In support of the first-time writer: 4 how-to’s, 5 how-not-to’s, and a word of encouragement

This is a guest post by Nick Thacker

I just finished writing my first novel.

Wait let me rephrase that–I just finished writing the first piece of fiction I've ever written. That's right–I went for broke and decided, “hey–why not? I'll just write a whole book!” No English degree, no creative writing courses, nothing.

And it was awesome.

I'm definitely a “newbie” when it comes to writing fiction. I've written for numerous blogs, so I guess I have my “nonfiction” wings already, but fiction was a different animal for me. And here's the main thing I learned:

It's great to be a newbie.

Yeah, I would have written better prose and dialogue if I'd had some training. I would have had less of a headache throughout the plotting process if I'd taken a few courses on structure and story development. And I'd probably be much better off in terms of being able to get an agent (if that's your goal) if I'd followed “the rules.”

But I wouldn't have been able to finish my book.

Basically, it's because I didn't have the experience that I was able to finish. If I'd known how to craft the perfect character, develop an amazing plot, or weave clever dialogue that “shows” instead of “tells,” I would have called it quits only hours into my first draft. And I wasn't really keen on finding a publisher for this first book anyway, since I'm more of a DIY-er.

So again, I'm glad I was (am) a newbie. Of course, there were a few things I would tell the first-time author now:

1. Grab a few books on fiction writing.

I prefer Dwight Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer and Creating Characters, as well as anything by James Scott Bell. Having a pro explain and show what it means to not use adverbs, “Tom Swifties,” and more is paramount to writing something someone might want to read. Also, I now believe every writer at any stage of the process should read Stephen King's On Writing.

2. Read a lot.

Like, way more than you're used to. Do you already read 50 books a year? Great–read 100, and make 50 of them authors you've never picked up before. I read business, marketing, and self-development nonfiction, but I also have a stack of fiction from authors who aren't normally on my radar. Digest everything you can, and as much as possible understand that reading is now part of your job–make it a habit.

3. Set a schedule.

By the time I was halfway through the book, I realized that I'd be able to pop out 1,000 words in a session on a good day and only about 14 on a bad day. Now I pop out 1,000 words at least, no matter what. I'm definitely approaching my writing as a professional would–I don't have time for writer's block. I'd suggest developing a writing habit once a day, or at the very least 3-4 times a week, and sticking with it. Give it 21 days–enough time for a real habit to sink it–before you change it up.

4. Define your own success.

Finally, know that you must live by your own definition of success for any large project. For me, it was to finish a book that I could hand to my father on Christmas morning. That meant it wouldn't just be complete, it would be printed, bound, and ready to show off.

I succeeded, but only because I'd set that huge goal six months earlier. I didn't let the unknown become a hindrance, nor did I let what I knew about the book world become a crutch.

Set your goals and then build tactics to help you get there. I was writing over lunch breaks, at 6 am before work, and late at night because those were the only times to get it done. If you don't have a schedule that allows you to make the time to write, you won't write. No one “has” time available; you make it or you don't.

A word of encouragement

I want to offer those of you about to embark on your first major writing project some words of encouragement: don't worry about the “way” you're supposed to do things. Watch out for these common misconceptions about how your writing life “should” be:

  1. Write so often through your childhood that you've already penned a million words upon adulthood.
  2. Go to school and get a degree in English, Communications, or Creative Writing.
  3. Continue writing, abiding by the firm rules of academic literary critique.
  4. Submit stories to magazines, directories, and short story publications.
  5. Write the next Great American Novel when you're 70.

That's just one way to do it. There are as many other ways as there are writers, but if you focus on the way most people would tell you to go, you'll probably get discouraged along the way.

Spend time working on your craft by “writing with the door closed,” as Stephen King would say. Don't tell your spouse, your kids, or your co-workers that you're working on a great novel (unless you need the accountability or it's hard to convince them that you're working when you lock yourself in the closet.) Don't worry about what the words on the page sound like; your first novel should be one that you write just to see if you can do it.

And you can. If I did it, you can too.

Hit me up on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, or wherever, and let me know where you are in the process. I want to help in any way I can, whether it's through reading drafts, answering questions, or just listening to fellow newbie rants.

Oh, and be sure to leave a comment. I'd love to hear more about your personal story and how your writing experience has been so far!

About this post’s author:

Nick Thacker is a blogger, writer, and author of fiction thriller novels. He blogs at www.LiveHacked.com, a site about living and writing better. Also, grab the LiveHacked.com newsletter here!

A.M. Hudson

Hey, way to go. It’s always good to hear about authors rising up with little experience or ‘formal’ writing education. It shows people it CAN be done, that dreams are what YOU make them and that excuses only stop those of us who allow it.

My mantra: “I will not fail, because I will always get back up and keep going.”

I started out as a high school drop out, now, I’m self-pubbed and my books have reached over 22, 000 people in two months. It can be done.

Thanks for the great post.

    Nick Thacker

    Wow, A.M.!

    That’s pretty impressive–good job!

    I like the mantra; I consider “failure” just a way of helping me refocus my expectations.

    Thanks for the comment, and for stopping by!
    Nick

Pamela Beason

Congratulations, Nick! To all new writers, I say, persistence is truly the key to success. Keep writing, keep learning, keep improving your writing, and be willing to try anything. I tried for years to get an agent and sell my first mystery, then finally got a good agent and after a lot of close calls, got tired of waiting and self-pubbed my first novel, then got picked up by Berkley Prime Crime. So now I have 3 books coming out of NY, as well as four I’ve published myself (both routes can work). This business is constantly changing, and new writers need to realize that success is possible if you just keep at it.

    Nick Thacker

    Persistence + great content (books, articles, teachings, etc.) is definitely the key to success. There are exceptions (people who create “bad” content but are still persistent), but they are the exception that prove the rule!

    Pamela, awesome story! It would greatly received on LiveHacked.com, if you ever wanted to share it via a guest post! If so, shoot me an email!

    Congrats on your success, and here’s to much more!
    Nick

Kirstie

Oh wow, your first piece of fiction is a novel, you don’t do things halfway!
I definately agree that you can’t get bogged down in the ‘correct’ way to do things when you’re writing your first draft, that’s what revision is for.
I certainly know about finding the time to write, I snatch bits during my baby’s naps and by getting up before the rest of the family.
For me, while being published is a goal, it’s not the be all and end all. I love to write so I gain a sense of achievement from completing each stage, like finishing my first draft, completing my revision, getting responses from my test readers. I just finished the first draft of my second noovel last week and I’m still riding the high from that 😀

    Nick Thacker

    Hi Kirstie, thanks for stopping by!

    Yeah, I went for broke and decided to write a whole novel! I wrote about it more over here on Jane Friedman’s blog: http://janefriedman.com/2012/04/10/why-its-ok-to-be-naive

    Like you, I’m more interested in writing for the personal achievement benefits–I didn’t care as much about getting it published as much as just being able to say “I finished.”

    Congrats on the second novel–I’m still about 5,000 stuck!

    Talk to you soon!
    Nick

Brian Holers

Nice job, Nick. I decided to write a novel because I was leaving home for a year and wouldn’t be meeting with my short story group anymore 🙂 It was tough but I have it out there finally. Same story here, too. I’ve never done anything they way one is “supposed” to do it. So far, it’s working out for me. Selling books is slowly coming along too.

    Nick Thacker

    Nice to “meet” you Brian–it sounds like we’ve got something in common. I’ve never been a “status quo” guy myself, so I definitely know where you’re coming from!

    Glad to hear you’ve got some sales–those first ones are the hardest!
    Nick

Jennifer Wagner

Nick,

First off, you are an inspiration to me-and I’m not just saying that to sound like a suck-up. I mean it. Signing up for your emails was the best thing I’ve done to support my writing in a long time.

Second, congrats on writing your first fiction novel. Let me be the first to tell you that even having the English degree and creative writing course background does not mean squat. I have both and I’m still struggling with my first draft. (I’m also a full-time mom so I struggle with finding time as well!)

Lastly, your advice speaks truth. You are dead on. Thank you for that. My next goal is to get my fingers around Dwight Swain’s book. Keep writing because I’ll keep following!

    Nick Thacker

    Jennifer!

    What an awesome comment! Thanks for the kind words, and for signing up for the emails–you won’t be disappointed!

    Grab a copy of Swain’s stuff–it might be just the motivational bullet you need!

    Thanks,
    Nick

Ria

Hi Nick! You have written a great article that’s easy to relate to. I finished writing my first novel a while back doing just what you did. It’s another point altogether that I am stuck in an endless rut of editing spurred on by every creative writing book I finish(I love James Scott Bell too, especially Plot and Structure). Anyway, best of luck with your writing career from one newbie to another.

    Nick Thacker

    Thanks, Ria!

    Good luck to you as well–I hope you get out of the “rut” soon enough!

    Nick

Reese Ring

Hi Nick,

Wow! I felt like I was reading about myself and my experience writing my first novel, no formal background/education in writing, etc. I thought it was awesome that I was able to put it together. Of course, I could have better prose, development and so on, but…

Now that I’m stuck in the middle of writing two new novels, I realize I’m caught up in making things “right” and not writing. I’ve learned so much from my first novel that I’ve become paralyzed in trying to do these better.

I want to get back to the passion and the “I’m-writing-it-for-myself” attitude that I felt writing the first novel, when I was unencumbered and not worried who would read it or what they would say about it. I had a drive to get the story out of my head and after reading Stephen King’s On Writing I put pen to paper and am happy I did.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

Wishing you success!

Nick Thacker

Thanks for the kind words, Reese! Wishing you success as well!
Nick

Melissa

Congratulations Nick! And thanks for the superb advice! 🙂 Will definitely be using it while I’m writing.

    Nick Thacker

    Thanks, Melissa! Glad you liked it!

Chad Lynch

After reading King’s “On Writing”, sitting with my mother as she died, and losing my job 18 months ago, I finally got serious. Plus I realized that there isn’t anything else even slightly productive that I enjoy doing.

I spend about 80% of my waking hours writing now. I started and just kept going until the story was done and realized I had a whole dam fantasy trilogy. Finishing the last (God please let it be the last) draft of book 1. After that I’ll go fishing for an agent while starting to edit book 2 & 3. If no one bites I’ll eventually put it on Amazon, then write some more. Don’t really have any other option at this point, and it seems to be one of the few things that makes me happy.

    Nick Thacker

    Hi Chad!

    That’s awesome that you spend that much time doing what you love–I think it’s a dream for the rest of us to spend that much time writing.

    Good luck on the book release, and be sure to let us know when it’s done!

    Thanks,
    Nick

Mackenzie

Nick, this post could not have come at a better time. I’m on a mission to do a summer version of National Novel Writing Month and I started my first novel yesterday. I’m already at about 4,000 words, but it’s still a daunting task, especially for someone who’s used to editing the crap out of my stories along the way. It’s hard for me to let go and just DO it, whether it sucks or not. But this post helped a bunch! I’m bookmarking it so I can refer back to it when the going gets tough. Thanks for your encouraging words!

    Nick Thacker

    Awesome, Mackenzie!

    I’m glad you liked it–definitely refer back to it, and if you get stuck, shoot me an email (I respond to ALL of my emails!).

    Good luck with the book, and let me know how it goes!
    Nick

Valerie Ormond

Dear Nick,
Thank you for this excellent post. In this “information age,” I agree that many of us get so bogged down in reading about what we are supposed to do that we read about it when we should be spending time doing it. (Yes, me included!) Thank you for your tips and words of encouragement. Now, I’m going to take an hour and “just write.”

    Nick Thacker

    Thanks, Valerie! Take as many of those “just write” hours as possible!
    Nick

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