Writing Your First Novel: Avoid These Mistakes Like The Plague!
Writing a novel for the first time


Ok, you've decided you've read enough about writing your first novel and you're finally going to undertake this monumental task: you'll finally cross "Writing your first Novel" off your bucket list.


You've got your workspace setup, Scrivener installed on your laptop, your keyboard is ready to go, you've beaten writer's block (for the day). 


But this time, it's different. 


You have learnt how to outline a fiction book, you know the process by now. But... putting theory to practice? The story you've kept in the back of your mind for so long... how on earth can you even begin to put it on paper (or screen)?


It's not easy. In fact, it's hard as hell. 


But a lot of us have been there before. Some have given up half-way through; others have gone on to become best-selling authors with a whole library of titles to their name.


But you see, these authors have made mistakes. Tons of them. You see them topping the charts now, but once upon a time, they were just like you. Good thing is, they remember exactly what it felt like. 


What it was like to being completely lost, not knowing what to do... and having to learn from their mistakes the hard way. 


Wouldn't it be nice if they could give us some info, some pointers you can use, so that you avoid the biggest pitfalls, and get a head-start over everyone else? 


Luckily for you, I reached out to some of the best indie novelists out there, asking one simple question:


What are the 3 mistakes new authors should avoid when writing their first novel? 

Fortunately for you (and me), their responses were incredible. Some literally made me re-think some of my strategies. 

But enough of that. Let's hear it directly from them!


J.F. Penn (Joanna Penn) - www.JFPenn.com

J.F.Penn is the Award-nominated, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the ARKANE thrillers and London Crime Thriller series as well as other dark fantasy stories. You can find all of her books here.  


  • Not reading books in the genre and understanding what readers expect e.g. if it's a romance, there better be a happy ending!
  • Not reading dialogue aloud to get rid of the clunky bits that no one would ever say 
  • Editing while writing. The first draft of your first novel will inevitably have some problems, but that's ok. Tell the story and then go back and fix it up later. 

The first draft of your first novel will inevitably have some problems, but that's ok. Tell the story and then go back and fix it up later! Joanna Penn

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J. Thorn is a Top 100 Most Popular Author in Horror, Science Fiction, Action & Adventure and Fantasy (Amazon Author Rank). He has published over one million words and has sold more than 170,000 books worldwide. His latest post-apocalyptic science fiction novel co-written with Zach Bohannon has racked up more than 1 million page reads in under 100 days. Thorn became a certified Story Grid Editor in September of 2017 and offers his editing and coaching services to authors. You can find all of his books here. 


  • The book has no single, identifiable genre. If you think your story is a “paranormal romance set in 18th century Bolivia with a redemption plot infused with sci-fi time travel,” you’re making a big mistake. While that story might be fascinating to you, your mom, and a handful of quirky readers, it will usually be ignored by most customers. Don’t believe me? Go to your local bookstore and look for the Paranormal Romance Sci-Fi Time Travel section. Can’t find it? I’m not surprised. Pick one commercial genre if you want to sell books.
  • The title and/or cover does not clearly convey genre. Title and cover are meant to do one thing—convey genre. That’s it. Your cover might be “pretty” or “artistic” or “colourful” but none of that matters. Go on Amazon and find your book’s genre (Haven’t done that yet? Go back to 1). Look at the covers of the books ranked in the top 20. Your cover needs to look like that. Not exactly like that, otherwise, you’re stealing intellectual property. It should look like it belongs there, sitting next to the best sellers on the virtual shelf.
  • A lengthy plot summary is being used instead of a hooky product description. Keep your book description to a few sentences or a paragraph at most. It is supposed to entice a potential reader, not be a plot summary. Think of your book description as a text-based movie trailer. There are many resources and services out there on how to optimise book descriptions, and it’s not an entirely scientific or formulaic process. However, your goal should be to hook the reader in 7 seconds or less because that’s about how long they’ll take to decide on whether or not to purchase your book.

Try to hook the reader in 7 seconds or less because that’s about how long they’ll take to decide on whether or not to purchase your book! - J. Thorn

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RANDY INGERMANSON - ingermanson.com

Randy Ingermanson is the author of six award-winning novels and two best-selling books on how to write fiction. He has a PhD in physics and works as director of software engineering at a biotech company in San Diego. He likes using math to make the world a better place, which is how he developed his wildly popular Snowflake Method of designing a novel before you write it.  Randy lives with his family in southern Washington State, and spends all his waking hours attending to the needs of two surly cats. You can find his books here.  


  • Failing to learn the basic craft. There are any number of good books that will teach you how to write a novel. None of them are perfect, but all of them are better than trying to figure things out on your own. Early in my writing career, I joined a critique group. There was a promising writer in the group, but he had certain flaws in his writing that made his story much less entertaining. I referred him to Dwight Swain’s amazing book Techniques of the Selling Writer, which had exactly the cure he needed. But he wasn’t interested in the cure. I’m sorry to say he never got that novel published, which is a shame, because he had some talent.
  • Rewriting the same chapter over and over. This is tempting, because when you’re new to the game and you get a helpful critique, you want to fix all the mistakes you made. You want to get that opening chapter perfect. The problem is that it will never ever be perfect, and if you get yourself in a rut of never moving on to chapter 2, 3, 4, until chapter 1 is finished, you are going to end up two years later with just that one chapter, and it’ll be like the stick of gum that you’ve chewed all the sugar out of. And that’s all you’ll have—just one chapter. Write your novel. Get it written. Then get it right. Some famous writer said that once, and it’s always been true and it always will be true.
  • Comparing yourself to other writers, especially famous ones. There are two ways to fall off this horse. You can fall off on the right side by sneering at all those famous writers who “write terrible stuff and get published anyway because they’re big names.” The fact is that those “terrible” writers are delighting some target audience somewhere. They may not be delighting the literati, but they’re delighting millions of real people with real money who buy real books. Real writers figure out the target audience they want to delight, and then they buckle down and delight that audience. But you can also fall off the horse on the left side by reading some amazing writer and thinking, “this writer is so brilliant, I can never possibly write anything to compare to his, so I might as well give up right now.” Well, no. Every amazing writer started out their career writing perfectly dreadful vile stinking crap. Every single one. Ask them. They’ll all tell you they did. If you want to be amazing someday, be willing to start out awful and then improve on it. Every day, improve on it. You may never be amazing, but you  will only reach your potential by starting out writing crap and then constantly improving on it. Don’t reject yourself—that’s the job of the wicked editors who rule your fate, and if you do their job for them, they’ll feel sad and lonely.

Every amazing writer started out their career writing perfectly dreadful vile stinking crap. Every single one. Ask them! - Randy Ingermanson

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ADAM CROFT - ADAMCROFT.NET

With more than a million books sold to date, Adam Croft is one of the most successful independently published authors in the world. Following his 2015 worldwide bestseller Her Last Tomorrow, during the summer of 2016, two of Adam’s books hit the USA Today bestseller list only weeks apart; in February 2017, Only The Truth became a worldwide bestseller, reaching storewide number 1 at both Amazon US and Amazon UK. You can find his books here


  • Thinking too much. Write for yourself, not for the reader. Always write the books you want to read. That sincerity and authenticity will shine through.
  • Writing stilted dialogue. Dialogue is the most important part of any book. Make sure it sounds like people speaking. So many books are filled with dialogue that sounds stilted and contains sentences and syntax that no person would ever say outside of a formal speech or address.
  • Not making time to write. Too many of us put it off and treat it as a hobby that should come last. If you're serious about writing, put it first. Make the time. Your efforts will be repaid.

If you're serious about writing, put it first. Make the time. Your efforts will be repaid. - Adam Croft

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the award-winning and internationally-published author of Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors. You can find all of her books here.
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  • Not writing for the love of it, first and foremost. As Anne Lamott says, “Being published isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But writing is.” Write the stories of your heart, not the stories you think the market wants. Write the story you’d want to read if you were one of your own readers.
  • Not writing unless you have to. Writing isn’t worth it unless it’s an undeniable passion. But if you’re blessed enough to suffer that passion, embrace it wholeheartedly. Read like crazy; write like crazy. Don’t be afraid to take risks; don’t be afraid to break the rules—once you know them. And, especially in the uncertain days of publishing in which we live, don’t allow your worth as a writer to be defined by whether or not you’ve been published. If your words never touch more than a single life, you can still count yourself a successful writer.
  • Scrimping on the small stuff. Understanding the details of your craft—and the publishing industry—is what sets the pros apart from the amateurs. If you’re really serious about selling stories, perfectionism needs to be a constant goal. In a cutthroat market such as we have today, nailing the small details will make all the difference.

If your words never touch more than a single life, you can still count yourself a successful writer. - K. M. Weiland

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kevin tumlinson - kevintumlinson.com 

Kevin Tumlinson is a bestselling and award-winning thriller author, Host of the popular Wordslinger Podcast, and Director of Marketing for the global indie publishing resource, Draft2Digital. He is known as "The Voice of Indie Publishing," and every week helps thousands of will-be and established authors build and grow their publishing empires. You can learn more about Kevin and his work at https://kevintumlinson.com, find his books here and tune in to his weekly interview-format podcast at http://wordslingerpodcast.com


  • The wrong focus. New and will-be authors tend to focus too much on the mechanics and tools ("What software should I use?" "How many words should this book come out to?" "How do I convert my manuscript to an ebook, when I'm finished?"). There are so many tools and services and resources out there, that tends to become confusing and overwhelming. 
    Instead of focusing on that, I ask writers to focus on one task at a time, and of those, I ask that they focus on the most important tasks first. For a writer, the most important task is writing. Focus on the writing, on perfecting your craft, on getting into a daily discipline so that you are writing consistently. 
    Your job, as a writer, is to write. Tell the story you're trying to tell, and the rest will take care of itself. You'll be able to deal with all of those other questions, one at a time, rather than having them all settled up front before ever putting words on the page.
  • Like I said ... a writer's job is to write. That means that all other jobs take a back seat while the writing is being done.
    Specifically, this means turning off your "inner editor" while you write. There's a tendency for writers to try to make everything perfect, right from word one, and that has a very detrimental effect on the work (and the writer). First, editing as you go doesn't just double the chances that you'll never finish the book, it multiplies them exponentially. If you keep your focus on perfection, you'll lose the thread of the work. I promise, this is true.
    The aphorism goes: "Perfect is the enemy of done."
    That said, there is a place for polishing and perfecting your work, and it's in the editing stage. You have to think of "perfection" as a process, to be performed upon some object. You can't perfect something that doesn't exist. So you have to actually create the book before you can perfect it. You have to have something to edit, in other words, before you can start editing. 
    Concentrate on getting the story on the page, and relax, knowing that you'll come back and polish it into the book when you're done.
  • Letting everyone else have a say in your work. There's a myth that writing is solitary work. It is, in some ways. But the reality of writing is that getting it right requires input from others. You need help, and that's just the fact of it all. You need editors, cover designers, review writers, and the people who make publishing possible.
    But what you never need is for someone else to dictate what your story should be.
    Getting feedback from editors and readers is a good thing. It can help shape your story in ways you never considered. Seeking feedback from qualified people is wise. But where we go off the rails is when we start taking everyone's opinions as law. We start modifying our story and our style to try to please everyone, and trust me ... "everyone" sets an impossible standard. "Everyone" is impossible to please.
    Another aphorism: "I can't give you a formula for success, but I can give you a formula for failure—try to please everybody." 
    When it all comes down to it, your work has to be yours. It can't be a product of the masses. You can't crowdsource your story, and expect it to still represent you to the world. Even if you get a successful book out of that process, it's going to be a one-off. Like a stew made from random table scraps, you might have something tasty one night, but never be able to capture that exact flavour again.
    Take all feedback and all criticism and all advice, and filter it through your own principles and sensibilities. Weigh all of it, bit by bit, and ask, "Is this me? Does this fit the story I mean to tell? Does this represent me and my work?" If the answer is even a hazy "maybe," toss it. Only go with yes. 
    In the end, there's really no "secret" to being a successful author. It comes down to some basic facts:

    Writers write. Authors have written. And success can only be defined by you.

    Stick with those, develop a daily writing discipline, and dedicate yourself to improving your craft, your connections, your resources, and your business sense. You'll achieve more than you ever dreamed, if you do that. I promise, it is so.

Writers write. Authors have written. And success can only be defined by you. - Kevin Tumlinson

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Johnny B. Truant - sterlingandstone.net

Johnny B. Truant is a bestselling author, professional storyteller, and co-owner of the Sterling and Stone Story Studio. You can find all of his books here


  • Putting EVERYTHING in it. I once heard someone say that you can psychoanalyze an author by reading her first book, because all their baggage is in there. Authors usually approach that first book with a lot of internal issues they want to discuss and a lot of little anecdotes to include because they've been saving them up over their entire lives. Resist the urge to include every bit of what's in your head. You will write later books, so you don't need to clean out your entire closet with the first one. 
  • Overexplaining. Basically, trust your readers. If you tell a good story, they'll figure out what's going on. You don't need to introduce a character and tell us his entire life story right away. If he's shifty and makes questionable decisions, they'll figure out he's a crook. You don't need to tell his prison history or anything. If two people are in a room, you usually don't need to describe every inch of it or detail the long string of events that got them into the room unless it's truly relevant. Embrace mystery and believe your readers are smart. A ton of what first-time authors feel is essential to explain in exposition actually isn't essential at all. Including it bloats the book and makes readers lose interest and urgency about your story.
  • Needing it to sell well. Your book might take off right away, but chances are excellent that it won't. Sole books from unknown authors are a very hard sell and tend to be nearly invisible in the avalanche of other books out there. Look at your first book as a means by which you can reach the point of writing the second -- as much a learning experience as anything. Build a catalog to sell. Don't feel a burning need to have this first book sell when it's out there alone, as your very first effort.

Look at your first book as a means by which you can reach the point of writing the second: as much a learning experience as anything. - Johnny B. Truant

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