25 Truths Learned While Writing a First Novel
There’s so much to learn while writing, publishing a novel.
Posted January 12, 2014
I’m not a perfectionist and only a half-hearted procrastinator. Yet it took me a decade or more from that first thought of writing a novel to today, when I can lift my eyes and see copies of Kylie’s Heel on my shelf. I’d like to share 25 things I learned along the way.
1. It’s fun to make up stuff. Not easier, but more fun. After years of aiming to please persnickety magazine and nonfiction book editors with their own agendas, their own preferred formulae, it was liberating to put all that behind me. I suspected fiction was more fun when I studied the concept of flow and interviewed dozens of successful and award-winning novelists (and poets) for my most popular nonfiction book, Writing in Flow. How come they spoke of losing themselves in a special zone when time seemed to stop? That wasn’t happening for me. So I decided to write a novel. And it’s true: experiencing flow is a joy.
2. You can start anywhere. Writing scenes in any order helps you get a skeletal structure for your novel in place. You’ll do a lot of rearranging as you go along. I added and deleted a lot of short and long sections, keeping all outtakes in a file with a heading of Not Used. I really like Diana Gabaldon’s method of writing in chunks: “I find a kernel, then I go on with it. Eventually I will come up with a plot. As I wrote chunks, I found that one thing would suggest another, even though it would not be geographically next to that piece in the finished book. But thematically or in terms of some other trigger event, it would be connected. So these pieces began sticking together and forming a kind of framework.”
3. Beginnings and endings are crucial. I changed the several pages of my first scene or two numerous times. Each time it felt right, until some time later when I’d realize it wasn’t. Your first lines don’t have to be as memorable as these famous ones, but they need to draw in the reader. I didn’t know my ending until I got close to it. I had an idea but couldn’t be sure what my main character’s decision would be.
4. Writing a novel plays tricks on your mind. Especially if you’re basing part of the narrative on real things that happened to you, remembering what’s real and what didn’t actually happen can become a bit of a challenge. When you’re working on a story for years, the characters and events live in your head, sharing space with so-called real memories. This isn’t something to worry about.
5. Distractions are powerful. Writers are famous for coming up with buckets of rationalizations for not writing, including the suddenly-urgent need to thin out who you follow on Twitter, decluttering old files you had forgotten existed, or dusting the back of your printer. If you must, build in an allowable pre-writing period of miscellaneous tasks, but make it short.
6. Don’t talk about your book. There’s a kind of edgy anxiety—or excited psychological arousal—you get when you’re thinking through a story and can’t wait to get it down on paper. If you talk about your ideas to other people in any detail, you risk losing that urgency before the thoughts get written.
FEEDBACK AND MORE:
7. Don’t send your manuscript out too soon. Once you’ve written “The end,” it’s tempting to send the manuscript out to readers, agents, publishers, contests, or to proceed with self-publishing right away. That impatience may get you rejections partly due to the slapdash nature of the work. With Kylie’s Heel, I revised again and again, as each round of agent or indie publisher queries failed to sell. When some time had gone by since my last reading of the manuscript, I found it easier to see the flaws and make improvements.
8. Don’t believe friends and family. They’re often generous with their praise (or maybe not!), but strangers are cold. You need those encouraging and enthusiastic friends, but most of your readers will be strangers. Do not be shocked when your friends’ early kudos don’t immediately translate into laudatory reviews from the larger world. Other writers you don’t necessarily know intimately can be good for mutual, honest, helpful critiques. Then there’s this advice: Don’t Sleep with Your Critic (And 4 More Feedback Tips).
9. Don’t give up unless you want to. There are no magic rules of thumb about quitting. Some authors write a lot of books but only get some published. Others will work doggedly for years on a single manuscript until it finds a home in the wider world. Only you can tell if you’ve lost interest in continuing to work on a particular project.
10. Hiring a book doctor isn’t humiliating. Nor is it a guarantee of anything. If two or more legitimate agents suggest you hire one, it might be something to consider. I finally did, and he made some good suggestions. The book didn’t sell right away, but I believe his advice improved the book.
11. Don’t suffer “acknowledgment envy.” There were times when I’d read the acknowledgments page of a book and wonder how I could hope to compete when I don’t have such a huge posse of friends and colleagues to help me. A few good friends helped a lot, and without my husband’s early and plentiful careful readings, I’d be nowhere. We introverts do tend to go it alone though.
12. Don’t avoid reading novels while writing one. A novel takes a year or two or much more to complete. When you read good books during that time, you aren’t likely to pick up any one author’s voice, but you may learn to recognize what works and absorb useful lessons. With each good novel I read, I got fresh ideas that sent me back to solving my own novel’s problems.
13. Schedules can be important. Beginning a new book is usually exciting. Endings can be exhilarating. Middles tend to be less sexy, including revising middles for the dozenth time. That’s when you need to regularize your writing, setting aside a certain amount of time each day or week.
14. Back up constantly. No need to print out every version and waste tons of printer ink. But do whatever it takes to ensure you don’t lose your current version.
AGENTS AND REALITY:
15. Agents aren’t everything. They want a bestseller so they’ll make money. I was often told that what I’d submitted was “too quiet” or “exactly the kind of book that’s hard to place though I love it.” I kept an eye out for an appropriate independent publisher, using every resource available. When Humanist Press restarted their line with a focus on ebooks, I knew I had a good chance. Sure enough, they grabbed Kylie’s Heel and have done a good job publishing it.
16. If you self-publish, learn all the facts. Though I didn't go this way, I learned about it, in case. You will spend money upfront for printing. You will have to pay for an editor and help with the cover (and if you can’t or won’t, it will show in the finished book). It will be 100 per cent up to you to get the book noticed. While it’s true that you would have to do a lot or most of that yourself regardless, 100 per cent can be exhausting.
17. Keep your expectations realistic. It’s fine to expect to get published and to work toward that end. It’s silly to expect to get rich and famous. It’s unrealistic to believe that just getting your book “out there” will bring it to the attention of vast numbers of readers who will actually buy it.
18. Credible reviewers will respond to your work honestly. And personally. Whether traditionally or self-published, your work has to withstand scrutiny. One author told me, when I mentioned that I liked his book but it wasn’t adequately polished, that he hoped to capitalize on that. In fact, he said he’d had more than 600 agents and publishers turn down the book, and he hoped that “maybe someone will jump in and take my self-published version to the next level.” That’s a fantasy.
19. Begin planning your second novel while the first is making the rounds. That will remind you that writing is fun, while it serves as an alternative to your less flow-inducing marketing efforts. A glutton for punishment, and a sucker for those flow experiences, I’m well into my second novel with no grand expectations that it will be easier this time around.
20. Expect some ignorant early reader/reviewers.
20. Expect some ignorant early reader/reviewers.Some readers who aren’t professional reviewers don’t like to be made sad when they read a story, and they blame the author in an online review. (It’s never productive to try to convince them otherwise, so let such reviews go.) Others, the ones I consider more bookishly inclined, appreciate being helped to experience more nuanced emotions and enjoy the ride you’ve set for them.
20. Expect some ignorant early reader/reviewers.
21. Maintain your own website. Once it’s set up, it’s faster, easier, and cheaper to be able to make additions and changes yourself than having to connect with someone else to do every little thing.
22. Don’t overspend on business cards. Unless you’re a major extrovert with lots of promotional events in mind, it’s practical to keep the cards inexpensive and be ready to make new ones if you add a blog or other relevant link to your bio. I print mine on the computer with an Avery Business Card program.
23. Ask your publisher for bookmarks. Or order your own. They’re easy to hand out at talks you give, or to leave at suitable places, and more compelling than a simple business card.
24. Try Twitter but don’t expect miracles. Celebrities of all kinds and paranormal novelists and motivational speakers get many more followers than I do or you will. If you’re willing to put the time into tweeting (and retweeting) quality thoughts, you may make a connection or three who will be helpful to your goals.
25. Blogs are good and bad. They take a huge amount of time to build a following, they rarely pay much, if anything, and they can be easier to busy yourself with than your “serious” writing. While it’s great to keep your writing impulses oiled and ready, novels tend to take single-minded focus. (I suggest trying guest-blogging first to see if it suits you, and do follow all the requirements the official blogger sets.) Check out my other blogs (click my name below for links) as examples of how a different focus can be applied to sometimes-similar material.
Copyright (c) 2014 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel
Follow me on Twitter @BunnyApe