Ten Things I Learned From Writing My First Novel

The Best of Intentions, my debut novel, went live as an e-book in November 2018 and I hope you’ll check it out. The paperback version looks fantastic and will be available from 8 January 2019. You can order it from your local bookstore or purchase it from an online distributor. It is a tale about vulnerable young people and the fallible adults charged with their care.

I have worked on this book for more than seven years (not counting more than two decades of job experience that fed into it) and I thought I’d share with you what I have learned in the course of the writing process:

1. Write a backstory for each major character

In my eagerness to get started, way back in 2011, I drafted a couple of scenes and soon developed a sense of unease. How old was Kurt exactly? When was he last in Belgium? Too many continuity errors. I had to take a step back and acquaint myself better with my characters. When and where had they met? How did they get to work? What role did they play in my story and how would they change in the course of it?

I started outlining their backstories. Just a series of dot points really, in my Scrivener project folder. In the research folder I collected photographs to help anchor my imagination in reality. Helpfully, the program comes with templates that help you flesh out characters and settings.

Now, all that new information did not need to be incorporated into my story, but it formed the bedrock upon which it rested. My characters needed to feel like friends I’d known for years. Having developed a backstory for each of the major characters, my writing became more assured and the characters richer, more rounded.

Sometimes I departed from what was in the backstory, and that didn’t matter. For example, Caitlin was going to develop her creative writing skills, and Philip would feel challenged by that –– a subplot that never made it into the text…

For my next story I intend to set up a Pinterest folder for each major character as an inspiration board, documenting the type of clothes, objects and environments associated with that character.

2. Listen and read

Eavesdropping on public transport or in cafés is not only acceptable for writers; it’s a sacred duty. You perfect your ear for dialogue, update your knowledge of current slang and pick up the occasional gem. As an ex-teacher I thought I knew how teenagers speak. My youngest daughter dispelled that delusion: the 80s was a long time ago, Dad.

Reading contemporary fiction serves a comparable role for your story-telling skills. You can see how other authors balance showing and telling, use point of view or build up suspense. However, I steered clear of books set in Melbourne: I didn’t want my perspective to be influenced or clouded by the work of others.

3. Don’t share too soon

I shared the first draft of the first chapter of my first book with some of my loved ones. Wrong call. I guess I wanted validation and encouragement. What I got was a lukewarm response peppered with mild but constructive criticism. Unprepared for that feedback, I stopped writing for a couple of months.

In the early stages of a major writing project there is such a gulf between the vision in your head and the words on the screen that it is unwise to share your work, especially with family members, whose appreciation you crave, or at least value.

I learned that lesson and didn’t share my work again until after I had completed and revised my entire first draft, some eighteen months later.

This is no criticism of my first readers––I’m the unreasonably needy one in this story. They helped me by providing their genuine response to a draft that was still underdone. In that moment I discovered how much my novel meant to me, and how insecure I felt about my skills.

4. Maintain momentum

For me, momentum is more important than inspiration. If you write every day, writing will become so much easier. You remember how to wrap up thoughts in words, with a big bow around it.

I have no set writing schedule, but I try to write in the morning and may often put in a good three hours. After that I generally get distracted by my cat’s compulsion to be on the other side of doors, though sometimes I’ve been known to clock up seven hours of writing in a day (my cat hates those days).

Maintaining momentum is also the antidote to writer’s block. Just churn out those words already, don’t fuss too much about quality––you can always revise your text tomorrow. The only thing you can’t edit is an empty page.

5. Stagger your beta readers

I shared an advanced draft of my novel with a small group of beta readers, who provided invaluable input about plot and character development as well as clinical and cultural issues. I had sent each of them an email setting out my expectations (essentially to focus on plot and character development, never mind the typos), and that seemed to work well.

In retrospect, I should have started the beta reader process earlier, before I felt overly committed to the complex plot structure I had developed. Next time I will also stagger the process more, maybe allocating a new beta reader to each successive draft. My readers clearly also needed more time to read, digest and comment on my 400–page book. I had estimated six weeks; most of them needed three months.

6. Give it a rest

Wise people recommend that you put your manuscript aside to let it ‘ripen’. Initially I didn’t give much credence to this notion (I can be stubborn like that), until I noticed that my editing process had deteriorated into a nitpicking monologue. I was changing a sentence here, deleting an adjective there, but shying away from more incisive changes to my text.

It wasn’t until I had put my draft aside for a couple of months and commissioned a manuscript assessment, in order to have another pair of eyes look at my work, that I felt more receptive again, willing to reconsider major aspects of characterisation and plot development.

This point is not at odds with item #4, by the way: you can work on other projects while your magnum opus puts up its binary feet on your hard drive.

7. Change it up

There will be times when you feel you’re in the doldrums, bobbing around directionless in a stagnant pool of used semicolons and deflated exclamation marks.

For me, this happened primarily in the course of my editing process. Changing tack really helped. I normally write using Scrivener on my iMac, but at times I would print off a single scene and revise it using the hard copy. You can highlight POV changes or sections of dialogue to your heart’s content; and often the different format will help you see things in a new light.

During the creative writing phase you may wish to work in a different location, such as a Dutch windmill or a Spanish goat farm (at a pinch, the local Starbucks might do). Scrivener has a mobile app that synced perfectly with my iPad Pro. Lightweight bliss.

8. Transparent widows, or why a good editor is a must

I’m pretty good with language, I thought. I’m pretty thorough and I have experience with proofreading. Maybe I can save some moolah by not using an editor…

Wrong! Foolish notion. You can self-publish all you like, but please budget for a professional editor and cover designer.

There must be some sort of synapse-thingie in the brain that makes you read what you expect to see, rather than what is actually on the page. And most of those lapses are not picked up by a spell-checker. I had a character look through a widow right until the penultimate draft, while another one used a desert spoon at the table. Meanwhile, on a lake in Gippsland, pelicans were pruning their feathers… So I’m glad I used a professional editor.

But a good editor does more than proofreading, of course. They check for holes in your plot, for flaws in character development (such as your vampiric nun eating garlic bread) and inconsistent voices in dialogue. You’ll find out that NQR stands for not quite right.

Ideally, you should commission a developmental edit once you have an advanced draft, a copy edit when (you think) your manuscript is complete, and a proofreading edit after you’ve made your final changes (and probably inserted new errors).

9. Good software is gold

I use Evernote for notes and screen grabs but do all my creative writing in Scrivener. It’s so feature-rich that some people find it daunting. I got started by using its basic features and learning more tricks as the need arose (the 842-page Scrivener reference manual is the War and Peace of help files). For me, the program’s best features include:

  • I can have all my material (documents, photos, research notes and bookmarks) within the one project folder;
  • it comes with document type, character sketch and setting sketch templates;
  • I can choose the view I want to work in (document, outline, corkboard, or an uncluttered composition mode);
  • I can take a snapshot of my current scene, which frees me up to mercilessly rework my text. You can even have the previous version open in the Inspector, alongside your current draft, and restore it (or an earlier snapshot) to the active window if you wish;
  • a sophisticated search function;
  • I can compile my document and export it in a range of formats (Word, PDF, MOBI, EPUB, Vellum and others);
  • the Statistics function allows me to track my progress;
  • there are great mobile apps that sync flawlessly with the desktop.

Scrivener 3 for Mac has made the compile function easier to use. The app is also available in a version for Windows.

Vellum, which is available for Mac only, is a fantastic program for developing your book’s interior file. It creates the text file for all common e-book formats as well as the PDF file for paperbacks. Unlike Scrivener, Vellum is quite expensive. However, it is easy to use and produces attractive interior files. IngramSpark accepted my Vellum interior file at first pass. You can use the program indefinitely, and its frequent updates mean that its files always meet the technical requirements of the respective distributors. That wasn’t always the case with a free program I had used in the past.

Check out an earlier post about My Writer’s Toolkit for other programs I use, such as Scapple.

10. You’re one in a million

Know this before you hit that publish button: you’re one in a million. Literally. In 2017, one million titles were self-published globally. Time, maybe, to lower those expectations of overnight success.

We’ve all seen self-published work where the cover and the blurb already proclaim the lack of care and skill. These days, however, indie publications are increasingly of a professional standard –– well-written, professionally edited and competently published.

While that professionalism is a prerequisite, it offers no guarantee for success. It’s easier to get published these days, but possibly harder to get discovered than ever before. You need to be an author, an editor, a project manager, a publisher and a promoter, all rolled into one.

If you’re a fellow author reading this, I wish you all the best. You’ll need a hefty dose of good luck, and so will I. But sing your song, and keep that dream alive!

And, er, while you’re here, why don’t you check out my book!

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