John Grisham said that before he wrote any novel, he just had this vision of having a completed manuscript in front of him and being entirely content with that. My vision was the same, or at least it was until I’d almost completed it. Suddenly the goal shifted from having a completed work in front of me to ensuring it was available to the millions of people desperately in need of reading it*.
I have written my first novel and edited, and it is now with beta readers to review and confirm that perhaps it is not quite the masterpiece I had envisaged. There has however been great value in this phase of my development. I have learned more while writing these 80000 words than I have ever learned from reading copious published materials on the craft.
The list below represents some of those ‘I wish I’d known that before I started nuggets’ that will ensure my next attempt is better than this one, and the subsequent endeavour better still. I hope you find it useful.
1) Writing is the easy part
Who knew? I enjoy the process of writing, of allowing my imagination to take over, being able to visualise characters I had created from nothing essentially writing their own scenes. This has been magnificent. What I had not counted on was that this was the fun part, the easy part and that the work really starts after you complete your first draft. This is why people tell you to race through the first draft and then work on making it less crap afterward. Editing is, to me at least, a horrific experience. Even when you go beyond that, you are faced with slush pile rejection after rejection. All of this takes the gloss of the smug satisfaction you achieved upon completing your original work and leaves you a little disengaged from the literary world. It is important to remember that there has been value achieved, even if it is an entirely different value from that your mind had raced away with.
2) Synopses and blurbs
I considered that these would be easy to draft up following the completion of the novel itself, big mistake. Suddenly I am faced with condensing my 37 chapters into an A4 sheet or for the blurb, three paragraphs. It feels insulting! I have subplots which I now feel are too important to not mention but it makes no difference, you provide what you are asked for and a tight synopsis is a key part of the submission process. Do it as early as you can, you can tweak it later on as your story stumbles one way or the other, but ensure you have a base from which to work.
3) Writing is work
While copious elements of the process are enjoyable, it is still work. My wife will creep into my office space and peek over my shoulder, note that it is the novel I am working on and decide that because it’s not a PowerPoint presentation for my job, that it’s ok to leave the kids here with me while she is off running chores. I need to be absorbed into my created world to write, and cleaning snotty noses or holding apart my son and daughter while they try and shout loudest over who started it is not conducive to good writing. It is work, so set aside the appropriate time and boundaries to ensure you can focus on what is actually a difficult thing to achieve.
4) Engage the writing community
No man is an island. That is a little different to the continent I thought I was when I began the process. Recently I have become more engaged with authors of various levels and feeling you are not alone is of vital importance.
How can you not be biased when viewing something that has engaged so much of your time and effort? It’s difficult, there are others who will see obvious things you are missing. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, everyone does. My work is now with beta readers and it will give me an idea of how much I have left to do, or whether I’d be better served putting it in the drawer and focussing all my efforts on the next ‘masterpiece’ that may also end up face down in a drawer.
Despite my lack of engagement with the community, it was actually an author who inspired me to finally get my head down and write my novel. Tarn Richardson, author of the outstanding Darkest Hand trilogy and all round gentleman was inspiring in terms of his work but also his advice. There are nice people out there, go out and find them. In the meantime, go and read The Damned, Tarn’s first masterpiece.
5) Be strong
It is shocking to believe that agents were not smashing down my front door throwing millions of pounds in my direction to secure my next twenty books, but they were not. Writing is a lonely place when you start receiving enough rejections to be able to wallpaper your workspace but it is part of most people’s experiences and one you have to cope with, indeed embrace, to be able to flourish. I believe I have a future as a writer. Don’t allow the inevitable setbacks to dampen your enthusiasm. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, ‘Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude’.
*Perhaps not millions
Some other great articles about what authors wished they had known before writing their first novel: