I’ve been writing for more than twenty years, but I’m still a novice when it comes to novel-writing. I’m finishing up a draft of my third novel so far — none of them are published. Lessons I’ve learned along the way:
For the first novel, I was under contract, they wanted it in a year, I had never written a novel before. I wrote an outline to sell the book, then tried hard to stick to that outline, while writing very fast (drafted the whole thing in about four months, while working my first full-time academic job). This a) sucked the life out of the book for me; I should have let myself throw the outline out the window whenever I came up with a better idea, b) didn’t give me enough thinking time — I was just cranking out words-to-outline. It ended up a mediocre book, which the publisher didn’t like; we spent four months trying to revise it to something they and I could be happy with, and in the end, cancelled it. Horrible experience all around.
The second novel was the first in a YA fantasy trilogy which actually came out pretty well, I think, but unfortunately, I wrote it at a time when the market was just glutted with YA fantasy (after the wild success of Hunger Games). Terrible timing. My agent tried it some places, and then we agreed to trunk it and try again later. If I can’t sell it conventionally, at some point, I’ll probably Kickstarter it, as I’d like y’all to be able to read it. I think you’d like it.
For this novel, my biggest challenge has been how fractured my writing time has been, mostly due to cancer. It’s meant that writing that has been super-inefficient — I wrote bits but then enough time passed that I had to re-read lots to write again, over and over and over. I just couldn’t hold it in my head over that time, and so there ended up being tons of repetition, contradictions, etc. that needed to be edited out; all a waste of time and energy that should have gone to drafting. Now, cancer is what it is, so I’m not beating myself up over that. But it was definitely frustrating. I think what helped most were the little writing retreats I took, staying for a night or two somewhere in town and just diving in, re-reading several chapters if I had to. I needed focused time in order to get a coherent sense of the book.
This was also the novel where I really worked out plotting. I didn’t outline the whole book in advance, but I storyboarded it and outlined chapter by chapter before I wrote them, being flexible and with much conversation out loud with friends to figure out bits I was stuck on. I’ve never had such a collaborative writing process before, but apparently, that’s what I need for something this plot-heavy (as opposed to some of my very interior short stories, in which perhaps one thing, if that, actually happens).
Hope some of this is helpful to y’all. But mostly, I think the real lesson here is that sometimes, the only way out is through. Do the work, and in the process, you figure out what your process is, what works for you. And eventually, you have a book. Which is what I hope to have by the end of today…