I recently finished writing a novel. (I recently finished writing a novel!) I’ve been working on it for years, on and off, and to see it reach its third draft is amazing.
Now that I’m finally sharing it with people for additional feedback and preparing it for agents and publishers, I’ve been thinking about the work of writing a novel and what I’ve learned during those multiple drafts, including the earliest and most hopeless-looking one.
1) You may need to grow older or go through certain experiences to write a novel
It isn’t impossible to write a novel at a young age. (I wrote one in high school that remains in a plastic bin awaiting massive revisions.) But there are novels that can’t be written until you’re older, more mature, and more aware of what’s going on in your life and the lives of other people. This awareness was underdeveloped in younger me. I couldn’t have written this particular novel in my 20s.
2) The first draft is a mess
I thought I might be able to finish the novel in two drafts. I needed three. The first draft is just ink splatter with potential. The second draft is rough but much more coherent. And the third is finally ready to be seen by other people.
If you struggle with perfectionism, the state of the first draft might destroy your willingness to keep writing. Just keep in mind that it’s ok for the first draft to be deeply discouraging. There will be a gulf between how you envision the story and how it’s actually emerging. Your first draft can make you think that you’ll never finish the novel and that you’re incapable of producing anything but a rag pile of loose ends and flat characters who’ve had all the life wrung out of them. And there will be typos and missing words and sometimes sentences you’ve left unfinished.
3) A certain amount of doubt is productive
Too much doubt, and you’ll never finish your novel. You won’t have enough confidence in yourself and faith in the outcome. But some doubt is useful. Between the first and second drafts of the novel, I made a major change to the plot – for the better – after a couple of weeks spent doubting the believability of what I’d written.
Where you aim your doubt is also important. Doubt aimed at weaknesses in the writing is helpful when you’re rewriting a draft. Massive doubt dumped on yourself (“I’m terrible, I’ll never finish”) can stall you or derail a project.
4) You don’t need a rigid writing regimen, but do mind the gaps
A regimen works for some people. They write at the same time each day. They write in the same location. Or they commit to writing a certain number of words or pages per day. I wrote mostly in the same location, but not at the same time, and the amount I wrote varied considerably day by day. What’s more important than a regimen is continuity. Work on your novel most days of the week. Don’t leave gaps of weeks (or worse, months) where you aren’t looking at it or thinking about it.
5) Writing a novel can make you feel vulnerable
There isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between the characters in the novel and people in my life, including myself. And many of the things that happen in the novel never happened to me.
But there’s no denying that I’m in the novel – in more than one character and across different settings. The novel contains things I fear or hope for or struggle with. Which makes me uneasy, even as it amazes me – look at what can emerge when you’re creative, when you’re trying hard not to block yourself with falseness and fear.
I wonder what conclusions others may draw about me, accurately or not, based on what I’ve written. There’s an instinct to shy away from scrutiny and hide what I’ve written. I’m ignoring that instinct and taking steps towards sharing the work and publishing it.
Some parts of the novel took me longer to write than others because they caused some emotional turmoil and forced me to think about things I would have preferred to overlook or quickly disregard. I did my best to write through the turmoil, with an effort for greater clarity and honesty. If you’re writing a novel, and you’re stuck or feel reluctant to keep working on a particular scene, one possibility is that you’re writing something that’s psychologically demanding. (Of course, there are other possibilities, such as being tired after hours of work/parenting/school or getting distracted by Twitter.)