What have I learned from writing my first novel?
My first children's fantasy novel - Haven: Shadowbinder - is languishing in a drawer (well, actually a folder on my laptop) for a little while and the plan for the follow-up novel (the second in a trilogy) is well on the way, so I thought I'd take a creative breather and look back over how I managed to write my first novel, the challenges and the lessons learned. Here's what I discovered.
The first draft is always going to be rubbish. Think of it as creative brain discharge, a bit gooey, sparse in patches, difficult to see through in others. It doesn't have to be your best, yet. Just get the words out. Throw it all down on the page and then see what you have.
Perseverance is key. There will be days when you doubt yourself, doubt your story, or feel ill. Characters will refuse to talk to you. Plot twists will start to unfurl. It's ok. It's all part of the evolution of your novel. Don't be disheartened. Every writer goes through this so you're in good company.
Make a plan but be flexible. I'm a planner. I set up a chapter plan which I try to follow but I'm happy to throw that plan into disarray if it serves the story I'm writing. The initial first chapter in my novel is now the second. The initial second chapter is now chapter seven. The end of my novel has radically changed (not in the final result but in how I present the aftermath). Your original plan is a brilliant guide for your first draft but after that it can all be changed if it would serve the story to do so.
Sometimes, you need a break. There will be occasions when the words do not flow, when you just can't see your way past an event in your story, when you even have to back track and take a different turn. That's fine. If approaching your novel head-on isn't working, come at it from a different angle. Work on your chapter plan. Do some research. Jump ahead a chapter. Go for a walk/have a bath/have a nap and let the ideas swish around in your brain for a while. Don't make it into a battle when it should be a dance.
A second pair of trusted eyes is a gift. I'm not talking about drastic plastic surgery here. Having a friend, relative or in my case, husband, who is willing to read your work and throw ideas around with you is a wonderful gift to a writer. A recent conversation with my 12 year old daughter over lunch showed me how to move on in my chapter plan (I mean, what do mermaids really want?) and my husband has a way of inspiring my writing and me when I've looked at my novel for so long that I'm blind to it. Make sure these other eyes are trustworthy though, someone who has your best interests at heart.
Constructive criticism is incredibly useful, if a tad painful at times. My husband is my main critiquer (is that a word?). He often throws my mind and my novel into turmoil with his suggestions and comments, but he's usually right to question certain parts of my writing. He makes me think. His comments enable me to look at the novel differently. He refuses to let me be lazy. He also makes me stand up for my novel, defend the parts that I believe don't need to be changed and have faith in myself as a writer.
Get to know your characters but you don't have to trawl through their dirty washing. Now, this is very personal to me. I know that everyone forms their characters in different ways. Some people set up intricate grids that include questions like eye colour, job, attitude to mother, and so on. Personally, this doesn't work for me. I'm not a detail person so maybe that's why. Creating a grid of characteristics leaves me cold. It doesn't give me a feel for each character. Instead, I put the characters in a situation and let their personalities unfold with their actions. Their choices and their pattern of speech inform me who they are. As they tell me things about themselves, I keep a note. Equally, I haven't described all of my characters' physical appearance. We know Blessing is 11 years old and has long hair, for instance, but it doesn't matter whether her eyes are blue or brown, whether she is tall or short, or any other physical detail. I only include that detail if it serves the character and the story. You'll find no description of my main character, Steve in my first novel, other than that he's 14 years old. That's all we need to know because we see the story through his eyes. Don't over think your characters. Let them tell you who they are.
Believe in yourself. At the end of the day, even those trusted people and critics can't do this for you. You have to see the merit in your writing and in you as a writer. There have been occasions when I've thought, 'Is this any good? Am I any good as a writer?'. It happens to all creatives. Self doubt is part of the package and this is when my second point comes into play - perseverance. Keep at it. Work your way through the doubt, even if it feels like you're just plodding along for the sake of it. It's like that thing they say about how if you act happy, you'll eventually feel happy. It may be fooling yourself to begin with but soon enough it goes beyond that and you actually are happy, and writing well. There are plenty of nay-sayers out there already. Don't buy into their negativity. Believe that you can do it.