5 Things to do while Writing Your First Novel

Over on my tumblr, the wonderful invisible-galaxies asked:

"What are you best tips for writing a book? I just started writing one, so I would love some advice."

Well, my dear. Feel free to follow up here with more specific questions about your own writing process, but my first instincts (after mulling this question over since you sent it in) are as follows:

1. Congratulate yourself -- yes, already.

We're so ingrained to only celebrate ourselves, congratulate ourselves, when we have a finished product; when we have something polished and pretty and glossy; when we have something complete, and when we have extra money in our pockets from it.

But you have decided to write a book. You have started writing a book. You have, in other words, started creating something that will let you unleash an entire world onto the page, onto the screen; you have decided to bring life to an entire universe.

That deserves celebration; you deserve celebration. Because you've made a brave decision, a brave start; and because if you don't pause to celebrate yourself along the way, the journey's more likely to be overly self-loathing and lonely.

2. Write about... your writing.

Do you know what kind of novel writer you are?

Maybe you can sit down and bang out the first draft of a short story or a school essay or a project report for work, one shot, start to finish. It's linear and it's chronologically-oriented and sure, it needs editing, but it has a beginning, middle, and an end, right away.

Awesome! But that might not be the kind of novel writer you are.

Let yourself experiment -- let yourself write whatever scenes or character sketches are coming to your mind, even if you're not sure where they fit into your overall narrative. Because maybe you'll write a lot of your novel out of order (I sure did), and then have to stitch it back together/rewrite to iron things out. There's nothing wrong with that!

There's also nothing wrong with those of us who outline endlessly before even writing down the first chapter, or whose brains just work in order, getting each scene to flow into the next linearly, from the start.

Whatever your process is, let yourself discover it. Write about yourself as a writer. Ask yourself:

How do I tend to develop my characters into living, breathing people?

For me, does plot tend to come first? Characters? How do they feed off of each other?

Do I have to know everything about a scene before I write it?

Etc. Knowing these things about yourself as a writer can be such a huge help.

3. Share what you can, if Tip 2 indicates it would be helpful (and maybe try it anyway).

Grab a glass of iced tea and swing your legs off the fire escape with a friend, and talk things through with them.

Last summer, I don't know how many hours I spent in the ocean with one of my best friends, floating over waves and exchanging our novel ideas, bits and pieces of information and revelations about singing dragons, teenage superheroes, detention centers, and zine writers. I can't ever describe how central that was to my process.

These conversations weren't just conversations. When I went away to speak at conferences or to see friends, I would print his novel drafts and bring them with me, reading on the bus well past the point of motion sickness (because his writing is just that brilliant). And he would do the same for me.

Writing communities -- even if they're small -- are absolutely invaluable. Sometimes, we can find them online; sometimes, we can find them in school; sometimes, we can find them at free writing workshops in our communities.

We tend to think of writing as a solitary process, and that's so true, but it can also be a recipe for unhelpful ruminating: a lot of us need idea bouncing buddies, cheerleaders, and critique partners who will be honest but gentle when something just isn't working.

So maybe it's just me, but I can't write without the people I love, and I love the people I write with. Period.

4. Map it out.

Even if you're not a planner -- even if you write scene-by-randomly-ordered scene -- keeping yourself organized can help so, so much. I always keep documents of notes on my character descriptions, their likes and dislikes, their relationships with each other.

I have lists of "twenty personal things that readers will never know about x character."

I have fan fictions of my own characters where -- since I'm writing fantasy -- I place them in today's world, without magic, in a given situation, and learn more about them through how they'd react.

I have little maps of when this happens, when that happens. As x is happening to y character, why is a happening to b character? How does this all affect c character and d plotline? (Index cards or post-its and colored pens are super helpful for this sort of thing.)

I have drawings -- and my students will be the first to snort, here, because I cannot draw to save my life -- mapping out where different things in my book happen, and when.

I didn't do most of these things while I was initially drafting; I did most of them while I was editing and rewriting. If any of these things sound helpful, though, don't be me: try to do these kinds of exercises and explorations with yourself while you're drafting, because I know how much more streamlined and generative my process would have been, sooner, if I had.

5. Read, Read, Read, Read. Oh yeah, and write.

What genre are you writing? Young adult fantasy? Adult contemporary? Middle grade historical fiction? If you don't know, that's okay -- find out! Book research is fun. (And let me know if yall want a post about different genres, or have questions about them.)

And then, read. Read it all. All the things your library has in your genre, and all the things your library has out of your genre. I count watching certain television -- really well-written stuff, and even not-so-well-written stuff -- as reading when I'm preparing to write, because great images and stories can inspire me, and terrible images and stories can also inspire me (to make something better, to never have that kind of plot hole, to never kill the lesbian).

I know sometimes when we're writing, it's hard for us to read.

We want to keep our own voice, and we want to be, quite frankly, not intimidated by what's out there. But part of the journey you're beginning -- writing your own book -- is trying to rewire the competition-thinking that makes us intimidated into the collaborative-thinking that makes us inspired by others' beautiful work. It can be hard, and might even take longer than it does to draft your book -- but it's a worth-while process to start off on.

And, of course, while you're reading... write. It's okay if it's out of order, and it's okay if it's outlined down to the finest detail. Just... write.

If you're the kind of person that likes internal deadlines, set them. If you need an accountability buddy to help make sure you stay on track, get one.

And when you accomplish a mini-goal -- like answering a series of deep questions about your main character or finishing that first chapter and moving onto the second or finishing that random scene that doesn't fit in the plot yet but hey, you wrote it -- reward yourself!

Because -- and now we're looping up to Tip 1 again -- you are on an awesome journey, and you deserve to treat yourself awesomely.