Right now I'm in the process of starting my fourth novel - character sketches, a loose plot structure, deciding on character names and so forth. Doing this has made me think of how unprepared I was when I started my first. Let me first tell how I did it then, and then I'll tell you how I would have done had I known then what I know now.
My first novel started as an assignment for a class. A class taught by RWA hall-of-famer Jodi Thomas. RWA stands for Romance Writers of America for those who didn't know. Jodi has been extremely generous with both her time and knowledge and without her encouragement I never would have pursued this dream.
Back when I started, I had no real idea what my novel would be about, who the intended audience was, or what I was doing. I had a couple of characters that I vaguely understood, but not nearly enough to start writing about them. I did not know their motivation, goals, or histories. Basically, I had a male protagonist who'd wasted years of his life loving the wrong woman, I had a female protagonist who'd wasted years of her life running from who she really was, and I had a snotty self-righteous small town queen who was married to a egotistical jackass. Because of that lack of focus and knowledge that same novel is now languishing on my hard drive still riddled with problems. Despite over two years of work and countless rewrites. Someday I might go back and redo the entire novel from scratch but for now I just look at the whole thing as a learning experience.
Now let me tell you what I think are the keys to writing a first novel that has a viable chance of being picked up by agents and editors.
1) Know your audience- Who is going to buy your book, besides your mother. More than likely the audience is someone a lot like yourself, but you can't put that in a query. If you read nothing but romances there is a good chance your going to write a romance. But what if your two favorite authors are Stephen King and Nora Roberts, or Toni Morrison and Nicholas Sparks? Okay, I know those are extreme but I have very eclectic tastes and I'm sure a lot of you do as well. So is your novel horror or romance, literary or commercial. You'll be better off if you know this before you start and constantly remind yourself as you write. Genre bending is fine for established authors, but why complicate matters when it already so tough to sell that first one?
2) Find the conflict- You're going to need conflict early and often to make the story stand out. Sure there are exceptions, but how many are first novels. Internal, external you need both. Save the history, info dumps, and backstory for later chapters.
3) Use your imagination - Don't start your novel by having two strangers meet on an airplane, bus, or any other mode of public transportion. Remember, agents read hundreds of first chapters a week. They've seen most everything. Give them something new and you stand a better chance. this goes for character as well. What makes your protagonist different? They need quirks flaws, interesting hobbies, occupations. Something to make them stand out.
4) Slow Down - Don't rush in. write mini biographies for you major characters. So what if you never find a way to fit all the info into the novel. The better you know the character the easier it will be to write them. And when you finish that first draft, smile pat yourself on the back, wait a week and then plunge in at the beginning and go through the entire thing sentence by sentence. By the third time you might be ready to start querying.
5) Write the synopsis first - I know not everyone will agree with this advice and yes things will change, but for me it is much easier to write a condensed synopsis before I know every last detail of the story. After the fact I have a hard time separating out the minor complications with those that really matter. When I only know the bare facts I can create a basic synopsis then usually only requires minor tweaking to make it jive with the actual novel.
6) Write Well - This one is obvious but don't ignore the craft. Be willing to take criticism and learn from it.
7) Never say Die- I've known quite a few good writers who simply give up instead of plugging on. To me there is no greater waste than turning your back on your dreams and your talents.
I'm sure by the time I finish the fourth novel I'll have a whole new list of things but for now these are the things that come to mind. Would like to hear from some fellow writers on anything that they agree or disagree with. There are a thousand ways to write novel but I know we've all made many of the same mistakes and I'd like to hear how you keep from repeating them.