6 things I learned writing my first novel
Updated: Mar 10, 2019
Or, How I Wrote My First Novel Without Losing My Sanity!*
(most of my sanity)
This year, over the course of four arduous months, I wrote two very different drafts of my debut novel, The Belles of St. Mary's.
Writing a novel was something of a major milestone for me — definitely a bucket list item. For years, I told myself that I could never write a novel, let alone one that was readable. Before I began, I thought I had a far better chance of climbing Everest then writing a half-way decent novel.
Turned out, I was wrong. (No, climbing Everest is not on my bucket list.)
Now, with over 160,000 words and 600 pages behind me, I'd like to share what I learned in the process of writing Belles.
1. Trust your gut
I'm not an outliner nor am I a pantser. If anything, I've got a little of both in me.
With Belles, I had the barest bones of a skeleton in my mind before I wrote a single word. I wrote the ending first — so I always knew where the story was ultimately going to go.
But between the first and second draft, the story changed.
Honestly, the first and second drafts are essentially completely different stories that happen to share some characters in name only — even the titles were different.
I played it safe in the first draft. I had the comfort of knowing what came next because I had the skeleton to refer back to, and the ending was always clearly in sight.
However, as soon as the I wrote the opening line to the second draft, my gut told me to go deeper.
And I did, and the story blossomed. The characters came to life in ways I never anticipated. I never knew what they were going to do next. There were several mornings where I stopped and said okay, that's interesting. I did not see that coming. But what the hell happens next?
My instincts led me to explore some difficult themes and ask the really hard questions I would have likely shied away from, but the resulting story was so much more rewarding for it.
Lesson: always trust your gut. It knows the way. Follow. Ask questions later.
2. Show up every day
It seems like I shouldn't have to say it, but based on the number of times I see "writers" looking for new ways to beat writer's block I clearly need to — write every single day.
Every morning for four months, I woke up at 4am, was on the 5:30am bus to Manhattan, and was sitting at my desk in SoHo before six. My "real" job didn't start until 8am, so I had two hours of uninterrupted writing time.
And I used every single minute of that time for four months.
Little by little, the word count grows. 100. 1000. 10,000. 25,000. 50,000.
And, so does the page count.
But you have to show up and be ready to work. The pages won't write themselves. If only...
3. Make a plan (and stick to it!)
When I started Belles, I knew exactly how many words I needed to write daily to finish the first draft in three months. Some days I wrote more — a lot more, double or even triple once or twice.
And others I wrote less.
In the end, my average daily output was about 50% greater than what was required to finish the draft on time.
Having a plan with a clear end game made it easier to dive in and trust the process of showing up every day. It became less daunting, and was just so much easier to manage over the long haul.
Writing a novel is intense. And a lot of work, even with the best of plans. But writing with a plan helps keep you on track and allows you to hold yourself accountable.
Of course you have to have...
No one is going to force you to park your ass in the chair and put the words on the page. In the end, if I'm being totally honest, most people probably think you're never going to finish anyway.
How many "actors" do you know that never audition and still think they're going to get discovered while they waste away watching Netflix night after night? And seriously, join ANY group on Facebook for writers and you'll see the number one most talked about topic is freaking writer's block. SMDH.
**Pro tip: you can't have writer's block if you're writing! :)
No charge for that gem.
Just write. You can throw it out later if it totally sucks, or fix it so it's less sucky.
But sooner or later, something good will stick. If you're not even in the game, how can you expect to score the winning goal as the buzzer sounds?
Get your ass in the chair and in the game. Fortune and glory await!
This is a tricky one. I used social media to document my process and progress.
Much to the chagrin of some of my friends, I posted updates every day. Wrote another 1,600 words this morning! On page 200! Broke into page 300!!!
Saying it out loud is an amazing feeling, and there was an enormous rush when I finally posted guys, it's done! I wrote my first novel!
While you might piss some of your friends off (and who cares about them if they can't support your dreams and ambitions), you'd be surprised by how many people go along with you on the journey.
When I finished Belles, I received so much praise and support from people I had no idea were paying attention to the process.
People are paying attention, even if they're not saying anything. And you never know who you're inspiring along the way. Show 'em how it's done!
After the first two weeks of daily updates, my friends expected those posts. I had trained my followers to expect them. And it was a great way to hold myself accountable.
6. Always — ALWAYS — hire an editor
This was perhaps the biggest (and most expensive) lesson I learned writing Belles. At one point nearly half-way through the first draft, a writer friend asked me who was going to edit the completed manuscript. Edit? What do you mean, 'edit?' Don't publishers have editors?
No matter how technically good a writer you are, and no matter how good your friends are at finding typos, nothing can replace hiring an experienced editor to review your manuscript. Aside from time, it is the single most important investment you can make in your writing.
Most editors will provide a sample of 5 pages or around 3,000 words. Review the samples. Find the editor that "gets" your work, and provides the most detailed edits. Reread the edited pages aloud. Again, trust your gut. I bet at least one will stand out well above the rest. For me, it was a no brainer.
Writing a novel is one of the most difficult writing tasks I've ever undertaken, but it has been far and away the most rewarding. And yes, I've started my second. Following my plan, I should be done with the first draft by April 1st. Check back to see how I did.
I did it. I freaking did it! I wrote a 300+ page novel.
And so can you!
Just keep writing!
See you on the other side.