Writing Lessons from Writing A Novel

There’s no greater writing teacher than writing itself. An ironic statement for a blog post about writing lessons, isn’t it? But I’ve learnt a lot from the novels I’ve written, they were lessons learnt the hard way. By sharing them here, perhaps I can help you avoid the uphill struggle I had. That way you’ve got more time for your own hard-learnt lessons!

Stop In The Middle

Blank pages are scary. Ask any writer. A blank page is a demand, a paralysis of choice, a possibility of failure. Should I start with dialogue? Set the scene? Describe a character? Which word do I use? Even if you’re not too concerned about a blank page, it does demand a beginning to the creative process. But if half the sentence if already there? All you’ve got to do is finish it.

Starting a writing session with a new chapter can elicit similar symptoms to blank page syndrome. You’ve got the same list of questions, only on a smaller scale. So I try to finish at a specific time. This usually means that I end mid-scene. It’s easier to pick up where you left off if the energy of the scene is already set, rather than having to create it all from scratch.

Don’t Stop

Sometimes I’ve found myself writing and realised I need a character or place name I didn’t account for. My first instinct was to stop and think up the name there and then. That was wrong. It ate up my writing time and ended up with a word count of 24 for the day. Now I just write in NAME or PLACE or even XXX and carry on. Sometimes the scene itself suggests the name and does the work for me. If it doesn’t, I can think up the name whilst queuing for groceries or sitting in the office, and my word count goes unhampered.

Forget About The First Chapter

And the second, third, and so on. The beginning of the story will not be good. You’re still finding your voice, your way, your characters. By the time you finish the novel the first few chapters will be hopelessly irrelevant, full of needless backstory, clunky lines and narrative dead-ends.

Don’t worry about it. Don’t go back and change it halfway through. Don’t rewrite it, don’t mess with it, don’t look back. Finish the first draft. It doesn’t matter how much you polish chapter one if the rest of the novel goes unwritten.

Your Outline Is Not a Bible

There are two schools of thought colloquially known as the plotters and the pantsers. Plotters create outlines and plans before they start writing. Pantsers dive right in and figure it out on the fly. Neither one is right or wrong and I’ve used both techniques. For my most recent novel I plotted and outlined and created a clear goal for the narrative and a plan on how to get there.

Halfway through, half of it had gone out the window.

Had I wasted my time? Should I have stuck closer to the plan? Not at all. Because as I was writing I realised that the story was tugging me in an unexpected direction. Yes, my plot was going to change. But knowing what the story wasn’t going to be helped me realise what it needed to be. And it’s much better for it.

Urinate

Or eat or drink or sleep. There’s zero point in trying to write when any of these urges are tugging at you. It’s like trying to recite your times tables whilst being poked with a stick. It’s distracting and your work will be sub-par. Sort your body out and you can write distraction-free.

Don’t Overpopulate

This has happened to me a few times: you sit down to write one day and realise you’ve forgotten about a character for two whole chapters. Or you realise there’s just nothing for them to do. Somewhere along the way, they became superfluous to requirements. And I’ve spent too much time trying to find something for them to do or some way to make them relevant again.

Don’t waste that time. Cut them from the story. If they had one or two beats or quirks central to the story, combine them with another character. That will create a single, deeper character rather than two shallow ones with not enough to do.

Kill Your Darlings

This is a cliche of writing advice but it’s a cliche because it’s true. There will be characters, settings, scenes, even sentences that you just love but aren’t pulling their weight or, worse, dragging your novel down. Cut them. Hate to see them go. Cry or curse or sulk. But don’t leave them in. I had an entire novel go down the tubes because I kept so many darlings it pulled the whole thing under the surface. By that point it was too late to save it.

Identify Your Crutches

We all have something we lean on when we write. You may notice you tend towards writing more description than exposition, or more action than emotion. It’s dialogue for me. I can write pages and pages of dialogue and sometimes the rest of the story suffers under the weight of it. I know dialogue is a crutch. I don’t think it’s a bad thing; I think I have a good ear for it. But knowing it means I can address it in second draft and edits and means the finished novel won’t rely too heavily on it. Although that doesn’t mean it still won’t tend towards talky-talk!

Starting is the Hardest Part

There are struggles in writing a novel. Plots can knot and twist and turn to ash. Characters can seem empty and unsympathetic. Dialogue can ring false. But all that is dwarfed by the struggle to sit down and write.

There’s always a reason not to write today, whether it’s the rubbish that needs taking out or the difficult scene you want to get your head around first. Worse, every problem or question with the manuscript is amplified by the mind when you’re not at the page. But you won’t solve a scene by waiting for a muse and you can’t finish a novel by not writing it. Sit down. Write. You might not even like what you’re writing. But get it down. You can always fix it later.

What have you learnt from your own writing? Or have you learnt something that contradicts any of this? Leave a comment!

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