5 Things I Learned From Writing My First Novel

5 Things I Learned from Writing My First Novel

At the beginning of this year, I set out the three big things I wanted to achieve in 2017: organise a fantastic wedding (tick), fully establish my freelance writing business (tick) and write, publish and sell my (at that time untitled) first novel. On the dream board I created for myself, I have a statement that reads, “this year I will become an author.” Last week, I achieved that dream.

It’s been a longer and harder journey than I had imagined. At the beginning of the year, I had about 30,000 words from a two-year-old NaNoWriMo project and a vague idea for a trilogy of books. I was determined to learn everything there was to know about publishing and marketing books and I was inspired by the tales of other writers managing to knock out a novel a month and make a good living from their books.

Perhaps, I thought, producing one book this year isn’t ambitious enough? Why not try and get the whole trilogy out? Oh, how naive I was! Because, while there are many authors who are able to deliver to this kind of production schedule, I am not one of them. (Yet.) What I failed to take into account was how much about the craft of writing I still had to learn. For me, producing a quality book was not something that would happen overnight.

So, here’s what I learned this year from writing my first book. (If you’re more interested in the publishing side, I’ve got a blog post on that coming soon.) I’ve tried to be as honest as possible (perhaps too honest?!), but if you’re a writer struggling with your craft, I hope it’s encouraging to know that you’re not alone. And that all the blood, sweat and tears will be worth it in the end.

1. The First Draft is Just the Beginning

About those writers I mentioned above. The ones who manage to publish a novel a month (or more). From studying their success, the one thing that jumped out at me was the need to write a clean first draft.

By this I mean that the story is structured to create a flowing narrative that draws the reader in. The manuscript has good pacing, it tugs on the reader’s emotions in a way appropriate to the genre, the characters are fully fleshed out and the settings feel real. For these authors, all their manuscript needs is a bit of a polish from a copy editor or proofreader before they send it out into the big bad world. Which is one reason why they’re able to produce so many books. Writing quickly isn’t just about how many words you can get down in an hour. It’s how long it takes you to write good words.

I would desperately love to be one of these writers. But the biggest lesson I learned this year, is that I’m not. And, for now at least, I have to accept that.

In January, I re-plotted out the story I’d started two years ago using The Story Grid methodology. I didn’t make things easy for myself (as my friends will tell you, I never do). If you’ve read Expendables, you’ll know that the story has two protagonists: Aleesha and Trey.

Immediately, this throws up the complication of having two full character arcs which have to be resolved during the course the story. It also makes it harder to fit the story into the classic structures, most of which focus on the journey of a single protagonist. To add to the complications, rather than choosing a single antagonist (the ‘bad guy’), the antagonist in Expendables is the state itself. Honestly, by the time I finished plotting I was beginning to think I’d bitten off more than I could chew…

And then I started to write. I’d already booked an editor to do a manuscript critique, so I had a deadline to work toward. As it turned out, this deadline was a little ambitious. I finished the first long, rambling draft of my still-untitled manuscript just a few days before I was due to send it in. It needed work. I could feel the flaws in the story, but I hadn’t had enough distance from the manuscript to work out how to fix them.

During the month my editor had the manuscript, I left it for a few weeks and then read it through again with fresh eyes. I made notes on what I felt needed to be fixed, but I still wasn’t sure how to go about doing this. Was I just supposed to start again from the beginning?

Knackered editing
Editing can be a tiring business

When I got the email back from my editor, I was preparing myself for the worst. For her to tell me that this was all a waste of time. But she didn’t. Sure, there were a lot of things she highlighted that needed work – that’s what I was paying her to tell me, after all! But her feedback gave me hope that I could mould this story into something worth reading. It also kick-started me into getting to work on the second draft. I created a list, based on her comments and my own thoughts, of what needed to be improved. It ran to six pages. And I got to work on draft two.

I think I probably ended up rewriting about ninety percent of that first draft. I added in some scenes and deleted others. Even the scenes that remained needed so much 

tweaking that, for many of them, I found it easier to rewrite the whole thing. But by the time I reached the end, I knew I had the core of a novel.

All in all, I think Expendables went through about seven or eight rounds of editing, including the big redraft. A far cry from the clean first draft I’d hoped for. It took eleven months to get here, not counting the work I’d done a couple of years ago. I should also add that, as I work for myself, I was spending a good number of hours every day on this. I didn’t keep track of exactly how many hours this book took to produce, but it will be in the thousands. But when I look at the book today, I can see how each round of editing improved it. And how each round of editing was necessary to bring it from a rough, unstructured first draft to a book of publishable quality.

2. You Will Learn More from Writing Your First Book Than Any Creative Writing Course

This has been said many times, but I think until you’ve been through the process of writing a book, you don’t fully appreciate what it really means. I don’t have a university degree in creative writing, but I have taken a number of online courses over the past few years and read various books on writing craft. I’ve also written a fair bit – I have a completed first draft manuscript on my computer which will never see the light of day, along with a couple of short stories, which one day may. But it was in the editing and rewriting period that I learned the most, and, I hope, improved my craft.

Plotting (Round 1)

Let’s start with my approach to plotting. I knew careful plotting was essential to get the clean first draft I wanted. And The Story Grid was an excellent tool to help with that. But as I was writing, I started to get more into the world of my characters in a way I wasn’t able to do when plotting. And although I had all my plot points set out according to the scene-by-scene outline, I hadn’t figured out some of the important details. Like, erm, how The Wall actually worked (this is quite fundamental to the story, so it caused me a lot of problems until I figured it out!).

I also had to struggle against my inbuilt tendency to write a lot, which meant that scenes I had pencilled in as being 1,000 words ended up becoming 3,000-word chapters. My 90,000-word target ballooned into a 113,000-word manuscript. This is generally considered far too long for a young adult novel. (Incidentally, Expendables is still 113,000 words long, but they are much better words than in the first draft. And to date, I have had no complaints about the length.)

Lesson learned. If you have a complex plot, with different characters and narratives woven together, then you’re likely to end up with a long book. A fact I’m sure George R.R. Martin knows only too well.

Plotting (Round 2)

So, I had a first draft that I’d tried plotting, but ended up pantsing. Oops. But hey, at least I’d figured out some of those all-important technical details!

I decided I needed to learn a bit more about structure and plotting before re-drafting the manuscript. Two books really helped me here: Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, and Take Off Your Pants, by Libbie Hawker.

They’re quite short books and both take a very simple (though different) approach to plotting and structure. Save the Cat is pretty much a how-to guide to creating a winning screenplay. It teaches you how to write a book that readers (particularly genre readers) want to read. It also makes you a terrible movie companion.

Me: “This is the ‘whiff of death’ moment!”
Husband: “Can we not just watch the movie without you dissecting it?”

Libbie Hawker focuses much more on creating a structure around the character arc for your protagonist (and other main characters). By creating a beat sheet for Expendables and really developing the character arcs of the main characters, I managed to figure out what parts of the first draft formed the core of the story, what I needed to add in to improve the narrative flow, and what I needed to take out, to keep the manuscript to a manageable length.

I read Save the Cat for the first time a few years back. But I hadn’t remembered its key points when plotting my story at the start of this year. Why? Because when I’d read it, I hadn’t applied the learning. I refer to these two books several times a day when writing my manuscript. And even though I know them pretty well by now, I still open them up when I’m stuck on a plot point.

While any good creative writing course will have you apply what you’re learning, completing a short assignment or story is not the same experience as being embedded for months in a full-length novel. I believe the process of writing this book has made me a better writer, and the process of writing the next book will further improve my craft.

Perhaps one day, I will be good enough to write that clean first draft.

3. Editors and Beta Readers Are Your Friends

I can’t emphasise this enough. Expendables would not be the book it is without input from a professional editor and a number of beta readers.

New authors sometimes struggle to justify the costs of professional editing. In my opinion, it’s a price that must be paid. And as an author at the start of her career, I look on editing as both a developmental opportunity and a means of improving my book. So, rather than signing up for another course on writing craft, I put the money into a manuscript critique which taught me specifically what I needed to work on.

When it came to copy editing, there was also a lot to learn. I self-edit, but question myself at every turn. Reading through all the track changes on my manuscript (yes, I went through each one individually) gave me a masterclass in fiction writing and self-editing. I was lucky enough to work with the fabulous Sophie Playle, from Liminal Pages, and learned so much from her!

Good beta readers are also worth their weight in gold. I had a small number of beta readers read through my manuscript and give feedback on what they enjoyed about it and any parts they felt could be improved. I made a lot of small changes based on their feedback, including rewriting part of the final scene. Their comments also helped highlight aspects of my writing that I need to focus on developing in the future. That’s my training plan for next year sorted!

Which leads me onto my next point…

4. Perfectionism Can Be Damaging

This is a tough one for me. I am one of nature’s perfectionists. I always have been. But I also know that this can often hold me back.

To be clear, this is not about putting out a bad book. Far from it. It’s about accepting that, as a new author, this first book is as good as I can make it. In five years’ time, I may read Expendables and compare it to what I’m writing then and think that perhaps it’s not good enough. But right now, I’m pretty damn proud of it. And so far, it’s got a good number of 5* reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, so there are obviously people out there who enjoyed reading it!

But if I’d waited until I believed Expendables to be perfect, it would probably never get published. So, I forced my own hand and set a deadline. I announced the date the book 

Me with Expendables
The print proof of my book baby!

would be published to my Readers’ Club and to friends and family. Now it’s out there, I can move on to the next book.

And I guess that’s really the point I’m trying to make. The way you get better at writing is by continuing to write. Not by re-writing the same words for the fifteenth time.

5. Trust Your Gut

I always used to roll my eyes a bit when people talked about gut feelings. But over the past couple of years, I’ve come to realise that most of the time I know what’s right and wrong. Even if I don’t want to listen to myself.

I knew, deep inside, that the first draft of Expendables wasn’t good enough. And I also knew that the reworked version was good enough. Sure, it wasn’t perfect – I knew there were still bits that would need changing and it had a load of typos – but I had the flesh and bones of the story in place. I just needed to add the finishing touches.

This didn’t stop me feeling terrified when I sent it out to beta readers, or back to my editor for copy editing. It didn’t stop the sick feeling in my stomach on launch day when I realised that people would finally be reading the book I’d been banging on about for the past year. But it did give me the faith to click the publish button on my KDP dashboard and make my dream a reality.

This is the first in a series of articles in which I reflect on my experiences of writing and publishing my first book. Next time, I’ll cover five lessons I learned from publishing my first book. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on writing your first book. Please post below or get in touch via Facebook or Twitter.

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