Approaching Your First Novel

Left to right: Mary Lindsey, Brigid Kemmerer, Victoria Scott, Brodi Ashton, Erin Bowman, ME

Sorry for the brief internet absence. I was in Texas for a week (it was AMAZING). Edgefest was a blast and I discovered a few new bands I am now obsessed with (I’ll share next Monday ;)).

Moving on, a reader asked a while ago:

Looking back, knowing what you know now, how would you approach learning the craft for writing your first novel? Would you start with learning how to craft characters, plot or world-build etc.?

Honestly, I think I followed a great path to get to where I am–and I would think there are many authors/people who say that. As the quote from Douglas Adams goes, “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.

So what did I do? Short answer to how I approached my first novel:

  1. I read a bunch.
  2. I wrote a bunch, and I wrote fearlessly.
  3. I learned craft.
  4. I finished a book.
  5. I revised it.
  6. I learned how the publishing industry works.

Those steps are, I would guess, what most authors follow. The order is unimportant because I was doing most of the steps simultaneously. I learned craft AND I wrote/revised.

Side note: I think all storytellers must learn craft. I will even go so far as to say that anyone who says you don’t need to learn craft is an idiot and they are wrong. You will most assuredly meet those people; ignore them and move along. Think about it: to work with an editor, you must at least have a basic knowledge of writing terms (from POV to turning point to em-dash). And of course, the more you know, the more your writing can improve. THAT SAID, I do think it’s easy to obsess over craft and lose sight of the forest for the trees, but I delve into that more below. 😉

Now, for the long-winded answer of how I approached my first novel:

I started writing at age 12 (or maybe 13?). I was (and still am, of course) a HUGE reader, and I wanted to turn all my daydreams into books like I loved reading. (1. I read a bunch; 2-a. I wrote a bunch.)

In high school, my dad urged me to learn craft and gave me all sorts of brilliant opportunities (workshops, craft books, etc.) that I always turned down. At that age, I was in full-on wrinkled-nose mode–i.e. I wrinkled my nose at everything. I foolishly felt I was already quite brilliant and did not need to learn.

In hindsight, I was just scared. I was afraid of rejection (aren’t we all) and it was better to hide behind an armor of “I’m already good enough” than to risk rejection at the hands of a teacher.

After graduating, I set off for university. At first I was going to major in English (there was no creative writing major), but I quickly abandoned that in favor of marine biology. Then the next year, I shifted away from straight marine bio to work in fisheries and statistics. TOTALLY different from writing, but I actually had an advantage over most science majors because I could write darn good papers. 😉

Flash forward to the end of college: I moved to Canada for graduate school. I was going to become a PhD and save the fishes of the world. That was my plan…until I met a handsome Frenchmen. Instead, after getting my masters of science, I married that Frenchman and we moved to Germany. Suddenly I was 25 years old with way too much free time. I was so used to pushing myself to be the best that suddenly having nothing to do was awful.

Fortunately, I was now at that ripe age when you realize you DON’T know everything and that conquering your fears makes you stronger. So I dove into writing. Headfirst, no looking back. (2-b. I wrote fearlessly.)

I started by writing a novel. It was chick lit, of all things, because I foolishly thought it would be easy. Contemporary times and a fluffy romance–that’s all there is to it, right? Ha. So wrong. No book is easy, and I learned that soon enough.

While I was writing my shiny new draft, I read books on craft (you can see a list of my favorites here). (3. I learned craft. At the same time as drafting.)

While I was writing my shiny new draft, I also took online workshops. I’ll do a post soon about my favorites courses. By the end of my first draft, I had taken a lot of workshops. More than I needed. I had also read a ton of books on writing–also more than I needed.

The truth is, I got a wee bit obsessed. It was like once I started learning about writing, I couldn’t stop. A switch went off in my brain and all I wanted to do was eat/breathe/think/dream writing. Maybe it was the scientist in me, but something about seeing all the components of story (from characterization to plot to pacing) made everything seem much more manageable. A story was less daunting when I knew what its individual pieces were.

3.5 months after starting my chick lit, I reached the end of the first draft. I knew immediately that the book was bad. It was a learning experience, but there was so much that needed fixing. More importantly, my heart just wasn’t in the story any more.

Plus, I had a new idea. It was a steampunk story about a girl named Eleanor Fitt based on a dream I’d recently had. 😉

With my new arsenal of writing tools, I sat down and wrote a first draft for what would become Something Strange and Deadly. (4. I finished a book.) It was TERRIBLE. So, so, so bad. Atrocious. Nose-wrinkling.

The truth was that I was trying too hard. I knew all the parts of writing, but I hadn’t internalized them yet. They didn’t come naturally. There’s that line about, “Learn everything and then forget it.” You do have to learn the basic tools to be a writer, but at some point you have to stop focusing on them. You have to let them slide and settle into the back of your mind and come out organically as you write.

This honestly took me a few years to get the hang of, so don’t stress over it. Keep learning and keep writing.

With my finished book in hand, I revised it using Holly Lisle’s How To Revise Your Novel. It was a brand-spanking-new workshop at that point, and I learned a ton as I went through each lesson. That course ain’t cheap (my mother actually helped me pay for it), but it was worth every dime. By the time I finished my first revision of Something Strange and Deadly, I was a much stronger writer. (5. I revised. At the same time as I was still learning/honing my craft.)

I revised again. And again. And again.

As I was revising, I began to research the publishing industry (6. I learned how the industry works. At the same time as revising.) and I reached out to critique partners. I forged some strong relationships with writers, studied query letters and synopses, built a database of agents I wanted to work with, and continued to revise.

Soon enough, I knew that Something Strange and Deadly was the best I could make it on my own, so I began querying. As they say, the rest is history. 😉

You tell me: How did you or would you approach your first novel? Learning first? Writing first? Learning and writing together?