6 Lessons Learnt From Writing My First Novel

In October, I will finally publish my first novel.

This moment has been a long time coming. I started writing the first, roughest version of Above Ground back in early 2009, and not once did I think it would take me over three years to be where I am today.

Writing Above Ground has been a long journey. A hard journey. But — now that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel — it’s clear that this project has taught me more about writing than any other thus far.

Lessons Learnt From Writing My First Novel

  1. The first time’s the hardest.
    I started and abandoned three other novels before I hit upon Above Ground. Each time I’d given up because I’d hit a roadblock and didn’t know how to push on through. I’d never finished a novel before, didn’t know if I could finish a novel. I was so invested in my stories, so passionate, that when I hit a hard part I would get frustrated and quit.

  2. Perseverance is key.
    I learnt that the trick was to keep writing, to push out that draft — however awful — if only to give me the confidence that I COULD write a novel. I owe great thanks to the webfiction community, for what kept me writing Above Ground was that I posted each chapter online. It taught me to write regularly and to power through the tough bits. Not to mention that the reader comments and support gave me the confidence I needed to keep on going.

  3. It’ll never be perfect.
    One of the reasons why Above Ground has taken so long to complete is because I wanted it to be absolutely perfect. I’ve rewritten it twice, and as my writing style develops, I keep wanting to go back and amend, revise, improve… It’s not ready yet, I keep thinking. But you can only polish a stone so much; I’ve learnt when to let go.

  4. Outline, outline, outline.
    I utterly pantsed Above Ground, and while the subsequent editing and revisions taught me a lot of hard lessons about plot holes and character development, I’m determined to never be in that sticky situation ever again. I am an outlining-enthusiast now: it saves time, speeds up the writing process, and reduces rewriting.

  5. You get better at it.
    The projects I’ve worked on since starting Above Ground have been so much less daunting. The writing process has been smoother, with less revisions and rewriting. I’ve learnt what works for me, what to avoid. I’ve gained confidence.
    In the last year alone, I’ve outlined three more novels I’d like to write. The plot construction, pacing, character development… it comes more naturally now. It’s easier.

  6. You never stop learning.
    Writing Above Ground has helped me grow as a writer. But it has also shown me that writing improves with practice, and — like any other skill — the better you get at it, the more you want to learn.

No doubt I’ll come across new challenges with every book I write as my expectations for my writing grow, but at least now I know: I can do this.

What about you? What have you learnt from writing?

19 thoughts on “6 Lessons Learnt From Writing My First Novel

  1. Congratulations, Anna, this is huge. All your points are definitely valuable lessons (though I know some differ on the outlining thing — some authors really do prefer the ‘pants’ method; I’m with you, though — I’d never have gotten through any of my three books without it). Perfectionism is my poison too. Oddly I feel it more publishing online than I did my novels, isn’t that strange? It’s why I could write two novels during a time when I couldn’t write my webserial. (The novels were under-the-gun and my publisher didn’t have time for me to attempt “perfection.” Also, of course, there were outside editors. The serial, though, that’s all mine, and I guess I’m so failure-averse that it paralyzes me.) Anyway, thanks for the post and brava again for “About Ground” — good luck!

    • I think I’m the opposite – I feel “under the gun” when my webfiction readers are pestering me for updates, so it forces me to just write without thinking. And because serials are so easily editable, I guess I worry less? Whereas books seem so final. Different mentalities is all.

      I do mix pants/plotting methods. The first bit of writing – the initial scene/inspiration – I just scribble whatever comes to mind. But as soon as the story starts solidifying, I sit back, take stock, and outline. I know Zoe Whitten says she pretty much only uses the ‘pants’ method, but secretly I reckon she’s got an awesome subconscious outlining tool!

  2. This is a great list- similar to my own experience. I’m currently editing my first novel, or at least, the first that I haven’t abandoned after one draft. I’ve run into the same problem with evolving my writing style and wanting to go back and rescue older works now that I “know better”.

    And I have to say I love the term “outlining enthusiast”.

    /jon

    • I went back and edited once, then realised it’d be easier if I wrote an entire outline for the book and toyed around with that… and based my final rewrite/edit off of the new outline. It definitely helped me add depth and structure to the story, so yes, I’m an enthusiast! :-)

      • I’m not sure… I haven’t finished a full novel-length story yet. Just a few novellas, a ton of short stories, and hundreds and hundreds of microfictions. So not really the same. :)

  3. I am enjoying learning a lot of the same lessons, I’m currently putting in the last few scenes of a novel, well…one thread of a story at least and, if I can just finish that I will feel like I have arrived to the point of being able to say I have completed a story. It won’t be perfect, there will be many elements I’ll need to add, polish, and revise; but I’ll have completed and it will feel glorious. Thanks for posting.

    • Congratulations! I know what you mean by threads – the first draft of Above Ground only followed one storyline. The third edition now has three, and even switches between points of view. Still, the hardest moment was writing that first “the end” – and it was also the most satisfying too!

      • That is great to hear, I’m glad I’m not the only one who has tackled a story in this way. Honestly it began as a whole novel but at some point I really hunkered down and ran with a thread, deviating only when the muse requested it or the story demanded it.

        I can’t say enough how good it feels to know you’ve been in the same boat. Thanks for responding.

        • In a way I’ve been there too; I’m rewriting a novel from the ground-up, and where I only had one storyline (publisher’s requirement) I’m adding subplots and different POVs — overall need to bulk up what was a 45K novella to an 80K+ novel. And the prospect is certainly daunting. But I certainly don’t consider the original novel any less of a triumph because it was one thread/storyline; getting from beginning to end is a HUGE deal and that single plot will remain the main overall plot of the book. You shouldn’t ever feel alone in how you tackle a story… inevitably someone else has worked the same way, and there’s no One Best Way to write–don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! I think that could be lesson #7: write however works best for you. As long as it gets you to the finish line, who cares how unorthodox or seemingly atypical it is?

          Plus…. editing! There’s always the editing phase that can smooth out and fill in any cracks you missed that first draft. (And then there’s the external editor who’ll work his/her magic too.)

  4. I’ve generally worked with a kind of combined outline/”seat of my pants” style of writing.

    I have a general sense of where the story will go, create an outline that covers the broad details, sometimes with specific scenes included, and definitely major plot developments.

    Then once I’ve got that, I go vaguely in that direction, sometimes (usually) changing major details as I write it. If I’m feeling energetic, I then fill in the outline and change it to match the novel as written, allowing me to see the big picture.

    Often, I keep on going and ignore the outline thereafter. I generally think that the actual words and structure are better than the original outline, so I don’t feel like that’s a problem.

    • I do similiar – but I do believe that writing that first outline really helps set down the story (at least roughly). To just write without stopping to think at all about the structure… well, I just end up writing myself into a corner.

      • So far I haven’t written myself into a corner. I’m not sure why that is.

        It could be that I’ve just been lucky. Its possible that a background in role-playing games helps there. When gaming, I tend to run campaigns that have essentially a novel’s worth of content. The thing with live role-playing (whether its Dungeons & Dragons or some other game, and is, in any case, a story improvised as a group) is that once something happens, there’s no going back. You can’t revise. You have to figure out how to make it work.

        If nothing else it’s probably a useful mindset for writing a serial–which is good because I’m still doing mine.

  5. Congrats, I know this is pretty old, but I meant to congratulate you back when you posted this, but I couldn’t get into my wordpress so I gave up. I have a question, do you find that you posting it online has helped you move forward?

    • No worries, I always check old posts :-)

      I think yes, it certainly has. I don’t think I ever would have finished the first draft of Above Ground had I not been posting it online, so definitely webfiction gave me the motivation to finish. On top of that, posting online (and the subsequent rewrites) taught me the value of outlining in order to avoid writing myself into a corner. Not to mention that the reader responses have helped me identify what works and what doesn’t….

      I don’t think I’d be as confident a writer now had I not had that experience.

  6. Pingback: 6 Lessons Learnt From Writing My Second Novel | A.M. Harte

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