On Writing Your First Novel: Advice from a Novelist

Every few months, I meet up with a longtime friend of mine, Alma Anonas-Carpio, at her place, usually on Sunday nights. This involves a delicious dinner that she cooked, and a long conversation about everything that can last past midnight. Sometimes, her twin daughters, parents, older brother (and his friends), her cat, and/or other relatives are at the dining table with us. Maybe I’ll borrow a novel or two or ten before I leave.

The most recent catch-up night delved heavily into creative writing and novel adaptations. I had mentioned to her that I’m in the very early stages of turning my half-assed space-opera screenplay into a legit novel, or at least a novella. I still like my premise a year after I wrote it, and I think with enough attention and effort it can be worked into a halfway decent and readable thing I can sell, and people will hopefully read. If not, it’ll be a fun exercise in writing and celebrating a long tradition of campiness in space.

Because she had already written and self-published her own novel (the Filipino mytherotica How to Tame your Tikbalang Without Even Trying), she had plenty of advice to give me — all of which could also help you if you want to accomplish the same thing. I whittled them down into ten items.

1. Write the story you want to tell. Self-explanatory.

2. Know your boundaries. Decide if it’s a novel or novella or a short story or even microfiction/flash fiction, and stick to the word counts and your chosen genre’s notable traits and tropes. Outline your story to see if it flows properly and can be understood by your readers.

3. Sure, you can skate on talent. But if you want to have a long and respectable career as a novelist, you must develop the skills and discipline required of all writers. You can’t just write whenever you feel like it, or when you’re “inspired”. You work on it and you show up every damn day.

4. Connected to that tip, make a writing schedule, and stick to it. It took Alma around eight months to write the first draft of How to Tame your Tikbalang on a 3 AM-6 AM schedule, and that was followed by repeated editing and reorganizing of chapters.

5. Writing time is writing time. If the office door’s shut, it stays shut and your entire household must respect it because that writing time is sacred.

Be the person with a solid plan! (Photo by Halacious on Unsplash)

6. If you can, turn your story into a book series. You’ve already built an entire fictional world (or as some authors here love to say, worlding) for your story; take it further and expand that world! And you don’t have to write all the books alone — Alma’s best friend is currently writing a novel with a supporting character from How to Tame your Tikbalang as the protagonist.

7. “You obviously don’t settle on the first draft!” Again, self-explanatory.

8. Get beta readers. You need to know if and where your work needs to change. Odds are you’re too close to your darlings to kill them off.

9. Writing is a business, not a mere passion project or hobby. Treat it as such. A lesson Alma got from the late Ed Maranan is to be cold and calculated with your writing-related decisions. He focused on fiction because it paid more, he was a prolific writer (and award-winner), and he budgeted his prize money and writing fees via Excel sheets because everything has to be allocated properly. It’s difficult to make a living as a writer, but it can be done.

10. Know your rights. Check your contracts, and consult your lawyer if and when necessary. Don’t sign away all your print and digital publishing rights just because a big-time publishing house pressures you to do so. You may lose out on future income sources — and end up giving away your intellectual property for chump change. Be cautious, and make sure you’re not stuck with the bad end of the deal. The same goes for self-publishing.

Ready for Chapter One? Good luck! 🙂