The Doubts Of A First-Time Novelist And How To Overcome Them

Novel Doubt Woman - Tachina Lee

Photo: Tachina Lee

So you’ve decided to write your first novel. You’ve sat on that idea long enough, and now it’s time to finally make things happen.

You’re done with scrolling through how-to articles on ways to plot a novel or what separates a good hook from a bad one. From today onwards, you’re on a one-way journey to authordom.

Kicking it off

You’re off on a quick start, whipping out your first couple of chapters within a day. Then you realise how much better the idea sounded in your head, and you can’t help but feel you’re botching everything once the words hit paper.

So you skip a day of writing to rethink your plot, and pretty soon that turns into two days, then three months. Three years will pass before you find the courage to reopen your manuscript, and that will be when you’ll look back in longing to a time when you dared to dream.

But hey, things could be worse. Maybe you haven’t even started, and you’re still here flitting from one article to another (don’t close this tab just yet, though).

Well, then we’re going to have to change that, don’t we? Listed below are the typical doubts you’ll face when writing your first novel. And once you realise how common your situation is, perhaps you’ll find it in you to forge ahead until you get to the very end of your first draft.

And if there’s anything I’ve learned from my own forays into fiction, it’s that sometimes it takes just one finished novel to set you on a path of lifelong writing. So let’s get right into it!

1. This idea stinks and you just had a better one

Ah, the ‘shiny new thing’ syndrome. The siren’s call in the seas of novel writing.

I don’t blame authors who ditch their current draft just so they can start on that swanky new plot. After all, they’ve been staring at the same story for months, slogging away at dead ends and inconsistent characters.

How do you expect someone to resist a new project?

But no matter how tempting it may be, you’ll have to take the word of endless writers before you when they say not to entertain any new ideas until you’re done with your current one. Instead, try keeping a writing journal where you store all these ideas for future use.

You’re writing your first novel, after all, and learning to finish is way more important than getting the perfect story.

Take it as literary endurance training. The cardio you’ll gain from finishing is going to serve you much better than that shiny new premise. So stick to it, and as Chuck Wendig would say, “Finish your shit.”

2. This will never end

Whoever said writing is like a marathon pretty much nailed the metaphor game, because as someone who runs recreationally, I can confirm that the dread from both activities feel pretty damn similar.

For one, you’ll constantly feel as though you’re in mile two out of twenty-six. You’ll look at your word count at the end of every writing session wondering if you’ll ever meet the fabled 80,000 mark.

Spoiler alert: you’ll feel this way throughout the entire journey, and your only respite will come when you finally tack on the words ‘The End’ at the bottom of your manuscript.

Expect to constantly feel like you’re standing still with no light at the end of the tunnel.

It can be disconcerting to the first-time author, but as long as you head into your novel with this in mind, you’ll be able to do what’s most important, and that’s to put one word after another.

In the words of Neil Gaiman himself: “It’s that easy, and that hard.”

3. Nobody’s going to like this drivel

You make a good point here, because honestly, I don’t know you, and I can’t tell you for sure that your work isn’t drivel.

But you know what? That’s just a chance you’re going to have to take, like the countless other authors who’d also shared this same doubt.

Hell, even Stephen King threw Carrie into the trash—the very novel that would kickstart his career—because he thought it was something that, and I quote, “didn’t move him emotionally.”

So if you’re halfway through your first novel wondering who in their right mind would ever read it, just know that you’re not alone.

In fact, I’d be more worried if you didn’t feel that way. Because that’d remind me of the people who go up on American Idol telling Simon Cowell they belong on a stage beside Madonna before proceeding to scrape everybody’s eardrums off with their lawnmower voice.

Novel Doubt Angry Face - Andre Hunter

If you think this will be the common reaction to your work, then welcome to the club. Photo: Andre Hunter

4. You’re not good enough to write a novel

Now this one will most likely hit you halfway through the novel. You might end up writing yourself into a corner. Or you might learn that you suck at dialogue. Either way, the more you do it, the less you’ll feel like you can actually finish the damn thing.

The only way you’ll justify having written 40,000 words is by telling yourself it’s 40,000 words of cat poo. And even if you buckle down and see things through, you’ll still end up with a novel’s worth of cow piss.

Animal excrements aside, this is exactly why you have to force yourself to finish what you started. Because the only way to mastering something is to first suck at it.

Remember the first time you learned to drive? Or if you don’t drive, remember when you first rode a bike? Swam? Walk? Okay, you probably don’t remember the last one. But that doesn’t change the fact that you had to fail—a lot—before you ever got good at something. It’s the same with writing.

Ann Patchett said this best when she put forth this question: “Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration?”

5. You don’t have the time to finish

So maybe you started your novel-writing journey in the #4amclub. One week in, you’re starting to realise that waking up earlier to write a novel isn’t really your thing, and that you can’t possibly see yourself being up at this ungodly hour just to fit some writing time into your day.

Well, here’s the bad news: the harder it is to do something, the prouder you’re going to feel once it’s all over and done with. Now that we’ve gotten the unsexy reality out of the way, we can move on to the less-painful solutions.

Number one, you can try micro-writing. And by that, I mean tackling your project minutes at a time.

Got some time on the toilet? Try typing out a scene instead of browsing Reddit. Waiting in line? Crank out a couple sentences. Nothing to do on the bus? Ditto.

Building on the above, try the pomodoro method, and use super short intervals, like five minutes. Oftentimes, that’ll help you settle down into longer periods of writing.

Still think that you don’t have enough time in the day? Then try dictating into your phone’s voice recorder.

And, if after all that, you still feel like you don’t have enough time in the day to finish your novel, then that’s probably a good thing, because what you’re essentially doing is allowing another hopeful writer to take your place.

In the words of Neil Gaiman: “You’re letting someone else who wants to do the work get published. Surely, that’s a good thing?”

Don’t let doubt stop you

In the end, writing your first novel is all about powering through the doubt, because how else would you justify spending months crafting a make-believe story?

I myself took eight years to bring my first novel to fruition because I didn’t think it was something so… doable. And all it took was completing that first novel to learn just how possible my once-unattainable goals were.

So what are you waiting for? Get back on that horse and see your manuscript through till the end.

Besides, if you’re planning to take the Stephen King route, you’re going to need something to throw in the trash, and disposing of an empty manuscript just doesn’t have the same feel to it.

59 thoughts on “The Doubts Of A First-Time Novelist And How To Overcome Them

  1. “You’re writing your first novel, after all, and learning to finish is way more important than getting the perfect story.”

    I swear, I’m going to hang this on my wall… thank you🌺

  2. Stuart — This is the post I needed (your punctuality never seems to surprise me). I’ve recently (a couple of days ago) started marching through a manuscript I had abandoned a few weeks back … but one that I couldn’t get my mind off. I really enjoyed reading some motivation here, though! I can connect with the first struggles more than you can write blockbuster articles, which is saying something. I think they’ll really help me, and I definitely will refer back to this article. The ones I didn’t really feel were the last two, which are issues that I (very thankfully) don’t deal with very often.
    Thank you for this post once again, Stu!

    • Are you telling me you’ve never doubted your own capabilities to write a novel before? Then you better package that optimism and sell it, because you’ve got the secret sauce right there :p

      Thanks so much for your constant support. I truly appreciate it!

      • I’m not saying I never doubted my capabilities (’cause I do that every day). I just have never really believed in giving up in your novel, and when it happened I used force to put myself up again. (Meaning, I forced myself. Did I run a battering ram into my belly? Hard to say.)
        All the struggles you states were worthwhile, though, Stuart, so thanks for sharing! :)

  3. I have a pile of crap I’ve been sitting on for about four years, I think, with that requisite three year break. I picked it up again last year and I’m suffering through all the issues you’ve described here, right on schedule at the 40,000 mark. Sometimes I think I just like adding more crap to the pile. I like to loosely edit as I go because I notice that if I don’t re-read from the top, the characters have completely different personalities by the end of it. Thanks for sharing all your tips and wisdom. Very down-to-earth and realistic.

  4. I started writing a manuscript about two years ago, got to 30k+, but somewhere along the way life just happened and I abandoned it completely. Reading this, I’m reminded of it and how I should revisit it to (hopefully) complete it. And if not, take it apart to create and finish a manuscript of some kind. Thanks for the much needed motivation!

    • And if it makes you feel any better, all your efforts didn’t go to waste, because you’re 30k words wiser than you were before you started on this. You got this. Dust it off and get going!

  5. Writing the first draft is hard, and I struggle with it even though I write very quickly. BUT, even if that draft is awful, revision is glorious. You can’t revise what you haven’t written, but you can revise existing text into something wonderful. :)

    • I’d love to believe that, but if there’s one thing that I dread more than the blank page, it’s the revision process.

      I wonder if I’m in the right place sometimes, lol. Anyway, thanks so much for this comment. Great to see you again!

  6. I am writing a novel for the first time and it is one of the hardest things I have ever done. I found retirement helped me to clear the clutter away. Sometimes I think tat is looking good and at other times I think it is dreadful and should be trashed!

    • I’m envious of you, because it’s the latter for me almost all of the time. But nothing beats having written, so that’s always an awesome thing to look forward to, no matter what I think about my work. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

  7. Hey Stuart. Great advice. At first I thought “How did Stuart get into my head?”….you nailed it. You know we’re all our own worst enemy, aren’t we. Like you said about King…so true. I have a novel written but have been avoiding the rewrite because I know the amount of dedicated work time it’ll take and I’ve been putting it off telling myself it’s no good….well, I gonna go start right now. Thanks Stuart!

    • Lol, to be fair, I have one manuscript that’s due for a revision too, and I’m super not looking forward to that. I guess I gotta take my own advice and go do it.

      And yeah, we’re actually our own worst critic, as much as we hate it. Thanks so much for stopping by Faye!

  8. Wonderful post as always! Reminds me of all the “resistance-s” mentioned by Steven Pressfield in his phenomenal book “The War of Art”. Yes, as writers, we need to fight all the negative voices daily and press on with our writing no matter what! Thanks for calling these out. Will store these away for those “down days” when I feel like quitting!! Appreciate once more your useful tips, Stu!

    • Always a pleasure to see your comments here, Kelvin, because they’re motivating for me as well :)

      And yes, here’s to always pressing on no matter what we face in our writing journey!

  9. Points 1 through 4 are literally the reasons why I never finished my first book idea. (It wasn’t the one that I have published) I started working on it in college, then I got to point 1, which was me basically getting distracted by fan fiction on my deviantArt days (not a high bar, but still a bar). Then came point 2, which happened because I kept adding to the story, and adding and adding and adding and adding and… adding. I was trying to be one of those smart guys with all those convoluted plot points that all connect in a very vague and contrived way that nobody really likes, but because film critics love that crap I figured I’d do it. This led me to point 3 because I started confusing myself and hating what I have done, and if I hate the story then there is no way on God’s green Earth someone will like it. Which led to point 4 and me giving up and writing Mario fan fiction that spread to other fandoms. And point 5 is always there. We will never ever have enough time to write, but we do it anyway because why not?

    I’ll be revisiting this particular idea, though, because not only have I gotten better at writing, but I like the characters and setting too much to fully abandon it.

    • Lol, wow, that really is a journey indeed. It’s almost like the seven stages of grief. I enjoyed reading this comment because it highlights the exact thing writers will face when tackling their novel.

      Thanks so much for sharing your invaluable experience! Here’s to hoping you complete your first book idea if you haven’t (published books excluded)!

  10. Took me 7 years to finish my first book and edit it badly still full of horrible grammer. I’m the king of filler words lol. Another 5 years away from writing.
    But this past year i decided i was going to buckle down and get to it. I’ve finished my second book shy of the dreaded editing and am through almost half of a third and fourth. Your words are an inspired advice. And to those out there doubting just go for it.
    My first book self published mind you is a grammatical terror. But i can be proud I’ve done it and learned from the experience.

    • Oh yeah, completing the journey alone is the hardest part, and you actually did it. That speaks volumes more than people with ‘impeccable grammar’ yet haven’t taken one step. Thanks so much for sharing your experience and sharing the other readers that may come across this!

  11. Great article! I feel like you really captured that internal dialogue the plays in my head every time I think about writing. I have so many half finished manuscripts I eventually had to force myself to focus on just one and finish it. This is what I’m working on now in my spare time and I know I’ll feel better once I finally see that finished product.

    • Oh yeah, one decent finished product is so much better than ten prefect unfinished ones.

      Wishing you all the best with your journey, because we all know just how hard things can be!

  12. This was really helpful because I am currently experiencing this and it’s making me want to stop writing but I know I just have to push through the negative feelings and keep going. Great post!

  13. I am a big believer in finishing a novel before moving onto the next one. However, I am willing to allow myself to be caught up in a short story or poem as a way to refocus and come back to my novel(s) with a fresh perspective and extra motivation/inspiration.
    My kind of ride is not for everyone but, if it is a good enough story with passion and authenticity shining through, people tend to be willing to try it out.
    Thanks for sharing some awesome ways to overcome self-doubt and keep the words flowing!

    • Oh yeah. Me too. Having too many long-term projects running at the same time just breeds more opportunity for half-finished manuscripts. Thanks so much for sharing your valuable thoughts!

  14. I’ve got huge admiration for people who set out on the journey of writing a novel. Being in the blogging space, I’ve often had my doubts where I used to question – are people really reading what I’m writing and to be honest i still have that question. I do wonder where this energy for a novelist comes from, how do they keep themselves motivated because there’s no feedback whether people are going to like their work or not. How they maintain this motivation is something that fascinates me

    • Oh yeah, I TOTALLY get how you feel about wondering if people will ever read your work. I don’t think that feeling ever goes away, to be honest. The best we can do is just to have faith. I too am fascinated by the motivations behind writers. Anyway, thanks so much for your comment and for bringing up this interesting point!

    • I totally get those doubts – I have 600 posts on my blog, and the only people that comment are my mom and Stuart here. So it’s definitely a labor of love that started out as a challenge to myself to post three times a week, every week, and there’s satisfaction in knowing I’ve done so since mid 2017. So there’s personal goals that I have pride in achieving.

      For writing novels, I love the process, and I love the puzzles of revision, but most of all, I love having written. I love holding that awful first draft in my hands with months of work put into it, and I look forward to holding a published copy. That first draft can be so lonely, and I generally don’t ask for beta readers until I’ve gone through the draft twice. Even then, people are quick to agree to help but slow to follow up. So much of writing is done in a void, alone with just you and the computer. But there’s this… I would write stories in my head regardless. Down time at the doctor’s, in the car, before sleep – entirely full of stories I tell myself. At least this way, I have an end product that I can point to and say ‘I did this, and it’s the best I can do’. Will anyone read it when it’s published? Probably not. But I’m SO proud of the work I’ve done, and it makes me happy to imagine holding a paper copy in my hands.

      The energy comes and goes – I have weeks where I don’t work on my novel at all. But I always come back to it, even when I think my draft is utter tripe. I can’t NOT write, just like I can’t NOT read or imagine or daydream. So I always circle back. I doubt my quality, I doubt my skill, I doubt all of it. But it’s a part of me I can’t cut out without destroying who I am.

      • Thanks Renee, I could relate to quite a bit in this response. You’re absolutely right, a labour of love and sometimes feedback is so hard to get. Sometimes I’ve kept myself awake thinking – are people really reading any of my work. Why am I doing all this research and spending so much time to write. Is it reaching the right audience and so on.

        On some dark days I’ve even convinced myself that maybe no one is interested and perhaps I should stop. But you’re right, it’s become an inseparable part of me now. I can’t not write. It feels like a lump in my throat if I don’t write. In my early days I used to enjoy the comments from fellow bloggers. It gave a huge boost and thought that I was doing something good. After a while, it’s stopped and sometimes I feel grateful for people who’ve read something and left an honest thought. I find myself craving for a real conversation about these pieces.

        But beyond all of these is the sheer joy in writing I guess. That feeling of giving life to a few thoughts. I suppose it is as much an urge for expression and putting thoughts out there.

        Great commitment to keep writing over the last 4 years. 600 posts is very impressive and I do look forward to hearing about your Nobel

    • I think there’s a sort of inner drive that writers need to be self contained, because it IS so hard to get honest feedback. (And it takes time to be able to hear that feedback without it being an attack on yourself). We have to be able to sit down and put the time in, simultaneously believe that our writing is worth reading but also that we have so far to go, so much to improve.

      The online community has helped I think, in ways that weren’t even imagined in the beginning – Stuart is probably never coming to rural Wisconsin, and I’m unlikely to leave. Without the internet, we’d never meet, but instead I can read posts here and be encouraged. I can to reach out to other writers for solidarity, can search for others’ expertise to keep learning. I don’t have to solve my puzzle (novel) on my own, instead I can see that X doesn’t work… and then go to a blog that talks about X and find a new way to approach it. We’re so connected!

  15. Man as a first-time novelist, some or all of these thoughts crawled into my head when I started out. I hadn’t written anything bigger than 5,000 words and that was for a graduate studies essay. I thought for sure that I wouldn’t be able to captivate an audience for 40,000 words with my little travel romance story idea. Then I started writing, and wrote some more, and then realized, “huh, this is a pretty good story!” It’s about 87,000 words now. Shared it with other people after I finished writing and their positive feedback was so rewarding. I’m glad you mentioned Neil Gaiman too, as his Masterclass helped me so much in building the story, differentiating characters, creating conflict, editing, etc. He’s a rockstar. Thanks for posting this!

    • Wow, what a lovely comment, Michael. 87,000 words is a huge number, and is a perfect length for a novel, so great stuff there. I’m glad you got through it too.

      Oh yeah, his Masterclass is something, isn’t it? He has a way of motivating you to write.

      Anyway, thanks so much for stopping by today. I really appreciate it!

  16. Ah, these are so familiar. 😅 I’m often prone to the “shiny new thing” problem. I do sometimes allow myself to switch to a different project if I hit a complete wall just to make sure I keep writing, but in general I try to make sure it’s one work to the end at a time.

    • Lol yeah, whatever it takes you to keep writing, you should stick to it. I myself don’t really have a problem with multiple projects, because for me, one project alone is enough of a headache, so I wouldn’t dream of taking on another one. Anyway, thanks so much for visiting! Always good to have you here.

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