Lessons Learned Writing My First Novel

Lessons Learned Writing My First Novel

Writing anything longer than a few pages is no easy task. Completing a readable manuscript takes consistently hard work and an intense dedication to the craft. Below, I’ve compiled a list of the lessons I learned during the writing of my very first novel. There are certainly no shortcuts, and not every tip/trick will work for every writer, so take this advice with a grain of salt—but if one person reading this learns something from my mistakes, then I feel like I’ve done my job.

Set achievable daily goals

The enormous task of writing a book can be daunting, but like every large goal, it is completely doable when broken down into smaller parts. Like a brick wall, books are built one piece at a time. A 100,000-word novel can be written in 100 days if you can write 1,000 words per day. Not everyone has the time or the ability to do this, so the key here is setting daily goals that are achievable for you. Stephen King, according to his memoir On Writing (which I highly recommend), writes 2,000 words every…single…day. My daily count ranges from a few hundred to a few thousand words per day, but I don’t usually set a daily word count goal for myself. I’ve found that putting aside an hour or two to write leaves me with enough time to make small strides every day toward the completion of my larger goal. So find what works for you, and then build your wall—brick by brick by brick.

One productive day can set you up for a great week

I call this the snowball effect, and it has helped me to get shit done time and time again. Say your goal is to write 500 words every day (3,500 words in a week). If you set aside enough time on Monday to write 2000 words, then you only have to write 250 each day for the rest of the week to reach your target. I find that the resulting lack of stress during the rest of the week actually increases my productivity, which often leads to me not only reaching but exceeding my goals.

Make sure you're in a non-stressed state

Speaking of the S-word, it’s important to eliminate as much stress as possible before you sit down to write. Some writers can wake up and instantly get to work on their manuscripts, but that has never worked for me. While you do have to make writing a priority, sitting down to write in a stressed state is counterproductive. I’ve found a few techniques that help me to get into the zone.

After clearing my mind with either yoga or mediation, the immense benefits of which you can look up for yourself, I tell Alexa to put on a playlist of ambient music. I eliminate as many distractions as possible, and then I sit down with a beverage (water/coffee in the morning, beer later in the morning) and give myself ten or twenty minutes of “thinking time.” In contrast to mind-wandering meditation, I turn my focus toward my work in progress. I think about what I wrote the day before and what I want to add to it. This usually sets me up for a productive session.

Avoid distractions

Distractions come in all shapes and sizes, but I’ve found my biggest distraction to be rectangular and about 4.7 inches across. At first, I would write with my iPhone in my pocket, but even though I would leave it on Do Not Disturb, I could still feel its presence there, constantly tempting me to “just take a quick Twitter break.” Eventually, I learned my lesson, though. Now I leave my phone in a different room entirely while I write. I also deleted my social media apps and made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t re-download them until the completion of my first draft. Once the phantom vibrations in my pocket disappeared, I found that I no longer miss being constantly connected—but there was also another benefit. The deletion of social media from my phone didn’t just eliminate distractions. It also forced me to be more social in person—what a concept.

Writing is lonely work

Unfortunately, interruptions to your flow don’t just come in the form of technology. Some of the biggest, and most enticing, distractions will be the beings that you love—your family, your friends, your pets. For me, and many other writers, it's best to work behind closed doors, which makes it hard to have a social life. Writing can be extremely lonely, so be prepared to deal with that. While I don’t recommend becoming a hermit (i.e. writing in a vacuum), I think it’s fine to cancel other plans if you’re on a roll. You have to capture those moments of inspiration and stay in the zone as long as possible. Schedule time for your own self-improvement and to let others know about your plans. My girlfriend has been very supportive—she even got me this sign for my door so that our housemates can know when to leave me alone. If you're taking time to work on your passions, your true friends won’t hold it against you.

Sit in the chair

Joshua Fields Millburn, bestselling author of the minimalist memoir Everything That Remains, offers simple yet powerful advice—words that I’ve grown to truly understand the importance of over the last few months.

”Sit in the chair every day: even if you don’t write, plant yourself in the chair daily for a few hours and eventually the words will come. And ensure you eliminate distractions—no Internet, no TV, no radio, no phone. If you’re truly passionate about writing, you’ll do these things and write."

Prioritize writing, do it alone, and put in the time. When it feels impossible—when you're frustrated as hell—when you find yourself pacing around frantically or banging your head against the wall because you have an incurable case of writer's block…

Just sit in the chair. 

Everything That Remains: A Memoir by The Minimalists
By Joshua Fields Millburn, Ryan Nicodemus

More on time management...

Most of the previous points involved managing your time wisely. In order to emphasize the importance of this, here are a few relevant tips that have helped me:

  • Plan a time to write, and stick to it. Use a planner or calendar app to take control of your time, because unplanned time is generally wasted time.
  • When you reach your goal for the day, don’t stop if you don’t absolutely have to. If you’re passionate about writing, an extra half hour of putting pen to paper can only be beneficial. 
  • If you do find yourself stuck or busy, try splitting your daily writing into two or more sessions. Short bursts of productivity—thirty minutes here, fifteen minutes there—can really add up.

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