Lessons I’ve Learned From My Novels

As I wrap up the first draft of my fifth novel, I’ve come up with a list of lessons I’ve learned from writing them. Some of these are mistakes that have cost me a lot of time. Some are things that have really helped me to become a better writer as I’ve moved from book to book and scene to scene. I don’t mind making mistakes. They teach you a lot. But I hate making the same mistake twice. I also appreciate that it’s hard to learn from other people’s mistakes. Ignore / dispute these as you see fit. If you have some of your own, I’d love to hear them.

These are in no particular order.

  1. If you are writing in the first person, never take your main character out of the room, unless you are writing a mystery.  Your main character is the reason the story exists. If he / she isn’t in the room when the big events happen, then why are they your main character? No one wants to read about someone learning about an incident second-hand. You lose the emotion and the urgency. Put your character in the room. Put them in the danger.  If they shouldn’t be there, or couldn’t possibly be there, you may be writing about the wrong character.
  2. Take the time to outline your book.  Maybe it’s a one hundred word pitch that you would use to sell the book to an agent.  Maybe it’s a one page synopsis. Maybe it’s an act by act or chapter by chapter breakdown. Maybe it’s a full 9000 word treatment that describes every plot point.  Maybe it’s all of those.  On my last two books, I’ve done the first three, and while I’ve still made other mistakes, I’ve at least had a plan that I could refer back to when I got stuck, and I wasn’t wandering aimlessly for days.
  3. Know your genre, and what the appropriate length is for a first book in that genre. If you are writing young adult, and your story is over 80000 words, you’re probably in trouble.  JK Rowling was able to exceed that number only with the fourth book of Harry Potter, written after the success of the first three.  Booksellers just aren’t willing to give that much shelf space to a new writer.  Sure E-Pub may change that, but consider the reader too. How likely are you to pick up a 600 page book by a writer you have never heard of?  Word count alone is just a guide. If you have so much dialog that 60000 words has eaten up 350 pages, you’ve got a different problem.
  4. Character and place names are critical to get right. They set the tone and convey history with just a name. Bob Smith is an ordinary man. Roland Deschain is a man you don’t want to mess with. If you want a real lesson in naming, reread Harry Potter. I’m horrible at coming up with names. It’s something I really wish I was better at, and something I will spend a lot more time on before I start my next book. 
  5. Try to keep the length of your chapters consistent. Readers want to have a basic idea of how long your next chapter might be so they can decide whether or not to start that next chapter before they go to bed (Credit Jason Black for that tidbit).
  6. Read about writing. It’s a craft and it’s not something many people just know how to do. It takes practice and study. Start with Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages.
  7. Write every day. It’s amazing how much momentum you can build up by doing that. Conversely, taking a day or two or three off can completely kill your momentum.  Writing is not something you can just do when you feel like it. It’s too easy to not feel like it all the time.
  8. Don’t just write every day. Get a routine that you stick to. Write in the same place, at the same time of day. Only when you’ve been doing that successfully for a while should you be willing to break the habit and try other places. You need the muscle memory of sitting down in that one chair, or in my case on that train, to kick in. Your brain will learn to turn on as soon as you sit down, and you’ll be writing without even trying.
  9. Join a writer’s group that has the same goals you have. Having your relatives and friends read your manuscript is great for your ego, but not for your career.  A writer’s group will get you used to hearing bad news, and a good one will give you constructive criticism. But make sure you all have the same or at least similar goals. If there are people in the group who just want to write poetry, and you want to write novels, chances are good someone will be disappointed.
  10. Format your manuscript correctly from day one. It’s a lot easier to send it out to a group or to an agent when you know that it’s ready to ship as soon as the typos are gone. The submission world still revolves around the following standards:
    1. 12 point Times New Roman font for the body
    2. 1 inch margins all the way around
    3. Double spaced
    4. Author Name/MSS Title in the top left corner of each page (inside the 1” margin)
    5. Page number in the top header (inside the 1” margin)
  11. Track your writing stats from day 1. It’s great motivation and the numbers can be very interesting. I include the date, number of words written, running word total to date, where I wrote, any major interruptions, and what I was working on. Other people I know track the time they spent writing as well.
  12. Your first book is likely to be autobiographical, or at least the main character will have a lot of your traits, and will suffer from that. You’ll say it’s not, but it will be. Very few people will write a first book that is publishable because they are too close to it. That’s fine. Get it out of your system, learn from it, and move on. It may be a great book, and maybe it should be published. But I’d bet number two will be better, and you’ll realize that as soon as you finish the first draft of the second one.
  13. Never put your main character out in the middle of nowhere by him/herself for the entire book. There’s not a lot of dialogue in a wilderness novel without a bunch of flashbacks. And you’ll get as tired of writing it as the reader will reading it.
  14. Never write the second book in a series until after the final draft of the first one is done – as in the first one has pretty much gone to print. You’re wasting your time, and the editing process on book one might be so brutal that book two has no remaining connection to book one.
  15. Saying book one of a series has to be slow because all the action/emotion happens in book two means that the action will never happen.  There is no book two without a sold book one, and a slow book one means no book one.  Don’t hold back on that first one. (Credit to my Agent, Sally Harding for that sage piece of advice.)
  16. Read. When you’re not writing, and not holding down that day job, you should be reading everything you can get your hands on. Read with a critical eye. What was edited well? What techniques did the writer use to get you invested in the story? If the story was bad, or the writing terrible, what did the author do wrong? Take a book with you everywhere you go.
  17. Turn off the TV, or at least watch good TV. This does not mean infomercials or Reality TV.  History Channel. Fine. Discovery Channel, OK (once in a blue moon). Judge Judy. No.
  18. Stop playing video games. I lost the better part of a year and a half to World of Warcraft before my kids were born. I enjoyed it at the time, but looking back now, what a waste. I could have written 3 novels in the time I played that game.
  19. Don’t quit your day job.
  20. Don’t give up when you get a bad review.
  21. Save early, save often.
  22. Make frequent backups. At least daily. Use a service like Mozy or KeepVault. If you have multiple PC’s, use LiveMesh.
  23. Backup your master copy before you start a major set of edits, and give it a useful name. i.e. TheAdventure_v_1.1.docx so if you accidentally delete a scene or a chapter, you can roll back to the last full version.
  24. Shelve the book for 2-3 months between edits to give your brain time to distance itself from the story. Write something else during that time.  If you’re thinking that your next draft is going to completely change the entire book, it’s time to put it down and write a different book.
  25. Work on one thing at a time, and work it through to the end. While I have had some success by working on edits of other books for a few weeks while in the middle of writing one, the style and the story changes once you have been away from it for a while. That’s not always a bad thing. I learn a lot from editing books that I immediately apply to the next one I write. But there’s a danger you might lose your enthusiasm for the story, and the reader will notice the change in style.

Okay, this has been a long post, but I put it together over a number of days.  I’m sure there are still things I’ve missed and  I’m sure I’ll learn more from my next book. 

For me, finishing my fifth book is something of a milestone. For me, it tells me that I am physically and mentally able to write, and that I have battled through procrastination and “writer’s block”, and given even a couple of words for a starting point, I can associate 80000 more words to it and turn it into a story.

But the learning process never ends, and I hope my next novel is the one where I really put it all together, and write that breakout book.

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