Reaching the (First) Finish Line

My first novel was an intensely personal endeavor, a fictional fantasy based on some challenging real-life circumstances. I wrote the first two-thirds or so with fervor, hands darting across the keyboard at a frantic rate. I needed to write this story; it was a part of me that fought to be freed, and would not rest until it tasted the open air of a blank page.

Somewhere around the two-thirds mark, I got the idea for my second (unrelated) novel. And that idea was waaaaay stronger than the first.

As I allowed myself to brainstorm on the second concept and pursue the tantalizing new idea in-depth, my premiere project lost momentum. But still, it begged to be written, and I could feel the story coming to a close, even though I had no idea how to anticipate my final word count, or even the exact way my story would end.

Sure, I’d outlined. At the start, I considered myself to have done a superfluous amount of prep work: world-building, character development with complex personality profiles, maps, cultural legends, and a working outline. How could I fail, I thought? I’ve done my homework, and I’m ready. I can write this novel!

And yes. Technically, I wrote that novel. Two days ago, on March 15, sometime around 2:30 PM, I wrote the final, satisfying sentence. And I celebrated accordingly, having written a complete first draft of 71,926 words in about 14 weeks.

But truth be told, it was also fairly anticlimactic. I was home alone when I finished the draft, and as an extrovert, it’s a little disappointing when you don’t have people around to celebrate with. But the lack of of geographically convenient cheerleaders was not the main issue--the project had been puttering along for several weeks, ever since that second idea choked the flame of the first.

Don’t get me wrong; I am definitely not complaining about having a stellar second project concept, for a full-blown trilogy. I mean, that’s something to get stoked about, people! A freaking trilogy! But the gift of that glimpse into the future came with a cost, and the idea took a toll on my work-in-progress.

Nonetheless, my first draft of my very first novel is finished! And along the road, I’ve learned a few things:

1. It doesn’t matter how much prep work I do if I’m doing the wrong kind of prep.

I spent months on the prep for my first novel, and that sucker came from real life experience, folks. There was not a lot to figure out beyond the world-building, magic system, character names, and some minor plot details. But I slaved over those details, agonizing over every little item, and wasted a lot of time focusing on the wrong things.

Exhibit A: Mercifully, I do not know how many hours I spent researching the amount of forest space that would be needed to provide wood for a town of so-many-thousand people. Could the forest be smaller, if I created another source of heat for them to use? What about light? How did forests survive at all without modern comforts like electricity and gas, when lumber would be in such high demand? It made my head spin, and when it comes right down to it, your reader will not give a damn if that’s not what your story is about. This is fantasy, after all! There’s a little grace space implied.

More importantly, I neglected to do the work that mattered most, and would give me the most bang for my buck pre-writing. There were several areas of insight that felt woefully underdeveloped as I wrote:

  • Yeah, they have names and histories and magic abilities, but who ARE all these people? And what do they want most? What would they sacrifice to get what they want?
  • Where the hell is my story going? I mean I know where it’s going, sort of, but how exactly am I going to get there?
  • Is this really how my MC would respond in this scenario?
  • Does my MC truly bite her nails, chew on her lip, sigh a lot, etc.? Does she have one nervous tick, or twelve?

When it really came down to it, I wasn’t there on the ground-level with my characters. I couldn’t hear their laughter, or see the anger in their eyes when someone pissed them off. Hell, I couldn’t picture their eyes at all. Stories really come down to the people that they’re about, and in that regard, I just didn’t do enough exploring to bring them to life.

2. It’s worth the effort to create a much more in-depth, strategic outline.

Fortunately, I know that this was my first attempt at a novel, and it wasn’t supposed to be good. As a result, I’m able to shamelessly admit that my first outline was a joke. From the mid-way point on, I literally had items that said “Something happens to make her doubt her decision and run away or something.”

Yep. That really happened. More than once. Like...a lot more than once.

And you know what? It wasn’t that big of a deal. Admittedly, my story will be smoother the next time around, because I’ll more fully develop the plot in advance. In this first attempt, I basically behaved as a panster/discovery writer would have, but I’m an outliner for sure. Was I able to get there, in the end? Yes. Would I want to write another novel in this fashion? Hard pass!

3. Stay focused on one project.

This may not be the case for all of you. As with almost all writing advice beyond basic grammar and sentence structure, take what is helpful, and leave what is not. But for me, allowing myself to explore my next project idea while simultaneously writing my first novel was a bad idea.

Next time around, I believe my project will thrive because it will have my full attention, and I will have more energy to pour into it daily. As a bonus, I’ll write even faster! In the wise words of Ron Swanson of Parks and Rec, “Never half-ass two things; whole-ass one thing.”

4. It’s okay to talk to someone when I need help.

I read a lot of writing advice prior to starting my draft, and a lot of it basically told me to lock myself in a closet and refuse to discuss even the slightest detail of the project with anyone until the 2nd draft. There is some merit to this advice, I believe; nobody has seen any portion of my draft, as of yet, and I like it that way. I didn’t want major elements to be influenced by anyone but me.

But you know what? Sometimes I got stuck. Sometimes, I could not find my way around a glaring plot obstacle, or every option that I could think of felt completely wrong. And in those times, I was saved by the outside of perspective of some trusted friends and family. Do I think you should copy and paste your draft onto a web forum without care or fear? For the love of your future, please don’t. But no man is an island, as they say, and tormenting yourself in the name of secrecy is, in my humble opinion, foolish and self-sabotaging. Ask for help when you need it.

I’m sure there are a million other lessons that I’ve learned along the way so far, but those are the ones that stand out at this point in time. As I would encourage you to do if you’re starting out, I continue to remind myself regularly that I’m not supposed to be great at writing novels yet -- I’ve only written one, and that hardly makes me an expert.

Have some grace for yourself as you learn from your mistakes; keep growing, and keep writing!