What I Wish I Had Known Before I Started My First Novel

In October 2019, I finally reach the last page of the first draft of my first novel. As you can imagine, it was a triumphant moment, and one that had been a long time in the making. I learned a lot while I worked on it, and am learning even more now as I continue through the editing process.

Here are the top five things I wish I had known before I started work on my first novel.Here are the top five things I wish I had known before I started work on my first novel.

1: Focus

I have lots of different ideas for novels swimming around my head and, before I started working steadily on The Green Stone in the Fire, I would pick and choose what I worked on at any given moment. Basically, I spent a lot of time brainstorming every idea I had, including writing the odd chapter or scene here and there.

Now, there is nothing wrong with this. All ideas have to start somewhere and, like cooking spaghetti, sometimes you just have to throw things at a wall and see what sticks. But when something does eventually stick, you then have to stick with it. This is something that I didn’t do for a long time. I first had the idea for Green Stone around the time I graduated in 2007, but I didn’t commit to writing it until 2016.

When I did finally decide to focus on it, all other ideas and projects went onto the back burner. I still had ideas popping into my head, but I wrote them down and set them aside for another day (a day that I hope is now not too far away).

2: Patience and Pacing

It takes a long time to write a novel. This is something I definitely didn’t fully appreciate before I started. As much as I would like to say I just shut myself away for a few weeks and emerged with what I hope will be a best seller, that simply isn’t the case. I’m sure there are people out there who can do that, but I am not one of them.

It took more patience than I thought I had to wrangle my thoughts and characters into a cohesive storyline and, more importantly, I had to pace myself.

While writing, I held down a full-time job (and still do) and had other commitments like friends and family to see, and various activities at my church. Time to write had to be factored into all of this, and I had to learn my own rhythm and habits while writing.

A lot of this I learned while doing NaNoWriMo in 2017. The techniques I developed in that month, when I successfully completed 50,000 words in 30 days, have seen me through ever since.

3: Planning

If I have learned one thing above all else while writing Green Stone, it is that I am a planner. I find it very difficult to get into a particular chapter or scene if I don’t know beforehand where it is going. Over the last few years, I have filled whole ring-binders with notes on world-building, character biographies and back-stories, chapter plans, and even scripts of dialogues that are then worked into a narrative flow.

All of this helps me to connect with my characters and the plot so that when I sit down to write, my pen can glide over the page with little effort, and the scene takes shape that much quicker.

Of course, I didn’t start off by planning everything out, so the early days of writing Green Stone were stilted by lots of long pauses for me to think through what needed to come next. This also led to me rewriting one character’s entire arc from scratch when I was about halfway into the first draft.

If I had sat down and developed his character and arc before I started writing, I know I would have got through the first draft a lot faster.

4: Structure

Some people may find sticking to a particular story structure to be restricting, but as a planner, this is something that I am now seeing as incredibly useful. A little way into my first draft, I sat down and split the story into six parts, each leading to a significant event in the narrative that would change and influence the characters’ journeys. Again, this is something I wish I had done from the start because it really helped me to measure and control the pacing of the story.

In the months following the completion of the first draft, I have been doing some reading around story structure (a lot of which is thanks to my friend and fellow author, Sarah Jayne Tanner). I have retrospectively been able to see the inherent structure that Green Stone took and will be applying what I have discovered to future projects (more on that another time).

5: The first draft is not the end of the journey

Now that I have the first draft in hand, I can see there is still a lot of work to do before it is ready to be released into the world. When I first finished it, I did a bit of tidying up to fix some of the more obvious plot issues (mainly where I had changed my mind about certain events) and then I sent it to some friends and family to get an idea of how it held together. Their feedback was really helpful and encouraging and paved the way for the editing process to get under way.

I knew from the start that there would be a lot of work to do after the first draft, but again, if I had known just how much there would be, I would have taken steps earlier on to help reduce the work that is needed now; things like going over each part and tidying it up before ploughing on, or spotting the difference between showing and telling.

At the end of the day, writing a novel (whether it is your first or your one-hundred-and-first) is always going to be a learning curve. As I continue editing Green Stone, I am now starting to look towards my next project. And not to do things by halves, my second novel will be the first in a series of five books.

I am sure there will be a whole list of new things that I’ll learn as I venture into the planning stages for that, and as I write it as well.

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