Five Tips To Help You Start Your First Novel

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⌛ By Kaylin R. Staten ⌛

As National Novel Writing Month (or #NaNoWriMo) comes to a close, you’re probably either ready to pull out your hair or have conquered the near-impossible task of finishing the first draft of your novel. 

This is my first year officially participating in NaNoWriMo, although I have wanted to do it for years. Personal and professional commitments always pervaded during this time of year. After all, November is a busy month for nonprofit work and family gatherings. This year, though, I made time in all of the madness to actually sit down and write my first draft of Paper Dahlias. 

I had been working on Paper Dahlias, although I didn’t know it yet, since 2008 — halfway through my college years. In many ways, it’s a coming-of-age story not only for the main protagonist but for me as well. I wrote during influxes of happiness but always tended to find more solace when I wrote about things that made my world off-kilter. And one of my most coveted life goals has always been to write a novel. So, I began compiling Paper Dahlias in September 2017. When NaNoWriMo started, I already had 49,000 very unpolished words. 

Now, I realize that is every writer’s fantasy coming into National Novel Writing Month. I mean, the novel is basically written, right? Only 1,000 words to go! Not so fast. I only had pieces of the overall picture, and I had to flesh out the story. So, what did this wordy little writer do? I wrote a total of 87,575 words, which meant I wrote almost 44,000 new words. I’m not tooting my own horn. I’m saying that the editing process will take forever! 

If you conquered the 50,000-word challenge or fell a little (or a lot) short, here’s a glimpse into my writing process during the month of November (and any time I write a longer project). Of course, I don’t have all of the answers, and these tips may not work for you. Find what does work and use the heck out of that skill set! If you're writing your first novel, like me, here are five tips you can use to get pen to paper or fingers to keyboard: 

Find your writing space.

I can honestly write anywhere. Of course, I am only human, and I get distracted. If I’m in the zone, I can write with the baristas brewing pumpkin spice lattes at Starbucks and my baby niece babbling as she plays on her mat and toys on the floor. I use real-life observations as fodder for details in my writings. And some of them made it into Paper Dahlias. So, find your own unique writing space. I have a home office, so I would often hole myself up in there and write away. Take care of yourself while you're writing your novel. Make sure you have plenty of coffee and snacks! And take bathroom breaks. If you like the peace and quiet or the hustle and bustle of everyday life, find your sanctuary and start writing. 

Discover the method that suits you. 

I used to like handwriting all of my drafts; however, this was in high school, and I was just cutting my teeth on journalism. My newspaper articles were 500 words or less, so handwriting them didn’t seem like the arduous task it is today. Old-school writers still write their novels in notebooks. I remember reading an article that said that script doctor/author/General Leia Organa extraordinaire, Carrie Fisher, still handwrote all of novels, even her 2016 release, The Princess Diarist.

I use a mixture of typing and writing, honestly. I write out my notes, timelines and outlines. I keep a notebook beside my bed, in case I have a writing revelation in the middle of the night, which does happen. I leave the heavy-duty writing to my computer, though. And I back up my work like crazy on my external hard drive, Google Drive, Dropbox, everywhere! 

Stay organized.

Organization is key when you’re writing a novel. I started Paper Dahlias in documents on my Google Drive, but as I started to compile them, I had to employ another — more organized — method. That is where Scrivener software saved my writer’s sanity. Although I put visual representations throughout my office of my novel (chapter outlines, mostly), I relied on Scrivener for chapter folders and text, manuscript formatting, ePub formatting, character sketches and more. My first draft is already organized, compiled, and ready for the editing process! 

It’s also inevitable that you’ll become overwhelmed. Try to write in little bites every day and set a goal for yourself. It could be 200 words right when you wake up and before you head to the office. It could be 2,000 words on your lunch break or after you put the kids to bed. Find time to write. You’ll be amazed at how many words you can write in a 20-minute sprint! (I time myself a lot with the multiple hourglasses in my office.) The National Novel Writing Month website helped me because it tracked my daily progress and personal goals. I highly suggest using it if you write a novel next November. 

Don’t be afraid to edit. 

Whether you edit countless drafts by yourself or belong to a writing group, use your editing skills to your advantage. Find your editing tribe, whether that’s a large group who beta reads your novel or a more intimate group. My preference is always more intimate, especially for the first drafts of my work. I am used to writing press releases and social-media content very quickly, but writing a longer piece takes a part of my soul I didn’t know existed. You will most likely be protective of your work, but editing is so important. Even if you just have one or two more sets of eyes to look at your draft, it will help immensely before you decide to self-publish or send off your manuscript to a major or minor publishing house. 

Be sure to leave your first draft alone for at least a month and then come back to it. Like a fine wine, it will age, and you will be able to edit with fresh eyes. I also use the Ernest Hemingway method of stopping my writing for the day right when I know what will happen next. It’s like creating your own cliffhanger so you will be excited to come back and finish the thought or chapter. 

Realize that you will come upon some challenging topics, and it’s OK to get emotional about it. 

As writers, we write what we know. You have to be fine with that. Sometimes, your writing invokes sunshine and rainbows, but sometimes, you have to venture over to the dark side of the moon to write about something meaningful to the story but something that will stir your own emotions. This is normal! While everything in Paper Dahlias is fiction, there are themes of the story that happened to me or people I know. It was influenced also by popular culture and the world’s happenings. When are emotionally connected to a theme, let it come out in your writing, even if it makes you upset, depressed, full of tears, whatever. For example, when I write about anxiety in my book, I obviously have lived through that. I have anxiety, so writing about it is second nature to me.

If you’re anything like me, you face several hurdles even putting your words on screen or paper. As writers, we want to hold our words close to us, but don’t be afraid of constructive criticism. My seventh- and eighth-grade Language Arts teacher and first writing mentor, Theo Tippett, taught me to not fear group edits and sharing my work. If only my anxiety wouldn’t get in the way! 

Using the five tips above helped me craft at least the rest of my semi-complete novel during November. If you’re gearing up to write your first novel soon or in the future, my hope is that these tips help you in your endeavors! 

Stay tuned for Paper Dahlias news as it arrives!

Copyright © MMXVII Hourglass Omnimedia, LLC 

Kaylin R. Staten is an award-winning public relations practitioner and writer. She owns Hourglass Omnimedia, a consulting company based in Huntington, WV. 

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