Finishing your first novel is a surefire way of putting you off writing another one. I mean, it’s absolutely horrendous for a plethora of reasons. You have to spend so much time on the bloody thing. You have to battle your brain against all that criticism and doubt. You have to make sure what you’re writing isn’t total crap. You even have to put time aside to write it. TIME! ASIDE! IT!
But, guess what? You’re a writer. You have to accept that and deal with it, because writing is what you do and a writer is who you are. And you know, deep down, that writing that book will be the best thing you ever do.
Or maybe not. What do I know? I literally only just finished writing my first draft of my first novel. I’m not an expert! Don’t listen to me. I’m an idiot. But if you really want to write a book, you’re going to go ahead and do it anyway, no matter how many stories of struggle and sacrifice of sanity you hear.
So go! Get writing! It’ll be exhausting and frustrating and deflating, but it’ll also be the greatest learning experience for your writing and for your soul. You’ll discover what you’re capable of!
Here’s what I discovered…
1) The Social Life Sacrifice
Move to London, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.
Actually, it is a pretty fun city. There’s so much to do and so many Itsu restaurants for me to loiter around until they’re thirty minutes from closing so I can take advantage of their half-price sale. However, this becomes a problem when you should actually be writing instead of trying to swipe some sweet sushi deals.
My social life was destroyed when I wrote Wrinkle. I found myself in coffee shops spending nearly just as much time there as I was spending in my full-time job. I thought that If I was to ever finish the novel, I’d need to treat my writing as though it were the most important thing in the world.
Now, I’m a lucky ginger person. I live in London. There are plenty of coffee shops I can use as my office. I also live with a flatmate. We share household chores and enjoy keeping the place tidy, so I don’t spend much time maintaining my living space. However, I understand there are writers out there with way, way more obstacles before they can sit down and write. Kids to look after. Second jobs. Additional workloads. Cleaning. Volunteering. The list goes on and on like a Primark queue.
Still, despite my lack of real commitments, I found it tough to sacrifice my social life. The temptation to procrastinate or distract myself from writing was viciously appealing.
Something needed to change.
I began by letting friends know that I was writing a novel. Sounds simple, but it helped a lot. They were there for support but also understood that when I told them I was going to spend certain evenings writing, they wouldn’t challenge it. In fact, they’d make sure I was actually writing.
Although I learned that I had to hinder friend time, I also found that writing needn’t be a lonely act. Some people prefer writing alone, some don’t. I enjoy a mix of the both. I enjoy writing alone together (thanks, Fall Out Boy).
To help me get through the first of three parts of The Wrinkle in the Eye and to feel like I wasn’t being too unsociable, I joined a writing meetup. The one I subscribed to was brilliant! Two and a half hours of ‘heads down’ writing followed with a trip to the pub to chat and meet new people.
My meetup group catapulted my word count. Writing around other people writing helped me produce way more words than when I would write alone. Maybe it was because it felt like being at school when you were pretty much forced to write in a room of peers. Or perhaps it was because you could feel the creative juices flowing and watch other creative people pursue a dream similar to yours. This was inspiring and made me want to get the words out.
Eventually I stepped away from the meetup group after feeling way more comfortable committing time to writing. The one day a week meetup turned into a seven day a week writing session that I eventually disciplined myself to commit to. As I got even more comfortable, I started to ease up on my writing time. The key, for me, was to write everyday, not write every free second that I had.
It took me a hell of a long time to figure out a good balance of work, writing and friends. I just had to make sure that I treated writing as a necessity, no matter how many half price Itsu meals I’d miss out on.
2) You’re Going To Want To Quit – More Often Than Not
The first time I wanted to quit writing was before I even conceived the idea for The Wrinkle in the Eye.
I was seventeen and waiting for my friend to pick me up. During that time, which was probably only about five to eight minutes, an idea for a story ballooned in my head. I grabbed the nearest pen and paper and scribbled down quick plot points, characters, settings, the first line, then ending. It all formed in that magic moment, I swear. I wish I knew how it happened, but sometimes it just does.
Anyway, that novel idea turned into three novel ideas and then created two spin-off ideas. I had enough content to create a short writing career. It sounded exciting!
I spent the time from age seventeen to twenty-five plotting the novels and attempting to start the first one. It wasn’t happening. The thought of starting a trilogy that set out a foundation for two spin-off novels was paralysing. I didn’t have the talent or tools for creating something so ambitious.
I attempted to start, believe me. And every single attempt, no matter how many words I’d put down, were not what I thought the story would sound like or play out like. It was utterly frustrating. This story was important to me. And in a weird way (weird because I hadn’t even written a novel yet) I envisioned these novels to be my magnum opus.
I quit that idea. Shelved that bugger until I felt I was ready to tackle it. Now, many years on, that story still hasn’t been written. But it could have. The manuscript could be with me right now. If I hadn’t quit.
Fast forward to Summer 2014. A new story idea. The Wrinkle in the Eye. A story about a father who returns after a five year absence to kidnap his son. I sent the first few paragraphs to my friend as a joke. He liked it, so I wrote more. It started to shape into a short story. Then the story expanded into a novel.
I was having a blast writing the thing. The characters are insane and the plot is ridiculous. The pressure I faced with my first novel attempt wasn’t there this time around. The purpose of writing Wrinkle was to have fun. And it was working! The word count increased, the story cruised along. It was looking so promising. I might actually finish a novel!
Then anxiety and a lack of confidence kicked in. Why was I writing this? It’s stupid. Who’ll read it? Who’ll care? You’ve never finished a novel before, so what makes you think you’ll finish this? It’ll take you a long time. Spend it doing something else. Something easier.
The writing of The Wrinkle in the Eye slowed down and stopped around January 2015. I absolutely didn’t see any point in continuing to write it. The number one reason was the quality of writing. I found that my style was slightly silly and hardly articulate. It was an easy read. Nothing compared to the literary greats. Second was the story. It was almost a a picaresque novel. The plot didn’t really matter. It was the characters and their actions that made the novel, but I feared they weren’t rich enough to make the reader want to finish. And, lastly, there was time. It’s overwhelming starting a big writing project. You know damn well it’s going to take time. And, with my writing pace of an average 500 words a day, it would take me at least 110 days to write the novel. That’s IF I wrote 500 words a day. Ugh. 110 days AND I have to write 500 words for each of them?
I took a break and thought about what happened with my very first novel attempt when I was seventeen. I starting to break down why I was so scared, why I thought I wasn’t capable of doing something I had always dreamed of.
Then I realised that whining about how long it would take is a petty reason. I remembered this quote:[su_quote]Don’t let the fear of the time it will take to accomplish something stand in the way of your doing it. The time will pass anyway; we might just as well put that passing time to the best possible use. – Earl Nightingale[/su_quote]
So I started writing Wrinkle again. Little by little. I tried to not let the project overwhelm me. I broke the novel up into three parts. Then I tackled one chapter at a time, spending roughly one week on each chapter.
Once the word count started to exceed reasonable milestones – 30,000 then 40,000 then 50,000 – I could see an end in sight. When I started Part 3, ‘You should just quit’ turned into ‘you can’t quit now – you’re so close!’[su_vimeo url=”https://vimeo.com/24715531″ height=”340″]
As Ira Glass says, it is going to take a while.
It would be foolish of me to think that I could write my first novel quickly and easily and it come out fully-formed and perfect, a stunning trace of my imagination. It was the fear of failing – like I had with my first attempt – which held me back. It was the fear of failing to produce a ‘good’ story.
Finishing the first draft of a novel is just the start of writing a novel. But it’s an incredibly important feat and the energy and effort is worth it. I’ve still got a long way to go to get The Wrinkle in the Eye polished. It’s time to rewrite and edit, and that’s where the real magic takes place. And I couldn’t be more happier, because I’d never get to see that magic if I had ran away from the sparks.
3) Your Inner Critic Will Try To Ruin You
As mentioned in the previous point, you are going to want to quit and you can thank your inner critic for that. Mine’s called Tony and he doesn’t give a damn about me.
Tony was like a Tai Lopez Youtube ad – he could pop up at any time and stop my flow.
“Oh, you’re just here in the Barbican Hills writing your novel and you’ve tried to make a funny joke there. No one will like that. Delete it, Dean. Get rid of it. You’re an idiot.”
Sometimes he’d give his two cents as I made my way to a coffee shop to write.
“So you’re going to spend a few lonely hours writing that stupid novel again? What for? Just go home, buy some chocolate and see if the next episode of Serial is out.”
Sometimes that actually worked. Tony didn’t just come out when I was writing. He’d appear to prevent me from writing. Less things for him to critique if I didn’t actually write.
Occasionally, Tony would wait for me to write a large amount of content before whispering something belittling into my year.
“Wow! 2000 words today! That’s amazing, Dean. Really amazing how you can WRITE 2000 WORDS OF UTTER SHITE.”
I got pretty sick of Tony. The only way I found of getting rid of him driving around in his Lamborghini in my Imagination Hills was to challenge his critiques. I found I could use them to my advantage.
If he told me to go home, I’d force myself into a coffee shop and order a drink as soon as possible. Being a Welsh person from a small village, I was raised to never waste anything. So I knew the core of my being couldn’t let me leave until that coffee was appreciated. During this time, I’d get the laptop out and type a little at a time. Once I was settled, I’d stay and Tony couldn’t do anything.
If Anthony (he hates being called that) would comment on how the story’s pace was too slow, two fast, or lacked anything original, I’d use this as a way of reflecting on my story and challenging myself to write something original and natural to the story’s progression.
It was tough having an inner critic. Everyone has one, some more intense than others. The critic will try to sabotage your story and slowly murder your passion. But, like annoying pop-up ads, don’t buy what they’re selling.
4) Getting Bored Of Your Own Story Can Be Amazing
One of the hardest things I had to do when writing Wrinkle was to delete an entire chapter of 2,500 words. This was chapter three, and as this was near the start of the novel, I spent a long time scratching away at key plot points and introducing characters critical to the story’s third act.
I got bored. It wasn’t that I thought what I had put down was bad. It was just… boring. Unoriginal and flat. And if I thought this, surely the reader would think that too?
I scrapped the entire chapter and spent a few days trying to come up with something better. I found that what made a good chunk of the chapter boring was the fact that I was using popular phrases and descriptions. I wasn’t coming up with anything that was ‘me.’
I also noticed that the story was very episodic. This happened and then this happened and then this happened. It didn’t feel like there was an overarching narrative and there was a lack of causation between beats.
So I used a simple yet effective rule developed by South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker.
The rule focuses on the beats in your story. If you can put ‘and then’ between each beat, you’ve got a problem. You’ve got a boring story. However, replace ‘and then’ with ‘therefore’ or ‘but’ and it changes the way the story develops and how each scene reacts from the last.
If you haven’t watched it already, check out this video of the guys explaining it better.
We found out this simple rule that maybe you guys have all heard before, but it took us a long time to learn it. But we can take these beats, which are basically the beats of your outline, and if the words ‘and then’ belong between those beats; you’re f****d. Basically. You got something pretty boring. What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down is either the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but.’
So what I’m saying is that you come up with an idea and it’s like, okay, this happens, right? And then this happens. No no no. It should be ‘this happens’ and therefore ‘this happens,’ but ‘this happens’ therefore ‘this happens.’
And literally sometime we’ll write it out to make sure we’re doing it. We’ll have our beats and we’ll say okay ‘this happens’ but, then ‘this happens’ and that affects this and that does to that and that’s why you get a show that feels, like okay, this to that to this to that, but here’s the complication to that.
I don’t usually follow writing tips or advice, as you might guess from the name of the website. BUT this tip is so powerful and effective. It’s dramatically changed how I pace and structure a story. Try looking at your own writing and see if you have any ‘and then’ beats. Change it to a ‘but’ or ‘therefore’ and see where it takes you!
5) Dude, Where’s My Reading List?
I barely read during the times I was writing Wrinkle. I became selfish. I wanted to write MY story. That was the goal when I started writing. I felt that if I read other books as I wrote, I’d be spending more time on books already written and not enough on one that hadn’t. I’m anxious of being too influenced and unoriginal.
The moment I finished the first draft of Wrinkle in the Eye, however, I devoured as many books as I could. Mostly non-fiction. Mostly about or containing subject matter that would act as research to elements of my story. Now, the plan is to face the second draft re-write with the fresh knowledge from these books.
Sure, I could have read while I wrote. But, I felt my head was cluttered with so much information about my story, that packing anything else in there would have tipped me over the edge. It was also an insecurity thing. Reading novels by published and successful authors – comparing my crap draft to their polished prose – was something I didn’t need to add to my list of inner worries. My critic was already trying to sabotage my novel (DAMN YOU, TONY). It was also leaning me towards edit mode, not writing mode.
Another reason was replicating. I took a break from Wrinkle for a few months. Read a few books. In Cold Blood, Grapes of Wrath, Blood Meridian. When I returned to Wrinkle, I noticed I’d try to imitate Capote or use sentence structures McCarthy loved. Thing is, it actually improved my writing. But, it sounded like them, not me.
It’s an interesting argument whether reading while you write is beneficial. Everyone works differently and that’s the whole point why I set up I Don’t Write That Way. But I can and do see the positives in reading while writing. Especially for first time novelists. You get to see where your story and writing is lacking passion, detail, plot, structure, character, pacing, etc., and you can work out which types of stories you like, what you don’t, what works with the audience you’re writing for, what doesn’t.
However, some might say that time spent reading is time spent not writing. You can convince yourself that the stack of novels you’re getting through is for ‘research’, when actually you’re delaying the delayed.
The main thing is – figure out what works for you and you alone. Whatever helps you to create the story you want, the story your heart is pulling you towards, just do it.
Now, with a somewhat more clear head and a focus on sharpening the hell out of the first draft, I’m ready to read again. Bring on the books!
6) Your Story Will Change
I first outlined The Wrinkle in the Eye on a piece of lined, yellow paper. I drew a horizontal line in the middle of the page and wrote ‘start’ on the left and ‘end’ on the right. I added major plot points along the line with arrows pointing all over the shop leading to various scenes and characters and notes.
One of the bigger scenes in Wrinkle was to be set in Vegas. I had a lot of crazy ideas for this, and even a now abandoned subplot involving a major character’s relationship.
But, I found that the more time I spent with the characters, the more I learned about them. This had a dramatic effect on the storyline and actually changed where I felt the characters needed to go. Mix that with the ‘but’ and ‘therefore’ method and I found myself needing to cut scenes that I had either conceived before writing Wrinkle or ones that I had already written parts for.
Changing the story, albeit a small amount, was frustrating. Especially the Vegas scene because this would happen halfway through the story. This meant I needed to alter the second half of the book. GOODNESS.
However, the final result was something that surprised me. I eventually got to the final scene that I was committed to from the start. But, by letting my story flow in a natural and organic way – letting the characters take control of the story – ended in a tale that would surprise not just the reader, but the writer as well.
Don’t be afraid if your story changes, and definitely don’t hold back your characters if they’re leading you somewhere you never expected to go to.
7) It’s One of the Best Learning Experiences Ever
Okay, I’ll admit. I skipped a few classes of my Creative and Professional Writing degree. And, yes, I didn’t do all of the required reading for the course. So maybe it’s unfair for me to say this, but I truly believe I learned more about writing when I tackled The Wrinkle in the Eye than I did on my degree. Not only this, I also learned a hell of a lot about myself. For example, did you know that I like Soya? Who knew!
Finishing a novel is an exhilarating feeling, but the whole process is torture. It’s hard. It’ll beat you down. But it’s so worth it.
It’s amazing to look back on your story and remember where you were when you wrote certain scenes. You smile at the time you sat for hours staring out of the coffee shop window trying to figure out a decent comeback for one of your characters. You’ll shake your head when you remember how you had to try and type your story with one hand because you broke the other (true story).
Everyone has a story inside them. Getting it out is hard, but it is absolutely not harder than what you’ve already been through and what you’ll certainly face in the future. We’re stronger than we think, and if you’ve ever entertained the idea of one day writing a novel, then my advice to you – as a silly Welshman who has no authority on giving writing advice – is to just write it.
Start today. Start now.