I was proud of those first fumbles in the dark, even though I realized years later that I should not have been so proud. But I’m still proud that I started at all and kept at it. It took me five years to produce my first manuscript, which also happened to be the second manuscript I’d ever started.
That being said, things would have probably worked out a lot more smoothly if I’d had a little more advice to go on. Here are a few things I wish I’d known as a new novelist.
Read about Craft
Art is supposed to come from the heart, not the head, or so I thought. While there is a certain element that you and only you can bring to the world—your own unique thoughts and perspective on the world, for instance—there is a lot of wisdom in recognizing certain patterns in storytelling. I was resistant to this belief.
James Scott Bell calls the source of this resistance “the big lie.” In his introduction to Plot & Structure, Bell writes, “Writers are born, people said. You either have what it takes or you don’t, and if you don’t you’ll never get it.”
In a way, I’m thankful I believed that even my worst efforts could be polished into something palatable. But it took me many years to pick up a book on the craft of writing (like the one above) all because I thought, like Bell, that “writing can’t be taught.”
Pick up any book on writing and you’ll be headed in the right direction. For starters, you can check out this page.
Just Read in General
What use is it to know the ins and outs of storytelling if you don’t know how it looks in practice? People have been writing novels for centuries and telling stories for millennia. The reason we have books on plot, characterization, dialogue, setting, and a whole slew of other storytelling considerations is because we have stories that can be picked apart to see what makes them work.
When I was a kid, my grandpa gave me a screwdriver. It wasn’t long before I was taking apart toys and appliances to see how they worked, how the pieces and parts—moving and non-moving—fit together. Be that kid with the screwdriver, and use your knowledge about storytelling and the insights you’ve gleaned from other teachers to figure out what makes different stories work. Apply your findings to your own stories.
Reading also often has an unintended side-effect in generating ideas. Not only do I want to write more when I read more, I sometimes pick up on interesting plot points and make a prediction of what I think will happen—or, even better, what I think would happen if I were the writer. These moments can sometimes serve as a seed for a new story, especially when I guess wrong.
Finish What You Start
If you have a strong enough idea for a story, then finishing it should be no problem. It might not turn out as long as you expected (or hoped) but the fact that you finished something does wonders for the psyche of a writer. It took me three years to reach 50,000 words in my first (unfinished) novel. Yet it only took me two months to finish a 60,000 word first draft last year. And another two months after that to bring that total to 90,000 in a second draft.
This is not to say that you have to work quickly. I did those two drafts during a period when I was working on my novel every day for thirty minutes. (Only thirty minutes!) By contrast, the current draft of the story I’m working on now has been in the works for well over five years. Either method is fine, so long as you’re working on it.
The important thing here is that I kept working on it, consistently. I never went back to change anything or edit an earlier chapter. It didn’t matter that the story needed edits; I was in the drafting phase.
The first draft is never pretty. It’s not supposed to be. But a wonderful thing happens when you finish a story, even if you think it’s kind of crappy: You get a feeling of accomplishment. Typing THE END on the final page of a draft is one of the best feelings in the world.
Don’t worry about getting everything right the first time. If you don’t finish what you start, you won’t have anything to edit.
Remember that THE END is Just the Beginning
First drafts are often called “rough” drafts for a reason. They’ve got their edges to them, there’s nothing smooth about them, they need to be sanded and polished before they become a final product.
When you finish a first draft, you get a rush. But if you’re anything like me, you then set the draft aside and plan on “getting back to it later.” My first completed manuscript has never been edited in the nine years since I finished it.
Part of this is because I thought I’d already done enough work. I planned the story meticulously, changed the outline details as I went. Everything should have been right the first time, because I’d planned it to be.
Another big factor is the fact that I didn’t understand what “editing” really entailed. I thought editing was simply the process of moving through the draft combing for grammar errors and typos. But editing is much more involved than that. Editing is deleting scenes, writing new ones, rewriting ones that don’t work, and so much more. As the old adage goes, “Writing is rewriting.”
I moved from first draft to first draft for years without ever producing a second draft until just a couple years ago, after I’d been writing for over a decade. Editing your novel teaches you a lot about your own writing process. Try it just once early on. Treat it like a LEGO creation that you can take apart and reconstruct into any new shape, until you think it’s the best thing you could produce. With later manuscripts, you’ll have a better idea which ones are worth editing and which are destined for the junk heap.
You Do You
Finally, don’t take any advice that doesn’t fit your style, including anything I’ve written here. There are plenty of writers who edit as they go and they do just fine, so if that’s your style, then go for it.
You’re going to get advice like “write every day,” sometimes with a word count or minimum time attached. I’ve done this and it works to some degree, but overall it doesn’t fit my style. Find what works for you.
You’re going to get into arguments on and off the Internet about whether it’s better to meticulously outline your stories or just start with a character and write until you’re done. My style is somewhere in the middle, and yours might fall anywhere else on that spectrum. You’re going to have to experiment a lot before you know what works for you.
The important thing is that you, as a writer—and you are a writer, because you write—do just one thing: Write.