Confessions of a First Time Novelist – Sally-Anne Wilkinson



by Sally-Anne Wilkinson


Remember, remember, it’s NaNoWriMo

For those of you who don’t know – it’s National Novel Writing Month, where writers get their teeth into a story idea and bash out a novel in a month.  Although I’m not taking part in the challenge, I have now surpassed the mid-point of the first draft of my first novel – that’s 54,000 words to you.

In terms of writing endurance, it’s not been such a long journey – I started the first chapter on the 16th September 2013 and I’ve been writing virtually every day since.  If I keep up at this rate, I’m hoping to complete the entire first draft by the beginning of December (unless it ends up longer than I expected).  By posting this, it means I can’t back out.  It’s a challenge I’ve set myself, and you are all witness to it.

Now, you might say that, by pounding away at a keyboard every day, with no real regard to quality, my novel’s not going to be up to much.  And you’d be right.   You can be certain there’s no way I’d show anyone anything I’ve written up to now.  However, as I’ve been far more productive this time than during my first attempt at writing a novel – halting abruptly to an end at 14,000 words – I’m not in any rush to alter my method.  I still weep when I think about the energy expended on those  words – back in 2011 – for them to be simply locked away, abandoned and unread.

How hard can it be?

Looking back at my original attempt, there were a number of flaws in the methodology of my writing, which meant I was doomed from the beginning:

  1. No plotline – I was starting off without any real thought as to where I was heading.
  2. No character planning – I wasn’t thinking deeply enough about the characters in my story.  I also hadn’t considered how these things would impact events within the story, which led to confusion as I tried to untangle the jumbled mess.
  3. Too much exposition – I was constantly explaining instead of showing characters behaviours and motivations, which I was aware would lead to inevitable reader boredom.   This was because I didn’t know my characters well enough.
  4. Constantly seeking writing perfection – ie. going back to edit and re-edit instead of focusing on the story ahead.
  5. Forgetting what I’d already written – as a result, expending time and energy having to check and re-check the story.
  6. 6.       Failing to set a specific writing time – I was either constantly interrupted or found excuses not to write.  I could always ‘do it tomorrow.’
  7. Failing to set a specific writing target – if I had writer’s block that day, it gave me an excuse to stop.
  8. Getting too involved in a minor character’s story or point of view – sometimes the internal dialogue of my characters were extraneous to the plot.  I was constantly veering off at tangents, unsure of what was important (or not) to my story.

Practise makes… er… it better

The hit-and-miss/write it-as-it-comes method is probably why many of us, as novel writers, fail, unless we have particularly amazing memories, imagination and skill.  Some people are that lucky.  But not me.

After attempting a novel once, it took a long of energy for me to try again. In all honesty, I was disappointed with the way I handled it – I’m a perfectionist, and hate it when things aren’t right. So, basically, I gave up.  This time, however, the more pragmatic side of me knows that my first complete book is likely to be less than I want it to be.

Remember when you first wrote a short story?  It wasn’t that great, was it?  Oh alright, show off.  Yours might have been, but mine wasn’t.  I had to practise over and over to improve.  And I’m still improving now.

If I’m really lucky, my completed novel will be of a publishable standard, but it’s much more likely that it won’t be.  Is this a reason to stop?  No.  The next time I attempt to write a full length book, it will be a much improved experience, because I should have learned from my mistakes.

Not that I’m being negative – I’d love to be published.  But if I’m not, I’ll be following that age old adage… If at first you don’t succeed.

Writing a novel isn’t about half measures.  It’s about motivation, energy and commitment.

I’m writing a novel.  Pass me that floatation aid

Of course, being me, I couldn’t simply dive into the whole novel-writing process.  Oh no.  It’s far too scary for me to put my toe in the waters of creativity without armbands.  So, I bought James McCreet’s Before You Write a Word.  An extremely useful book, McCreet advocates strict and thorough planning (giving really clear examples throughout).  If I’m honest, I read the book but struggled to follow everything he recommended.  It’s great advice (though the subject matter, at times, is as dry as planning itself), and though I’m sure it makes everything easier in the long run, I needed a much looser method of structuring my ideas. My creativity doesn’t work in the same way as McCreet’s.  Until I start writing, my imagination doesn’t fire up.  By this I mean, it’s in the practical process of producing a story that the characters come alive for me; their relationships, actions and motivations becoming clear in my mind.  I couldn’t possibly plot an entire story in diagram or chart form before writing a word.  Not at this stage in my writing experience, anyway.

In my search for guidance, I also checked out Randy Ingermanson’s The Snowflake Method on the internet.  In this particular method, the writer builds up the story – in words – from one sentence defining the initial idea, into more detailed paragraphs, then into something much larger – pages and pages of character descriptions and a synopsis that is the basis of a book.  McCreet’s method is mainly linked with charts and diagrams.  The Snowflake Method seems more concerned with planning through words.  At this point in time, I’m happiest with a combination of both, but I’m also aware that I need to rein myself in from the urge to write, and spend more time thinking the story through.

Got an idea?  Yee-haw!

So how did I go about planning my novel?  Initially, I started with a couple of characters, and from this came an idea – this was the way it worked for me.  I know, for others, it works in different ways.

  1. With my characters in mind, I got an A3 sheet of paper, and produced a spider diagram, starting with my main characters at the centre and all the jobs/places/characters connected with them, (and showing how they are inter-related) spinning off the main body. The advantage of this is that it’s easy to look at, and you get a handle on who’s who whenever you need to.
  2. Next, I wrote a list of all possible conflicts/resolutions linked with any of the characters in the story.  Although I ended up with lots of possibilities and storylines, which can be confusing at times, it also meant I could pick and choose which routes I wanted to follow and which I wanted to discard.
  3. For each main character I wrote a monologue.  I now know I should have written one for most of the characters involved, but I was desperate to start writing. Fortunately, I did have a clear idea of how I wanted each character to behave in advance, but I still think that novel-writing would have been an easier journey had I spent more time getting to know the characters thoroughly.  They’ve evolved as I’ve been writing, and I shall have to go back and change a lot of the initial story.
  4. I wrote a loose plan (synopsis) of the story of about four A4 sides – which has helped me to visualise the plot.  Sometimes, my ideas haven’t worked out because I didn’t consider that a certain character’s behaviour might make a situation unlikely, so be prepared to be taken off track.  Probably, the stronger your planning, the easier it will be to write your novel.
  5. As I started to write, I padded out the original spider diagram (and the conflicts/resolutions) with more characters, as plotlines and situations arose.

WHAT?  5am?  Are you mad?

Anyway, despite the disadvantages of my planning methods, something has improved since my previous attempts at novel-writing.  Each day I have managed between 1000-1300 words, and I have maintained this for over a month now.

My system for achieving this was:

  1. To have a clear time for writing.   For me it is 5am.  Though I am tired at that time, I am also able to write without worrying too much about the quality of my writing.  There are also fewer distractions.
  2. To have a clear word-count for each day.  I actually gave myself a relatively low target for each day initially (500 words a day), but found that I was exceeding this daily, so my target now is 1000-1300 words.  Most days I manage 1300.
  3. To not worry too much about what I am writing, but instead to simply move the story forward.  If the story is in print, I can go back and improve it in subsequent drafts.
  4. To write a brief synopsis at the end of each writing session, so that I don’t have to churn through every word written when I’ve forgotten a detail.  I find synopsis-writing exceedingly dreary, but it does cement the story into my memory.
  5. NEVER, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, GO BACK TO RE-READ ANYTHING IN DETAIL, OR EDIT YOUR WORK.  Not until you have finished your first draft.  If you do, it will prove to be your undoing.  At the moment, I am clearly aware that entire sections of my story are weak, certain character’s behaviours are incongruous, and the plot is, at times, repetitive or doesn’t fit.  I’ll sort it out later (hopefully).  I know if I try to sort it out now, I’ll be taken away from my objective – to complete a novel.  So, if this is your objective too – DON’T GO BACK.
  6. If you have any new ideas to fit into the story while you are writing.  Note them down.  If you’ve gone too far in the story to include them, you might be able to fit them in on the second draft.  If your ideas are overflowing and you’re confusing yourself trying to include them in the plot, maybe you need to write another novel?

Some days my writing flows and I’m happy with what I’ve achieved.  Other days, my characters don’t do what I want them to do, or the pace is all wrong, or I’m finding what I’ve written is dull (which means it is, and the reader will think so too). It’s hard to carry on, especially when you can’t think of where to start, or the words won’t gel.  Usually, however, once you start writing, even if it’s not perfect, the words are there and the story’s progressing.  Your novel’s not set in stone – it can be changed later.

With a little help from your friends

I approached Tom Benson, self-published author of Ten Days in Panama and Beyond the Law to ask if he had any useful tips for helping with the novel-writing process.   He said that making use of certain tools and ideas makes the whole concept of writing much simpler.  He passed on this list, which he produced during the writing of his novels, which you might find useful too:

*Make a simple timeline, whether it is set as days, months, years or whatever suits you best. A timeline combined with a synopsis is a real asset from beginning to end.

*Cast of Characters may sound obvious, but keep it handy:

    It will help avoid the duplication of names or similar sounding names.

    It will also help to remind if a character appears once for no good reason – get rid.

*Zodiac signs book. If you haven’t got one, it’s a useful tool for ideas on characteristics, personal likes, dislikes – and even star signs.

*Baby names book. A good one will give a range of nationalities.

*The Yellow Pages is good for both names and trades/professions.

*Body Language book. Say no more, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, fingers crossed.

*An atlas.

*Fashion Catalogue. In case you’re no good at putting together an outfit.  (Though remember, don’t describe too much of what your characters are wearing.  Your reader doesn’t care.)

*Be aware of the ‘chewing gum on the mantlepiece’. This is where the writer makes a mention of something, (like the aforementioned chewing gum), but it serves no purpose in the story, and is only mentioned in one scene. It could be a person, a vehicle, animal, anything. If it doesn’t serve a purpose – leave it out.

*Page Numbers from the outset. They work in your favour in two ways:

    As a navigational aid when editing on screen.

    As a navigational aid when you’ve printed off several pages or a manuscript for editing.

*Obtain a perpetual diary. You can use it to define any date with the correct weekday.

*www.history.orb is a great site for checking out information.

*Consider writing the beginning and end, then work on the rest. It may work for you.

*Know every detail of your main characters as if they were real. You won’t be telling everything, but you must know everything.

*If you intend to use a location in the past, double-check its situation/condition at the time.  I had to alter a date, because a meeting place I used was closed for refurbishment when the two characters would have met there.

If you want to check out more about Tom, his e-books are available on Amazon, or you can view his website at

So, stop distracting me.  I’ve got a novel to finish

With my own novel, though I’m approximately half-way there now, I do have concerns about how I’m going to tie up all the individual strands and subplots together.  It’s in my head – can I get it onto paper?  Will it all fit neatly together?

In the meantime, I hope that both mine, and Tom’s, experiences and advice will help you with your own novel writing.

I’ll let you know how I get on with the second half of my novel-writing experience, which will hopefully be finished at the beginning of December.

Watch this space.


Main photo by ghostd7


4 comments on “Confessions of a First Time Novelist – Sally-Anne Wilkinson”

  1. Hi, Sally. Thanks for sharing this. It’s fascinating to learn of the experiences that other writers go through when writing a novel, and comforting to realise they share many of the same angsts!

    Planning characters was something that really worried me at first. I had originally intended to have the story I’m writing now written as a film script. So I would write detailed biographies on the main characters and went into painstaking detail: even describing the types of shoes they wear or cigs they smoke. When I’d finally settled on writing this as a novel, having all that information on them was so valuable and made writing them immeasurably easier. The only thing I didn’t count on was the emergence of all these other characters that cropped up once I’d started!

    Good luck with the rest of the novel!

    1. Hi Tom, thanks for the response. I’ll definitely spend more time focusing on how my characters look/preferences etc next time – it’s something I struggle with. Did you find that because you originally intended it to be a script, it made it much easier to ‘show’ the story when it came to writing it in novel format? And yeah, those pesky characters emerging out of nowhere – who knew?

  2. I ticked off nearly all of the things on that first list, its comforting to know other writers are all going through the same thing!

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