13 tips for writing and editing your first novel
I’ve earned a living as a professional writer for more years than I care to admit.
I can pump out 1,000 words on almost any topic and edit them to a professional standard, well before the boss screams down the phone ‘one minute till deadline’.
That might sound like a bit of a brag-fest, but it’s not meant to be. It’s meant to illustrate the stark contrast between my corporate writing experience and my creative writing.
As I’ve mentioned before I’m in the process of editing my first fantasy novel series. I’m a novice when it comes to novel writing and editing and I can tell you it is a case of: same but different.
While I can apply my corporate writing knowledge and skills to my creative projects, the practices are distantly related cousins rather than siblings.
For me the key differences are:
The length of time– it comes down to simple maths. Writing and editing 100,000 words takes significantly longer than 1,000 words, making the task all the more overwhelming and complex
Subjective criticism– creative and particularly novel writing is a completely personal and subjective experience. Corporate writing usually involves facts, figures and quantitative research. Most of the time you can be reasonably objective. When it comes to novels you tend to continually question and overly criticise your work. It’s almost impossible for me to look at my creative work objectively.
For these two reasons, I tend to go through various stages (which I suspect are common to many novelists). I swing back and forth between loving what I’m writing/editing, to hating it, to despising it, to wanting to give up on it, then back to loving it again. On a good day I’m filled with confidence and pride, on an average day I’m thinking ‘it’s not so bad’ but then there are the other days.
These are the days you discover a major plot hole 200 pages in, that means revising every other page. It becomes a case of one chapter forward and 200 pages backward.
I look back at my ‘writing my first novel’ self and laugh knowingly in her face. “You thought that was hard? Well, editing your novel will be (at times) the hardest and most demoralising thing you’ve ever done.” I tell myself. Yet we do this with no promise of financial reward at the end.
Lucky for people like me I still think the process is worth it, in spite of all the pitfalls. Frankly, I don’t have a choice. I must write and these novels must be written. But how can it be done without sending myself spare?
The ever resourceful and helpful Queensland Writers Centre, which I’m eternally grateful to, highlighted in a recent editorial that “there’s writing, and there’s finishing”.
The editorial reminds us that until we “complete a working first draft, we won’t know how to fix our story in the rigorous editing and polishing stages to follow”.
So in this post, I want to focus on ways to stay on track when it comes to writing your first draft and how to stay positive and motivated throughout the writing and editing stages. Let me begin first with the disclaimer that I am no means an expert when it comes to novel writing, but this is what I’ve learned so far.
- Just write – write anything. If you can’t bring yourself on a particular day to write your novel, write something else. Write about the ‘writing process’. Write a mock letter to your main character. Write a list of your character’s favourite places. The daily process of writing is critical. When you’re not sure, or downcast, just keep writing, just keep writing.
- Set goals – set yourself achievable goals for the week/month/year and regularly track how you’re going. Revise goals if you need to, but be careful not to make your targets too low or too high.
- Set aside time – find the time of day that best suits you to write or edit, whether it is first thing in the morning or late at night, as long as it suits you. Set the time aside and stick to it. Any stint longer than 4-6 hours though may become unproductive.
- Reward yourself – when you do achieve your goals, reward yourself.
- Identify recurring distractions and eliminate them (if possible) – if you notice that you are commonly distracted by household demands while writing from home, get out of the house and go to the library or a café or park to work. Turn off mobile and social media if you can.
- Make notes as ideas come to you – have a notebook and pen on hand or type notes directly into your phone when they occur to you. I’ve been known to record voice memos while driving (using the hands-free and voice activation functions on my phone).
- Find things that inspire you – I actively look for phrases, images, films, books or music that inspire me. I have a Pinterest board for general writing tips and inspirational quotes and another for my fantasy writing pins. Pinterest can suck up time quite easily but can be therapeutic if you monitor your time carefully. Start a blog like this one. Read books that inspire you. Create a playlist of music that could be the soundtrack for your novel. Watch your favourite movie that is from the same genre or style of your novel.
- Learn more about your craft – read credible books about writing. Join a writers group. Go to writing events and workshops such as the those held by the Queensland Writers Centre.
- Combat blocks – if you are truly stuck, ask yourself ‘What if?’ scenarios or questions about your setting, plot or characters.
- Take a break (just not too long!) – step away from the computer if you are finding it all too overwhelming. Take a walk. Go get a coffee.
- Understand when perfection is required – You may have heard the phrase that ‘first drafts don’t have to be perfect. They just need to be written’. This pin from novel-software.com describes the draft and edit stages. Your first edit is really draft two. In draft one you go like the clappers and don’t look back. In draft two you start to refine and improve. You don’t focus on polishing and editing or cutting until draft three. Draft four is for tweaking and polishing. Only after then will you be – or preferably a second pair of eyes – proofreading. So when a loved one offers ‘to edit for you’ when you are still in draft two, politely explain the above process. This may also prevent or minimise the endless ‘how’s the editing going?’ questions. You may like to engage a trustworthy friend or fellow writer to act as a betareader for you in the later stages as well. They can help identify plot holes, continuity or flow issues.
- Don’t beat yourself up and believe in yourself – writing and editing a novel is a mammoth task. Congratulate yourself on how far you have come. When you are feeling despondent, seek out people who believe in you. Seek out those people who will tell you how wonderful you are and how awesome your book is going to be. Alternatively, if you need a kick up the backside, find the person you know who will give that to you.
- Never, ever, ever, ever give up – if you can’t stop yourself from wanting it, don’t stop trying.
As a final piece of inspiration, here is a great quote from www.KarlBimshas.com
“When you cannot think: write; When you cannot speak: write: When you cannot sleep: write; and if you cannot write: read”.
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