How NOT to Write a Novel, Part 1 of 2: My Misguided Approach to Writing
Updated: Dec 2, 2021
When I first sat down to write a novel, I was a moron. There, I said it. I made every mistake in the book – no pun intended – and I was arrogant in thinking that because I could write a killer academic article, marketing text, or other kind of non-fiction I could easily transition to fiction.
There are two parts to this blog post. In Part 1, I talk about my misconceptions and then outline my rather embarrassing approach to writing my first book. Part 2 will be about the specific mistakes I made and what I should have done differently. Please note that this deals only with the writing and creative process, not with publishing and marketing.
To begin with, I should point out that the book that I have currently released, “A Most Unusual Friday Knight”, is not the first thing I wrote. The first novel I wrote is titled “The Slayer, the Seer, and the Dream Stealer”, and it will likely be available in early 2022. This is of some importance because the latter is a YA modern fantasy novel with over 95,000 words and a complex plot, while the former is a children’s middle grade book with less than 25,000 words. My point is that I really jumped into the deep end of the pool, not just because of the size of the book (which does matter), but also because of the complexity of the story.
Here is the process I envisioned back when I started many years ago:
1. I would do some writing.
2. I would revise said writing.
3. I would share the writing with a few friends and family.
4. They would point out a few things, but mostly they would love it.
5. I would be ready to publish.
It even looks absurd to me when I read this, but it really is what I thought it would be like.
How I Eventually Wrote a Book
I had an idea in the back of my head. It was something that was based on a world or parallel existence that I had cooked up as a child. I had been going through rough times back then, and so I imagined this wonderous place, which I could go to when I closed my eyes to sleep at night. Then, over the years, the early beginnings of a story began to emerge around this world. At some point in my early 30s (I am currently 46), I decided to write a book.
So, completely undeterred by the fact that I had not read fiction in years, I booted up my PC and started to write. I figured it would take some practice, but I would learn as I go. I wrote a few pages. Then I put them aside for a few months, came back, read them, and was surprised to find that they were pretty bad. Worse than I had expected.
I revised the text, added bits, and repeated the process several times over a few years. Same outcome. Now, I was beginning to see two general problems. First, there was too much description and too little action. Second, the writing was too cold and simply failed to elicit enough of the desired emotional response. Frustrated, I started over and eventually worked my way to about 50 pages, and then I put them aside once again. At this stage, the plot was also starting to be difficult to handle, and I had no outline from which to work.
A long time passed before I returned to writing. I read through the 50 pages and two things happened. First, I had to admit that I was no good at writing fiction. That was a hard thing to do because I had always been a good writer. Back at university (where I studied business administration), I was the guy who edited everyone’s stuff. Later I had a site on a business topic called knowledge management, which became one of the leading sites on the subject – and to get it there, I wrote content that was equivalent to a text book and I also published a paper. Meanwhile, in my day job, I worked as a translator and proofreader, so without any exaggeration, I was spending my days doing nothing but reading, writing and revising – but never fiction. I worked with business, law, IT, and bunch of other dry subjects. Even marketing, which requires flowery descriptions and a fair share of utter BS, is nothing like fiction. The second thing that happened was that I realized that the story was too disorganized. I had an idea of where I wanted to go, but the path there was too unclear. So, with a very heavy heart, I threw it all away. I had to start clean.
All in all, I had spent nearly a decade scribbling and revising on and off, before I decided to learn how to write. The only time I had ever learned about creative writing was back in school, which for me meant the 80s. Not only was I rusty, but things had changed, and modern fiction had moved away from the passive descriptive style I had been taught. So, I did two things. First, I started learning about modern writing. I realized there were so many things I did not know – even something as basic as correctly writing and punctuating dialog. The second thing I did was to start reading fiction again – or more correctly, I started listening.
As a translator, I was spending all day reading stuff, so at the end of a workday, the last thing I wanted to do was to read more words. That was one of the main reasons I had not read a fiction book in many years. Audio books were the savior here. With audio books, I could listen to the story while out for a walk, biking, or lying around on the beach. For about half a year, all I did was listen to audio books, read about modern writing, and practice.
Finally, so many years after my initial decision to write a book, I was ready to give it a real shot. This time, the first thing I did was outline the plot. It started with a very general outline, followed by a more detailed description of what I wanted to do in the next few chapters. This was meant to help me stay organized and consistent, but it had the unintended effect of giving me new ideas. Some major changes came about from this relatively simple process because I could visualize the whole story and see where interesting twists could be added. It even resulted in the introduction of a major character, which changed the dynamics of the plot entirely.
It took me over two years to finish a first draft. To say the road was bumpy would be a massive understatement, but this time I could “feel” what I was writing, and I could compare it other books I had read.
Then I passed the book on to a set of beta readers. I was biting my fingernails waiting for the response since no one had read any of my stuff yet. I had decided to avoid the whole friends and family thing since you can’t really trust what they tell you anyway. To my great surprise, the response was very positive. However, it was not without criticism, both plot-wise and language-wise, and it really underlined the importance of having several sets of eyes examine your work. I recall being so surprised by some of the inconsistencies they spotted – things that were glaringly obvious, but which were somehow invisible to me because I had written the damn thing.
I did a couple of beta reader rounds, followed by extensive editing each time. Writing a book is a funny thing because you start with this story that you love and is important to you in some way, then you feel excited as you write it and see it take shape, but by the end, after endless revisions, you are sick to your stomach of reading your own work.
At the end of the day, I ended up with a book that I am happy with, but it took so long that I was legitimately “young” when I started, and now I am well into middle age. Had I approached things with a little more humility, a little more curiosity, and a lot more patience, it would have taken a fraction of that time. In the next part, I will talk about the specific things I should have done differently.