Here Are Some Things I’ve Learned About How Not To Write A Novel

Take years and years to do a first draft. Worry about the quality of it. Edit as you go along. Stress endlessly over whether the plot ‘makes sense’ (it doesn’t, it will). Go down research rabbit-holes. I did all these things and I strongly advise you not to.

The thing is, we don’t learn from others’ experiences, do we? For instance, if you going to have a child, you already know that your life is going to change. You’re not daft, you get it. You embrace it! And then you have the child and BOOM, it changes MASSIVELY and you go around whining, “I didn’t know! I didn’t know it would be like this!” There are, thankfully, more and more books being written about how all-encompassing parenthood – yes, particularly but not exclusively, motherhood – is and even so, I bet it makes absolutely no difference. You don’t know until you know.

Likewise, I have read lots of books and blogs about writing, I’ve been to writing courses, I know published novelists. In various ways they’ve all said: don’t judge your first draft; write 500 (or 1000, or any) words every day and don’t look back; stay in writer mode not editor mode; turn off your inner critic; tell the story like you’re telling a friend – all very good advice.

Which I didn’t take. Because I’m an idiot.

If anyone happens to be reading this who is working on a novel, you won’t take my advice either. You may well get to the end of your first draft somehow, but unless you are someone so perfect I don’t want to know you, you will have made at least some of my mistakes, or perhaps a few others. Why? Why do we do it?

I was miserable over those years writing The Ghost Marriage, at least 90% of the time. Correction, I was miserable not writing it; the times when I actually sat down and wrote for a couple of hours, letting the story spill out, were really good and I felt wonderful afterwards, for a brief while. The rest of the time I felt horrible about not writing The Ghost Marriage, because I was scared to write something so BAD that made NO SENSE. I just about managed to hold my story together in my head, but it was so, so hard to get it on the page.

Then I finished it, somehow, eventually. Took a break, began editing it to get it into some sort of coherent shape to submit to agents. Got some pointers. Began seeing that, actually, it was working. Submitted it, got an agent, got an absolutely amazing Agent Letter (a document, in this case extensive, with suggestions and questions and requests to Make Things Better), worked on that for a few months.

It was so enjoyable. The process was as far from the first draft misery as you can imagine. It was really difficult, sure, challenging, trying to work out how to fix things, but it was good difficult, the kind that leaves you physically exhausted, mentally drained, incredibly satisfied. I loved it! Why didn’t I just get to this good bit earlier! Now I know that, yes, as everyone said, you write the book in the edit, next time I will just race through a first draft, work out what the story is, then enjoy the process of fixing it all. I will meet my self-imposed deadlines, I will write 500 words a day, or a 1000, or 847. I will make necessary plot changes without wasting time by going back to correct everything that came before, instead trusting that if I make a note it can be picked up on one of the many, many times I do another pass.

Except I have a feeling that it won’t be like that, though. Because it’s hard to learn from your own mistakes, to take your own advice. I will probably think that I know better this time, but it’s just that this new book Doesn’t Make Sense! Is Bad! Needs Reworking As I Go Along!

But. I know I will get there. If I can get to The End once, surely I can do it again.


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