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How NOT to Write a Novel, Part 2 of 2: What You Should Do Instead

First, if you have not read Part 1, I encourage you to do so. It outlines my extremely ridiculous misconceptions about writing as well as the unnecessarily complicated and almost comically delusional process I went through to write my first book. In this section, I am going to jump straight to my mistakes and what I should have done differently.

The one thing I do want to repeat here is that my experience is not with the book I currently have published, i.e. the middle grade time travel story titled “A Most Unusual Friday Knight”. My first book was a YA modern fantasy novel titled “The Slayer, the Seer, and the Dream Stealer”, which I plan to release in early 2022. This is relevant because the YA book is way longer and more complex, making it a particularly bad choice as the debut novel for a novice writer.

(Some of) My Mistakes

  • I grossly underestimated the necessary language skills. I thought that because I had always been very strong at writing non-fiction I would quickly adapt. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Writing in a way that makes a scene vivid and evokes an emotional response is a very hard skill to master.

  • I jumped into the deep end of the pool without even checking if there was water down there. Without having read fiction in years and with no practice writing, I embarked on writing a relatively long YA novel (about 100k words in its first draft) with a complex plot. This is like the equivalent of skipping the tricycle and the bicycle and jumping straight on a Harley Davidson.

  • I grossly underestimated the difficulty of creating and keeping track of a complex plot. To those of you who have not tried it, I cannot emphasize enough how easy it is to lose track of things as you write. I don’t care if you are genius; there are just too many things to remember if you aren’t organized – like plot development, plot twists, character evolution, relationships between characters, etc.

  • I failed to realize exactly how hard it is to spot issues with your own writing. Sometimes they were critical to the story, other times they just make me look stupid. These sorts of mistakes ranged from typos and missing commas to the time when I forgot that my character was already in the room or when her clothing changed from one scene to the next – these being actual errors spotted by my beta readers.

  • I did not involve others early enough. And when I say “others” I mean qualified people – not your mom and your best friend. We are talking proofreaders, editors, beta readers, or just “regular” readers who are in your target market and who will give you an honest opinion.

  • I let too much time lapse between writing sessions – often months. This meant that every session had to begin with me having to re-read everything so that I would remember all the details. It was like re-discovering the story each time, and it made it very difficult to continue ideas that I had had in the previous session.

What You Should Do Instead

If I could go back in time, I would do things very differently. In the end, writing is no different than any other difficult job or endeavor – it requires learning, dedication, and endless practice. Below, I will outline the key steps. These will be shown sequentially, but in reality there will be overlap between the different stages and, at times, you may need to move backwards.

1. Assess: You need to start by understanding what it takes, what you can currently do, and how you can acquire the right skills. This should be tied in directly to the type of book you want to write (e.g. age group, genre, etc.).

2. Learn: The amount of work you need to do here depends on the previous step. How is your mastery of grammar? Do you know how to write modern fiction? What sort of language are you expected to use for the type of book(s) you intend to write?

The internet is a treasure-trove of valuable information, and there are also courses and books on writing. Arguably the most important thing is to do a lot of reading. Audio books work just as well, but the point is you have to expose yourself to good books. They don’t have to be exactly the sort of thing you plan to write, but I would recommend that you focus on modern fiction. Lord of the Rings is nice and all that, but it is hardly a good example of how you should be writing.

3. Practice: This is a step that you never really stop doing, but early on you need to do it a bit more consciously. Basically, you need to write a lot. You could write short stories, write individual practice chapters for your main book(s), collaborate with a friend and build a story together, etc.

4. Get feedback: Don’t be shy about sharing your work with people who will give you an honest opinion. You can also share it with your friends and family, but usually they’ll be nice, and that doesn’t help. Once again, the internet is a very useful tool because it is so easy to share content, find a writing buddy, or get a beta reader. You could even enter a competition and see how it goes.

The most important thing here is to take the feedback without getting defensive or hurt. It’s a learning experience, and if it means you have to practice more or go back to the learning step, then so be it.

5. Plan: The importance of planning varies massively from writer to writer, so you will have to experiment and see what works for you.

I know that for myself, I need a lot of planning. I use character description sheets for my cast, and I map out the whole plot, from A to Z. I usually start with a very short summary, then I expand it.

For the short middle grate story “A Most Unusual Friday Knight” that meant 2 pages of scribbles (it’s always in handwriting because I like to do this while lying down – preferably outside). For my longer and more complex story “The Slayer, the Seer, and the Dream Stealer” that meant about 3-4 pages – with lots of revisions. Since this is a modern fantasy story involving an alternate world, it also meant lots of notes (and many many hours of revision) on the mechanics of the world and the magic system.

Finally, I make more detailed descriptions of the next 2-3 chapters that I am about to write. They are usually a paragraph or two long. I also have a multitude of text files with notes and reminders.

6. Execute: Now it’s time to have a real go at writing your book. You may already have written bits and pieces while you were practicing, but now you have a plan, and everything has to come together. The one piece of advice I can give here is don’t be afraid to make drastic changes if you realize it would improve the plot. It’s hard to look at 100 pages of writing, which took blood, sweat, and tears to produce, and realize you have to edit half of it – or even worse, start over. But if it improves things, then do it.

7. Revise: Whatever you do, don’t send your work out for feedback completely unpolished. If you do, your readers might not be able to get into your story. You also risk that much of the feedback will focus on the glaring problems that you could easily have corrected. Even worse, if you are hiring people, this could be money down the drain and/or higher prices.

8. Language services and feedback: Now you really should look into getting help from professionals and others in the industry:

  • Beta readers: These people will read through your book and comment on it. They will mention if the writing has problems, but they are not proofreaders. Nor are they editors. Typically, you will get comments here and there with their thoughts (like if something was inconsistent, if they particularly liked or disliked something, if something doesn’t make sense, etc.), and they will also include a general summary of what they think works and what doesn’t. Just keep in mind that beta readers aren't necessarily trainined in any way, so treat their advice as a guideline.

  • Proofreaders: These people will check your work for spelling, grammar, and basic language issues.

  • Editors: There are different kinds of editors, and I won’t go into detail on that here. Very briefly, a developmental editor looks at the plot, characters, and other major aspects of your book. A copy editor focuses on the actual writing, e.g. style and flow, on a much deeper level than a proofreader.

You have to be the judge of what you think you need. I only used beta-readers, and that was probably not the best choice. I was, however, fortunate for two reasons. First, I am a translator/proofreader by profession, so I had an advantage when it came to editing the language. Second, I was lucky enough to come across a beta reader who was very competent and highly educated, and she offered very deep advice and critique – bordering on the realm of the developmental editor.

9. Revise: Now you need major revisions and lots of them. You will likely also need to go back and forth between step 8 and 9, getting feedback on the revised material. As I wrote in part 1, you will need to revise your stuff until you can’t even stand the sight of it.

Well, that’s it. If you are planning to write a book, then I hope I haven’t discouraged you too much, but it’s important to realize the voyage you are embarking on. To be honest, I am not sure I would have done it if I knew what I was getting myself into. I am glad I did though. Good luck.

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