All that time, all that effort, all that blood, sweat and tears. Make sure it’s not wasted. A few simple changes can transform your first novel writing experience from failure to success.

Your first draft will be terrible
Unless you’ve got a lot of experience writing other forms of fiction (short stories, flash fiction…), the first draft of your first novel is going to be terrible.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with this. Professional authors who are writing their twentieth novel often write terrible first drafts too. In fact, Anne Lamott in her book ‘Bird by Bird’ famously advises writers to ‘write shitty first drafts’.

The difference between professional writers and people on their very first attempt is that:

  • Professionals write their first drafts quickly so they can get on with editing
  • Professionals understand that their first drafts are terrible
  • Professionals know how to improve the first draft and transform it into a finished book

The trouble with that first novel
As a first-time novel writer, you won’t yet know how to improve your writing. You want to take that first draft and turn it into a publishable, un-putdownable novel, but you’re not sure how. Because of this, your novel writing journey will take one of two paths:

  1. You’ll spend years ‘working’ on that first draft, unmotivated because you know that you’re writing drivel, but lacking the insights into how to transform this drivel into a workable novel. This first draft will likely never get completed, and you’ll spend more time avoiding writing than writing, OR
  2. You’ll write the first draft quickly (well done!), but then you’ll work on and refine the novel for years and years, and even once you get to draft 17 you still won’t have a workable novel, because all your refinements will be done without any real understanding of how to improve your novel, or why it’s currently not working.

Solving ‘first novel syndrome’
To produce a solid first novel, you need to understanding how to improve the plot, characterization, pacing, description, the dialogue, the sentence structure, and all the other macro- and micro- aspects that make an excellent book.
This is something YOU CANNOT DO ALONE.

As a first-time writer (and even as a tenth-time writer), the number one most important thing you can do for your work is to get feedback.
If you work away on your first-draft for years in your basement, without showing it to another soul, then you will end up with a terrible first draft (as all first-novel drafts invariably are), and you will have wasted all those years on just a first draft.

If you continue writing in a vacuum (i.e. without any feedback or assistance from others), then the tenth draft of your first novel is also going to suck, and you will have wasted even more years.

If you only get feedback once you’ve ‘finished’ your manuscript (for example through paying for a manuscript assessment), then the feedback you’re going to get is “this novel is terrible” (hopefully phrased more politely and optimistically that that). You will submit your manuscript, which has taken years of your life and several pieces of your soul, for assessment, and you will be told that it requires substantial changes to the plot, characterization, pacing, sentence structure, etc, etc. Can you imagine a more disheartening experience?

Get feedback now
Instead, you need to get feedback EARLY and OFTEN. Each chapter you write, every thousand words you complete, share those words with other writers. They will give you suggestions on how to improve your work, and, while this experience may be disheartening, it’s only a thousand words or so, and much easier to change than if you’d already written and revised a whole book.

Learn your craft now
You also want to make sure you know your craft inside and out. Learn about plot, pacing, characterization and all the other aspects that are key for producing a solid novel. If grammar and sentence structure is something you struggle with, work on this now (if you occasionally get “it’s” and “its” or “your” and “you’re” mixed up, this can be fixed by a copy editor, but if you make more significant errors, you should work on eliminating these from your writing).
Read about these topics online, attend a course or a workshop, read some how-to books. These things are worth paying money for. Many people believe they want to earn money from writing, not pay money, but you have to write well if you want to earn money in the future, and if writing is something you enjoy and want to do more of, you should invest in improving your skills.

Write fast
My final advice to you is to write fast. This doesn’t mean you need to write thousands of words every day, or produce several books a year. If you can produce 500 words in a writing session, you’re doing great. But make sure you’re:

  • Writing regularly (aim for at least three times a week)
  • Increasing your word count every time you write (not true if you’re editing or if you realise yesterday’s writing took your plot in the wrong direction, but nonetheless something to aim for)

You don’t want to waste years of your life working on your first novel (or your tenth novel). Get the words written, and edit productively. Don’t waste time worrying about the perfect word, or re-writing the same sentence a hundred times. Don’t spend time avoiding writing. Write. Because the best way to improve your writing is to write.
And then get feedback 🙂

This post was originally published on Medium