Ten Steps to Completing Your First Novel
Want to Write a First Novel? Are You Ready to Be Committed?
Yes, the pun in the line above is intended, and no, you don't have to be crazy to want to write a novel. But, being crazy in love with writing is a prerequisite. So, with this thought in mind, welcome to my Hub for writers who want to know what it takes to start, and to complete, a first novel.
This Hub presents ten hard-learned steps that might help you if you're still dreaming about getting around to writing your first novel. Before presenting my ten tips, however, I think it might be helpful to share with you parts of my own journey. I've found that it can help to look at life (and commitment) from another vantage point, and I hope that something about my long journey to commitment will help you find your own path to the commitment you'll need to write your first novel.
Writing & Publishing My First Novel: The Road Was Long ... With Many a Winding Turn
For around 20 years, I worked as a college professor teaching courses in areas of journalism, mass communications, and marketing. Then, about ten years ago, I made the same decision you've made: To become a writer of novels. In addition to having conducted a national research study as the foundation for writing my doctoral dissertation (which is book-length), in more recent years I've also written eight of a ten-novel collection. I chose to self-publish the first book in my collection in December of 2011 (Silver Currents of Change), and I self-published Book Two (Gold) in 2015, through another company.
Since publishing novels one and two, I have taken them out of circulation, revised them, created my own independent publishing company, and will publish them again under my own imprint. It took years, but I finally made up my mind that, no matter what, I am going to write and publish novels—and that is why I know that with commitment and determination, so can you. My plan is to re-release both of my first two books, soon (with new covers), using either Amazon.com's self-publishing platform, or another print-on-demand company, such as Ingram Spark.
I've been writing stories my whole life, either in my head or actually putting them down on paper. And, even though I've known my whole life that I wanted to become a writer of fiction novels, it took a while for me to actually commit to doing it.
I grew up in Mississippi, and at age 18, I went to college. I studied journalism as an undergraduate and earned a bachelor's degree in mass communications. Although I was committing myself to writing, it was a different kind of writing from what I'd always dreamed of doing. Still, it took full commitment of time and effort to learn what I needed to know to become a journalist. After getting my B. S. degree, I worked for a several years in magazine publishing, as a writer and editor. Then, I went back to school to work on getting a masters degree in English, preparing to focus at least some of my time on writing fiction. But, a lack of commitment to these plans soon came between me and that degree. What happened? After completing about two-thirds of a masters in English, I caught the "copywriting bug" and decided to get my masters degree in advertising, instead of English.
I left Mississippi and started pursuing a new masters degree at the University of Illinois, in Urbana. There, I was among a blessed group of graduate students called James Webb Young Scholars (we were recipients of the competitive James Webb Young Fellowship). James Webb Young (1886-1973) was a "Mad Man" way before advertising professionals became so popular on television. The very first chairman of the Ad Council, Young was voted Advertising Man of the Year in 1946, long before I was even born. He wrote several books, and one of them became part of my reading material when I was studying advertising (A Technique for Producing Ideas, Waking Lion Press, 2009). That little book gave me a whole new way of viewing the creative process, and I'm glad my study of advertising gave that to me. In fact, I enjoyed everything about my years at U of I, and there I not only completed my masters in advertising, I also took courses in literature, once again fueling and feeding my dreams of becoming a writer of novels.
As it turned out, even though I loved (and still love) advertising, I wasn't all that committed to the idea of becoming an ad agency copywriter. After getting my masters in advertising, I became a college professor of mass communications. Then, after a few years of doing that, I took some time away from teaching and worked for a few years as an ad agency researcher and a copywriter, but soon went back to teaching. However, a connection I made while working for a Dallas ad agency became an important part of my future. Still, for many more years, I worked as a college professor teaching courses in advertising, public relations, and marketing communications, at three different universities (I couldn't even commit to working at one school!). After teaching full-time for more than a decade, I decided to go back to school, again, to complete a doctorate in business (with a specialization in marketing). Whew!
Several years after getting my doctorate, I decided to leave full-time teaching. You see, it turns out I was never fully committed to the idea of being a college professor. So, I started working for corporations and businesses in areas of marketing communications where I held jobs as a marketing and/or communications manager or director. I even worked in international marketing for one company. As a sideline, I also spent many years working in magazine publishing as a writer, editor, and graphic designer.
How I Found My Way ...
Working as a publishing consultant, it turns out, was an important "turning point" for me. Remember that ad agency connection I told you about? Well, while I was working as a publishing consultant, through a network of people associated with that work, I got "reconnected" with that same Dallas agency. I was hired to become a screenwriting consultant, to help an already published novelist who wanted one of her unpublished books adapted into a screenplay. So, in 2004, I moved to the Los Angeles area where I worked for six months on that screenplay. I was fortunate to be able to hire to help me another consultant, a man who was a real live, Emmy-winning, Hollywood screenwriter and film editor.
And, although confidentiality agreements prohibit me from being able to talk about the screenplay, after six months of hard work, I completed it. Those six months involved total focus on and commitment to that project, and once I completed the screenplay, I knew well the meaning of true commitment to a project. Competing that project, in fact, is what made me know I could commit to putting together an interesting and exciting story from beginning to end. I knew that if I could adapt someone’s novel into a 120-page, well-written screenplay, I could darn well commit to starting and to completing my own first novel!
Ten Things that Helped Me Commit
It’s never easy to find the time you need to write, and for too many years I was guilty of doing what was easy—I kept putting it off, “for another day.” Once I decided I simply wouldn’t allow myself to put it off any longer, I made the time, got busy, and started writing!
As I mentioned earlier in this article, over the past four years, I've written eight of a ten-novel collection. It’s a color-coded collection, and in December of 2011, I published Book One, Silver: Currents of Change. I'll soon be publishing Book Two in the collection, and it’s called: Gold: The Heat of Refinement. But it wasn't until I was absolutely ready to commit myself to writing my books that I started writing them. Do I wish it hadn't taken me more than two decades to get to the point where I could make my commitment? Yes. But still, it took as long as it took. The good news is, I'm here now, and that's how I know that if you really want to write novels, you will find a way to do what it takes to get yourself to "Commitment Place."
Here are ten things I've learned the hard way that just might help you commit to starting and completing your first novel.
1. Stop waiting to find the time to write. Make the time you need to do it. No matter how full your life is (family, job, dog, house, responsibilities out the wazoo, etc.), if you really want to write a novel or any other kind of book, you will find a way to do it. Do whatever you need to do to manage and/or delete those distractions, and get busy writing your novel!
2. Put your writing goals in writing! You're a writer, or you wouldn't be planning or dreaming about writing books. So, as a writer, use your skills to write down your writing goals. Why? Because committing your thoughts to paper will help to clarify them, and with clarification comes focus. You cannot commit without focus, and you cannot focus without clarity. You can easily start to feel "intimidated" and "overwhelmed" thinking about needing huge chunks of time to be set aside for writing your book. Don't think of it like that. Think of it as a project you can complete by setting and meeting daily goals, weekly goals, and monthly goals. Then, set and keep those goals.
3. Don't just say you're going to do it, do it. If you truly love writing, that means writing is something you enjoy doing. It comes easily to you. If you don't really love it, and if it doesn't come easily, chances are you'll abandon your book project soon after starting it. But if you know you love writing, and you love the idea you've come up with for your book, then once you set your goals all you really have do is to act on those goals. What are you waiting for? It's not enough just to put your goals in writing. You must learn to think of the goals you've written down as your plan, your declaration, your mandate to commit to completing your book. Once you've clarified your goals and your intentions, revisit them daily until you actually begin working to achieve them.
4. Once you've started, insert into your life what it takes to commit, to keep the momentum going. Don't worry so much about the "quality" of your writing, or even the "quantity" of what you're producing, in the beginning. Just begin, and be sure to devote time to your project every day. Some days, you might have only a few minutes to write, and other days you might find an hour or two to do what you love. And that's fine. Just write while keeping your eye (and your mind) on the prize—completing your book. Remember: Every word you write takes you a step closer to another sentence, every sentence gets you a step closer to completing another paragraph, every paragraph inches you closer to having another chapter done, and every chapter brings you closer to the "finish line" of completing your book.
Lets face it. It's very difficult finding a way to devote, regularly, eight, five, three, and sometimes even one hour a day, to writing. I understand. Best-selling authors may be free to spend countless hours a day writing, but most of the rest of us don't enjoy the luxury of having that much time that we can spend writing. That means the rest us must make the most of the time we can make. We have to write all we can when we can, and we must always have a goal of getting to the next paragraph, the next scene, the next page, or the next chapter as quickly as we can.
5. Allow yourself to become excited and energized by any progress, no matter how small. As you continue committing yourself to writing, every day, be proud of the fact that you're making progress toward accomplishing your goal. Acknowledge your progress. Read and re-read what you've written. Make notes about changes you want to make, and if it will get your writing engines going, go ahead and make those changes the next time you make the time you need for writing. Allow your writing project to become a "seamless" part of you; an important part of your life. Don't spend any time lamenting time lost. That's the past, and you live in the present. So, don't beat yourself up for not having started your project sooner. Learn to be thankful for the present day and the opportunity you've carved out in your life for writing. Be thankful that all you have to do now is to make more progress toward achieving your ultimate writing goal.
6. Give yourself permission to take "baby steps," as needed. Writing a book takes big commitment. And, even though it is a very big project, one that can ultimately take months or even years to complete, you can look at it as a series of smaller projects. You can give yourself permission to take "baby steps" in the writing of your book, and doing that will help turn what can feel like a huge, seemingly unmanageable project, into a series of smaller, much more manageable projects.
7. Tackle your smaller projects one at a time. Don't allow yourself to become overwhelmed by thinking about all it will take to complete your book. After learning to think of your big writing project as a series of smaller projects, tackle each smaller project as a task in and of itself. That way, all the writing, revising, editing and re-writing that is required to get your book ready to publish will be organized into much smaller goals that won't seem so huge and overwhelming. The key is to keep working, and to stay committed to starting and finishing your book. Never forget that your "mindset" is more than important, it's crucial. How you think about what it takes to write a novel makes a world of difference—and that difference is between completing and not completing your book.
8. Be creative in finding ways to get you to stick to your goals. Do your best to hang in there any way you can! One way is to give yourself deadlines. However, when you set deadlines, you have to try your best to meet them. After all, a deadline is no good if you simply ignore it. I found that, for me, a good way to practice meeting a novel-writing deadline is to join and participate in Nanowrimo, National Novel Writing Month (http://nanowrimo.org). Even though I had worked on my first novel off and on before signing up, I started writing it fanatically in 2009 after signing up for Nanowrimo. In fact, it wasn't until I participated in Nano that I completed the first draft of my first novel. The idea of writing almost nonstop for a whole month (Nano takes place in November, every year) is what worked for me. And now I'm challenging you to do your own research, to find that something that might work best for you.
9. Stop requiring/expecting "perfection" in everything you write. Remember, you are writing a first draft of your book, and you cannot perfect your first draft until you have a first draft. So chill out, and write your first draft. Keep in mind, as you are writing your first draft, that now is not the time to worry so much about grammar, sentence structure, or even dialogue that might be "challenged." That's all okay for now, and now is not the time to start editing your book. Accept that it doesn't have to be good yet, it just has to be. You have to get it written so that you will have something to edit and to revise, later. But for now, it's all about getting it written. Keep telling yourself that you'll make the time you need, later, for all the editing and revising and rewriting that you will want/need to do.
10. Stop worrying about what other people might think of your novel. The best way to keep yourself from achieving any goal in life is to allow "what others might think" to become part of your mindset. That's what I call "stinking thinking." The way I see it, if you feel strongly enough about an idea to want to commit the time and effort it takes to write a novel about it, then you should do it, no matter what. Sure, there might be some who will not like your book once it's published. Even Shakespeare, "The Bard," has critics who don't like his work. Such is life. Personally, I think it's wonderful that people (including you) have a right to their own likes and dislikes.
The truth is, you shouldn't need everyone to like your book. But, just as there will be those who won't like it, there will also be many (perhaps even more) who will love it. The point is, you cannot allow the thoughts of unnamed and unknown "others," or even those of people you know, to keep you from writing your book. Don't place what others might think about your unwritten book above your own thoughts about it. Don't relegate your thoughts to "second place" in your own mind. Take charge of your thoughts, and after doing that, spend your time and energy on writing your book, and finding the right audience for it.
Eagerly Anticipate Writing "The End" ...
If writing a novel is something you want to do, you will find a way to go all the way, to complete your challenging and exciting journey by finally writing "The End" on the last page of your manuscript. But to get there, you have to stop waiting to find the time to do it—you have to make the time. It's up to you to find a way to commit. Trust me. I know that, sometimes, commitment comes easy, but, at other times, it's much harder to get to. Still, I truly believe that when something is right for you—when something is meant to be a part of your life, no matter how long it might take, you will find your way to commit to it.
As you begin and start making more and more time in your life for writing, I believe you will fall even more madly in love with it. When that happens, you will find even more ways to make even more time to do it. Then, the more you write, the more you will want to write. And the more you want to write, the more you'll want to get even better at it. Writing will become such an integral part of who you are, you'll begin to live and breathe it. Then, the more you allow yourself to live and breathe writing, you will no longer simply want to write, you will have to write. And it all begins with commitment. Once you start giving your writing all you've got, writing will give back to you in so many ways, I believe you'll want to commit to it—for life.
© 2013 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD