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It took me years to write my first book. Does it get easier?

Yes. And here’s what you can do to help it along.

Joanna Penn was writing this week about how she’s smartened her writing routine as a result of what she learned while writing her first novel, Pentecost. I thought I’d share the ways in which I’ve found my own writing sped up from those early, stumbling days.

It’s as if we write our first novel with a blindfold on. We have an idea for a story and off we go, grabbing things, finding they’re not what we thought, discarding them, discovering holes. At some point we pay more attention to learning to write. By the time we roll out a manuscript that will please our most critical readers we’ve come a long way.

Obviously by novel two that learning curve is behind us. We know what a story needs, structurally and emotionally. We appreciate the needs of our genre. We’ve worked with editors or feedback groups and we understand how outsiders see our work.

Establish a method

As I’m sure you’ll appreciate from reading this blog, writers who produce reliably establish a method for getting the work done. I put mine in Nail Your Novel and it seems to work rather well for a lot of people

All that is part of the craft. But there’s the other half of the writing process as well – the creative one. That’s harder to control because with ideas we tend to get what our inspiration gives us. To an extent, we still have the blindfolds on.

Make your muse work smarter

When you’re arming yourself to tackle another novel, it helps to look at the way you handle creative problems. You will probably find you hit a number of blocks the first time round, and you can take more control of them now. With a bit of analysis, you can reduce periods where you’re scratching your head because you don’t know what’s wrong or you have no ideas at all. In other words, you can fend off the dreaded block.

Ask yourself these questions

Where in the story did you waste time on things that didn’t work? Were they a particular kind of scene?

How long did it take you to find out what engaged you about your story? Are there questions you could ask yourself to drill down to that more quickly so that you know where your story is going?

How could you have prepared better for writing each scene in close up?

What darlings did you keep on life support that you ended up killing anyway?

Where did you go around loops of a maze instead of taking a straight line?

Where were you lazy – and unmasked by your editors or crit partners?

Where did you contrive situations to get something in that wasn’t going to fit?

Where did you get in a tangle with continuity and could you have made things easier for yourself?

What did your beta readers or editors identify as your weaknesses? What can you do to pre-empt those problems this time around?

What kind of research did you need to do and what was a waste of time?

Thank you, Mockstar on Flickr, for the picture. Have you ever diagnosed where your muse could have worked smarter? If you do it now, what would it tell you? Share in the comments!


21 thoughts on “It took me years to write my first book. Does it get easier?

  1. Thanks, Roz. Once again you’ve astutely selected sound reasoning for presentation.

    What folks (writers and readers) too often forget is this: Bring to mind the name of any admired novelist of the present or past. You have a name? Now, that author’s first work was written by someone with no previous experience or recognised qualifications for the job in hand. Perhaps the toughest and most challenging job of his or her life.

    Very few of the authors we recall with admiration got it right first time around the block. They were all writing for people they did not know, to be judged by people they did not know, in an arena they knew only from the spectators’ stands, and with the only firm rule set being originality of thought and competence of delivery. They boldly went … an’ a’ that.

    The huge majority of effective authors — like those in other creative disciplines — developed from a personal, and fortunately natural, talent base as they went; learning and honing on the fly. Until a set of personal rules of play became self-established through simple but dogged trial and error, they were betting on stud poker and playing a blind hand.

    So whenever an aspiring author feels daunted or intimidated by great heroes of literature and the apparently heavy odds against success, s/he should think of any one of those justifiably recalled names and remember that the colossus in mind also picked the magic lock and penned the very first word of a first published work as a fearful, inexperienced, but talented, amateur and green-raw first-timer who doubled the bets playing a blind hand … a decision based on nothing more than the courage to take a risk oand a gut-felt faith in their coming out ahead in the end.

    Love and luck. Neil

    1. Whoa, Neil – a stirring and wonderful reply, worthy of a post in its own right.

      I love this way we all learn for ourselves, though. I was saying to someone the other day that learning to write is a process of endless experimentation, and usually on your own emotions. What works, what doesn’t – and then how that translates to someone else’s response. And yes, we were all beginners once. As always, your replies are so thought provoking.

  2. I admire your chutzpah I understand that if in fact you have actually ghost written books your contracts forbid you revealing the ones you’ve worked on.. I am using “Nail Your Novel” as a skeleton onto which I append detailed material from other sources.

    Here’s a tip: Try writing a first draft of your novel as a screenplay even if you get the format wrong. The reason for doing so is that a screenplay is only 120 pages long and you need only write externals like dialog, physical action, and an abbreviated physical description of where the action is occurring. Save thoughts, emotions, and style for later.

    I’m a retired US lawyer with a drawer full of abandoned mss.

    1. Thanks, Jerry! Yes, I have actually ghostwritten books – and they have to stay a trade secret… Delighted you’re finding Nail Your Novel useful – I intended it to be a framework on which writers can graft other more detailed types of advice. But I’ve had a lot of requests to write another book, so if you want there will be a companion volume some time towards the end of this year.

      Very good tip to write a screenplay version. It’s really a kind of outlining, I guess. If you follow the three-act structure it probably gives a good shape to the story too – although novels don’t always have to have this.

      Hope those abandoned mssss (or whatever the plural is) are being nailed. Thanks for dropping by.

  3. Interesting! I only took a few months for each of my earlier novels; I think that may be cuz I wrote them and didn’t do much (if any) revising! Just started my next novel. ;o) Great set of questions here to run a novel through!

  4. It’s gets easier because you’ve learned so much, but in some ways it’s harder because you’re no longer niave. You know exactly what’s in store. For me knowing that means that I think very hard before I decide if something is worth pursuing past the frist draft. Is it something I am passionate enough about to do all those rewrites, edits etc. My first book took me 3 years ( though I did the first draft of the 3 sequels too) without a doubt the process will be quicker this time.

    1. Tahlia, I suppose the reverse post to this would be the loss of innocence. Along the lines of ‘I thought it would take me a few weekends, instead my novel took YEARS!’ I like your idea of asking yourself if there is enough mileage in an idea – sensible as we don’t want to waste time on bosh shots. Although I often find that if I’m grabbed about something, it does have the mileage – although I might not have found the best way to explore it.

  5. I think it does get easier. I’m working on my third, and I can already see how much I’ve learned about the process from writing the other two. Like anything, practice is key.

  6. That’s an excellent set of questions.

    Jerry – a writer I really admire, Larry Harrison, takes that approach – essentially writing out the dialogue in full and sketching out what comes between. It workd very well for him. I can see how, as well, because I always feel like I’m shoehorning things in to get to the next bit of dialogue – if I simply cut to the chase I have a feeling I’d come back and find I needed less than half of what I thought I did. I haven’t been brave enough to try it yet though

  7. With my first novel I didn’t understand the difference between being a reader and a writer. And I found out the hard way that being constantly surprised where the story goes is a treat as a reader, but it is a nightmare as a writer. Time and again I wrote myself into corners I couldn’t get out of, and had no business being in the first place.

    So this time I outlined like crazy first. I still occasionally end up surprised, and in a tight corner, but with a better understanding of my story (and my characters) I know how to get out!

    1. That’s such a good distinction, Jeffrey. Trying to surprise yourself time and time again is a bit like trying to jump over your own foot.

      And those corners… oh yes. Soon we grow up and know not to go there.

  8. This post rings loud and true. Took me years to write volume one of my life story. I’d never written anything before and I’d barely read anything either. Now I’m on part two. It ain’t going fast, but it’s a hell of a lot quicker than volume one.

    Keep up the good work here.

  9. It depends on what kind of a book you’re trying to write. Graham Greene at one point was writing 500 words a day; Walter Gibson banged out nearly 5000 words of Shadow novels each day. Whose books would you rather have written? That’s a question each individual writer has to decide for themselves, and of course the answer depends on your reasons for wanting to write in the first place.

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