How Not to Write a Novel
I started my true writing journey eight years ago. I’d been writing stories for most of my life at that point, but I didn’t set out to write an entire novel until then. What I didn’t realize was that writing a novel is more complicated than it looks, and I’ve learned crucial lessons through the process of failing to produce one. My biggest mistake was beginning with a number of disastrous fallacies in place. Now, having just completed my first viable manuscript for Scribbler’s January 2022 manuscript contest, I’ve been wishing I could go back in time and set my younger self straight. Since I can’t do that, I wanted to share my experiences with those of you just starting on the path to authorhood and hopefully also bring a little enlightenment to those who are old hands.
Fallacy #1: Being an Avid Reader Means You Can Be a Writer
I’ve loved reading for as long as I can remember, and I thought that meant I could just sit down and write a book of my own. I was terribly mistaken. I’m not saying that reading isn’t incredibly important to being a good writer. Of course it is, but the simple act of reading a lot of books isn’t going to teach you anything. You have to be studying an author’s style and techniques if you want it to mean anything. It’s like the difference between passive and active participation in a sport. Going through the actions gets you through the game, but it’s not going to make you a star athlete unless you’re dedicating yourself to improving your skills. To that end, you also have to be practicing your craft. You can’t think that spending your whole life reading qualifies you to become a writer. It takes hard work and perseverance just like any other skill worth gaining.
Fallacy #2: Taking Writing Classes Makes You a Good Writer
I got my Bachelor’s degree in English with a focus on creative writing, so naturally, I took a lot of creative writing classes as part of the process. And I got very little out of them beyond practice. To be fair, this could have been the particular classes I took and the specific professors that taught them, but nothing I learned in the classroom prepared me to write a novel. It also didn’t do much to improve the writing skills I already had. There’s benefit to taking them for the enforced practice and peer feedback if you need it, but don’t think you need to take a writing class to be a good writer or that taking classes qualifies you to write a book any better than being an avid reader does. The only way to get better is by immersing yourself in it. Reading and studying other’s writing, getting feedback from experienced sources like published authors and writing groups if you have access to them, and then practicing like crazy. You’ll write a lot of garbage at first, and that’s okay. A novice painter doesn’t start with a masterpiece.
Fallacy #3: Being a Good Writer Means You Can Write a Novel
Having taken so many writing classes and gotten fairly good at it after all the practice, I assumed I could just churn out a novel with no problems. That’s not what happened. When I went to write my book, I realized my writing skills meant nothing when pitted against the task of constructing and nuancing a novel-length story, and there’s huge benefits to first taking the time to understand story structure. I don’t mean using beat sheets, though there are benefits to those. I mean teaching yourself the actual hows and whys of structuring a novel on a macro and micro level. In my pride, I thought I didn’t need anyone’s help to write my book, but after struggling through two failed redrafts over four years, I finally caved and read these books that changed everything: Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress, and Structuring Your Novel by K. M. Weiland. I’ve said it before in previous articles and I’ll say it again here: I highly recommend that everyone reads these books regardless of your genre, if your manuscript is finished, if you’re using a beat sheet, or if you think you’re too good to need the help. I’ve never regretted it, and you won’t either.
Fallacy #4: The Story Will Write Itself
This is where my journey might deviate from some of yours. I learned something about myself after I finished my first draft. I’m not a pantser. I thought I was. I’d never done any planning for my writing before, and I thought if I just got started the story would write itself. But after floundering through 350,000 words (I’m not exaggerating) only to end up with a hot mess relying on red herrings, impossible coincidences, and deus ex machina, I found that the not planning thing didn’t work for me. I’ve also known writers who put a ton of time and energy into crafting a finely-detailed outline only to end up not writing the book because they felt there was no longer any point. So it’s important to know what your effective writing process looks like before you start, whether it’s going with the flow, making a strict outline, or some blend of both. No matter what it is, though, be aware from the beginning that a novel won’t just summon itself into existence because you want it bad enough. It takes planning, whether that happens before you write a word or after you’ve finished that initial draft.
Fallacy #5: The First Draft Has To Be Perfect
This was perhaps my largest misstep. While writing my first draft, I was “releasing” each chapter to my sister because I was just so excited to have someone else read it. Don’t do that. It made me focus way too much on unimportant things like getting the right phrasing and using the right words. It also kept me from going back and making necessary changes when I felt myself going down bad paths, which led to some awkward and honestly terrible attempts to redirect on the fly. And in the end, I threw away most of that first draft I agonized over, and most of the second as well. A fair amount of the story remained the same, but of the actual writing, my finished manuscript only includes maybe 5% of draft one and 20% of draft two. So keep in mind that your first few drafts shouldn’t be about capturing the perfect prose. Just get the story right and the rest can come later.
Fallacy #6: Editing Is the Easy Part
I actually studied editing alongside creative writing in college, but I’d never worked on anything with the scope of a full-length manuscript until I started editing my own. Editing on that scale is unbelievably complicated. You’re not just editing for words and phrasing and grammar. You’re also thinking about foreshadowing, character arcs, plot progression, side stories, theme, consistency, and a whole host of other things, and it takes an incredible amount of brain power to keep everything in your head at once. I usually write while listening to music, but I found that I couldn’t while editing. Just that minor background noise was too distracting, and I had to get a pair of noise canceling headphones to focus while my family was around. The extreme time crunch I’d assigned myself was also a contributing factor, so make sure you give yourself plenty of time for editing and know it’s going to be hard. Totally worth it for the end result, but hard all the same.
I’ve spent the last eight years failing to write my first novel. That’s an unfortunate reality, but because I learned to recognize my fallacies along the way, I finally succeeded by changing my way of thinking. Writing books isn’t something you can just decide to do. It takes practice, forethought, and determination. It takes patience, hard work, and a willingness to forgive yourself for your weaknesses. And it takes a belief in the worth of the story only you can tell. So don’t make my mistakes. Get your head in the right place, write your novel, and be amazing. The world is waiting for you.