4 Things I Learned Writing A Novel

You’ve no doubt seen articles with titles like ‘how to write a novel’, ‘best advice on novel writing’, and always a corker, ‘the ultimate novel writing tips’. How many have you read and actually learned something new? For me, not many. It’s only when I began to invest significant time and effort into writing a novel that things began to click.

The novel is by far my favourite form of fiction to write. I love going on journeys that challenge the limits of imagination and that can show you places and perspectives you never thought possible. It’s a romantic ideal, no doubt.

At the time of writing, I’ve written two novels, and the one about which I’m talking today is my second and the first to be published, Pariah’s Lament.

I learned a hell of a lot writing my first novel. The draft is still rough, but I love the story. One day I’ll return to it with a hefty axe and chop it into shape. When it came to writing the second, I had a great deal more experience and a wider understanding of fiction writing and storytelling generally. I feel like in writing this second novel, I’ve been able to hone my writing and sharpen my storytelling. It remains to be seen, of course, but early feedback is good on those fronts. Fingers crossed.

Pariah’s Lament took me two years to write. One year to draft, one year to edit. It wasn’t a project I was able to devote all of my time to, but as much as I could. Probably hundreds of hours. I’d love to know how many exactly. You can read more of my thoughts and feelings about finishing the novel here. As with writing my first novel, I learned just as much writing the second. That’s what today’s post is all about. Four things all learned from experience and I hope, unlike many other articles on writing a novel, that they prove useful to you.

 

1. The First Draft Is You Telling Yourself The Story

There comes that moment during writing a novel when you look up and think to yourself, “this doesn’t make any sense.'” Panic floods your veins and you have to battle the urge to throw it all away.

It’s natural for writers to heap pressure on themselves when hammering out that first draft. It’s such a competitive field, with thousands of books published each week. And while you’re slaving away, you’re browsing social media and seeing other people further along than you promoting their books. One thing you learn when writing a novel is patience. Constructing such an intricate literary jigsaw with thousands of pieces takes time, and it can’t be rushed. If you do so, you’ll do a disservice to yourself and to your reader.

Back to the first draft. Sometimes things don’t click until you’ve got it all down on paper. “Ahhh, this should go here,” “This would work better here,” “I’ve completely forgotten about this charcater.” These are all things that occurred to me after I’d finished writing the first draft of Pariah’s Lament. I could easily have turned around and beat myself up for wrecking it and creating more work for myself in having to go back and re-write, but what’s the point in that?

With first drafts, there’s absolutely no pressure at all. Get it all down there, even if it seems crazy or nonsensical. It might not be when you come to look at it again. We’ll come to editing again later, but for me, as I got to the end of that first draft of Pariah’s Lament, it almost became a living, breathing thing that grew and developed as I continued to chop away at it. Like helping a chick break free of its shell.

So don’t worry about your first drafts. They’re allowed to be shite. The real writing begins with the edits.

writing-hard

 

2. Devote First Edits To Tackling Major Matters

The process of editing a novel always seemed a bit daunting to me. Where do you begin with something so huge? How do you ensure it all ties in well, that there aren’t any contradictions, that characters follow believable paths… it melts your mind to think of it.

The best bit of advice I’ve come across for tackling the wordy mess of a novel came from master editor, Sol Stein. Stein recommends that writers, when editing, tackle major matters first.

What are major matters? I’d say character, plot and theme. Everyone approaches things differently, but for me, the theme (or premise) is the framework of the story, the point of it, the whole reason you’re writing this tale in the first place. The theme gives you direction, something I explore more in this guide.

The characters are your means of exploring that theme, of proving your point. What they want, what they’re motivated to achieve, and the obstacles you place before them on their road to glory fuels the plot.

Given that all three components are linked and are so crucial to the story, these are what I would regard as major matters when it comes to editing a novel. With my first pass of Pariah’s Lament, it was these three areas I focused on more than any other—ensuring characters developed in believable ways, that the decisions they made are consistent with who they are and who they’re growing into, and making sure the plot flows in a way that makes sense (and doesn’t possess gaping holes!).

Dealing with all of these key areas took a lot of time, and rightly so. They’re the cogs that drive the machine of your story, and you need to ensure they’re in tip top shape for the journey. When it comes to the next round of editing, you can relax in the knowledge that major areas have been dealt with, and now you can focus on all of those juicy little details that readers love.

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3. Discipline and Perseverance Will See You To The End

There’ll come many a moment when writing a novel that you just want to give up and burn every page that contains even a blotch of ink to do with the story.

Creating a story so intricate and huge—tens if not hundreds of thousands of words—is a difficult thing. To see us to the end takes grit and determination. The waves of highs and lows will be ridden, and for many, those waves may prove too much. Enthusiasm will wane, blocks will form in writers’ minds, and the stream of words will tumble to a trickle. It’s then you must persevere. ‘Keep on keepin’, on no matter how rough it gets’, to quote the great Nolan Porter.

For a lot of us, we fall in love with reading via the novel. It’s the dominant form. When you catch the writing bug, its only natural to gravitate toward something that inspired you, something that brought you so much joy. It’s a trap every writer falls into when starting out. “I want to write, so let’s start with writing a novel, the first in a trilogy, though it may stretch to five books, or maybe even seven, I haven’t decided yet.”

Writing a novel is hard. It’s frustrating. It’s slowwwwwww goiiingggg. It took me two years to draft and edit Pariah’s Lament, and to be honest, I could probably spend longer on it, tweaking and nitpicking, but there comes a point when you just have to let go. That ties in with discipline. Which is something you’re going to need in order to finish the thing. We’re talking tens of thousands of words. Anyone whose done NaNoWriMo will tell you that after about 20,000 words you begin to struggle.

One of the best things I did when writing Pariah’s Lament, which without I think I would have taken a lot longer to finish the book, was to break it down into chunks. The publisher, Fiction Vortex, has a desired word limit of 100,000 words (which is pretty much the industry standard for debut novels) so I broke that down into ten parts. I then assigned myself two weeks (though this varied massively sometimes) to tackle each tenth. Half a week to plot and plan, and a week and a half to write.

It worked. I found it massively beneficial. I almost forgot that I was writing this monstrous tome, and instead all I had to think about was that 10,000 word chunk.

Isy quote 1

 

4. Organisation Keeps You Sane

One thing I quickly learned when writing a novel is that without a bit of organisation, you can get more lost and tangled than poor old Frodo in Shelob’s Lair. Novels, by their very nature, are large and expansive creatures, populated with dozens of characters—or if you’re George R. R. Martin, hundreds—countries, cities, natural wonders, oceans, rivers, forests… I’ll stop. You get the picture. If you give one of these places a name, there’s a chance, particularly if you’re like me, that you’re going to forget what you called that gloomy forest in the north.

To solve this problem, I created a spreadsheet in which I inputted every name or other cultural reference that cropped up in my story. I also added a bit of description for each one, particularly with characters (I’d copy and paste descriptions from the story itself).

Doing this saved my arse a couple of times when writing Pariah’s Lament. I looked back through my list of characters and realised that one of them had disappeared from the story toward about two thirds of the way through. I went back, wrote him back in, and the problem was solved.

Click here to download my Cultural References Template spreadsheet.

 

Other Resources

Thank you so much for stopping by. I hope this advice proved useful, or more useful at least than some other articles on writing a novel. If you’re looking for more help, here are some other guides and resources you may find useful when writing a novel:

Architectural Suspense

The Crucible

Character Plotting

A Guide to World-building

If you’re looking for more guidance on writing a novel, I couldn’t recommend these books more highly enough:

 

The Fantasy Fiction Formula, Deborah Chester

The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egri

Stein on Writing, Sol Stein

3 thoughts on “4 Things I Learned Writing A Novel

  1. Kim says:

    All true! I started writing mine five years ago and it is still such a mess. Perhaos I should have started with an easier story. I found the book Take off your Pants to be really useful for plotting / structure.

    Reply
    1. richiebilling says:

      I’m sure you can untangle it all! Sometimes you have to go through that process to make sense of it all. Thanks for the book suggestion! Added to my wish list

      Reply

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