I have always wanted to write a novel. When I was in third grade, I wrote a really bad novel that never got finished. When I was in junior high, I wrote two really bad novels that were basically Metal Gear fan fictions. So, as a thirty two year old, when I sat down to get started writing the novel I intend to publish this year, I had put some mistakes behind me.
So what made this attempt any better than the others? Well, for one I spent time formulating the idea, making something worth writing about. But the other half of the battle is mentality, and research.
In this WHAT I’VE LEARNED series, I intend to go over my personal writing journey.
In the early stages of writing “IN THE ORBIT OF SIRENS” I was researching all the time. I took a few master classes (I especially recommend the Neil Gaiman class.), read books (“On Writing” by Stephen King is excellent), and watched other fellow writers on Youtube, blogs, and twitter.
I have learned that a lot of them say the same things, and that a lot of writers (like myself) who were starting out thought that maybe some of their guidelines didn’t apply to them. In this series, I may paraphrase some of the things I’ve learned, but I’ll also pitch you the reality that comes along with them, and the mindset of why each tip applies.
Knowing WHY a writer makes decisions is almost more important than learning HOW to make decisions.
What tools do you need to write? A lot of people like to wax philosophical, or over simplify, but I feel like 90% of the time when this question is asked (and it’s asked a lot), the question more refers to “Do I need anything specific?”
The answer is “no”. Which again, sounds simple. But if you think you need a specific program, a specific degree, a specific amount of money, the answer at first is no. But let’s go a little deeper.
You can use any writing program you want, or even a pen and paper. I personally used (and highly recommend) Microsoft Word, and I found out much later on that my Copy Editor said Word is still one of the best programs to use for writing a novel. It has a feature called “Track Changes” that allows an editor to easily show you what they have done, and add comments about suggestions for changes. I also recommend using Grammarly as a plugin for Word (or anything similar to it). It catches more than the usual spellcheck, and does a great job finding run-on sentences and other grammar mistakes.
Is that the only program to use? No! A lot of people use Scrivner, Reedsy, and other app based programs to write. Use whichever one you feel the most comfortable with, but none of them are going to write the novel for you.
The mentality of a new writer is important. Having the confidence that anything you write can be published is great, confidence is a lot of the battle. The other half is humility.
Confidence will keep the words flowing, humility will make the words worth reading. Know that when you start out, you will want to seek advice, do research, ask questions, and make changes to your story as new information comes to you.
This stems from the phrase you may hear a lot, “you’re first draft will always suck.” It sounds harsh, and maybe you might be thinking “not MY first draft. It is my perfect baby, it is perfect in every way!” But let’s dive a little deeper into why this is true, and what you can do early on to mitigate the changes needed later.
It may be true because you started your story in the wrong place. I did this. I have multiple drafts of “IN THE ORBIT OF SIRENS” that start Eliana in the Sol System with nothing to do. After beta readers, some story research, and some great advice, I learned that Eliana can just start on Kamaria. I applied the changes by completely re-writing part 1 of my novel, and it flowed so nicely.
Stuff like this you only discover with humility. Allowing yourself to be wrong, and giving yourself the time to correct it will make your novel stronger, EVERY TIME.
This is just one example of where you can find the weaknesses. Beta Readers, Editors, and Collaborators will enhance your novel. But what can you do to give them the best idea you can deliver?
I suggest you write an outline. There are two types of writers, gardeners, and architects (twitter uses less eloquent phrases like pantsers and plotters, but you get the idea.) A gardener doesn’t use an outline and lets the story flow as it comes to them, an architect builds an outline and works off of it. You can be whatever kind of writer works best for you. But after 3 false starts of me trying to write my novel as a gardener, I discovered the absolute power of an outline.
Pro’s of making an outline: You get all the way through a story in a fraction of the time. You understand where your plot is going and who your characters are going to be, so you can build them appropriatly. You know where to go if you ever get lost, so writer’s block is far less likely. And you can refine those character arcs by knowing how they end.
Cons: If you stick too close to it you may be limiting the growth of your story. (that’s it, from what I can tell.)
So be both. Be an architect who gardens.
So I suggest you write an outline, then stray from it. Use it as a dirt path in a forest, stray from it to smell the wildflowers, but remember where the trail is so you can go back to it if you need to. My part 4 of “IN THE ORBIT OF SIRENS” is very different from the one I put in my outline, because I allowed myself to garden where I felt was right. There are also many scenes that play out that way, not existing in the outline but blooming in the first draft because they felt right. Vines grow on the sides of buildings all the time, and they look great together. (People pay a lot of money for it sometimes!)
Then get a friend or someone you trust to read the outline and take notes. They may catch some story mistakes right away, and reading an outline only takes a few minutes/an hour. You’ll save a lot of time not chasing weak story elements, and you my discover something else to exploit instead. A small note a friend gave me about my outline turned into a major plot point, and made the whole rest of the novel click.
Lastly, before you sit down (or maybe stand if you have an ergonomic desk like me) to write, remember to allow yourself to be imperfect.
You’re first draft will suck, afterall. So let it flow!
DO NOT go and edit every chapter you write after you write it, and DO NOT get others to read it until it’s finished. For one of my false starts, I was doing exactly that, finishing a chapter, editing, getting others to read it, and by the time I ever sat down to read again I had progressed very little.
So write it, and let it flow through you until it’s done. The second draft (yes, you should always go back and edit your full first draft at least one time before handing it to beta readers) is where you can be a little more critical of yourself, but even then, you won’t know what you have until beta readers give you feedback. More about that in a future segment of WHAT I’VE LEARNED.
Writing is a journey. You may know the hills you hike, but you never know what you’ll stumble across along the way. Get to the end of the hike, see where you’ve been, and then give it an edit.
But first, you have to get started.
I hope this helped any new writers out there like myself. I know I was frantically looking for information that had been through the trenches. On the next WHAT I’VE LEARNED, I’ll go over things I encountered during the first draft, and what mistakes I made along the way.
I hope you find these useful, and I’m happy to answer any questions. If you have any friends who need advice like this, follow along and share! If you have been through the writing process and have input feel free to comment below.