10 Things I Learned Writing A Novel

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1. Mistakes are inevitable

When writing my book, I would get annoyed at every little mistake I found in my drafts, whether it was a character/plot issue, general inconsistency, or even just a typo. However, it came to me that no matter how practiced you become, mistakes will always be unavoidable. So why get worked up, why not embrace them instead? After that realisation, I started to enjoy spotting mistakes because it meant, little by little, I was improving my work.

2. Knowing when to move on

I found during my editing travels, usually during the dark hours while the rest of the world slept, that I could easily spend hours going over and over the same paragraph, even when I was basically adding nothing of value to it. If I hadn’t recognised the times I was getting bogged down in the unimportant things like that, I would probably still be working on my novel for another six months. There comes a point where you have to recognise when you’re just polishing pebbles and move on.

3. Everything takes longer than I thought

However much time I planned for each of my drafts, it never turned out to be enough. Mostly, I think this was down to me blindly fumbling my way through the process for the first time. I expect my next novel will be completed much quicker due to knowing what to expect and how to manage my time more effectively this time around.

4. How to take feedback

Getting another perspective on your work is almost always helpful. Glaring mistakes are easy to miss when you’re so close to a project that you can no longer see the bigger picture (as I posted about a while back). Of course, feedback is just one person’s opinion and at the end of the day it’s up to the writer to decide what to incorporate and what to ignore. So tell the story you want to tell, just don’t be too stubborn if you get repeated notes about the same thing.

5. Organisation is key

I started writing my novel in libreoffice, just a basic open source word processor, and I finished with multiple spreadsheets, notebooks full of handwritten notes, and a whiteboard covered in scribbling. Character info, scene lists, plot notes, setting descriptions – things quickly add up and I found organisation to be incredibly important to keep my head above water. I’ve heard of people using all sorts of exotic software in their attempts to keep their writing organised, but just a word processor, spreadsheet, and simple pen and paper worked fine for me.

(While watching a Brandon Sanderson lecture a while ago, he mentioned that he starts every book by creating a document with three headings – characters, plot, and setting. He calls it a ‘book guide’ and uses it to keep all his important information in one place, an idea which I shamelessly stole and would definitely recommend).

5. Work patterns

I often found it difficult to start writing, dreading the monumental amount of work that lay in front of me. I expected writing a book would be a lot of work, and it ended up being even more than I anticipated. Knowing how much is ahead of you is enough to make you want to say ‘bugger this’ and put the kettle on instead. I eventually discovered that the key was to sit down and just start. Once you get over that mental speed bump and begin, you quickly realise that it’s not the impossible task you built up in your mind.

While writing, I was constantly plagued by distractions. Whenever my mind would wander, I would get the urge to check emails or play a game for a while – anything to give me that little burst of dopamine that social media is built upon. In an attempt to keep my focus, I tried experimenting with a few ideas, such as shutting off the internet and the pomodoro technique. All relatively useful, but messing around with timers and creating rules for myself just seemed like extra fluff to deal with.

In the end, there was no quick fix. It just came down to motivation – I concentrated and put the hours in because I wanted to write a book. There’s no app for willpower.

7. Don’t plan too much

I’m an architect, or a planner if you prefer. To quote George R. R. Martin on the two types of writers,

‘I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.’

I need to know where my story is going before I start writing. This was true of my novel, which I mapped out well before I started writing. However, as I progressed, my writing would often naturally take me in a different direction. Usually, it was my characters which forced this to happen, when their actions and decisions resulted in me needing to find another route to my next plot point. Whenever I would try to force my characters in to certain boxes, they seemed unnatural and inconsistent. So while I’m very much an architect, I’ve learned to be open to a little gardening from time to time.

8. A social life is overrated

Most writers are naturally introverts I think, myself included. Even so, if you decide to write a novel then be prepared to wave goodbye to any illusions of having social life, unless you want to spend the next decade writing one book.

Also, if you have a partner, they’re fed up with you. Stop harping on about your book.

9. Writing is 90% editing

No one writes anything decent on their first attempt. The words I vomited out on my first draft were atrocious and I would never dream of showing anyone that Jackson Pollock imitation. But that’s okay. In fact it’s necessary. You need to be able to write badly or you’ll never begin.

Editing is what turns that embarrassing first draft in to something worth reading. And my book took oh-so-much editing. At points I thought I was never going to reach the end. Seriously though, if you don’t like editing, don’t be a writer.

10. Write everyday

Some days writing feels fantastic, and the words fly out of my brain and land on the page just right. Other days, everything I write feels like a disjointed train wreck and I struggle to even string coherent sentences together. The interesting thing is, after you’ve edited all that work and evened out the edges, no one can actually tell the difference.

So I wrote, even when it was the absolute last thing I wanted to do, because while I love writing, it is still a job. If you want to be a writer, you have to put the time in and write every day.


Photo by Seth Sawyers licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

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