Getting Started on Your First Novel – 7 Things That Helped This Debut Author
Updated: Nov 18
November in the US is National Novel Writing Month when about half a million people commit to writing a 50,000-word manuscript in a month and published authors share their support and tips on how to get started. I never had the opportunity to participate during my many years in New York, but now, with my debut novel Nelson's Folly getting favourable reviews, I felt this was the year to join in the spirit of NaNoWriMo and share some of what I have learned that may help other budding writers to surmount that first hurdle.
Image: Oliver speaking about Nelson's Folly at the literary lunch, Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron, June 2021.
I am wrapping up the first draft of my second novel as I write this blog. Soon I will put pen to paper for my third. Since I am writing a series, with a character from the previous novel becoming the protagonist in the next, starting subsequent novels is not so hard, so these remarks are mainly about the experience of getting started on Nelson’s Folly.
Read, Write, Learn from the Masters
The starting point is to enrol in writers’ workshops. When I lived in New York, I attended many workshops at the New School over a twenty year period and when I returned to Australia, I found excellent courses at Writers NSW. I usually attend the Boot Camps and Manuscript reviews organised by the Historical Fiction Society of Australia at their annual conference. I am also addicted to the Great Courses. Their curriculum on editing, grammar, and on famous writers is so helpful. (I have just completed a course on George Orwell.) The best resource of all is to read diversely and see how successful novelists do it. Among novelists who have written about writing skill, Stephen King’s book On Writing, partly biographical and partly instructional, provides many fascinating insights.
Here are some basics:
· How to develop a plot
· Writing in the First or Third Person
· Point of view
· Developing characters
· Selecting and describing location
· Developing a writer’s “voice”
Understand your genre
My first attempt at a novel many years ago failed. I put the incomplete manuscript in a drawer where it still gathers dust. Even though I knew the basics of writing, I had difficulties with genre. It was a murder mystery and I had not done my homework on the ingredients necessary for a good crime novel. I failed to dissect similar works to see how the writer does it and also what the market wants.
Develop staying power
Many years earlier I completed a PhD thesis on an academic topic. It was a considerable challenge and added to this were the practical issues of producing the final draft including the challenge of typing the draft of the manuscript. At the New School, I had to produce a short story every two weeks to remain part of the workshop. Years later, I wrote a memoir - of my first wife, Diane - shortly after she died. Each of these separate tasks served a purpose when I began the second attempt to write a novel. They gave me confidence I could complete a “book” – that I did have the staying power so long as I persisted and was patient with myself.
Get support for the journey
When I returned to writing after a gap of many years the dust lay thick. To spring-clean my skills I joined a course – “A novel in a year.” It was an invitation to get going. Each month we were encouraged to work on a new chapter which might be read out loud. During the year I completed quite a lot of work but it was still a long way from completion by the end. Attending the course were many talented female writers and a much smaller group of men. At the pub, after the course ended, we formed the “Boys Own Writers Group” - BOWG for short. We began to meet in our homes to read our latest chapters after dinner, our hesitancy lubricated with red wine. We received great critiques but the greatest value was the encouragement to keep going. We meet to this day, five years later.
Gain confidence in your ideas
This support helps us to build confidence in ourselves. If we begin with genre, we deal with context. Then other questions follow such as: do I have the outline of a plot? Who is my protagonist? (I had an ancestor married to a British naval hero). Where does the story start? Is it exciting or engaging enough for the reader to want to read the second chapter? Can we get some sense of the theme from the first chapter?
First throw some paint on the canvas and then begin to paint your picture
All these questions and plenty more were answered once I got pen to paper. I like to compare this stage with a potter putting a shapeless lump of clay on his wheel or a painter dressing the canvas with a foundational colour before trying to create any outline. It really doesn’t matter what you write because you can always edit it. In the beginning of Nelson’s Folly, I created a scene suggestive of its sad ending. I chose a freezing cold night in an uncomfortable parsonage in Norfolk. My protagonist gets out of bed and puts a shawl around her shoulders while she uses the chamber pot. Her ambitious husband, who is reluctant to pay for a fire in the bedroom, snores on. From that beginning the story started to write itself.
Writing words on a blank page is difficult and sometimes painful. With some of the help outlined above it can become a little easier. For example, editing is easier than writing so a process of writing, editing and writing again can become self-sustaining. Like every craft, practice is the essential ingredient. If we become too precious about our work we will never get that practice. Many of us have come from backgrounds where we do not write much so if we want to write a novel we have to be ready to overcome that lack of practice by writing more and more. Having said all of this, writing is a wonderful hobby which can become much more than that.
If you have any tips, please share in the comments! Good luck and good writing. ~ Oliver Greeves.
Image: Callan Park, Sydney - home of Writers NSW.
If you have any thoughts or questions on this topic, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. or comment below.
Nelson’s Folly is available in hard copy or on kindle at Amazon.com.au and other online book stores or at The Constant Reader Bookshop in Mosman and Crows Nest.