Ten lessons I’ve learnt so far from starting to write a novel

A month ago, I would not have envisioned even attempting to write a novel at this stage in my career. But then a literary agent asked if I had 25 pages of a work-in-progress to share, and I realised I wanted to say, “Yes.” So I’ve started to write one.

It’s very early days, far too early to share any concrete details publicly, but I thought it was worth writing about ten lessons I’ve learnt (mostly about myself) since I started writing it.

1. I’m not much of a gardener

My project has grown in the telling. Initially, it was conceived as a single short story. Then I decided to make it a trilogy of short stories. But then I had more ideas, so it became a collection of interconnected stories. It has now settled into its final form (I hope): a novel.

Therefore, I had a lot of key plot points and characters worked out quite some time ago. So I wrote my opening line—also worked out months ago—and I was confident a second line would follow.

Not only did the second line not come easy, but the next several were a physical pain to type.

Why was I even attempting this? My reward for winning the Green Shoots Writing Competition was a 1:1 with a literary agent. Hence why they were asking if I had 25 pages to share. Having won a competition and received such glowing feedback, the stakes were raised. If you read my earlier blog post about always writing without having written, you’ll recall what praise often leads me to do:

Praise leads me to raise my already unrealistically high standards I set myself even higher. To know I’ve impressed someone means I now have to keep impressing them. Those messy first drafts become so much messier all of a sudden.

Writing had become so much harder. The third-person omniscient perspective I’d chosen was not working for me. On a good writing day, I can hit 2,000 words in a few short hours. But after two days, I’d only just scraped 1,000. And those words were—if you’ll pardon my language—shit.

I’ve often tried to be a pantser over a planner when it comes to drafting fiction. My plans rarely stick, and sometimes I can make a plan so detailed that it puts me off writing. So I like to avoid it as much as possible. But I may need to accept that pantsing isn’t for me.

George R. R. Martin says there are two types of writers: gardeners and architects. A gardener has a seed of an idea and nurtures it as it grows. Whereas the architect outlines his narratives in detail before they start drafting.

I’ve learnt that seeds are not enough, and I’m not much of a gardener. I need blueprints.

2. I need to practice productive procrastination

A great deal of the writing process doesn’t even involve writing. My manuscript was on screen most hours of every day, but I most certainly wasn’t always looking at it.

But the writing process isn’t an endless stream of words you can’t type fast enough. The writing process is also googling random shit, reading, note-taking, tweeting, texting, and staring at blank walls.

Procrastination is integral to the process. However, what I need to learn how to do is learn productive procrastination. Scrolling through Twitter, whilst I find it enjoyable more often than not, is not the best use of my time. When one project takes a backseat, I must learn to work on another.

Or if not working on another project, I should at least do more of my favourite non-writing part of the process: taking a nice long stroll to overcome writer’s block. It was on a walk that I realised…

3. To go forward, sometimes you need to go back

Those awful first 1,000 words? In the trash.

Starting my novel over was the best decision I could have made. This time I adopted a different perspective, and it changed everything. Rather than writing from an omniscient narrator, I gave the mother of my protagonist a journal. Through her entries is how we enter the story.

Once I’d started over, I could not type quick enough to keep up with my brain. The narrative had a voice that I found more comfortable to write in, and it made developing the world and characters much easier.

When I’ve written short stories, my rule has always been to never go back until the whole thing is finished. Any problems can be fixed in the rewrite.

But I’ve come to realise that when the writing proves too physically taxing to push through, especially so early into the draft, it might be more productive to start over with a fresh vision and an alternative approach.

4. Better ideas will always rudely interrupt

A thousand ideas are better than none, but they’re a hindrance when you’ve already committed to one.

Some creatives get only a few ideas they can never let go of, able to channel all their creative energies into nurturing their beautiful brainchild. Then there are artists who get a new idea a day, each more attractive than the last. Guess which one better describes me.

Better ideas come in many forms. There are ideas that belong in another book, which tempt you away from the one you’re writing. There are ideas that urge you to start over and replace the narrative with a story set in a parallel universe that seems so much more interesting than the one you’ve chosen. And there are ideas for later scenes, and they try to leech the love you’re giving to your current chapter.

Usually, the first type of better idea is what gets me. I have a nasty habit of abandoning projects, and I’m working on not making that one of my defining character traits. There’s some accountability in my life now, so I’ll let others down if I don’t deliver on my commitments. Fingers crossed it’ll ward off the ideas that want to steal me away from my novel.

On this occasion, my idea for starting over proved right. But I fear the voice that told me to start over is not satiated. My inner critic is due a telling off any day now, I can feel it.

As for the final kind of better idea, Scrivener has helped me. Scrivener is a novel writing software that allows you to keep all your notes, character sheets, research, etc. in the same file as your manuscript. No more am I reliant on post-its, notebooks, or a junk file. When a better idea for later comes along, I can just make a note and know where to find it.

5. Worldbuilding? More like world-dumping!

I rarely set a story in our world. Even the stories I’ve written that look like the familiar world must include an unfamiliar element, otherwise I get bored. My WIP is no exception.

Worldbuilding is one of the many great joys of writing. It’s by no means a tool utilised only by fantasy or science-fiction writers, all writers construct their fictional worlds. But with a fantastical world, you get all the benefits of playing God. You set the rules, and the world is only limited to your imagination.

The trouble is then communicating your magnificent world to your reader without excessive exposition that takes the reader out of the story. When you’ve put in so much work to invent a fictional realm, the temptation is to feed all those details to anyone who’ll listen. But as any reader and writer knows, expo-dumping is not the way.

When it comes to worldbuilding, I like to think about this Scott Lynch quote on the subject:

The real question in worldbuilding is not how much can I dump on the page, but how much can I get away with not actually telling people? Because the alternative is to get this inelegant info-dumpy writing style, in which everyone who is meeting everyone else is taking extra time in their dialogue to explain what they’re doing.

Because I adopted a journal style, I found a convenient way to build my world that was more natural and fitted in with the story. But it does still feel a little info-dumpy, even if the feedback I’ve received so far suggests it’s not so dull as to deter a reader from turning the page.

It’s a question best saved for a later redraft, but it’s always worth asking: what can I get away with not telling the reader?

A superb thread worth reading in full

6. Passive by nature

Not to overshare, but a consistent struggle I’ve had since forever is my natural inclination towards passivity. My passiveness has caused me more problems than I’m probably aware of, and it’s also affecting my characters.

Just as I’ve learnt—and still learning—to be more assertive, so do my characters. It appears that because I have more experience of life happening to me as opposed to making life happen, the immediate temptation is to make that equally true for my characters.

One day I’ll expand on the problems of the passive protagonist. For now, though, a key takeaway from what I’ve drafted so far is that I should always ask how my characters can be more active.

7. Future Me has a lot of work to do

When you start a new project, you’re convinced it’s a work of genius and so you must also be a genius. But there comes a point in every project when you see its problems and wonder if it’s a steaming pile of shit.

Already, I can see there are flaws with what I’ve written so far. I know what I have isn’t finished. A lot of what I have might not even make it to the final draft. And I have to convince myself that it’s okay, and I must continue.

Some problems are only fixable once a whole first draft is finished. Only when you can see the whole picture, can you begin to correct the mistakes.

“It’s a problem for Future John,” I say. And I give him my sincerest apologies.

8. Follow the fun

During my MA Playwriting course, I took a module in Writing the Novel. My tutor, the novelist Matthew De Abaitua, said something that stuck with me. I’m definitely paraphrasing, so it’s not an exact quote, but it’ll look better in quotation marks:

If there is just one universally agreed rule for writing, it is this: You must never be boring.

When I sat down and discussed the pages with a literary agent, she concurred and said that the aim of any writer is to keep the reader reading.

You can’t always be certain your writing isn’t boring until someone else reads it. But you can be certain the reader will be bored if you were bored whilst writing.

I’ve found the novel-writing process stressful. But I’ve enjoyed every single second of it. And part of that fun was chasing the surprising but exciting paths my writing took me down, especially the paths I could never have considered before I started writing.

The lesson is to always follow the fun.

9. Be proud of my work, no matter what

Even if everyone who read it told me it sucked, I promised myself to remain proud.

I wrote over 10,000 words of an initial draft and then redrafted the whole thing in around five days. Nobody can ever accuse me of not working hard. A great deal of love and time went into those pages. I’m proud.

Considering a month ago I’d have laughed at the idea of even attempting to write a novel, it’s remarkable I finished a single chapter. It’s even more remarkable when you consider it’s now much longer than planned. My work is worthy of pride.

But most of all…

10. Trust in my friends and my instincts

When people tell me I’m a good writer, I should listen. I should trust that they are honest and believe them.

When people tell me to trust my creative instincts, I should not let doubt hold me back.

When people say they want to read my work, I should feel motivated and excited. Not afraid.

I haven’t always known what kind of writer I wanted to be—I’m still not 100% sure if I’m honest. But I’ve loved writing for at least a decade now, it’s what I most want for myself. People keep telling me it’s what they want for me too.

I’m doing what I’ve always known I was meant to. Now I need to have faith it can be more than a pipe dream.