First Novel Experiences: Writing the Manuscript

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Writing First Novel

Finished Manuscript

I’m done. I have finished my first novel, The Summoners. It’s a dark, action-adventure fantasy about a girl who runs away to join a roaming magic school in a land where a fanatic religious order has outlawed it. It’s rounded out at 90k words and deals with conflicts that arise from a world where magic, religion, and politics are fused together. I’m very happy with it, but I’m also in a daze. I was hoping for this big whoosh feeling of being done, but I guess since I’ve been working on it for the past two years, it might take a little bit to settle in. And I guess by done I mean I’ve completed a polished-enough version to send out to agents, so I’m sure there will be more revisions in the future. But it’s done! My first novel is done.

No matter the story’s fate, whether it’s a million rejections and never published, or published and not well received, or whatever, I finished it. And it would have been extremely easy at any given point to walk away from this project. There was no promise in the end when I started. In fact, there is a large measure of fatality to it. Just because I wrote it doesn’t mean it will go anywhere, but I am proud of my accomplishment no matter what.

When I sat down to cobble together the first paragraphs that evolved into this story, I didn’t know what I was doing to be honest. So much of what I’ve learned about writing has come from being a voracious reading, starting my own blog, reading articles, sitting down to write and improve, listening to podcasts, and dedicating much of my free time outside of my day job to pursue this. Having got to this point, I aim to do it several times again. I plan to write many books and be a prolific storyteller, but all that aside, I have started this First Novel Experiences series so that I can share the things I’ve learned and will learn in the process of getting my first novel out for publication.

Things I’ve Learned

  1. Write every day. I stress this all the time. Don’t beat yourself over word count in the beginning. Ideally I’d say ever, but the truth is once you get to a certain level, there will be daily goals you’ll need to reach to make your deadlines. Because I’m not on the contract hook, I always aimed for at least 500 words a day. That way it wasn’t something daunting I’d have to suffer through for too long on my worst days and something I could blow through on highly productive ones. Of course, if it doesn’t work, let up. Accept 50 or 100 if you honestly have sat down with butt in chair and had a solid go at it for your allotted writing time. Just getting your mind into the routine of knowing it has to face a daily battle to write will do wonders for you.
  2. Finish the story all the way through before going back. I used to break this rule constantly. I always went back whenever I had “writer’s block” to get inspiration for where to carry the story next. I even have a blog post on it: Back to the Basics. I realize now that writer’s block isn’t so much a block as it is a warning. It means you’re trying to mesh something together that’s not working. Go back a scene or chapter or two and figure out where you went wrong. Find where you can diverge to a different path, be it a different character choice, a different setting, or a different conflict. Just find the detour because the road you first took dumps you off on a shoddy dirt road with a flat tire, no signal, and a quickly setting sun. But don’t go back further than that and try to repurpose things. Chug through that first draft, no matter how drenched it is in the slimy goop of shitty hopes and dreams. You might have a different perspective by the end, so there’s no reason to spend so much time tinkering on words that you might alter or delete entirely in editing. This applies to line editing especially but also to structural edits involving plot and character holes. If it’s something major, leave a note in your writing, continue on as if you’ve gone back and already repaired it, and go back and stitch the wounds after you’re done with the first draft.
  3. I’m a hybrid writer. I start off stories as a discovery writer and once I find what I’m blubbering towards, I stop binge drinking, join AA, and get my life together with outlines. What I’ve realized is that no matter how much I hate writing outlines, those parts of my story tend to require less recursive editing in later drafts. It’s easier to walk toward a vision versus the stumbling around in the dark with discovery writing. The discovery parts usually need to be tweaked and molded more as I knock the lamp over searching for the light, but they also tend to hold more of a surprise. Those parts of the story usually have more of the gems and plot arcs that I love because they feel a little more natural. No matter which way you sway on the spectrum, learn to use the strengths of both writing approaches in tandem.
  4. Life has a funny way of trying to take your focus off writing towards the end. I think it’s a test. Let’s see if this resolve is actually the real thing type test. As I approached my deadline for my manuscript, so much of my personal and professional life demanded even more attention than usual. I had to make sure to keep my focus on finishing because it’s easy to go the route of Oh, I’m just taking a break, and I’ll get back to it when things are less crazy. Things never get less crazy.
  5. Read your story out loud. It is exhausting for me, and I always have to psych myself out to start, but it’s such a great way to iron out the sentences and make sure the dialog sounds more organic. I find myself even wanting to act out some of the scenes, but I don’t go that far. If you feel like doing it, go ahead though! I have heard of plenty of writers doing that or having those around them become their personal mimes.
  6. Trust in your work. That was the hardest part for me, as I had days where I felt like the most genius writer in the world for figuring something out. Other times I felt so low and pitiful I thought the story was only worthy of a fiery death upon completion. Trust that even on those low days, your work is great because it’s a reflection of you. It may not be great by someone else’s standards—the critics, or even the masses—but you took the time to express something. Whether it’s a story or a character or an idea, realize that you took the leap and wrote something where most people only talk about it as a passing trivial task they could do in their sleep. Writing is tough. Earn the badge and wear it proudly.
  7. You’re allowed to be bad. Fuck what everyone else says. We’ve built up this industry where we think people have to be amazing all the time and write bestselling stories their first go round. We forget to allow people to be bad—to learn. You’re allowed to be bad artistically for a while and to figure out your style, your beat, what you’re passionate about and how you like to write it. Whether that’s apparent in the first couple drafts of your story or after your first 10 stories, remember that as long as you’re striving to learn new things about writing and showing up to do it, you will grow and change. Incremental progress peeps!

The Secret

The most important thing I learned is that it’s possible. I can sit down and churn out a story, and I don’t have as much fear of the process as I did before. The first paragraph I started with for this novel two years ago vs. what I ended up sending out to agents is extremely different. The poverty of the human language cannot express its metamorphosis adequately. It was a long road, but I traversed it because I believed in my writing, and I believed in myself. You do the same.

[Featured photo credit: AlexVan]

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