Tips for writers who just can’t finish that first novel

So, you’ve always wanted to be a novelist but have never been able to knock out a novel? Do you hoard hundreds of first chapters for innumerable novel ideas that you’d given up on? Or have you been working on the same story for the past decade but aren’t nearing the finish line? Then these tips are for you!

  1. Write like no one’s watching

Thinking about readers this early in the process can be paralysing. Don’t do it. Your first draft is meant for your eyes only. Don’t show it to anyone and don’t worry about what your mum would say, or your friends, or your English teacher.Treat it like your private diary and spill all your dirty, little secrets and your crappy, little plot holes. You’ll edit them out later.

  1. If #1 fails

If writing for just yourself is not motivating enough, write for one other person. Someone you know will  “get you” and support you no matter what. Nabokov wrote for his wife, Vera. Stephen King initially wrote for his mother who paid him a quarter a piece. 

  1. Embrace the terrible

Your first draft will suck. There’s no way around it. Spending years perfecting the first chapters will get you nowhere. Reading every instructional book in the world won’t make you a better writer. Writing several crappy but complete drafts definitely will.

Be prepared that you will have to rewrite your WIP almost in its entirety. Maybe several times. But you’ll be in a better position to know how it all fits together and what you need to fix once you get to the end. It’s part of the process. You can’t make coffee without grinding the beans. 

  1. Stick to one story

Some writers work on two or more novels in parallel. But if you’ve never managed to finish one, that’s a bad idea. You probably already have more novel ideas and first chapters than you care to count, and they’ll just keep coming. You can jot the ideas down, if you want to, but don’t spend more than a few minutes. 

Digging into new projects is fun. Sticking with one is discipline. It’s hard. Treat “working on a new idea” as a reward you give yourself for finishing the first.

  1. Pick the low hanging fruit

Don’t try to write the next Game of Thrones on your first attempt. Pick a premise with one POV character. Maybe two. Not a dozen. Stick to one key theme. Don’t try to squeeze everything you have to say to the world into your first novel. Keep it simple. Treat it as a practice round. You can increase complexity with your later works.

  1. Stick to a tight outline

Discovery writing is great when it works. But if you find yourself hitting dead-ends on repeat, even a one-page outline can make a difference. 

Don’t overdo it either. Some people spend years on world-building, taking personality tests for their characters and drawing up massive genealogical trees. But they never actually write their story. As with tip #4, keep it simple. Layout the key plot points. Know what happens at the start, in the middle and how it ends. And stick to it.

If you’ve started writing and realised you need to change earlier plot points, make a note and keep writing as if you’ve already made the changes. You’ll fix the continuity issues in the second draft.

Do you have any tips to add? Let me know what’s keeps pushing you to the finish line.

The “sci” in my “fi” – futuristic technology in Blackjack Interstellar

Blackjack Interstellar (BJI), the space opera novel I’m currently working on is set in the distant future where humans have formed an alliance with alien races and colonised far corners of the galaxy. It’s by no means meant to be hard science fiction, but science and technology are still important cornerstones of my world-building.

I drew inspiration from all the science fiction I grew up on, researched technologies used in various fictional worlds and the “real” science of how these may or may not work. It’s easy to get carried away when building your own world I tried to keep explanations, short, simple, and relevant to my plot. Here are my top five futuristic technologies that are central to BJI’s plot, with the level of detail you won’t see in the book:

1. Faster Than Light (FTL) interstellar travel

Interstellar travel is very accessible in BJI. A one-man spaceship can reach distant star systems within days. This would never be possible in the real world with what we currently know about physics, so any theory I used had to be very speculative. 

I chose antimatter-powered hyperdrives that propel spaceships through hyperspace, which is kind of like another dimension. I felt readers would be comfortable with this concept because of how much it was popularised by Star Wars. Exits from hyperspace, landings and departures need to be well-coordinated by spaceports to avoid accidents. Fortunately, the landing and departure queues are mostly automated, except maybe on Blackjack, the asteroid, where one perpetually drunk guy runs all ground control ops.

2. Galactic Maps

Hyperdrives present a number of limitations, particularly around navigation. Because the galaxy is in constant motion, it is not enough to plot a static space route. The calculations need to be constantly updated — that’s why they have droids in Star Wars.

In BJI however, there are no droids. There is, however, the Standard Union Galactic Map, which has a limited number of main routes that are constantly updated with calculations by the Galactic Union government. Unbeknownst to most people, there is also something called the Shadow Map, but that’s it’s own plot point and I won’t go into further detail here.

2. Quantum Entanglement FTL Communication 

While quantum entanglement (QE) is a real physics phenomenon, it’s use for faster than light communication is hypothetical but frequently used in science fiction. Entanglement is when two subatomic particles continue to impact one another even when separated. So, the speculative idea is that if you had two quantum computers with entangled particles on different ends of the galaxy, they’d be communicating with one another in real time. The limitation is that entanglement is a one-to-one not one-to-many. I have several pieces of technology in BJI that use QE for communication purposes, two are listed next.

3. The InStarNet

Yes, that name is “highly original”. The book doesn’t go into much detail on how the InStarNet works, but I can tell you that it uses a network of quantum satellites to transfer data to various inhabited planets. To cross the one-to-many barrier, the data from users would get transmitted to ordinary satellites, presumably via ordinary radio signal, and then to the quantum satellite, where it would be redirected to the next quantum satellite, and so on. Once it reaches the intended planet, it would again be transferred to individual user devices via ordinary satellite internet. Is this scientific? No. Is it logical? I hope so… The InStarNet works for communication between planets but not between ships in hyperspace that can’t pick up satellite signals.

4. The Ansible

The term “ansible” was coined by Le Guin in a 1966 novel and has since been used by countless others. I’d thought about changing its name, but so far, have decided against it. As a sci-fi reader, I welcome familiar references in modern sci-fi that, makes me feel like the the author and I are on the same page, geeking out about the same things.

Ansibles on BJI also use QE tech to enable communication with travelling spaceships, bypassing the satellites. Each ship needs to be “entangled” with at least one major spaceport and each spaceport is “entangled” with the other spaceports. There’s a finite number of ports and space-tech manufacturers (and production of ships is regulated), so this is technically possible.  Ansibles can only be used for specific purposes. They do not enable ships to communicate with the main InStarNet network and do not allow file transfers. Their intended use is mostly for emergencies and landing requests.

Ships within close range of each other communicate using ordinary radio-waves, not entanglement. Ships also have lidars and other sensors.

5. VirtEgo personal communicators

A virtEgo (not to be confused with “Vertigo”, not a miss-spelling and also shortened to virt) is basically a smartphone on steroids. It’s super practical and it’s the last gadget you’ll ever need. You can wear it on your wrist, you can expand it to the size of a personal computer, you can project and manipulate holographic objects and exchange them with others. In addition to calls and messages, you’d use a virt for identification, security, to pay for things and to open doors. It’s the only wallet and key that you’ll ever it. Obviously if you’re an adult without a virtEgo, you’re screwed.

It took me ages to come up with a name for it. In A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine calls her wearable personal communication devices “cloud hooks”. In Five Lightyears to the Firesnake, by my friend Rayner Ye, personal devices are called airSpheres. I thought both of those sounded extremely cool, but I wanted something really short like… “phone” but not like a phone… Recently I’ve been describing it to someone, saying the gadget is like an extension of yourself, your virtual self, your… And then it hit me: “virtual ego –virtEgo”… how did I not think of this earlier?

The virt pairs with other devices like your spaceship’s onboard computer or other wearable tech. It stores data either locally, on data cards, or on “nebula servers” (get it? I’m so clever with naming things 🤣). I can’t wait to get a virtEgo in real life, although I think our distant future will be far more augmented. 

Special Mentions

That’s it. Some other futuristic tech mentioned in BJI that didn’t make it into my top 5 includes:  terraformation processes, cryogenics, robots, cyborgs and an alien translation device known as “the cube”.

Do you get as excited by thinking about the future of technology as I do? Or maybe it’s magic that floats your boat? What are some of your favourite fictional gadgets, devices or artefacts?