I recently finished a complete, 100,000-word manuscript of my first novel. It took me almost exactly a year from setting the first words down to typing “The End”.
Of course, the manuscript still needs a lot of work — professional editing, revisions, polishing, proofreading, formatting — but, lo and behold, there’s a solid, cohesive story with a beginning, middle and end.
There were times when I wasn’t sure I would even get that far!
So here’s what I’ve learned during my year of writing a first novel:
1. Pick an idea that you love … and will continue to love through thick and thin
My novel is a modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. In the name of research, I’ve reread the novel as well as other books by and about Jane Austen, read a number of modern adaptations, watched the film adaptations, listened to hours of a podcast discussing the book, and read numerous scholarly articles and blog posts on the topic.
If I hadn’t loved Emma, it would have been a real slog. But because I loved the story, it was a joy for me to do the “research” and easy for me to get engaged with my characters and their story.
So make sure whatever you’re writing about, your passionate for it is enough to sustain you through the research, plotting, writing, editing and the whole course of the novel.
2. You can learn as you go
When I started my novel, I didn’t know how to write a novel. I knew how to write non-fiction. I knew what I enjoyed reading. I knew it was important to get something down on paper. I knew some of the things I’d learned in creative writing classes, like “show don’t tell”. But that was about it.
After I wrote that first 40,000-word draft, I was confronted with a whole host of fundamental problems: a flat main character with no motivation for her actions, a weak plot, unbelievable situations. That’s when I sat down and read all about the three-act structure, the hero’s journey, delved into The Story Grid, and went to a writing masterclass to learn some of the fundamentals of crafting a good, compelling story.
If I had felt that I needed to know all this stuff before I started writing my novel, I probably would have been too daunted to start.
Luckily, from having written a master’s thesis and from other life experiences, I knew that I didn’t have to know everything right from the get go. I knew that as long as I started and then learned the things I needed to know as I went along, I would be alright.
3. It’s easier than you think (or, the art of getting into the flow)
I really thought writing a novel would be an incredibly hard and painful process.
As a non-fiction writer and copywriter, I know how easy it can be to spend hours to produce one good line or 500 words.
How would I ever write 50,000 words, let alone 100,000 words, I wondered?
The truth is, it was easier than I imagined it would be.
When I got over the idea that the first draft had to be perfect, I did something that I’d never done when I was writing non-fiction: I just let go. I just let the words flow out of me and I wrote as fast as my fingers could keep up.
Right off the bat, I was averaging 1,000 words an hour for two to three hours a day. Suddenly, the idea of writing 50,000 words didn’t seem so impossible after all.
4. It’s harder than you think (or, overcoming self-doubt)
Of course, when I wasn’t in the ecstasy of having words flowing out of me, I was in the agony of figuring out who my characters were, where the story was going to go and, more importantly, how I was going to get there.
I was often in the grips of self-doubt: Am I doing it “right”? Is my idea any good? Do I really have what it takes to finish?
As with anything, if you’re doing something for the first time, you won’t know exactly how to do it and you won’t necessarily know what you don’t know. It can’t always be “easy” otherwise everyone would do it.
I had to keep reminding myself of this and the fact that self-doubt is normal, especially when we are doing something new. And also that even successful, published writers with multiple books and legions of fans face self-doubt.
I also found daily affirmations of “I am a writer” really helpful for getting into the writer’s mindset (more on that in another post).
As I continued with my writing, I started to get to know my process better: I would be incredibly productive for a month or two, then I would agonize for a month or two or more and then go back to being a writing fiend. Recognizing this pattern gave me the confidence to keep going during low periods because I knew a productive period was going to be just around a corner.
Hopefully, as I get better and more experienced, the lows will be shorter and less frequent.
5. Sometimes you just have to make a decision and move on
I spent hours and days and weeks running circles in my head trying to figure out who my main character is. Jane Austen’s Emma was a confident, rich and entitled young woman but what about my modern Emma? Should she be a socialite and “it girl” who whittles away her time on frivolous pursuits? Or someone ultra ambitious and successful? But what’s motivating her to play matchmaker to her friends? What is ultimately her quest or struggle through] the course of the book? And why should readers care about her? I was trying to solve all the problems at once but I didn’t have all the answers.
Eventually I just had to make a few decision so I could continue writing.
I started by having her lose her job and become a blogger so she suddenly has a lot of time on her hands and a blow to her confidence. From that premise I was able to incorporate a few of the different ideas I had, give her a motivation to meddle, throw some curveballs in the way, and a struggle that modern readers can identify with, namely, finding purpose in our life.
6. Be willing to kill off some characters (or, how not to edit everything to death)
Between my first and second draft versions, I basically went back to a blank page. I altered large parts of the original story. I killed off characters. I renamed them and gave them different backgrounds, personalities and motivations. I replotted and made up different scenes. I got rid of a lot: tens of thousands of words. But I found that that was a way of writing that worked for me.
Knowing that I can create 2,000 words or roughly a scene/chapter in a couple of hours made me feel that I could be generous about deleting scenes and in this way, I could be sure that all the scenes are relevant to the story and that overall I had a better story.
If you spend too much time editing your words early on before you fully understand where your story is going, you will be overly precious about your words and your characters and your scenes. You will then find that finishing will be an even bigger struggle, and will find it really hard to make a lot of the alterations and cuts that will ultimately make the story better.
7. Give yourself some small successes
When I found myself banging my head against the wall, not knowing how to move forward, what helped was to do small, related side projects.
One of these was to work on some short stories I had started the previous year. I edited “Bertie’s Ghost” and submitted it to a short story contest, and I came up with an ending for my story “Anna and the Wolf”. It felt good to finish something. After that success, I had the impetus to get back to my novel.
When I ran into the same problem after writing the second draft version of my novel, I decided to self-publish Bertie’s Ghost.
I had already decided I would self-publish my novel and had been reading blogs and books and listening to podcasts teaching the process. But there’s only so much you can learn about something without actually doing it.
Going through the process of publishing Bertie’s Ghost on Amazon — finding and working with a cover designer, formatting the e-book, and getting it uploaded on Amazon was a great learning experience. I figured by doing it once with a short book, it will be a lot easier the second time around when I publish my novel.
At the same time, I also built my website, www.AmyHilliges.com, so that I’ve taken care of an important step for when I am ready to publish and market my novel.
Getting that out of the way took a weight off my shoulder and was also an incentive to return to, and finish, my novel.
8. Set goals, challenge yourself, do whatever it takes to get yourself writing
After working on my short stories, I came back to my novel feeling refreshed and ready to do whatever it takes to get it going.
It helped that Camp NaNoWriMo was ramping up; I gave myself the task of writing a 60,000-word second-draft version during the month of July. I kept a couple of scenes from my first 40,000-word draft version, but the rest was from scratch.
Having a specific goal, deadline, and group accountability and support made me much more motivated then if I’d just said I wanted to finish a second-draft as soon as possible.
I started out slowly, still working through some of the issues with my story. Knowing we would be on vacation for the last week of the writing challenge, I knew I needed to step up to my writing if I wanted to meet the goal.
So I went on a DIY writing retreat. (I used some airline miles to book a hotel room in town and shut myself in for two days and two nights.) About half a day in, my inner writer unleashed herself and stayed at full force through the rest of Camp NaNoWriMo; this included me waking up early and writing every morning of our vacation so I could meet my writing goal.
The second time I felt I needed a kick in the butt to motivate myself was when I realized that if I didn’t do it, nobody else was going to give me that push. If I were in a job, or had assignments with deadlines, I would work much harder and longer to get it done on time than I was doing with my book. It was a real wake-up call, and I realized I had to set the deadlines myself.
So I set publishing, marketing and sales goals for my book and a timeline. Then I worked backwards from there and came up with a manuscript “delivery date”. It worked: I immediately set to work to meet that deadline, and again was hammering out the words, even on ski vacation.
I finished the final manuscript by my self-imposed deadline, I’m proud to say. Although I’ve now had to delay my publication date due to when my editor will be available to read my novel, it doesn’t matter because setting myself that deadline worked and now I have the satisfaction of knowing I have a finished a full manuscript.
Now I just need to edit it before I send it to my editor. Cue next challenge.
9. Stick to it
There were definitely times along the journey when it got hard and I wanted to quit.
I told myself that I had other novel ideas rattling around in my head that I wanted to work on, and maybe one of them would be easier.
I also knew I was kidding myself and that I would encounter exactly the same types of problems with the next one as I was facing with this one if I didn’t work through the problems now.
As someone who has a tendency to give up on things too easily, I recognized I was just making excuses. I see this happening with my children all the time: Whenever something gets hard or is scary or is new and they don’t know what to do, they want to quit or do something else or they make excuses.
I determined that I would set a good example for them, and for myself. I wasn’t going to be a quitter.
What’s important to know is the difference between changing gears for a while to recharge yourself and quitting because something gets too hard.
10. Writing can be as fun as reading
You know that feeling you get when you can’t wait to go back to reading a novel you’re in the middle of? When you want to drop everything so you can bury your nose into the book or stay up way past your bedtime because you can’t stop reading or you reach for the novel first thing in the morning so you can find out what happens next?
When I was writing the last part of my three-part book, it was like that! I was having so much fun writing, I couldn’t wait for the next moment when I could write again. I wanted to know what was going to happen next and I squeezed writing into every available moment. I didn’t know that writing — work! — could be like that!
That was the moment when I knew that I had achieved something amazing and the whole thing had been worth it.