10 Things I Learned Writing My First Novel

10 Things I Learned Writing My First Novel

Two days ago I finished the first draft of my first novel.

The manuscript is just shy of 220,000 words. If you include prewriting and the stuff I cut along the way, I’ve written over 275,000 words since January. If you take into account the fact that I didn’t write for several weeks here and there due to a relocation and other distractions from my writing schedule, then I wrote most of that in 6.5 months, averaging a little over 42,000 words/month.

That’s a lot of words.

Like, a dragon’s horde of shiny paragraph pieces piled up in a mine of a manuscript that will likely never see the light of publication.

But I did it. I wrote a book.

Or at least the first draft of one. The manuscript still needs more work than the inner city roads of Los Angeles.

Several more drafts are needed to fix all the stuff I changed and to tighten up the prose, especially because my diction and ability for succinct composition begins to diminish after about 2,000 words, which is roughly what I averaged each day. Occasionally I would write between 3-6,000 if I was excited about a particular scene.

Overall, I have learned more about writing in the last six months than in the previous three years. (During which time, in hindsight, I dabbled in wordsmithing like a typewriting hipster at a coffee shop posting pictures with his phone on Friendface.)

Had I known what I was getting into when I first endeavored to write such a behemoth book, I might have aimed for something closer to 90,000 words. But that initial decision has taught me a lot about consistency, persistence, and my own creative process (as well as all the things I’ll do differently the next time around).

As I start my first round of edits, I’ll reflect more about the technical aspects of craft that I’ve learned. But for now I’ll start with the top ten things I’ve discovered about my own creative process and the art of surviving the scrivener’s marathon.

1. Be Consistent

There is no substitute for BIC time. As any author(or at the ones I admire) will tell you that the only way to become a better writer is to sit in your chair and write. That doesn’t mean reading about writing, browsing art archives for inspiration, or catching up on your twitter feed. Writing means hammering out word after word on your keyboard like a blacksmith at the forge. It’s hard work, but it builds your strength and skills as a writer.

2. Be Persistent

You know that old story about the tortoise and the hare? Utter bullshit. Even a meth-addled tortoise on roller skates couldn’t beat a hare in a race, though I suppose that’s not the point. The point is that writers are tortoises, or something. Writing a book is a long, slow process. And unless you’re Robert Louis Stevenson on a six-day cocaine binge, it’s probably going to take you more than a week (or even a month) to finish your first draft. That’s ok. Finish what you start and eventually you’ll pass the hare who gave up after the third chapter and wandered off to the local bar for some carrot juice.

3. Be Prepared

Ever failed to plan for a trip, only to realize when you landed in Alaska that a duffle full of mismatched socks and a web of tangled earbuds won’t help you survive the long winter? Me neither. Though I often forget toothpaste and have to buy a 2oz. tube of the stuff for $20 from some shady character at a late night convenience store.

Be-Prepared-BoyScoutsWriting, like traveling, is a much smoother process with a little bit of planning. Outlining a scene before I write is like having a companion in the car so I can use the carpool lane. It makes the quotidian commute towards my word count that much easier, especially if I write the outline a day before so my subconscious has a chance to mull things over while I sleep and attend to the other needs of the meatbag I call a body.

Additionally, more planning at the beginning of a project means less revision at the end. You will undoubtedly deviate from the original outline in some places, but having a detailed map will make it easier to course correct and require a lot less backtracking to get the story where you want it to go. Just be careful not to catch Worldbuilder’s Disease. That shit will paralyze you. (Unless you’re Pat Rothfuss, in which case the disease gives you super powers, because of the beard.)

4. Hit your word count

Every author’s process is different. Some, like the aforementioned Rothfuss, binge write. Others try to write a chapter a day when working on a book. Personally, I’ve discovered that I’m most productive using the Scalzi method. I try to write 2,000 words a day. If I’m really excited or have a lot of momentum, I’ll write more. Some days – when writing feels like trying to pull out your own wisdom teeth with a dirty mirror and a butter knife – I’ll finish with less, but not without putting in the minimum BIC time.

5. No such thing as wasted words 

Not all the words I write in a day will be gold. Some days they’re no better than an erratic spray of steaming hippo dung. But that’s ok. Even if those words never make it into the final story, or I rewrite the same section again the next day, they aren’t wasted. Over time they all add to the bone pile upon which I build my authorial throne.

As the profane professor of writing advice Chuck Wendig has said, “Writing is when we make the words. Editing is when we make the words not shitty.”

6. Silencing the Internal Heckler

One of the most important skills I’ve developed in the course of writing a novel is the ability to ignore the internal heckler (not to be confused with the internal editor) – that obnoxious, condescending voice in your head that tells you everything you write is garbage and you’ll never be good enough to publish. Over time that voice becomes white noise, and you learn tricks to kick it in the throat whenever it gets uppity.

7. Writing is work

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. The single most important change I’ve made to the way I approach my writing is to treat it as a job. You don’t get up and go to work whenever you feel like it. And you don’t wait for inspiration to strike before you compile the report your boss is waiting on. You stick to a schedule and you do your job because that’s what it takes to be successful. The same goes for any endeavor, professional or otherwise.

If you write purely for enjoyment and don’t care about being published, then you can afford to write whenever the muse comes along with a fluffy feather and tickles your pineal gland. However, if you want to truly develop your craft and/or publish professionally, you have to respect your muse like a leather-clad, whip-wielding dominatrix and sacrifice your immediate gratification for the long-term payoff.

At a time when the publishing industry is playing musical tectonics with the digital landscape, it’s more important than ever to have a disciplined approach for consistently producing new work. (If you want to succeed and remain relevant.)

8. The Early bird gets the worm, but the cat eats the bird

IMG_4051Cats are valuable writing companions, but not for the reasons you think. Sure, cats are cute. And they provide the isolated writer with some sort of sentient interaction that doesn’t require a computer or smart phone, but these positive qualities only serve to distract from actually writing. It’s the dark side of feline ownership that makes them truly valuable.

Owning a cat is like living with an alcoholic roommate. She’ll wake you up at 4 a.m. just to tell you she threw up in the living room and now she’s hungry. So you get up to help her so she’ll leave you alone, but by the time you’re done you’re already awake and might as well get some work done. Then, once you’re at the computer typing away, she’ll come cuddle on your lap but threaten to castrate you if you move from the chair and disturb her sleep.

Fortunately, I produce my best creative work in the early morning before my brain gets overloaded with news, media, and the other mental taxes of daily life. A capricious cat with sharp claws by my balls is just added incentive to stay in my seat and continue to type.

9. Keep your tools sharp

You can’t write without a brain. (Or at least I haven’t seen any zombies hit the NYT Bestseller list.) So it stands to reason that keeping your one and only bucket of skull jelly in prime working condition is important if you want to produce your best work. I notice a distinct rise in the quality of my writing when I consistently eat wholesome, unprocessed foods and workout regularly. As opposed to when I eat junk, which destroys my motivation to exercise and clogs the creative cogs in my head.

The information I consume also affects my mental performance. Just like carbohydrates, the heartier and more complex things I read or watch, the more I feel encouraged to create. Whereas hours spent browsing endless and simplified headlines on reddit or watching clips on YouTube tends to diminish my ability to sustain extended periods of focus.

And then there’s sleep. Like most people, I probably don’t get enough. Even though I know it’s one of the most important factors for staying healthy, it’s difficult to do nothing when there is always something else screaming to be done. However, I have come to realize that I need at least six solid hours of sleep to function normally. Any less than that and the quality of my work is a game of Russian roulette.

Recently I’ve started meditating everyday in an endeavor to offset the potential long-term effects of not getting enough sleep. Studies claim that it will help as I age, but I’ve already noticed a difference in my ability to focus and write after twenty minutes of meditation that I would otherwise spend checking email or twitter.

10. Know when to take a break

Whether it’s a product of my upbringing or the circuitry in my brain, I tend to obsess over my work. If I’m designing something or working with data, I can sit and work for hours on end and forget to eat or drink anything. This occurs a little less when I’m writing, which requires more thought and ideation than the constant flow of data manipulation, but it still happens, especially on difficult days when I fail to hit my word count. When that happens, I need to remind myself that it’s ok to take a break and come back to it later. Often something as simple as remembering to eat lunch or walking to get the mail will be enough to reenergize me and clear away any mental blocks that prevented me from moving forward.

It’s ok to take a break, as long as you come back and finish what you start.

There’s more, but no one quite sums it all up as succinctly as the mighty Wendig


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