Writing Your First Novel By W.B. Sullivan

The world has two sorts of writers: people who talk about writing a novel and people who actually do it. This tutorial will show you how to become the one who actually does it.
Step 1

Have a roadmap

The word “outline” is a polarizing one for fiction writers. We all know about this structure, but depending on our experience and mindset, we either love or loathe it.

Whatever opinion you have about outlines, it does help to have some sort of map for where you’re going, even if you only know the approximate route and have a few key landmarks scribbled on a bar napkin.

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Step 2

Consider the importance of conflict and stakes

Among Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips on how to write a great story is this gem: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

What makes a story truly compelling is how that character goes about getting it. What stands in his way, and how will he overcome those impediments? One of your tasks as a storyteller is to manipulate your character in such a way that the journey feels worthwhile for the reader — even if all that character wants is a glass of water. Fundamental to this reader buy-in are the elements of conflict and stakes.

In literature, conflict is an inherent incompatibility between the objectives of two or more characters or forces. Conflict creates tension and interest in a story by adding doubt as to the outcome.

Be clear about your conflict: how the setting, other characters, or even local and global events slam into your character’s desire to get what he wants. When conflict is clear, you help the reader better understand what drives your character’s motivation.

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Step 3

Maintain measured scene beats: Your novel’s heartbeats

Scene beats, or micro-tension, make up the dramatic action that propels a story forward. In his Wonderbook, Jeff Vandermeer calls them “micro-cycles of ebb and flow, progress and setback playing out within a scene.”

While most readers won’t identify that your scene is missing a beat, they’ll likely feel it in the way their minds drift as they consider turning another page or picking up their smartphones to check the latest Buzzfeed list.

Be sure to analyze the beats — the cause and effect — in order to maintain a measured progression of the scene’s shifts in emotional tone. Make sure they build upon one another. The character enters the room thinking one thing is going to happen, only to find something else. As he realizes this, it’s a beat. Or, the character is investigating a mystery, and discovers something shocking that changes the purpose of her quest. How she feels about that discovery, in that moment, is another beat.

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Step 4

Approach the revision process with passes, not drafts

Drafts are hulking, beastly things. They sit in the corner and sulk as you plod through, page by page, trying to do everything at once to reach the Second Draft.

Instead of looking at your revision process in terms of drafts or versions, think of passes. Passes are lighter, more jovial folks. They allow you the freedom to consider elements of revision and to move more quickly through the process, like a painter adding layers of color to a painting that is not fully realized.

One pass might be for research, another few for character development and continuity; perhaps you add one pass each for setting, tone, and consistency of speech. Editing and re-editing the same copy repeatedly can seem Sisyphean — and eventually leads to unproductive tinkering. Identifying the passes necessary to finish your project, then remaining disciplined as you move through each pass, makes the revision process seem less arduous.

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Step 5

Recognize and overcome resistance

In his fabulous book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield focuses on resistance as a primary culprit in avoiding creation. The forms of resistance are myriad and highly personal.

What modes of resistance do you fall victim to on those days when writing doesn’t feel fun? Write them down on big piece of paper and hang it over your desk. In time and with practice, when you recognize resistance, you’ll stop what you’re doing and return to work. Your ability to overcome resistance is fundamental to establishing a routine. Maintaining that routine is often the only thing that will help you through the pits of despair in the middle of your novel, when the fun has drained from your writing and you’re left with the ditch-digging required to finish the project.

Step 7

Have a cheat day

Dieting is a dirty word, but I love the concept of a cheat day: the one day each week when you eat anything you want and refuse to feel guilty about it.

Sure, we all want to be perfect adherents to the dogma that writing every day is the only way to improve, but sometimes life just gets in the way. And that’s okay. You may have kids, or kids and a crazy job — or all the above, plus a house with a yard. If you can make time for writing, great, but if you can’t, allow yourself one day where you don’t judge your perceived lack of productivity.

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Step 8

Learn to separate fact from fiction when dealing with fear and doubt

Fear and doubt are perhaps the most damaging forms of resistance; they’ve likely prevented more art from reaching humanity than any other form of artistic oppression.

When you’re experiencing fear and doubt, take a moment to separate fact from fiction. Break apart those things you know as fact; “writing is hard,” “finishing a novel requires that I write a lot of words,” “publishing is complicated,” from the fiction: “no one will ever read about what I write,” “writing is a waste of time and effort,” and “I have no talent.”

This is a key practice of mindfulness and it merely requires that we actively recognize and compartmentalize thoughts. We all tell ourselves various fictions about creating art. The key difference between those who persevere and those who quit is the ability to recognize the fallacy of subjective thought, and power on through despite it. To paraphrase Seth Godin: the question is not how to get rid of fear, it’s how to dance with fear.

Step 9

Putting it all into practice

The truth of the matter is that there isn’t any one recipe for creating great fiction. If it works, it works. The old saying about methods and madness is true: no matter how crazy or esoteric an artist’s routine, there is almost always a method present. Building your own is crucial.

You also want the next novel to be even better. Crucial to this process is understanding yourself: your your innate abilities, and those that require more work and practice.

Listen to and record what you learn from your writing projects. Take from your writing the lessons that teach you as much about yourself as they do about your craft. In time, and with hard work and faith, this discipline will help you finish the personal masterwork you’ve always dreamed of creating. You will build the method behind the perceived madness of your creative process, and the work emanating from it.

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