achieve their goal?

Plan the plot

Once you have got your premise in mind, the next stage is to plan the plot. This is where the idea you developed above needs to become more detailed. Now some writers will go straight from the premise to the climax and work their way backwards, others just get started with a character or two and see where it takes them. All of this can work and has.

However, new novel writers should make a plan. And we outline a bit more of this here, in our blog, Is There A Formula For Writing Fiction? Your outline or plan can be as detailed or basic as you like, but it helps that, at a minimum, you have some short, one-paragraph summaries for every scene and chapter so if your story does head off somewhere you hadn’t planned, you can rein it back in. Keeping to the key motivations and desires of each character is important, so plotting the arc of your characters is also a useful guide in your planning phase.

Be methodical and structured

How you write and what works for you is a very individual process. But it can help to approach it methodically. You might decide to work from A-Z through your list of scenes, or tackle the crucial scenes first, like the inciting incident, plot points, middle scene and climax, then work around them. Some writers even just write in free flowing style and then put it all together later.

For example, Stephenie Meyer apparently wrote chapter 13 of her Twilight book first, as that is what came to her first in a dream. Whatever method you choose, you still have to tackle it from A-Z at the end, assessing the scenes, making sure they hit the right key scenes in the story arc and the premise of the book remains clear throughout.

And that is why we usually recommend working through it methodically because it helps new writers avoid pitfalls like convoluted tangents, too much backstory that may not even be required or even chronology errors. If you decide to buck the trend, if you have an outline you can at least come back to it and make sure your story is still going in the right direction.

Have an authentic voice

It is good for writers to be well read and be aware of other authors and other products in the market. But you shouldn’t be trying to replicate what is already out there. The number of Twilight-rehashed stories we received at First Editing for a while is proof of how prevalent this idea can be. To be successful, you not only need an authentic premise, but an authentic voice.

A lot of that comes from an original idea written for its audience, understanding what they expect or want from your story, be it fiction writing or non-fiction. If it’s written for adolescents, it should reflect issues that young people have. If it’s a fantasy novel, it should create the world in enough detail that writers of this genre expect. If it’s romantic fiction, then the protagonists should face some adversity or conflict before they finally reach their intended goal. Don’t make it too easy.

Make it believable and relatable, with flawed characters that aren’t perfect, and you’re probably on the way to achieving the authentic voice you seek.

Make time to write

Setting aside time each day when your brain is at its most creative or productive is a great way to proceed with writing your novel. Some writers even set a minimum word count per day to achieve their goal. In his memoir, Stephen King says he writes 2000 words a day. This article lists the daily goals of lots of other writers, such as Ernest Hemingway, Anne Rice and Nicholas Sparks.

Stephen King said:

Only under the dire circumstances do I allow myself to shut down before I get my 2,000 words. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind — they seem like characters instead of real people. The tale’s narrative edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace. Worst of all, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to feel like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death.

He’s been pretty successful, so it’s good advice to take onboard.

Make each writing session goal-oriented

In addition to setting aside time to write each day, you should make a plan for what you want to achieve. That might still be connected to how much time and what word count you want to achieve, but this is also where you start addressing what you want to achieve in a scene or with a particular character. At a later part in your work process, your goals may be to formatting or editing. But for now, it should all relate to plot, characterisation and setting.

However, if you don’t achieve your goals, don’t beat yourself up. Schedule breaks are important as are activities to reward yourself or break up a stale routine.

Don’t self-edit

Self-editing is important, but not yet! When you’re in the writing phase, you should hold off from editing it until you’ve finished the first draft. Focus on the story, the characters and the plot, and save the editing process until later. It is good advice to agonise over the story first, then agonise over the editing later.

Enjoy the process

It goes without saying that writing a book should be fun. That doesn’t mean it’s not hard work, but you should love your story and your characters and want to spend time with them. If it starts to get stale or difficult, shake it up a bit. Change your routine, give yourself a break, do a fun activity and then come back refreshed and ready to tackle the next day’s work.

When you feel you’re finally ready for the next step to make your story shine, and this should be after going through several drafts of your story, you can approach a professional editor like First Editing, for help with the next step.