What I learned writing my first book

Writing a novel is hard.  That’s what I learned.  The end.

Thanks for reading, everyone!

Okay I may have figured out a few other things.  It’s a laborious and thankless job with a remote probability of success  Still, it’s better than the alternative, which is not writing a book.

In Feb, 2017, I completed the final sentence on my first draft. It clocks in at 80,000 words and took about 7 months to write. It was my first attempt at writing a novel, and I’m pretty proud of myself for finishing.

1. I LEARNED HOW TO BE FINE WITH BEING TERRIBLE.

I put this first because it was the hardest lesson to learn and slowed me down the most. The first draft does not need to be perfect. For my first two months of writing, I was unable to move past a chapter unless it was “publishable”. It was an absurd waste of mental energy and it nearly stopped the whole process. I would rewrite the same first two chapters over and over and ignore the process of actually writing a book. I had to learn just to get stuff down on the page so I could get going. It sucked, but I finally got there.

This was probably the hardest thing to learn, but once I got comfortable with “failing quickly”, I was able to move past the mental block and finish.

2. I HAD TO LEARN THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A BAD CHAPTER AND A WRONG CHAPTER.

In the early days, this was another one that derailed me. Bad chapters are completely fine – they might be poorly written, they might be clumsy, they might have a mess of grammatical errors, but they’re “right” chapters, in the sense that the characters act like characters, the plot moves along and so on.  It fits in the book.

“Wrong” chapters might be beautifully written, have luxurious prose and have all the right beats, but if it’s not the right chapter for the book, it sits there like a rock in the road.

An example from my early days: I was trying to write a chapter about a character getting from point A to point B. I wrote it three different ways and none of them felt right. The chapter was written okay… but I couldn’t get past it. It was like a splinter. Even though I had learned lesson 1, this was stopping me. Finally, I figured out it wasn’t the writing, it was the chapter. It was wrong. It wasn’t needed for the book. Once the chapter was gone, the rock removed, I was able to keep going. I had two “wrong” chapters in my book, and I’ve learned how to spot them quickly.

3. I LEARNED STEPHEN KING IS FULL OF SHIT

sk 1
You’re a monster

Like everyone, I read “On Writing” by Stephen King. Like everyone else, I fixated on this one piece of advice: “The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.” Eg. you should write 1,000 words a day.

Guess what? That advice is great if you’re a writing savant like Stephen King. For the rest of us, we write at our own pace, appropriate to us.  Maybe we have jobs, or kids, or other responsibilities.   Some nights we come home and we’re tired.  Fine.  It’s not about cranking out 1,000 words a day, it’s about setting goals and hitting them. You need to set a goal that works for you, not a goal that works for Stephen King. I settled on 15,000 words a month.  Not as fast as I’d like, but it was the target that worked for me and my life.

4. I LEARNED THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PRODUCTIVE CRITICISM AND WITHERING SELF-DOUBT

A writer needs to be their own worst critic. You’re the first one who sees what you write, and only you can stop the garbage from making it onto the page. But, there is a huge difference between being ruthlessly critical of your own work, with the goal of making it better (productive) vs. telling yourself you’re a horrible monster for even trying to write and everyone hates you (counter-productive).

I learned to be all about productive self-criticism. Is that sentence really needed? What would happen if I removed this character altogether? Can I say this whole chapter in 3 sentences? All great, productive questions.

versus:

Am I the worst thing ever? What if I never succeed?  What if everyone laughs at me?  What if I show this to people and they throw mud and eggs at me – even if they’re nowhere near a mud pit filled with eggs, almost as if they were carrying around sacks of mud and eggs just for this occasion? What then????

None of this is productive. Sadly, it’s natural, and I feel like everyone goes through it, but one version helps, one hinders.

5. I LEARNED IT’S NOT THE DESTINATION, IT’S THE JOURNEY

About halfway through (mid-December) I hit the wall of “what’s the point”? Seriously, why bother with any of this? Even if I finish, my chances of getting published are infinitesimal. Even if I get published, my chances of being a best seller are non-existent. Even if I become a best-seller, the chances of meeting Jennifer Lawrence and convincing her to go on a date are so, so unlikely.

So mostly, I’m writing and it’s pointless and it’s fine. I either like it or I don’t, and about halfway through I found out I like it. I like it, and that’s enough. I’ll finish this book and I’ll do another and another and maybe nothing will ever come of it. You know what else I do? I play piano and guitar because I enjoy it, but I’m never going to be a rock star. I go running because I enjoy it, but I’m never going to win a marathon. I play Overwatch because I en- hmm. Well, I’m not sure exactly what my relationship is to Overwatch, so let’s put a pin in that.

The point is, I learned to enjoy writing for the act itself.

6. I LEARNED I DON’T NEED AN OUTLINE

This might be controversial, but I wrote the whole book without an outline. It wasn’t for lack of trying. I made many attempts, but the part of my brain that I use for writing seems to be inaccessible when I’m trying to outline. So what did this mean? It means I have to write 10,000 words for every 5,000 that make it on the page. It means I wrote the first third of my novel, realized I had written myself into a number of insurmountable plot holes and had to go back and re-write a solid chunk of the book. It means I sometimes surprised myself and my characters went in directions I didn’t plan.

I always had the opening scene, the middle scene and the end scene plotted, so I had some rough signposts to guide me along the way, but I never knew how I was going to get there.

The point is, everyone tells you that you have to have an outline and… no, you don’t. It’s just a different writing style. Everyone is going to write differently, and I needed to write the way that worked for me.

7. I LEARNED ABOUT ALL THE GREAT RESOURCES AVAILABLE FOR NEW WRITERS

There are million out there, and I didn’t look at a fraction of them, but here are a few I found particularity helpful:

  • This book on How not to write a novel:  Personally, I learn better when people tell me what not to do vs. tell me what more to to.
  • This fantastic blog that should be considered mandatory reading for everyone who wants to be an author.  This links to a great post on common beginner mistakes.  I checked my writing against every item on that list  About a third of the way in, I found I had done mistake number 17 (my character had no purpose). I felt sick. It required me to rewrite a large chunk of my first few chapters to give my character agency (up until this, the story had been happening to her, she hadn’t been happening to the story).
  • I read other books that I aspired to be like. My favorite book from the last few years was “The Library and Mount Char” by Scott Hawkins.  I went back and read that with a critical eye to try to figure out why I loved the book so much. I started doing this with every book I read. I’d read a chapter and totally forget that I was reading. Then I’d go back and try to figure out how the author did it.

 

(Note: I originally posted this to Reddit, here)

7 comments

  1. Reblogged this on lmnelsonscorner and commented:
    As writers, all of us have made mistakes along the way, but we’ve learned from mistakes and have become better writers because of them. Here’s a great article on some of the many things writers learn from writing their first novel.

  2. Great blog post! You do indeed learn a lot writing your first book.
    I love Stephen King and I love much of the advice in On Writing, but I agree with you here too. When he talks about writing the first draft in 3 months I think, that’s okay if you’re a full time writer. For me, I am in full time work, part time freelancer and part time student…I simply can’t write my draft that quickly! You were spot on when you said we find our own pace, and as long as we are setting goals and meeting deadlines then it still gets done. ❤

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