The process of writing a novel can be a bit like wading through treacle, especially first time round. There are instances where you either become blinded by writer’s block, lose all motivation, or get frustrated and lost (or all four) – no matter how eager you are to meet your goal there will undoubtedly be times it just doesn’t feel achievable and the temptation can be to simply give up. Don’t! Below are some of the barriers that might be holding you back from completing your first manuscript, and some suggestions on how you might overcome them:
We seem to have more ‘free’ time on our hands than ever before, yet we’re often so busy trying to be all things to all people and balancing competing demands, priorities, responsibilities, and interests that it can understandably be difficult to see how finding the time to write a full-length novel will ever fit in. For me, writing my first novel was achievable because I didn’t place too high a priority on time. I knew it wouldn’t be unusual if it took me a couple of years or more to complete, and I really wanted the process to remain enjoyable. So I set aside an hour or two at least once/week to sit in a favourite café and write and was surprised at how productive those short chunks of time could be, even if it didn’t feel that way at the time. 2.5 years later, no-one was more surprised than me when those efforts finally paid off. I really enjoyed the process, and it only felt like a chore when I inevitably got stuck in the middle (as I always do – why is the middle of a novel the hardest part to write?)!
Most of us can set aside an hour or so a week (it doesn’t need to be much) to focus solely on our writing. It’s really important to make it a priority and dedicate time, even if little and often is all you can afford, and you might be surprised at what you manage to achieve. Once you’ve written your first manuscript you’ll likely find it quicker and easier to progress through the next one, as some of the intimidation goes out of the process when you discover that reaching a marketable word-count is achievable. I found it much easier to get into a groove of productive writing when I made a habit of it.
You’re basically your own boss when it comes to setting the time-frame in which to complete your manuscript – and the level of freedom and lack of accountability associated with relying entirely on our own motivation is unfortunately where a lot of us can come stuck. We might start a story and never finish it, or we might finely-tune the art of novel writing into something that is literally a permanent work-in-progress.
My laptop is a graveyard of abandoned ideas, but I was determined that this time would be different. Aim to make a regular commitment to setting aside time to write and hold yourself as accountable as you would if you were your own boss. It doesn’t need to be much – even if you only write a couple of sentences or a paragraph, any progress is far more motivating than none at all! I worked towards achievable milestones of roughly a quarter way through, a halfway through etc…, and it’s amazing how incentivising the meeting of each of those smaller milestones was in pushing me to keep going to The End for the first time. The more of your novel you’ve written, the harder it gets to abandon that piece of work without completing it.
The word-count required to create a marketable full-length manuscript can be pretty intimidating in itself, not to mention finding a creative way to make your story’s premise actually span to that length without losing your capacity to keep your reader engaged throughout! Before writing my first novel, the longest piece of writing I’d ever done was my 8,000-word dissertation for uni – pretty short by most dissertation standards – and that was a headache, and nowhere near as much fun! But breaking down my target word-count of 80,000 words into smaller chunks of 20,000 words and working towards those smaller milestones made it less daunting and I was able to start making steady progress through my novel. Try setting your own, smaller goals, and if you like, reward yourself as you meet them. I usually aim for a 2,500 wordcount per chapter, and if I can manage to do that 4 times I’m at 10,000 words, which feels like good progress.
My years at university taught me to turn procrastination into an art-form. I remember panic-researching and writing my dissertation over the course of a 5-day holiday about a week before it was due. Though this is definitely not a strategy I’d recommend, there’s something incredibly motivating about a deadline and holding yourself accountable as you work towards it (or getting someone else to if you are as lax as I am when it comes to being your own boss). You’re bound to get stuck along the way – but think of other times you’ve been stuck and had no option but to push on through, like when you got stuck partway through a college or uni assignment but persisted regardless to ensure you didn’t miss the deadline. You can do this!
5. Lack of ideas/writer’s block
I’ve always found it pretty easy to come up with story ideas and to start a novel off, and my level of enthusiasm for a new project has been known to carry me some way through, but I can guarantee I’ll get stuck around the middle third of a novel EVERY DARN TIME. Even with the best of intentions of ‘coming back to it later’ when I had finally thought myself out of my plot’s black hole, I would inevitably abandon said work to my laptop’s already crowded graveyard. With my first novel I made a commitment that I wasn’t going to allow myself to do this, and when I did inevitably get stuck there are several things that helped me to work through it.
One was to power on ahead to the next part of the novel that I did know, and to keep writing from there until I was ready to go back and join the dots. Another was to read back from the very beginning of my story in the hope that in doing so, some fresh ideas would be generated (which they were – I ended up with characters and subplots I’d never have thought of at the outset). I asked close family members for their input and ideas, discarding the ones that didn’t gel with my story’s premise and hanging on to those that did – allowing those suggestions to trigger new ideas of their own. I’ve also found that writing a short blurb (around 250 words) before starting to write has helped crystallise the overall premise of the story and enabled me to stay on track without derailing from it. I personally find the blurb/synopsis much easier to write and work from than coming up with a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline, but it’s important that you do whatever works best for you. A lot of writers work best when they have planned out what will happen in each of their chapters in advance. I wish I could do this!
6. A lack of experience
As we’ve already mentioned, writing your first full-length manuscript can be like wading through treacle. Like anything, once you’ve done it once it’ll be much less daunting next time. You’ve got to start somewhere – and making a start is the only way to gain the experience that can really benefit your craft as you develop, refine and hone your creative voice and skills. While it might be your third novel that sells and not your first – which wouldn’t be at all unusual – your first novel will definitely have featured as a major stepping stone on that journey.
7. Lack of experience/need to further develop skills
If English isn’t your first language or you didn’t quite ace your GCSE’s/A Levels, then you might benefit from some additional study to assist you on your journey towards achieving your writing goals. You’re never too old and it’s never too late to return to study and the process can be quite an enjoyable, constructive way to spend some of your time as you get introduced to new people, concepts, ideas and skills. Your local high school and/or college is likely to have a variety of English Language courses of various levels and lengths tailored toward mature students that can fit around your commitments. I personally found study as a mature student far more enjoyable than I did when I was in high school because increased maturity brought with it more focus as I was less preoccupied with what others were thinking and more motivated to learn and achieve good results. It really helps when it’s a subject you’re naturally inclined towards.
Other ways you can improve your writing might include undertaking creative writing courses; attending writer’s groups, retreats and workshops; reading widely, and submitting samples of your work for feedback in online writer’s forums or in person within the context of a group of like-minded people or by forwarding to a trusted selection of family and friends for reflection and feedback. In all honesty though, the more you write, the more you will naturally improve and develop as a writer over time through experience.
8. The next JK Rowling?
If your primary goal in writing a novel goes something like this: agent=publication=international best-seller=movie and TV deal=millions of dollars, you’re likely to be disappointed. Most traditionally published authors don’t ever earn enough to give up their day job, so it’s important to write because you have a story to tell, because it is a need or an outlet, or just because you love it! Most of us hope for the validation of publication and some glowing reader reviews at the very least, but that and anything else that comes from our writing is just a bonus. The days of advances are gone – so even if you become published don’t expect to give up your day job just yet. Focus on writing a great story, and enjoy the process and sense of achievement that comes from that. Writing a novel is something many people aspire to one day but few actually do it – if you’re one of those who do that’s a true accomplishment.
9. Fear of criticism and/or rejection
Rejection is an unfortunate reality of this industry and something nearly all of us must subject ourselves to at some stage if we hope to seek representation. It can sting, but try to keep in mind it is for the benefit of you and your work and you only need to take on board what resonates with you. Over time we can learn to get better at handling well-intentioned criticism; and sometimes it’s no genuine reflection of your ability but of the highly competitive nature of this industry or other people’s individual tastes – you will never write something that pleases everybody no matter how skilled you are. When it comes to querying, receiving even one positive, personalised rejection out of a sea of form (impersonal) rejections or radio silence is actually a real achievement! So try to stay objective, be appreciative of the time someone has taken to read your work and give their feedback to you, and avoid taking it too personally. Online or community writer’s groups can be a good avenue in which to get accustomed to having people read and respond to your work.
We could have written a promising manuscript but it might not be suited to that particular agent/publisher or the market at that particular time or it may not resonate with the individual on a personal level – taste is highly subjective, and writing to market can backfire as the market is likely to have moved on by the time you’re finished. Many of the world’s best-selling novelists have been rejected, it is simply an expected part of the process, and hopefully something you can learn from to boost your likelihood of success in the future. If you query ten agents and three make similar suggestions/criticisms – perhaps you should take those things on board and edit accordingly before you resubmit. But if you receive only radio silence or form rejections – maybe it’s your query, synopsis and/or sample chapters that need further work. If people request your partial or full manuscript and the rejection comes after that – maybe your novel hits a wall/loses engagement at some point (ensure that at least the first 50 pages are up to scratch and compel the reader onwards). If you find yourself frozen by the fear or experience of rejection, it could be that your confidence or self-esteem has taken a hit – and working through those things might benefit from some time and attention first.
I’m a perfectionist by nature, but the impending arrival of another baby has forced me to focus on my story’s overall arc, rather than being distracted by the smaller details like I usually would. Powering on through to the end of my story has given me a first draft for my second novel in record time (1.5 years, so still a marathon), and means that the time for perfectionism can come in any rare, peaceful moment I can snatch post-baby, when my focus will be on the editing, fleshing out, and revision of my overall manuscript.
If you’re a perfectionist too, it can be hard to allow yourself to progress onwards with your novel when you find yourself forever going over it with a fine-toothed comb, reworking this paragraph here and that piece of dialogue there, and agonising over how well each paragraph reads. Your first draft needs only to contain the skeleton of your story – often the hardest part to get down – after that you can take all the time you need to edit and polish, add to and change things. When you begin losing all sense of objectivity and genuinely don’t think there’s anything more you can do to make your manuscript any better yourself, it’s time to engage the constructive feedback of your beta readers before you start querying!
As always, best of luck!
What were the barriers to writing your first novel and how did you overcome them?