I knew I would learn a lot by writing and publishing my first novel, but I didn’t know exactly what I would learn. Would I make discoveries about my writing process or the craft of writing and storytelling? Would I learn broader life lessons? Perhaps all of the above?
Engineered Underground isn’t the first book — or even the first novel — that I’ve written. I’ve published several nonfiction books on the craft of writing, and I’ve drafted two novels that didn’t work out and got shelved. So I entered this project with some experience.
But taking a novel through to completion was vastly different from my previous experiences with writing books.
Here’s What I Learned:
- Writing fiction is different from writing nonfiction. This goes without saying, but I have to admit that I thought writing a novel would be easier than writing nonfiction. However, I found it more difficult — maybe because I have more experience with nonfiction or maybe because nonfiction deals with facts whereas fiction is more open to possibility. When writing nonfiction, decision-making is relatively easy. With fiction, there were so many choices, it was sometimes hard to decide which direction to take.
- There were times when I wanted to give up. Whether it was because I was on my umpteenth draft and wanted to move on to something new or because I got stuck with the plot or characters, there were times when I wondered if I should give up. Fortunately, I was prepared for this and had already resolved that I would finish and publish this book no matter what. Each time I wanted to give up, I either pushed through or took a little break, and every time, I managed to get back into the story and rediscover my dedication to it.
- I can’t plan everything, and that’s a good thing. I love the idea of working off an outline and then a detailed beat sheet, but no matter how carefully I planned my story (I updated my beats between each of the first few drafts), the story managed to deviate from the plan — and usually it twisted itself into a more interesting direction. I think it was during the third draft that a brand new character (named Dessa Rae) appeared out of nowhere and positioned her chapter at the very beginning of the book. It changed the entire story (and series), adding a much-needed dynamic that had been missing before.
- But a plan is immensely helpful. Even though it was impossible to stick to the plan, I was glad to have it. This goes for the story beats and the schedule that I created for the project. Although I couldn’t always stick to the schedule, it kept me conscious of how much time it was taking to complete each phase. That means I can plan better next time. I think it’s a good idea to build flexibility into these plans, but I also use them to keep a little pressure on myself lest I drift away entirely and wake up one day to realize that a year has gone by without writing a word of any given project.
- Sometimes I needed a break. Whether it was due to the stress of real life or because I ran into a big brick wall in the story (like when I rewrote one chapter about ten times), sometimes the best thing I can do for the story I’m writing is to step away. I did so several times during the twenty (or so) months it took to write and publish the novel, and each time I came back with fresh eyes and saw either major problems or opportunities in the story that I simply could not see before. This is one of the many reasons I never want to rush my fiction to market.
- I need something to take a break with, because I need to write. I have learned that if I don’t write for an extended period of time, I will probably start getting grumpy, negative, and miserable. I have no idea how this phenomenon works or why it happens, but I’ve experienced it several times. When I’ve gone too long without writing anything and then I dive into a long overdue writing session, I can feel the stress and negativity melting away. So when I say I need to write, I’m not kidding around. That means when I take breaks from one project, I need to make sure there are other projects I can work on — blog posts, poetry, and even other books.
- It’s true what they say about writing even when you’re not inspired. I’ve heard many experienced novelists say that what you write when you’re feeling uninspired doesn’t turn out worse than what you write when you are feeling inspired. There were times I felt like I was nailing it but later realized those parts of the manuscript were weak. Conversely, there were parts I wrote that I didn’t feel very connected to but later saw that they were strong parts of the story. I have learned not to be fooled by my mood!
My series is aptly titled The Metamorphosis Series. It’s very much about self-identity, personal choice, and change. But not just for the characters. I evolved as a writer as a result of finishing the first book in the series, and I expect my own metamorphosis to continue as I complete the series.
As a former freelance features writer and now a features writer/editor for a daily newspaper, I found the same to be true when I wrote my first novel in 2008 – the first real fiction I’d attempted since junior high! I’d thought my writing background would make the process easier, which I suppose it did somewhat, but I also felt like a guppy out to sea. Several self-published novels later, I can honestly say my writing is better on all levels. Thank you for a good, insightful post.