7 Mistakes I Made Writing My First Novel
Well, I finished my novel in the middle of August. Hard to believe that it’s already been two weeks since I freed the book to a handful of beta readers and that I haven’t spent much time hunched over my computer since then, but here we are.
I started my book in NaNoWriMo of 2016. Nearly two years later, it’s finally done. Almost. I’ve since sent it out to a handful of beta readers and am giving myself a bit of a break before I get their feedback. Then I’ll slave away one last time to fix whatever issues they bring up before sending it out to the literary agent who approached me back in April. We’ll see how it goes.
Two years to finish a novel isn’t horrible, but I would have liked to have taken the process a little more seriously. So, without much more rambling, here’s a list of things that I’d wished I’d done differently the first time around. Maybe you’ll heed my warnings.
I didn’t use an outline.
For the longest time, I’ve considered myself a “pantser” and I always found the idea of creating a plot outline boring. “What about those details you discover as you write?” I wondered. “What about the fun of discovering things about your characters?”
You can still discover all that stuff while you’re writing an outline for your novel.
Having been a short story writer for so many years, I loved the idea of piecing together tales like they were jigsaw puzzles. But a short story is like a 50 piece puzzle. A novel is at the very least, 1000 pieces, and don’t tell me that you’re not going to put that thing together without finding all the edge pieces first. Just don’t. Because you’re going to be miserable.
Writing an outline actually can be fun. I know so because I’m creating an outline for my second novel right now. Every day I’m creating stuff and discovering stuff. Obviously, an outline is about structure, so you can be as vague as you wanna be scenes. Just know what’s happening. Know what your characters’ intentions are. Know what they’re getting into. Know your tone. Know your ending. Know your twists. Know those little details that connect everything together before you obsess over the strength of your opening sentence.
Long story short, don’t be a pantser. Don’t take pride in identifying as a pantser. It’s not a cool thing to be. Nobody will be impressed if you add that term to your lingo. Be a plotter always.
I obsessed over my voice.
Probably the toughest part of switching from short stories to a novel was expanding my scenes. My short fiction has always relied on minimalism. Novels, though, need more words on the page, more time spent with characters, more plot to keep the momentum going.
It took me a while to get a feel for doing so. Usually, I like to leave a scene at a cliffhanger, but doing so in a novel leaves too many open spaces for readers to be confused. It took a while for me to adjust to the shift in my voice, the shift in tone. My best recommendation would be to read more novels like the one you’re writing. Read good ones. Read bad ones. Go back to your novel and write. Eventually, you’ll pull your head out of your ass and just write your life away. Eventually, your voice will even itself out and you’ll sound less like a teenage boy in the middle of puberty.
I thought I had to stay true to some sort of “voice” I’d established early on in my writing career. Heed my warning now: Stop obsessing. Just write. The second draft is for slaying all your demons. Let them fester in the first.
I let the weight of the world get me down.
2017 was a rough year. Let’s be quite frank, I spent far too much of my time after Drumpf was inaugurated watching TYT instead of writing. I had to know all the news, had to see all the coverage, had to hear all the debate. I stupidly engaged in some of the debate.
Here’s the thing: I very much consider myself political, but after the 2015 Canadian election and then the mess that was the US election, I found myself relating to people differently. Coworkers. Friends. Family. I think those feelings can create great art. My work got a little bit political, but I now stray from being vocal about my opinions because it’s not something that I myself can personally manage.
The political landscape isn’t an easy place to navigate in 2018. And I know that I, like many, have had to deal with much anxiety over it. Don’t get too embedded in the squabble. Watch the news. Get informed. Participate where you feel you must, but in the end, focus on your craft. Art is there to keep you sane.
I felt too sorry for myself.
I had a rough day at work today.
I’m too drunk to write.
I’ll catch up on Better Call Saul and then I’ll get back to writing.
I’ll have a bath first and THEN I’ll be rested and motivated.
But you know what? Writing would have pulled my mind from my rough day at work. I didn’t need alcohol to write. Better Call Saul will always be waiting for me.
I still always had the bath and I always felt too tired after to write.
Being a writer has no glamour. For most, writing is still a “hobby” that you slot in between your full-time job and your kids and all the other crap. If you’re drinking a lot, you should probably stop. I know Hemingway and all the great writers of yesteryear were hardcore drunks, but there have been plenty of studies proving how unhealthy it is and all the great writers of “nexteryear” will probably be sober AF.
Lastly, if you’re tired, there’s always coffee.
And I won’t lie, my writing didn’t really improve until I treated myself to an espresso machine. I know the coffee isn’t itself magic, but if you’re like most writers and you already work a full-time job to pay your bills, then you’re going to need something to keep you going. Just don’t feel sorry for yourself.
I focused too much on the final product.
Being a writer is all about big hopes and dreams. Will an agent be blown away by this book? Will it be a bestseller? What will the cover look like? How many cool interviews will I get to do? Who will play my protagonist in the movie? Lemme just make a Pinterest board of potential actors who would fit the part…
None of this is going to happen if you don’t lay some damn words on a blank page, you loser.
Stop being a loser. Stop dreaming. Only Taylor Swift gets to profit from her loser teenage dreams and high school diaries. Not you.
I didn’t give myself a deadline.
Once you leave school, you kind of forget all about the pressure of deadlines. You might like to think that you can write a date down on the calendar, but when it’s you making the rules, you can always move that date, or just surpass it without having the slated task you assigned to that date finished. Nothing happens. Nothing ever happens. Nobody gets angry at you. Nobody penalizes you.
I did actually set myself many deadlines to have my novel finished. Life still overwhelmed me. I let my goal of editing a chapter a day fall by the wayside. Mainly because I didn’t connect with my novel as well as I should have from the beginning. I blame this problem on my lack of an outline to start with. I wish I’d connected sooner. I wish I’d been more serious. Work was tough at times. Life was tough at times. The last thing I ever wanted to do after putting my kid to sleep at night was going and opening my computer.
Slogging through my second draft was misery during the first half of the book. Granted, the first half was where most of the problems were, so perhaps I can cut myself the slightest bit of slack. BUT, once I hit some routine and momentum, the work got easier. I knew my characters and my voices and I found myself actually having some fun. This is the sweet spot you need to hit.
The goal here is to make your novel the paper mache volcano project you got to do in elementary school. You should be excited. The deadline should be a finish line. Why in the hell would you ever want to move it further ahead?
This pretty much ties in with everything above. I considered myself a writer and I wasn’t writing. I’ve learned that the only acceptable task for a writer to be doing when not writing is reading. If you’re like me and you’re trying to break into a “trend” of fiction, you should be reading everything that you can. Get inspiration. Figure out where your voice can stand out. Understand what you’re up against. Not only will you be entertained, but you’ll also build up some confidence, too. And maybe, just maybe, some motivation to actually fucking write.
Such a good post, and a lot of points relevant to myself, especially the pantser, lack of outline, minimalistic writing ones. If you ever feel like sharing plotting tips or thought processes or whatever in a future post I think that would be really great. Although due to family circumstances I haven’t been able to write for about three years now, I do want to get back to it, and where I had left off I had hit a wall with my first attempt at a novella length story, and yes planning was what it needs I suspect. But where to start? I see different advice from different writers, and am curious what you find best.
Thanks for sharing your mistakes!