Writing that novel

Writing process

I finished plotting a new novel a few days ago and started writing. Given it was the Holiday season, with vacation time, New Year’s resolutions, and bad weather, maybe you decided to also write that novel? Two months from now, when two paragraphs of writing are angrily staring at you from your desk, you might wonder where it all went wrong. It used to happen to me. I have a big folder of unfinished work on my laptop. Okay… So then what?

The first step is to start asking yourself why you’re not getting anywhere with your novel. I’ve spent a lot of time with writers and would-be writers. I mostly came across one of the following reasons:

  • Inexperience
  • World-builder’s disease
  • Perfectionism
  • Unpreparedness
  • Lack of time


The first story you write in your life is crap. From there, it’s an uphill struggle to get yourself to a decent level of quality. It takes years of practice. When you’re just starting out, you really shouldn’t try to tackle a novel. It’s like learning to drive by participating in the Dakar Rally.

You should start by writing some short stories, then move one to a novel. How do you know when you’re ready? When you look at those stories that you wrote a while ago and think “wow, this is better than that book I’m reading”. So, write short stories first, then start reading crappy novels.


The big caveat that comes after the previous paragraph. Some people start on a story, then polish it, and polish it again, and keep polishing until they lose interest and never finish it. At some point you have to let go. Worse, when you finish the first draft of your story, you’re going to have to revise and maybe throw out entire sections of that carefully polished work.

Resist. It doesn’t have to be perfect in that first draft. Or in the second. There is a famous quote in the software business: “premature optimisation is the root of all evil.”

You could also try NaNoWriMo. It tries to help you to write 50,000 words in a month. No time for perfectionism then.

World-builder’s disease

Tolkien published only two books in his lifetime (okay, okay, and bundles of short stories and poetry). He spent most of his time perfecting his world, with its languages and histories. So, is it a disease if one of our most renowned authors had it? That’s up to you to decide.

If you simply enjoy building a world, you should relish it and have fun. If you really only do it for that future story, be careful.

Resist. Beyond a certain point, more background won’t improve your story. You start to run into diminishing returns. So, put it down and start to write.


Of course, the other side of world-builder’s disease is having nothing prepared at all. Some people are discovery writers, and don’t need outlines. Some people – and I am one of them – get stuck instead.

To me, an outline is more than a list of events that need to happen. It’s a description of the plot and the character-arcs in the story. When I get stuck, it’s usually because my outline falls short.

If you get writer’s block, this might be something to look at. Do a short brainstorm session for your outline. If it helps? Well, you just learned you’re an outliner like me.

Lack of time

Writing takes time. If you don’t make time, you’re not going to finish a novel. Say you write for an hour a week. At 200 words an hour, an 80,000 word novel will take 400 weeks, which is about eight years. That’s a long time. With one hour a day, it’s a little over a year.

If you want to finish a novel, you are going to have to make enough time to actually write it. How many hours a day do you watch TV, play video games, or surf the web?

Lack of time is actually never your problem, priorities are. You are free to spend your time any way you want. I choose to spend it writing. I like video games, and TV, and books, but I set aside a sizeable chunk of my time to write.

If you’d rather do something else, or just write a few short stories a year, that’s fine. It’s your life, you should do what makes you happy. Just understand that there is no magic involved in writing a book. No muses, no drug-induced writing sprees. Just plain old making time and writing.


So, your novel still staring at you? If any of the things above sounded familiar, maybe you can do something about it and next year you will have written that novel.

Now I’m going to work on my next novel.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy author/blogger from the Netherlands