Tips on Writing a Novel for the First Time: Writing in Pencil, Not Ink

It’s not often that I get to give tips on writing a novel for the first time, so I embrace the opportunity when it arises. The title refers to the idea of thinking of writing in permanent terms, versus being more flexible. The reference to pencil and ink is metaphorical, of course. You can write in whatever medium you want!

But I did have a very interesting consultation with a client the other day. He wanted to discuss an idea. Usually, when I sign someone up for a call, I want to see some pages, an outline, something… But this writer didn’t even have that. A total “blank slate,” he called himself. Maybe you recognize yourself in this description.

tips on writing a novel for the first time
Tips on writing a novel for the first time: embrace the impermanent draft and let your ideas scatter to the wind.

Tips On Writing a Novel for the First Time

This got me thinking. I rarely work with someone at the very, very beginning of an idea, though I’d love to do it more often! The consultation was really fun! As a person who has been in publishing for almost ten years, sometimes I take the simplest advice for granted because I’ve given it thirty thousand times. But perhaps this is a mistake.

As we wrapped up this particular call, I decided to pass along something that, to me, was beyond obvious. I said, “Remember, nobody is looking over your shoulder as you write. At this stage, you don’t know what you’re doing, and that’s totally fine. Write whatever you want. If it doesn’t work, open another draft and start over. Generate material without putting any pressure on yourself that these particular words, in this particular order, have to be ‘it.'”

My client loved the advice, and I was a little humbled. Maybe, I realized, I should share more tips on writing a novel for the first time on the blog. It’s obvious to me, but it’s not obvious to someone who isn’t steeped in writing culture yet. (One of the pitfalls of giving advice for a living is you forget that everyone needs to hear something for the first time!)

How to Write a Book: Write in Pencil

So, in a nutshell, here’s my advice for beginning writers: remember that the draft you’re working on will likely not be the draft that will be immortalized in ink. Your word processing document will have a Save function, and a Delete function, and all of these tools that will help you make progress. But there is no Publish function. (Alas! I know, it’d be nice, huh.) So as you’re searching for tips on writing a novel for the first time, take some of that pressure off to make those words, in that particular order, perfect.

“Perfect” is such a damaging notion, and it stops a lot of writers in their tracks before they even begin.

Instead, open a document and sketch out a character outline. Open another document and try your hand at writing a prologue. Open another document and make a bullet list of what you’re envisioning for the climax of the story. Take some time to read up on craft. There’s tons of material right here on my blog (beginning a novel, anyone?), or you might discover another website or craft book that has advice for beginning writers.

If you’re early in the process of figuring out how to write a book, play around. If what you’ve written sucks, and you’re sure it sucks (instead just being overly critical), delete the document. Or keep it. A basic Word doc is smaller than 100kb. That’s not going to take up much room on your hard drive.

And remember, nobody’s watching. Take the heat off yourself. It’s okay to struggle, and it’s okay to succeed. It’s okay to delete and it’s okay to add. The only thing that’s not okay is nipping yourself in the bud before you give yourself a chance.

Trying to figure out how to write a book? Even if you’re very early in your project, I’d love to brainstorm with you and support your process. Hire me as your writing consultant, and let’s get you off the ground together.

2 Replies to “Tips on Writing a Novel for the First Time: Writing in Pencil, Not Ink”

  1. This is excellent advice. Coming from a pro it’s like permission to not worry, just try. Thanks for sharing.

    And, I love the metaphor. As a former accountant turned writer, I use it in another way, I put down my pencil and took up the pen.

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