Writing a novel is like going to a casino. If you catch some luck at the slots, or have a royal flush fall your way in poker, or even score an amazing blackjack run—your next trip to the craps table will knock you flat. There is no hardest part of writing a novel; it depends entirely on an individual’s perseverance and, most of the time, luck. This is why writing groups and workshops are so popular; it’s easier to share the pain.
You probably hear the phrase ‘You know, I’m thinking of writing a book’ occasionally. But the hardest thing for many people is to overcome self-doubt and start. No matter where you are, you have the essentials of beginning a novel; many websites have tutorials on the subject, and books written on it can be found at your public library. It’s like parenting; you might feel prepared, but as soon as you begin to tentatively type or handwrite the actual words, you realize how hard it is to not flush anything you write down the nearest toilet. Among writers—not just novelists—that hateful inner voice is known as The Critic, and for the first draft you should shut him off and just focus on pouring your ideas onto paper.
A first draft should be finished as quickly as possible to avoid The Middle Lull, a human-borne computer virus that will probably infect you during the second draft anyway. The typical symptoms include a realization, eighty pages into your first editing binge, that there are far too many holes in the structure; clichéd characters; horrible stretches of dialogue; a pathetic villain; and too many swears for you to ever, ever hammer into a decent manuscript. You’ll know you have it when the urge to quit is irresistible. What you don’t know is that you’re going through a perfectly normal first-novel phase, and if you give up now no one will ever stop asking you at dinner parties when you’re publishing that novel. All you can do is focus on the most pressing problems in the story’s structure—the structure, not the actual prose—and attack them until they still read like shit, but are coherent in the bigger picture.
After you’re comfortable with the characters, and the story as a whole, you should take a lunch break because it’s only going to get worse. What you need to do is print out all the chapters and give them a good spanking one at a time, not moving onto the next until every scene, paragraph, and sentence in the one before is good and spanked. I can just imagine your horror at hearing this. Depending on how you write, whether or not you went to a good prep school, and how sharp your grammar skills are under the influence of beer or something worse at 3:45 AM, you might survive this with a smile. Doesn’t it feel good to torture something that deserves it?
The home stretch, however, will likely make you wish you were still blissfully writing the first draft. It involves swallowing your pride—actually, stuffing it down your throat and throwing some weights in after it to impede its swim back up—and letting the comments of your friends, professors, writing workshop members, siblings, and/or mother beat your novel into shape. Since hard work is detrimental to sanity, many take the criticism personally and lose valuable relationships over a comma placement. Whatever you do, don’t do this. Your novel will need to be the best it can possibly be, because next you’ll have to get an agent to represent it, and she will have to get Random House to buy it off you for $150,000.