How To Write Your First Novel

I began my writing career as​ a​ poet, and I’m still a​ poet. So my journey into fiction was never a​ planned career move. in​ fact, my first short story arrived as​ a​ complete shock. No kidding.

Because I have written and published poetry in​ books and magazines for years, I’ve developed a​ writing schedule that provides time to​ write every day, always a​ half hour after breakfast each morning and again after dinner every evening. I also keep a​ notepad and pen next to​ the bed to​ capture any lines of​ poetry if​ they float through my mind while I drift off to​ sleep. This means I’ve not only learned how to​ write pages of​ notes in​ the dark but also how to​ decipher those scribbles in​ the morning.

About eleven years ago, as​ I fell asleep one night, several lines suddenly appeared. Before I could decide to​ wake up and write them down, a​ startling thought flared in​ my mind like a​ wild firecracker: “This isn’t a​ poem…it’s the first paragraph of​ a​ short story, and I’ve never written fiction before!”

My eyes popped open, I grabbed the notepad, and followed the thread of​ those lines until I’d written three paragraphs of​ a​ short story in​ the dark. That was my first experience seeing an​ imaginary character in​ my mind and following her around, writing down her words and actions.

Throughout the next year different characters and their stories peopled my mind, and I began writing and publishing short fiction in​ magazines. I had never taken a​ writing class, so when I began writing poetry in​ my early thirties, I studied the books of​ contemporary poets, and eventually developed my own form of​ free verse poetry. I approached fiction in​ the same manner. I read and studied all the short story collections I could find, and ultimately created an​ experimental format for my short fiction, which resembled a​ prose poem composed of​ segments, each signaling a​ scene change or​ a​ change in​ a​ character’s thought process. Editors loved it, and almost all of​ my short stories appeared in​ magazines and literary journals. Those stories were eventually collected in​ a​ book that sold well for many years.

But two years later, short fiction no longer satisfied me, and I began to​ crave a​ longer form of​ creative expression, like a​ novel or​ novella. I could feel a​ novel percolating within me, but I knew nothing about the characters or​ plot. With no revelations emerging from my subconscious, I sensed this novel needed time to​ develop, so I began writing poetry again and published several poetry books.

Five years passed, and then one afternoon the title of​ the novel suddenly sizzled through my mind. The next day the main character appeared and announced her name. And on the third day she began telling her story, and a​ plot emerged. at​ the time, I had just started a​ new collection of​ poetry, but that hardly mattered. I’d been waiting for this novel for years, and once it​ arrived I dropped everything, grabbed my notebook (all my first drafts are handwritten), and four months later I had completed a​ short novel. Years later, I would add more material to​ this novel and republish it​ as​ the first in​ my series of​ Occult novels for women.

After the main character in​ that first novel began speaking, the entire writing experience flowed quickly in​ the white heat of​ a​ creative blaze. I always say I’m lucky I remembered to​ breathe during those amazing months! But don’t let this throw you. That was the first and last time I had to​ wait for a​ novel idea. Now new characters and plot ideas arrive frequently, and the day after I finish one novel I usually begin the next.

So, how did I write my first novel? First, I let the main character tell me who she was and what the primary plot of​ the novel would be. Next, several subplots emerged. And that was all I needed to​ start writing. For short stories I never used a​ structured outline. Instead, I patched those stories together organically, as​ if​ they were fabric swatches in​ a​ quilt, jumping back and forth between the past and present, allowing the characters to​ tell me what comes next. if​ you work this way too, you’ll feel comfortable arranging the scene and the characters in​ your mind, grabbing your notebook, and then following the characters around, writing down their words, thoughts, and actions. However, I found the prose poetry format I created for my short stories wouldn’t work for a​ novel. it​ just didn’t feel right. So I tweaked and tweaked and developed another experimental format that I still use today.

As I mentioned before, I do not use an​ outline for my novels, but I do edit each chapter completely before I continue. I work like this for two reasons. First, I submit each chapter as​ a​ short story to​ magazines and literary journals when I finish it, so the novel will gain publication credits, the kind of​ acknowledgements publishers and agents love to​ see. Second, polishing each chapter gives me the time to​ submerge myself in​ the characters and to​ intuit how the story should progress into the next chapter. Best of​ all, when I finish the last chapter I have a​ polished novel manuscript. Then it’s just a​ matter of​ going back and adding details to​ earlier chapters, important data that emerged during the process of​ writing the novel. Finally, I conduct one last punctuation and grammar check, and that’s it. I’ve written another novel ready to​ be published by one of​ my publishers.

If you follow this formula, relax, and allow the story to​ develop organically, you’ll end up with a​ polished first novel manuscript sitting on your computer desk before you know it. And you’ll enjoy every step of​ the process!

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