Ok right, I acknowledge this blog post may or may not have bloomed from a guilty conscience. I quit my full-time job last year and exchanged it for a part-time job so I could have more time to focus on my writing and figure out what I want to do with my life. It has been a year since then and it has arguably been one of the best decisions I’ve made. I spend more time with everyone I love, and now I actually have a work-life balance (whereas before, I spent over 12 hours out of the house each day). BUT. I still haven’t finished my novel. When I realised this, I chastised myself – what on earth have I been doing this past year, because I clearly haven’t spent enough time writing. If I had, I would be finished by now, surely?
That may be partly true. These past two years, I have let weeks or even months slip by without so much as looking at my novel. I’ve been through the waves of self-doubt that every writer goes through and I just needed a break from it all, and that’s fine. But when I really think about it, although I haven’t been writing solidly this past year, I have still been working towards my goals indirectly, and that’s OK. Every little writing or reading-related thing you do will get you closer to the end goal of completing your novel. Chances are, if you’ve ‘wasted’ time on writing blogs or even watching Netflix (perhaps not excessively though…), you’ve picked up some form of useful advice or tip. Did you ever think that perhaps your novel isn’t finished yet because it’s simply not ready to be? You COULD have cranked it out in several months and called it a day but you haven’t because you know it can be better. And that’s awesome!
To further clarify, perhaps your novel isn’t finished yet because you’ve spent time:
Learning the craft of writing
Some people may be able to crank out their first book in a year, but chances are if you’re new to this whole writing thing, it’s unlikely. Let’s take a look at new artists. They won’t be creating Picasso-successful paintings in their first year of painting. In fact, they may throw away or abandon 99% of their work. That’s fine. They are still practicing, learning which brush-strokes to use to achieve certain effects, or what colours to mix together to get that perfect skin-shade. It’s the same for writers. I mean, you have the added bonus of knowing how to speak, hence you already have the foundations and building blocks, but until you research how to structure stories, build characters, write dialogue, and set scenes (and that’s just a small snippet), you won’t be able to write a complete, well-rounded and successful novel.
The longer you spend on honing your craft the better it will be.
Letting your work sit and getting distance from it
This is so important. When writing your first novel you may get sucked into the excitement of it all, chuck in every story idea you’ve ever had and thought it was the best thing ever. Who cares that there are no capital letters, the dialogue is stilted and you almost always tell not show? It’s finished right? Wrong. It is not finished, and chances are if you’ve let your WIP sit for a while you’ve realised this. You may feel somewhat deflated that your ‘completed’ novel is a half done mess, but that’s the first step in making it better. If you had just sent it out to agents you may have been inundated with rejection slips, which would have put you off writing altogether. By letting your work sit, you have gained enough distance from it to objectively understand what is wrong with it, thus are in a good position to improve it going forward. Yay, you!
Getting to know your characters
In the first draft, unless you’ve been ruminating over this character for several years, you won’t know the character as well as you should, which is fine as he/she may have changed in ways you didn’t expect as you wrote your novel. By spending time on your novel and not rushing it, you can really get inside your character’s head and get to know them properly.
Finding your writing weaknesses and remedying them
As you write more and learn the craft, you will be constantly identifying where you need to improve and hopefully remedying these areas by actively searching for the answers, be that in a writing craft book or on Google. As much as new writers may not want to hear it, you WILL get better with time (me included) and that first pass at a novel will be so much better in a couple of months or even years when you’ve understood where exactly you need to improve your writing skills.
Finding plot weaknesses and remedying them
As above. Not only will every writer have weaknesses in writing style but they will also have weaknesses in plotting. Spending time fixing these will only be of benefit.
Dabbling in other writing forms
Maybe you haven’t finished your novel because you’ve been playing around with writing short stories or even poetry. Any writer will tell you that perfecting the art of the short story will give you invaluable insight into story form, structure, character development and theme among other things such as dialogue and foreshadowing. Getting short stories completed, edited and polished is good practice when it comes to your much longer novel.
Now hear me out. If you’ve spent 11 months of the past year arsing around, then that’s unlikely to help you in the long run. If however, you’ve spent the last year reading books, reading writing-related blogs or magazines, listening to podcasts on the craft, Googling answers to your questions, or reading debut novel success stories, then that will all help you on your road to publication. Even watching the occasional Netflix documentary or series may give you inspiration for your story, an idea as to how to fix that plot hole, or even just highlight what makes an intriguing story. I recently answered a POV tense question which had been bugging me for weeks by listening to the always fabulous Writing Excuses podcast.
Blogging and getting yourself a platform
This is self-explanatory. Every writer is told that they need a ‘platform’ to reach out to their readers. By starting early, you will hopefully already have a readership so will be more likely to be signed up by an agent. Also, if you’re self-publishing, you may already have a couple of potential readers. Awesome!
Dedicating yourself to your book
Two years in and haven’t given up yet? You obviously think your novel is really good and enjoy writing it. A lot of people would have given up after two years but you haven’t and not only does that say something great about you as a person, it says something about your novel. You believe in it and if you believe in it enough to stick at it for several months, years or even decades then damn, it must be amazing.
Spending time away from your desk
As with any job, it’s important to leave work at work and home at home. Perhaps you haven’t finished your novel because you’ve been too busy enjoying your life and spending time with the people you love. There’s nothing wrong with that.
I admit it’s ironic that this post was written as an escape from having to actually face my novel but this procrastination has served its purpose. I no longer feel guilty about not having my novel finished, and I really can see a massive improvement between my first (terrible) draft and my current one. I will now log off from blogging, put my butt in gear, and get writing!
Just a quick list post detailing several different ways of sneaking that little extra bit of writing time into your life! It’s a bit hypocritical of me as I’ve chosen to write this as opposed to actually getting on with my novel or short stories but oh well…here goes!
1. Try to write 500 words a day
Exactly as it sounds, try and write a minimum of 500 words per day. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it works! My sister, Becca, has written 70,000 words of her first draft this way. It needn’t be 500 words exactly, just choose a goal that you believe to be attainable and get cracking!
Why this will work:
In his eBook Mastering creativity, James Clear explores the importance of having a schedule and sticking to it – to him, consistency and routine is the difference between being a professional, and being an amateur.
‘if you’re serious about creating something compelling, you need to stop waiting for motivation and inspiration to strike you and simply set a schedule for doing work on a consistent basis. Of course, that’s easy to say, but much harder to do in practice…..If you don’t have a time block to write every week, then you’ll find yourself saying things like, “I just need to find the willpower to do it.” Stop waiting for motivation or inspiration to strike you and set a schedule for your habits’.
The entire publication is well worth a read. Find it here. Bottom line is, if you set yourself a schedule and stick to it, it will soon become a habit – as integral to your daily routine as brushing your teeth in the morning.
2. Set a timer for 15 minutes each day and write
Very similar to the above point, but you set a timer instead. This may work better if you have less time, as you know exactly how long you will need so will be easier to stick to and schedule in. Just promise yourself you will write AT LEAST until the timer finishes, and more if you fancy it. You could end up writing for hours. OR you could end up writing for 15 minutes. But hey, at least you’re making progress! I’m very tempted to give this method a go, as I’ve been slacking BIG TIME on my writing recently.
3. Devote one day a week to writing
It doesn’t have to be a whole day, but choose a day where you are free of other commitments and spend a few hours writing. This is what I (try to) do. I’m busy the rest of the week with work (now part-time, woohoo) and then freelancing afterward, so I tend to write on weekends. Sundays generally work for me, so I’ll try and sit down and crack out 3 or 4 hours of writing. Although this can work out really well (I once wrote 10,000 words in a day…) it can also be harder to keep to. Life happens, and sometimes your writing days will end up being filled with other commitments. It’s definitely worth giving it a go though, especially if you’re like me, and like to write in big chunks.
4. Download Evernote and write on the train/in lunch breaks/whilst waiting to pick up the kids etc
I love Evernote! I downloaded it over a year ago when I first started writing, and I used this method when I was writing my first draft. I was commuting into London every day and would try to add a little bit to my draft every morning (assuming I got a seat on the train). It worked great and, even though the writing was appalling (I absolutely hate typing on phones), I succeeded in outlining the main story-line this way. Evernote also allows you to access all your notes on any computer/iPad with an internet connection, so you can get home and pick up where you left off on your laptop. It is also a good source for note taking.
Top tip: Split your writing into chapters, or scenes, and have each one in a different ‘note’, otherwise you will find yourself having to scroll for ten minutes just to find the bit of writing you’re looking for. Not ideal. Remember, you can finalise chapter breaks properly once you are in the editing stage – you don’t need to commit to these specific breaks permanently, it is just easier from a usability perspective whilst you are at the drafting stage.
5. Ignore how bad your writing is
So you’ve found the time to write, which is great, but sometimes the quality of our writing can stop us in our tracks! Don’t sweat it. Sometimes our brains just don’t work (example, I just wrote ‘sometims our bains don’t work’…) but don’t let this put you off. If you’re having one of those days, just dump as much as you can on the page (no actual dumping please…). You never know, 10% of it could be salvageable and at least you’ve made progress. Moral of the story: any writing is better than no writing. Again, James Clear advocates the idea that you should give yourself permission to create junk:
‘Creative work is no different than training in the gym. You can’t selectively choose your best moments and only work on the days when you have great ideas. The only way to unveil the great ideas inside of you is to go through a volume of work, put in your repetitions, and show up over and over again. Obviously, doing something below average is never the goal. But you have to give yourself permission to grind through the occasional days of below average work because it’s the price you have to pay to get to excellent work.’
That’s all for now!
Although I knew writing a novel would be hard, I’m going to be honest and say I didn’t anticipate just how difficult it would really be (stupid right?!). Before I embarked on my writing journey, I assumed that, as long as I planned, outlined, and did a little character development, my novel would just fall into place. I was wrong. Obviously.
Now, a year and one and a half drafts in, I am realising that my character arc is weaker than I would like, my subplots are one-dimensional and my main character is, well, boring. BUT, only through actually writing, growing and learning, have I come to this realisation. Sometimes, you just need to make mistakes, to realise where you are going wrong.
With that said, I thought I would put together a short blog post detailing some of the major things I’ve learned, in the hopes that I and others won’t make these same mistakes (again).
1. Character development in VERY important
Although I knew some character profiling was necessary, I became so excited and bogged down with my storyline, my setting, and my three act structure, that I cast aside arguably the most important aspect of novel writing; character development. Your characters are key to your novel as they are the driving force behind the plot. Likewise, character arc, character relationships and characterisation all deepen and add layers to your story, which, without these elements, will fall flat. Don’t make the same mistake I did! Spend hours, if not days/weeks figuring out your characters. Trust me, you will thank yourself later.
2. Writing the first draft is actually the easy bit
Vomiting up 2000 words a day is actually not too bad, because as long as they hint at your plot, who cares how bad they are. And they can be REALLY BAD.
A first draft is meant to be awful – it’s merely a vessel for you to throw down all of your ideas and thoughts. It may not be as coherent, deep or well crafted as you want it to be, but it will be a very good starting point for you to develop from. The following drafts – the ones where you start to look at your novel critically – are where the hard part begins!
3. That being said, just because you have a first draft doesn’t mean you have a good story.
I repeat. It does not. In all honesty, when I began my second draft, I ended up cutting about 20,000 words, deleting what I thought would be my main scenes and adding in another 20,000 words and several new plot elements. And I am still unhappy with the shape of my story so far. Sometimes, you can get so bogged down with certain scenes and characters, that you want to keep them in, even if they are irrelevant. Don’t. They add nothing to your plot, and although you spent hours writing them, they will only hinder you in the long run. Oh well, onwards and upwards!
4. No amount of planning and research will leave you fully prepared for the task at hand
I’m a list kind of girl. I like to be organised, often to the point that it cripples me. There are so many elements to writing a novel, that it can feel overwhelming and frustrating, so it’s tempting to go into full planning mode and try to micro-manage everything. Which is impossible. As a first time novel writer, you can’t learn absolutely everything by reading articles or books, or writing lists, outlines and templates. Yes it can help, but the only way that you will actually learn is by writing. I have learnt so much this past year, and although I’m feeling disheartened by my novel so far, I know that this is a necessary learning curve that will only make my writing stronger. I’m also super excited to explore all the possible ways that I can make my novel better!
5. Time and patience will lead to objectivity
Don’t worry if you go through days, weeks or months where you lack the motivation to work on your novel. Having a break from it can sometimes be a help rather than a hindrance. It’s easy to get so attached and over-excited about your novel that you overlook major plot holes or problems. Having a break from your novel can help you distance yourself, thus allow you to analyse your novel for possible problems more objectively.
6. The drafting process is not always clean cut
I always thought that I would have a first draft, a second draft, a third draft and so on, but this isn’t how my journey has panned out.
My first draft was 55,000 words, because I stopped short of the ending (I had too many plot holes to write a coherent one, hence wanted to fix these before continuing. I did have a rough idea of how it might pan out though).
The second draft, of which I am now 33,000 words in, has highlighted to me numerous problems that need fixing before continuing with the drafting process. I have therefore decided to stop mid-draft, and return to the outlining and character development stage.
So, In essence, I am, let’s say, only one and a half drafts in, even though I am on my second pass at writing. It’s likely that you will pick up on major errors as you write your drafts. Don’t feel the need to carry on until the end. Sometimes it’s better to iron out the problems, than to carry on just for the sake of finishing a draft. Whatever works!
Of course, I have learnt an awful lot more than the above, but it would be almost impossible to highlight every single one, as I am learning new things every day. I hope that reading this post will encourage you to keep going with your novel, even if you are somewhat disheartened with it. Mistakes, wrong drafts, major plot holes and errors of judgement are all part of the journey. We will get there in the end!
After you’ve figured out the rough plot of your novel (I used the first 4 steps of Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake method), it may help you to outline it.
An outline can be viewed as a basic ‘wire-frame’ of your plot which you can refer to throughout the first draft stage. Although it isn’t for everyone (some may find it too prescriptive), it can be helpful in ensuring that you don’t forget any of the major plot points or stages of character development. Your outline can also help you to figure out when to incorporate subplots and to identify elements of your novel which don’t fit in with the overall storyline.
This method assumes that you have plotted your novel using the three act structure, and that you have a rough idea of your storyline. You can read more about planning your novel and using the three act structure here.
This method gets you to think carefully about the beginning, middle and end of:
- Your novel as a whole
- Each of your three acts
- The chapters and scenes within the acts
By doing this, you will (hopefully) end up with a detailed plan which summarises your novel in three varying degrees of detail.
You should end up with something that follows the below structure. (Click the image to enlarge). Please note that the image is just an example. Your plan might omit the romantic subplot and you may choose to plan your novel using scenes instead of chapters.
I have also included this second image (my actual, much uglier outline), to further illustrate this.
You can create your own outline by following the following steps.
- Start off by writing a summary for each of your three acts. What happens in each?
- Plot the beginning, middle and end of each of your three acts.
What needs to logically happen in each act so that the protagonist can get from the beginning of the act to the end? As you plan each act, you will begin to see scenes and chapters forming.
- Once you start breaking the acts up into smaller chunks (either scenes or chapters), ensure that each of these also have meaningful beginnings, middles and ends. Each scene/chapter should be relevant to the plot and should propel the protagonist towards the chosen story goal. I chose to plan my novel using chapters, but this is just a personal preference.
- Continue to plan out each scene or chapter this way until you have reached the conclusion of your novel. Don’t worry if you have yet to decide on a specific ending to your novel – you can always leave this blank for now and write the ending after you know more about your characters and plot. You should, however, have a rough idea as to whether or not your protagonist achieves their goal.
- Once you have outlined the main plot, you can begin to think about subplots such as inner character conflict and romance story-lines. Separate these out into main ‘signposts’ and ‘turning points’ and intersperse them within your overall plot where you see necessary. You can have as many signposts as you see fit, but ensure that the events are reflective of, and add to, the main plot. The subplot points can appear wherever you wish and needn’t follow the below plan. As each novel will vary considerably, it is impossible to suggest where each of these points should be, hence you should use your own judgement when deciding where to include these.
Once you have figured out all of the above, grab a large piece of paper (bigger than A4 would be best!) and use the above to create a visual plot outline that follows the above plan. You can do this on Word (using the table feature) if you prefer. I created my plan in Adobe InDesign.
And VOILA! You now have a plot outline, which I hope will help you tackle the mountain that is the first draft! I know I found it incredibly helpful, and hopefully you will too!
There are several things you may want to do once you have finished your outline:
- You can use it as a point of referral as you begin the drafting stage of your novel.
- You can use it to analyse your plot structure in great detail before you move onto the next stage of the novel writing process.
- You can use it to help you write a chapter by chapter synopsis. After I had completed my plot outline, I had planned to use it as such as I felt that a synopsis would help me write the first draft. This might be a helpful thing for you to do, if you like to plan in even greater detail before you begin the drafting stage. Personally though, I got to chapter three before I decided to stop writing the synopsis and just get on with writing the dreaded first draft!
Any questions, feel free to comment below!