Six Things I Learned from Writing My First Novel Draft
And what you can do to prepare for yours.
It is fair to say that these past few months have been a tough discipline.
On June 28th last year I took the liberty of finally getting around to writing the very first draft for my novel. And over the next 5 months, I can safely say that it’s been a complete rollercoaster between bad days, complications regarding time management and a writing habit that needed to be rigorously enforced, I feel about half of the man I once was.
But despite that, what I eventually came up with over the following months, while far from perfect in my mind, still has some elements that really work in my mind.
As I’m writing this, I’m in the middle of finishing my second draft andI’m still enjoying the journey that’s it been. But like I said, this whole process hasn’t been easy.
And that’s why this particular new blog post is a lot more “click-baity” from the title alone. 5 months was enough to learn a lot about myself, my story and the writing of it in between, and I wondered if anyone might want to know a few things before or during writing your very first novel draft.
This is sort of meant to be like a fusion between a help guide (which you can take and choose what works for you) as well as a sort of comedic archive when it comes to my experiences writing and showcasing my work.
So with that in mind, let’s not waste any haste and get on with the chase!
- Find What Works Best for You (mix and match your writing style/schedule)
This is most likely the first thing that a lot of writers will be learning by themselves, finding out what writing habits fit you.
When it comes to the creative process, it’s not really something you come and go from regularly. You are allowed to do what you like but it is much easier to think of a pattern to try and get some idea of when you can fit in creative work.
Google for example can lead you to a variety of different sources all about doing up a routine, ranging from the usual “set time and place for when you’re working” slot or the Stephen King approach of “writing a 1’000 words a day and seeing how you are after that”.
For a time, I actually thought that the usual set time and location was the one to go for because that’s what a lot of my research was telling me, until we had a guest for my college course in creative writing last year.
I can’t remember who it was but essentially, this author, doubling as a single mother to a pair of teenagers and as lecturer on my course, said that because of her hectic schedule, what usually works for her is to find a spot in the day where she’s free for half an hour and just start writing from there.
Now for me, finding the balance was a little tough but with some influence from the lecturer and my other research ideas, here’s the routine I eventually came up with:
- 30 minutes of Creative Writing per day
- Work on my projects 6 days a week (leaving Friday to myself)
This may not work for everyone but having some idea of what you want to and when to start will help keep you focused just as much as having a strict schedule in mind. But there’s something more important that comes with this schedule:
2. Know your Limits (Write Responsibly!)
This one might go unrecognized by some writers starting out but I still feel that it’ll be relevant to write eventually.
If you have trouble writing, don’t force yourself.
Burnout, next to personal doubt, is the leading cause of why most writers don’t finish their projects in my view.
What do I mean by that? Well, can you imagine a time when you were working on or with something for so long that you gradually lost interest?
For beginning writers, especially for long term projects like novels, it can feel tempting that after doing some writing for the day that you can press on even longer if you have the time for it.
Then, next time you return to your current project, you’re completely drained and have nothing you want to work on. This I can recall happening to me on two separate occasions.
The first time was during my scrapped first draft, right when I was still getting used to writing as a whole and felt like I could do as much as the time I had for it.
Needless to say that after getting the first few chapters done I couldn’t bring myself to write anymore for the rest of the year.
The other was near the end of my first draft. I was working on a very action heavy scene and wanted to write the whole chapter out before I forget the exact plan I had in mind.
So I spend an entire hour writing that one chapter and the opening to the followup chapter without stopping. And my enthusiasm to write the next day was just completely destroyed as a result.
Because of that, if you do find yourself in that position where you want to write and don’t have enough time for it, the quicker option can be placing your ideas in brackets or using shorthand to get the basis for your idea down so you can pick it up more easily the next time you write.
[insert idea here]
[maybe X can go with Y to see Z, as a example]
Of course, there’s no problem if you want to push yourself to write more in a single day, but funnily enough that ties directly into my next point:
3. Learn to lose (your race is only beginning)
Writing is an act of discovery as a lot of creative processes. And that means as well that for as much as I can tell you everything about my writing process, a lot of what you will go through in your first draft will be finding out the key points of your story.
What do I mean by that?
Well essentially, as I was editing my first draft, one thing I soon realized was the fact that one of the very first chapters, after the first act had been established, needed to be cut.
There wasn’t anything wrong with it’s inclusion per say, but it wasn’t really one that moved the story along. It did have one new tidbit about how one of the characters negotiates with strangers but that’s about it really.
Because of that, I felt the need to trim that entire chapter, and I’ve already made an effort to include the more important elements of that chapter into the second draft.
That’s just one example, but I’ve had several scenes that didn’t work because the perspective wasn’t decisive, some of my language wasn’t the best it could be and where some of my inspirations may have gotten too much of a reference (great for me, but confusing to everyone else).
Like I said, writing is a journey that both you and your cast go on. And that is more true when this is your first time as a writer.
Not everything will work out, but I reckon that if you’re willing to look beyond that and not go back constantly, editing and re-editing chapters you’re in the process of writing, you should be golden.
Now, you might be wondering how I figured out some of the issues with my current manuscript. And to be frank, it wasn’t just a conscious decision.
4. Get feedback (but be careful of where you look for it)
Critiques. Just as honest and sincere for some as much as it is heartless and cruel to others.
I can definitely say however that getting feedback, regardless of which numbered draft you’re working on, is important to knowing what works for your writing.
And for me, aside from a handful of friends and family, my main source of feedback was my two creative writing classes in my college course.
Essentially, every 3 to 4 weeks of the course, my different tutors would select us to send in some material we’ve been working on for the rest of the class to read, review and… judge (I was trying to think of another alliteration word but I couldn’t, don’t judge me).
As a result, I decided to naturally send in excerpts from my novel draft to see what people thought of it.
For example, my story is a YA adventure novel with comedy and sci-fi elements. And so because of that, a lot of the feedback I was looking for was aimed at how my characters were portrayed and the various setpieces that made up a large part of the adventure.
In some of the first impressions I got, most people seemed to like the cast but with a couple of minor but still important questions or issues.
One such issue was in the prologue for the novel where a character wearing bright red gloves is sitting by a pier, blood occasionally dripping from her knuckles. I never really considered this during my initial edits but because of that similar color coordination I decided to hold back on that character wearing gloves in that scene and giving it to them at a later date.
But I think above all else, you should be careful with how many times you go looking for feedback and how to take on board some of the suggestions.
One of my classes for instance hated just how many times they were getting piecemeal samples from my novel, often taken 10 or 20 chapters ahead in the narrative. And they made their frustration very clear near the end of the module because of that.
Feedback is harsh. It hurts to see something you’ve poured lord knows how many hours into for months on end only for someone to try and find every imaginable crack they can and tell you how they would do it.
But if you don’t get that insight from potential readers, the guidance from a second or third pair of eyes to see what is wrong, you’ll only have yourself as the judge of your work in progress. And even if you don’t have any bias towards your story that won’t be enough to fully understand where to improve your draft.
But speaking of peers, there’s something that’s actually just as important as writing your story in general.
5. Side gigs aren’t necessary (but they do help)
Writing is a lonely job. There’s a reason why only a select few of us can cope with the idea of sitting at your desk and typing for ages in the vain hope that someone will like your idea and receive a neat paycheck.
And for that reason, it’s why having something to fall back on when you’re not writing is important.
As you probably guessed, for me, college was a means to get away from my creative writing.
Not only did I get to meet and chat with like minded learning writers about what they were up to and if they had any personal interests but it also allowed me to take part in large tutorial rooms, where we regularly discussed other texts from other writers.
And because of long stretches of time in between some of my classes, I was also able to fit my creative writing times more flexibly between my various lectures, tutorials; breaks and any society events I wanted to go to.
I did also have stuff like chatting regularly with friends outside of college as well as family gatherings for special occasions and a new summer job once college finished, but all of these combined effectively let me break away from my writing and tell people about my work.
If you couldn’t guess by now, having someone or something to do when you’re not writing will give you something to ease up on when you’re not busy working on that scene you’ve been dreading to write for a while now.
And as my final point in this mini essay, I think there is one thing that you should remember as your writing.
6. Above all else, be easy on yourself (and know when and where to get new ideas)
This ties itself into what I was saying earlier about learning to fail but I feel like not being too harsh on your writing or your abilities is very important for every stage of the creative writing process.
There will be days when you’ll fall out of routine with your creative schedule. Or moments when you’re not happy with a scene even as you’re in the middle of writing it.
But I think there’s one thing that has become paramount when it comes to starting out as a writer is the fact that a lot of these deadlines or goals you might have in mind are ones that you make yourself. And because of that no one is forcing you to write.
I know that that must be super annoying for you. Especially when it’s a project that you really care about. But sometimes, the best way to make the most of your writing is by learning to step back and readjust yourself.
As an example, I have a very rough unfinished first draft of my novel that I actually attempted to go back to in the summer of 2020, more than a year later.
And by then, I felt like I had grown up and aged enough that I needed a fresh start to make the best version of the story I could. So, I left it be.
The following Summer in 2021 I went back with a fresh mind and a proper plan to boot, drawing on influences from my writing college as well as some I’ve discovered in my own research.
By July, I began writing my very first draft and 4 months later, I did it. And that’s something that only a few people who say they want to be a writer actually achieve.
Now of course, that was my writing experience. It’s highly likely that your journey will be more different than mine and that you’ll have your own story to tell about your writing process when you’re done.
Whatever you decide to do however, just listen and take whatever you like from my advice and I wish you all the best with whatever bright and exciting new ideas you wish to show. Happy travels.
First Drafted 16 January 2022
Last Edited 14 June 2022
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