The Secret to Writing a First Novel

photo by Jason Michael

Therese here to introduce you to our newest contributor, bestselling novelist Julianna Baggott. This is her first official post with us. Welcome, Julianna!

I recently confessed to a poet friend who’s writing her first novel my secret to writing a first novel – the brilliant accidental loophole that I found on my first try.

The background is that I never wanted to write novels – not at the beginning. I was a short story writer, but an agent had read one of my stories in a magazine and asked me if I was working on a novel. I lied and said I was working on a novelized version of the story he liked so much. It wasn’t so much a lie as it was an automatic truth. An agent was interested in a story of mine? Yes, I was novelizing it. He asked for the first fifty pages. I told him it’d take a month to polish them. I wrote them and sent them. My plan was that he’d love the first fifty pages so much he’d send me a contract and he’d be obliged to sell my short story collection.  I would pretend to finish said novel for the rest of my career.  That’s not how it worked out.

As of next month, I’ll have published 19 books; none of them is a short story collection.

In retrospect, it’s probably accurate to say that the only way I’d have ever written a novel is with no intention of doing so.  Because I only had to write the first fifty pages of a novel I never had to finish, I got out of writing the opening of my first novel. I never had to have that incredible courage.  I had a cocky courage of another variety – perhaps handed down to me by my maternal grandfather, a pool-hall hustler – but not the real stuff. I never had to summon the bravery to say: And now, I will write the first sentence of my novel. And now I will conclude the first paragraph of my novel. And now, there is the first chapter. I never had to see the whole thing in my head. I never had to worry that I couldn’t see the whole thing in my head. I only had to write – one sentence to the next, scene upon scene , a story that felt like you wanted to read on, a first fifty pages of undeniable … promise.

I only had to promise. I didn’t have to deliver.

I only had to make up a novel. I didn’t have to sit down and write one.

The differences might seem minute – except maybe to those who’ve sat down to write their first novels.

It wasn’t until I started my second novel that I realized that all novels are, in fact, made up – by definition.

My current process entails a lot of sketching of the whole, a lot of architectural thought, a lot of talking about the idea with friends and colleagues – those I deeply trust – seeing if it passes the test of old-fashioned storytelling.

This part of the process is important, but I never know if I’ve got a real novel on my hands until I sit down to fake the first sentence, to fake the first paragraph, the first chapter. I don’t know if it’s going to work until I start making it up on the page.

PhotobucketI still fake it. When I first start, I’m still that novice, that first-timer, who’s promising the reader that they’ll want to turn the page. I’m still just trying to be undeniable sentence to sentence, scene to scene.

That agent read the first fifty pages of the novel I never intended to write and he sent me a note – it said, “I love the pages. I can’t wait to read the rest!”

And in those seven words – I can’t wait to read the rest! – I became a novelist. My job from making a promise turned into delivering a novel. There’s a point in the process of every novel I write when it shifts in just this particular way. That’s when the novel takes root, when, somewhere deep in my own head I decide that I need to read the rest. To make it up.

Writing novels, in some ways, does get easier. For one, I no longer worry about cutting. I know that the best parts will settle like silt in my subconscious and, one day, stir up again. But I’ve found that  no matter how many novels I’ve published, each novel teaches me how to write it and that’s how I’ve learned to use the loophole every time. I don’t sit down to write a novel. I sit down to make up an opening that compels me to write the rest.


About Julianna Baggott

Julianna Baggott is the author of over twenty books. Her most recent, Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders, was just published this month. Her other novels include Pure, a New York Times Notable Book of 2012, and its sequel, Fuse. She writes under her own name and under pen names Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode -- most notably, National Bestseller Girl Talk, The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted, and, for younger readers, The Anybodies Trilogy and The Prince of Fenway Park. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Best American Poetry, Best Creative Nonfiction, NPR’s Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Here & Now.


  1. says

    I appreciate that you keep the old fashioned story-telling element in your books. So often that’s what I find missing in novels I read. Interesting to hear your process and how you got started– thanks for sharing.

  2. says

    Oh, I love your N.E. Bode books! Just yesterday, I was wishing WU had a middle grade author posting, and here you are. I’m writing my first MG novel, so I’ll take your words to heart.

  3. says

    So excited to see you on here, Julianna. I loved Pure and can’t wait for more. I am glad you are now writing for my favorite author site. As a newer writer its good to hear that you feel like I do when you are “making it up” for the first time.

  4. says

    Hi Julianna

    I met you briefly at Fall for the Book at George Mason and am so thrilled that you are now contributing to Writer UnBoxed! How lucky we are!Ellen

  5. says

    True this. It’s a bit like jumping out of an airplane. And having been privileged enough to be around during the story you describe here, I have to say that one thing I’ve always admired about you is your ability to just focus on what needs to be done to get the d–n book written. You may not have planned to write a novel, but as soon as the opportunity was offered you changed every priority in your life to make it happen. Not many people have that kind of wherewithal.

  6. says

    What a wonderful, and stress-free way to think about writing a novel! I’m sure there are a great many writers out there who struggle with getting the chapters done, having to know what will happen to each of their characters, and put themselves through all kinds of angst to complete the project. I love your view of writing a novel! And really, if we’re in that space of creating, what we see pushes us to finish.

  7. says

    I don’t have a pool-hustler-grandfather to channel, but I did have a depression-era-grandmother who embodied grit. Maybe I’ll get this novel done yet. ;)

    Welcome aboard, Julianna. I’m looking forward to learning from you.

  8. Denise Willson says

    What fun, Julianna.

    Welcome aboard.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  9. says

    Welcome to Writer Unboxed! An appropriate and charming first post – it fits well with the good stuff that appears here.

    The “mulch” process you describe reminds me, for some reason, of Henry James’s description of how his ideas germinated.

    Looking forward to more.

  10. says

    I love the idea of faking the first sentence and then, just faking the rest of it. It’s so easy to get tied up in knots about getting everything about the novel just right. And that takes the joy out of it.

  11. says

    Interesting way of describing the process. I relate to the writing an opening that will make you want to read and thereby finish the novel. It’s all part of the self-imposed determination and “falling into the rabbit hole” of the story.

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

  12. says

    Julianna, I am so happy this blog reminded me of your work. I became a fan after reading Girl Talk, and look forward to my next book store trip to find more of your 19 titles.

  13. says

    Good advice, Julianna! I never start a novel either; instead I start a story, polish the beginning, line up the characters, work out some of their dramatic entrances and exits, visualize an ending. At some point the story becomes real enough and interesting enough that I want to take it to the end. After that, the word-count takes care of itself (and I find myself trimming).

  14. says

    I’m still waiting for the opening that compels me to write the rest. I enjoy sitting down and starting a story and finding an ending with a surprising twist. Hopefully something that needs a more thorough explanation will propel me into writing my first novel.
    Thanks for the interesting post.

  15. says

    I love this. I have long believed that each novel presents its own challenges. And while as time goes on we may have more craft at our disposal, it’s not enough to offset the butterflies that flutter at the start of any unknown relationship. Thanks for the wisdom to build one sentence at a time!