Vision: A Resource for Writers

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Writing 101: So You Want to Write a Novel

Part 2: Writing a Novel

By Valerie Comer
Copyright © 2009 by Valerie Comer, All Rights Reserved

You've got your plan in place as we discussed in the July edition of Vision. You've taken your idea(s), developed some characters, setting, and conflict. From this you have created an outline to the level that you currently feel comfortable with. You know where to begin the story. It's time to face the blank page and start putting words on it.

Be aware that right now, before you start, your novel is a perfect piece of art. Not long after you start writing -- perhaps five minutes -- you'll see problems. You'll wonder why you ever thought you could do this. You'll be certain you're the worst writer on the planet and that all those people who encouraged you to fulfill this dream should be taken out and shot.

Please know that this is a normal stage to go through. Don't let the combination of frustration and fear stop you before you even get started.


Even in this electronic age, a number of writers prefer to hand-write their first draft on paper. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this method, at least if your handwriting is legible! It will take longer this way, but if it works for you, go for it. You'll likely find yourself doing light editing as you type it into the computer later.


Most folks create directly on the keyboard using some sort of word processing program, such as Microsoft Word™. At this stage, don't worry too much about how to format the document, though I'd recommend turning off all variations of "Smart Quotes" (under preferences) before you start. These are difficult to dislodge later and are the cause of the funny little squares and odd characters you'll sometimes see in forum posts and emails. It's best to get rid of them before they grab hold.

Use whatever font and size feeds your creativity--whatever helps your mind know that this is Novel Time. Simply the act of double-spacing lines helps me to create this mindset. It's simple to format the manuscript later to meet agents' or publishers' guidelines.

Envision your first scene as best you can, and start typing. Realize that you'll need to fix it later. It doesn't have to be perfect. You just do the best you can today. Don't worry about description, or the balance of dialogue, or showing versus telling. Don't worry about making sense. Today's job is just to solidify that first scene, to introduce the main character(s), and to get the action rolling in whatever way comes to mind.

Don't worry about chapter breaks unless you want to. If you look in published novels, you'll find chapters as short as one page and as long as fifty. Do think about scenes, though. A scene takes place in one time and setting, and has various combinations of characters, dialogue, conflict, and change. Scenes are the basic building blocks of the novel. Chapters are simply a way to group one or more scenes and aren't intrinsic to the story structure.

Mark your scene breaks with a simple # on its own line. This will make it easy to find later, and can be formatted to whatever standards are required at submission time.


Writing a novel is a long-term process. Even if you're a fast typist with a lot of spare time, expect that you'll need thinking time in the middle of it all. I'd advise trying to set times when you will write, then do your best to meet those times. If all you can set aside is half an hour, three times a week, do so--and guard those brief moments with your life. If you can set aside an hour a day, 5-7 days a week, you'll find momentum. Do the scene visualizing ahead of time so when you sit down, you're ready to spill out the words.


There are times when you sit at the keyboard and you have no idea what comes next. You look at your notecards, and wonder what drug you were on when you wrote that drivel. The only thing you know for certain is that you're not writing what is on that card. This is especially likely to happen at the 10-15K (K in writing word count means thousand) mark, when the characters have come alive on the page. You now visualize them standing there with their arms crossed, shaking their heads. They are not going to play the game by your rules.

What to do? Free write. Open a new document, and pour out your frustration. Write what you want them to do, and why they won't do it. Write what they want to do. Write the repercussions of going their direction. Write whatever comes to mind for a period of at least fifteen to twenty minutes--or longer. You'll most likely discover a route through the story that works for all of you.

Sometimes at this stage you look at what you've written thus far (say, a prairie romance) and suddenly get the urge to throw in some flaming dragons. It may be best to set aside the dragons for another story! It takes a fertile, active mind to create a garden bed where other ideas may take root and grow. But don't fall into the pattern of deserting your current story to work on what is new and shiny or you'll never finish anything. Make a few notes about the fabulous new idea, and close the new file. Then back to the current story. If, however, flaming dragons would fit the story you're writing and would jazz it up in a positive way, feel free to add them.


There are two halves to your brain: the left, logical side, and the right, creative side. First draft writing demands the attention of your creative brain. This is no place for applied logic, especially if you've already got some semblance of an outline. The left brain had its chance for input then and will have plenty to do in later drafts. For now, send it on vacation. It's your right brain's turn to do its job. Trust your creative mind (your muse, if you will) to churn out the good stuff, to connect the dots you can barely see, and to pull genius out of thin air.

Some writers have difficulty finishing a first draft because they endlessly fiddle with what they've written thus far. Resist the impulse, because this way lies madness. If, as you go along, you think of something cool you should have added in chapter three to create a deeper conflict in chapter seven, make a note of what it is, then carry on as though you'd already written it that way. You can fix it later.

First drafts are supposed to be messy. Don't let your Inner Editor tell you otherwise. When it pokes in its nose, remind it it'll have plenty to do later. For now, just follow your outline, follow your muse as it feeds you the story line by line over the course of however many weeks and months it may take to get to the other end. Keep at it! Remember the adage: You can eat an elephant, one bite at a time. Writing a novel isn't for quitters. It takes a lot of time and dedication.


It's rarely a good idea to have anyone reading your draft as you produce it, whether it is your best friend or your critique group. You stand the very real likelihood of getting mired in their vision for your story instead of your own. Trust yourself, and keep writing. The time for other people's input is coming, but it isn't here yet.


Coming up in the Writing 101: So You Want to Write a Novel series include: Revising a Novel, and Submitting a Novel.