11 Ways to Write Your First Novel (in Your Spare Time) | Oxford Royale Summer Schools
You might think it’s easier to write a novel if you had an undisturbed year and a cute writer’s shed to do it in, but you’re unlikely to get either of those. Even if you did, you might find yourself learning what many writers know: that writing is easier when you have other things going on, whether that’s studying, work, or something else that occupies part of your brain and helps provide you with sources of inspiration when you need them. It could well be that right now, in your spare time, is actually a much better time to write a novel than any daydreams you might have about being free to write something brilliant uninterrupted in an office designed solely for the purpose of producing your deathless prose.
If you do want to try writing your first novel now, in your spare time, there are ways you can make it easier for yourself and to make the finished product better. Here are our top tips.
1. Give yourself a regular writing time
Even if you love writing, you’ll never manage to finish a whole novel if you only write as and when you feel like it, and as and when you have time. There’ll always be something more fun to do, like a party at a friend’s house, or something more pressing, like studying for exams, so it’s important to carve out a regular writing session in your schedule. You’ll know for yourself whether you write better doing something little and often (so that you don’t lose your thread) or less often and in longer chunks (so that you can get properly stuck in).If you’re worried that you won’t feel inspired to write in the time that you’ve set aside, one approach can be to set aside a larger chunk of time, such as three hours one evening a week, and promise yourself that you’ll try writing for the first half an hour. If, by the end of that time, you’re not producing anything you’re happy with, you can stop – but if it’s going well, you have the full three hours clear to get some solid writing done.
2. Make the most of small bits of time
That’s not to say that you should only write when you have time set aside. You might not think that you can work on your novel in a fifteen minute bus journey, or in five minutes when you’re early for your next lesson – but actually, there’s a lot you can do. Actual writing is probably out, but this can be the perfect time to run through the finer details of your plot, or flesh out a character in your mind who’d previously been one-dimensional.
For most kinds of difficult work, you want to be completely undistracted, but that’s not true for writing fiction and other creative pursuits. It can actually spark creativity to be a little bit distracted, because it encourages you to make those subconscious connections that feed your imagination. Maybe there’ll be someone on the bus whose facial expressions help you envisage the personality of your antagonist, or something you see on the wall when you’re standing outside your Geography classroom will help that tricky plot point resolve itself.
3. Plan and plot carefully
Planning is a big part of what you can do in those small bits of time, and that’s for a good reason. If you’re building a house, you should spend longer planning the architecture and the building process than should actually be spent constructing the building, and writing a novel is much the same.
Unlike building a house, you can deconstruct it and put it back together after the construction is complete, so you don’t need to do all or even most of your planning before you get started; it depends on what works best for you. It might be that you prefer to write now and edit once you have plenty of words on the page (more on that later), and that’s fine too. But only the most dull and derivative plots come together entirely without planning, and characters seldom appear fully-formed either. This means that you shouldn’t just give yourself time to write – you need to give yourself time to plan your writing too, including laying out the plot, considering the setting and working on character development.
4. Be realistic about what you can achieve
The children’s author Enid Blyton used to write 10,000 words per day; the detective author Agatha Christie sometimes took just two months to write a novel. It’s tempting to compare yourself to your literary heroes when you’re writing, but unless they’re someone famously slow at writing like Douglas Adams, you’re unlikely to live up to their level of output if you can only write in your spare time.
Trying to write more than you’re able to is a recipe for exhausting yourself, depressing yourself, or both. Make sure that your daily, weekly or monthly writing targets are realistic. What ‘realistic’ means will differ from writer to writer – it might be that you prefer to throw down two thousand words an hour and edit them later, or that you spend your hour’s writing lovingly crafting 200 perfect words instead. What’s important is to have sensible targets that you can feel motivated to achieve.
4. Volunteer at a homeless shelter
Going to university brings you into contact with a huge variety of people that you might never have met otherwise – people from different races, different classes, different countries and different backgrounds. One way to continue expanding your horizons is to do something to meet and improve the lives of some of the most isolated and ignored people in our society: the homeless. There are lots of ways that you can do this, such as volunteering at a homeless shelter, a soup kitchen or a food bank, or taking part in a charity soup run where you go around the city and give out hot food to the homeless, rather than waiting for them to come to you.
We’re so used to seeing homeless people as a threat, as potentially violent or likely to steal from you, that getting involved in this kind of work can be scary indeed. But you’ll soon learn that though many homeless people will be facing challenges such as drug or alcohol addiction, or mental health problems (or more often, both), they are not all that different from any of the other diverse groups of people that you will meet at university. So not only will you help make a difference to the lives of vulnerable people, you might learn something yourself, as well.
5. Try a writing challenge like NaNoWriMo
The only exception to giving yourself realistic goals is if you want to try a writing challenge such as National Novel Writing Month, usually shortened to NaNoWriMo. In NaNoWriMo, you aim to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November, which means averaging at least 1,667 words per day. That’s very hard work, and the outcome is very seldom a good novel, even after extensive editing and rewriting once the month is over.
So why bother? The advantage of NaNoWriMo is first of all, if you complete it, you will have written a novel. It won’t be something scary that you might manage in the future any more – you’ll have done it, and that should make writing your next novel feel a lot more achievable. Second, you’ll learn what you’re capable of in terms of raw output of words. Knowing that if pushed, you can write 1,667 every day for a month (or more!) can be a useful thing to remind yourself of when you’re stuck staring at an empty page.
6. Listen to your moods and write when you want to
You might think it contradicts the idea of having a regular writing time to write when you want to – after all, inspiration doesn’t necessarily strike that often. But if you’re writing a novel in your spare time, it shouldn’t feel like an arduous task that you’re forcing yourself to complete. It should feel like fun! That means that on days when you’re not feeling as inclined to write, you should give yourself permission to do something else, and on days when it’s all going brilliantly, you should give yourself permission to put your chores off until tomorrow and make the most of the flash of inspiration.
This also applies to what you’re writing. Do you have an emotional romantic scene coming up but actually you’re more in the mood to write the car chase that follows? If you’re planned well, then you should be able to move back and forth in the chronology of your novel and write what you’re in the mood to write, when you’re in the mood to write it, and fill in the gaps later.
7. Plan your time with flexibility
A necessary corollary of writing when you want to is having the flexibility to do so. If you’re the kind of person who prefers to have something planned to do every minute of the day, that can be tricky; writing might not fit into the hour-long slot you’ve assigned to it, between football practice and going to the cinema with your friends.
On writing days, it’s a good idea to have plans that you can skip if need be; it might also be worth having a word with your parents to see how flexible they’re willing to be about when your chores get done (making sure that they do get done on time on non-writing days is a good way to earn flexibility on other days). It does mean that sometimes you’ll sacrifice plans that you would have enjoyed because the chapter you’re working on is going so well, but that’s an inevitable part of choosing to write a novel.
8. Let trusted friends know what you’re doing
It’s understandable if you don’t want to tell absolutely everyone that you’re writing a novel. Even if you don’t have any superstitions about telling people potentially jinxing it (and many writers do), it can be irritating to have lots of people asking you how your novel’s going, picking apart the plot, and asking to read it before it’s finished.
All the same, it’s better not to write in complete isolation. If writing a novel is going to make you flake on plans every so often, it’s best that your close friends know why, and understand that this is something that’s important to you. The right friends can also be your cheerleaders when the going is tough, and excuse you to other friends if you end up skipping some social events, or darting off because you’ve got an idea that you have to get down on the page.
9. Join a writing group, or an online forum if you don’t have time for a writing group
Being a member of a writing group that meets fortnightly or monthly can help a lot in terms of providing motivation, constructive criticism, and the chance to talk about your novel with a group of people who understand how you’re feeling and don’t think that the sentence, “my characters just won’t do what I want them to!” sounds strange. Your school or local library may well have a group you can join.
For some people, an in-person writing group takes up precious time in their schedule that they’d prefer to spend working on their novel. Thankfully, the internet offers a great alternative – there are a plethora of writers’ groups and forums online for every genre that you can think of, allowing you to engage with other writers as and when is convenient for you.
10. Give yourself lots of editing time
You can write a novel simply because you want to, not with an end goal – such as publication – in mind. After all, lots of people play sports without the aim of becoming sporting professionals; you can write a novel simply as a hobby. But if you do intend your novel to become something more than a Word document on your computer, then editing time is vital. You should expect to spend longer editing than writing, maybe two or three times longer.
It can be disheartening to think that once you’ve written “the end” and hit save, you’ve still got lots of work ahead of you. But it’s best to treat editing as just another part of writing a great novel, rather than a necessary irritation once you’ve done the important work, even if that’s how it feels.
11. Feel happy with writing something shorter
Some people never manage to write a novel, and that’s OK too. It might be that you’ll have time in a few years to write a novel, but right now your creative itch would be better scratched with a novella, novelette, or short stories that you can have written and edited in a matter of weeks, rather than months or years.
If writing a novel feels like very hard work, you can always put it to one side and write something less daunting; it might also turn out that your plot is better suited to shorter fiction. The possibility of writing a novel isn’t going away – what matters most of all is the act of writing is something you enjoy.
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