How to Write Your First Novel in a Year

There is a myth that you need inspiration to strike before you can be creative. The truth is that you can use techniques to kickstart the muse and power through the process to complete a first novel – or similarly ambitious creative project – in one year.

Last year I wrote my first novel, Pentecost. Here are some of the lessons I learned about creativity and productivity along the way. I’m writing from my perspective as a novelist, but most of the principles are applicable to creative projects in any field.

1. Brainstorm your ideas and obsessions

A novel starts with an idea that inspires you but you don’t need to agonize about coming up with one. Write a list of everything you love or are obsessed with, both now and in the past. Your list might include diverse topics such as gaming, cherry Doc Martens and reading philosophy. We are all complicated people with many facets so your list will be unique.

Try to be as specific as possible, for example, South Otago Pinot Noir instead of red wine. Now go to your bookshelf, and write down the main categories of books you read which will narrow down the genre. Perhaps you now have mysteries, fitness, travel and true crime. I’m sure you’re already getting a picture of aspects this novel could incorporate and from the list, you can start to build your own story.

It’s important to remember that ideas are cheap and writing is the hard work, so brainstorm and then cull your list to what really sparks your imagination. I have always been obsessed with religion, mythology, psychology and travel so these aspects were incorporated into my plot.

2. Read. Then stop reading and write.

Mindpmap of brainstorming ideas for Pentecost Learning the craft can be the work of a lifetime and there are thousands of brilliant books on writing that you can consume. I recommend Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ for novelists as a starter.

These books are absolutely worthwhile but you must also be productive in order to complete your novel in a decent time-frame. It’s also easier to learn from these books when you have some writing to apply the lessons to. For example, there’s no point reading a book about improving dialogue if you haven’t written any. This also applies to research which is an important aspect of writing in order to fill in original detail. So make sure you balance consumption and production.

3. Model success.

Go back to your bookshelf and pull out a few of your favorite novels in the genre you want to write. Pick a specific book to model and read it again with writer’s eyes. No analyze how the book is put together. For example, how long are the chapters? Whose perspective is the scene written from? How are the settings described? How much dialogue is used? What is the first chapter like? And how does it hook the reader?

You can use these notes to create a framework for your book. You’re not stealing ideas but understanding the expectations of the genre. This is modeling, not plagiarism. I used James Rollins’ Black Order to deconstruct the way fast-paced thrillers are written. This step was critical for me in understanding how scenes and point of view work together to form a coherent structure. It’s one thing to read around the topic and another to actually analyze a successful novel.

4. Outline, or don’t. There are no rules.

Some writers are outliners and others write by the seat of their pants (known as pantsers). You can do what you enjoy most. If you want to write an epic fantasy novel with four galactic tribes, different languages, body shapes and religions, then you will likely need an outline or you’ll write yourself into a corner. If you’re writing a legal drama based roughly on a case you read about and you’re a lawyer, perhaps you can just produce that first draft with no planning. Either way, there are no rules. You don’t have to write the same way others do.

I combined the two approaches by writing the scenes in my head first. The opening and climax scenes were always clear to me, but for the middle I needed an outline. I also refined the outline further to use as an editing tool later.

5. Write a really bad first draft as fast as possible.

This is the tip that changed my writing life, the realization that it’s ok to write badly on your first draft. In fact, it’s far more important to get this draft done than agonize about anything along the way. If you can’t remember what type of bird flies over the Arizona desert, just write ‘bird’. You can go back later and fix it. Just write the draft. Get it done. No excuses.

If you can wait until November, I recommend National Novel Writing Month where the goal is 50,000 words of a first draft in one month. That’s how I started the first draft of Pentecost. The deadline really spurs you on but you can do the same in any month if you are disciplined.

You can also try tools like Write Or Die which encourage you to keep writing and not stop for thinking time. Deadlines are important here and so is word count. For example, set a goal of 5000 words per week which you can spread out or write in one binge session. I used to get up at 5am and write 1000 words before going to the day job and have a longer writing session on Sunday to make up my word count.

6. “Writing is rewriting” – Michael Crichton

Everyone obsesses about the first draft but it’s just the initial phase. The next step is to start the rewrite which will turn your document into a manuscript.

Some people may only need a cursory rewrite, others may need ten more drafts until they are satisfied. The rewriting, adding complexity, detail and twists as well as tweaking your writing may take longer than the first draft. That’s ok. This is where you polish the rough diamond.

You may also require some professionals to help you at this stage. A professional copyeditor can tidy up your spelling, grammar, tenses, sentence structure and you can also employ people to help you with plot or character development. This step is the key to creating a professional product so don’t skip it!

7. Learn about the publishing process.

Writing is valuable for its own sake, but if you want to pursue publication, it’s important to learn about the process. Whether you want a book deal with Harper Collins or an Amazon Kindle top 10 hit, you need to know the options available to you. It will save you time, energy and heartache if you learn this as you write instead of waiting until its done. For example, whether you want a traditional publisher or go independent, you’ll need an author platform, a way to reach readers. But that’s another article!

Writing a novel is as much about organization and discipline as it is about creativity. You need to combine productivity with inspiration in order to hold your book in your hands, but the journey is definitely worth it. So what are you waiting for?

Over to You

Have you ever completed a novel – or similar-sized creative project – in a year or less? If so, how did you do it?

Which of these points resonated most strongly for you?

What would you add to the list?


About the Author: Joanna Penn is the author of Pentecost, a thriller novel, out now on Amazon.com.

Joanna is also a blogger at TheCreativePenn.com : Adventures in Writing, Publishing and Book Marketing. Connect on Twitter @thecreativepenn

Images: Flickr CC Bob AuBouchon and Joanna Penn.

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  1. Writer feverishly until the first draft is done – I remember this used to work brilliantly for me until I started feeling more pressured for time and now I can agonise over each sentence as I write, which sometimes means I lose the juice to keep it flowing and the end result is grammatically correct, but flat. I shall put your good advice into action today and just write.
    (Also planning to make good use of NaNoWriMo).

    • Nanowrimo is certainly a brilliant start – it really freed me from overthinking. Write or Die is brilliant too! There’s time for agonizing in the edits :)

  2. Christine Livingston says:

    Joanna, thanks so much for this post. I cannot tell you how timely it is. I’ve been playing at writing fiction all my life and only yesterday had a big discussion with my other half in which I galvanized myself to get real and get done. Now I’ve got a brilliant, practical set of “how to’s”. Love it!

  3. I agree that writing a really bad first draft is the key to finishing your novel. During Nanowrimo, I just left blanks in sentences where I went blank. It freed me up to just keep going, which was exhilarating.

    Congrats on the launch of Pentecost, Joanna!

    • Thanks Elle. I appreciate your support on twitter as well! For the next novel, I know I will be able to write the bad first draft faster and spend more time on second deeper draft which I really enjoyed. There’s making things up, and then there’s making things up on top of that layer – so much fun!

  4. Great advice. I’m hoping to put it into action this year!

  5. One other secret – treat it like a job. With my book, Murder in Ocean Hall, I wrote it largely in a coffeehouse. I’d commute there, like I was going to a job on a fixed schedule. The baristas even knew me and my schedule. They thought I was another office worker working remotely. Plus, being around other people with laptops forced me to be productive. There was internet but it was really slow so I had no excuse but to write. I’d stay there for 3-4 hours, as if I were working a shift.

    • You’re right Joe – taking it seriously is important. I also like being in an office environment sometimes, I missed it when the Queensland floods left me working from home for weeks! Surprising, but true!

    • What great advice… Also would get me away from all the distractions at my home office… seems like the laundry buzzer, or garbage can, or something is always calling — I’m going to start doing this, even if only a few days a week. Thank you!

  6. Hi Joanna!
    Thanks for the good insights.
    I wrote my first novel in the last year. Creating a novel was one of my lifetime goals, another was to live in Rome for a year. Each nourished the other.
    I had written short stories, essays and articles before but the novel was very different. Robert McKee’s wrote his book “Story” as a guide for screenwriters but I found it really helpful in developing the growing arc of conflict and drama.
    I set a daily goal of 1,000 words but I wasn’t religious about it. One day, when I couldn’t produce anything, a voice in my head said “If you can’t put out, put in”.
    Italy was full of inspiration. The art, history and architecture all nurtured my sense of wonder. I have found ways to do the same thing at home.
    At another point, when my well seemed dry, the voice in my head told me to let the characters tell the story. They startled and amazed me!
    After some initial edits I gave the material to friends from a former writing group. They offered great criticism and encouragement.
    “Fear of Falling” became the story of someone who fell, but the man who got up was not the man who fell down. What I didn’t expect was how the story nourished my own life.

    all the best in future books,
    Gregory Schroeder

    • Thanks Gregory – living in Rome for a year sounds like a very good place for inspiration! I wrote a lot about Italy in Pentecost, it’s a marvelous place. I also like McKee’s Story – breaking it all down. It’s definitely not instinctive to get all the aspects of writing fiction correct. It sounds like your book is great – all the best!

  7. Great article! I agree that being disciplined and getting through that first draft is so important. (I wrote every day for six months and finished my first draft, but I’m still editing the novel now while I work on other projects).

    Question: when do you feel is the right time in the editing process to seek professional editing services?

    • I would say ‘it depends’. For my book, I had a very clear vision of the text so I wrote it and then took it to an editor for review. But if you’re struggling with the overall direction and structure, it makes sense to talk to an editor earlier. N.b. You’ll want a developmental editor for this kind of work (copy editing and proofreading come later).