First a character shows up. You see them in the shower or as you are getting yourself to work. Some details are fuzzy, but some are plain as day. They become someone you greet in the morning, before you rise from your bed or someone you turn to on a really bad day when it seems the whole world is against you. Eventually, you realize that they aren’t going anywhere until you make them real on a page.
Thus I began my journey with just a few pages. I typed them up, then put them away thinking, “so that’s done.” Little did I know that my protagonist had other ideas. I kept looking at my pages, re-reading them, adding to them and even having a couple of people read them. The point at which they turned from pages into a “novel” is lost to me. Perhaps it happened on the day I completed the first scene and asked myself, “now what?” or perhaps it was when I looked at it and realized I needed a writing class.
At this point, I was back in the U.S. from Australia, living in Mountain View, California. As luck would have it, I had a job which allowed for easily sneaking off early once a week to drive up to San Francisco. I found some classes at San Francisco’s Writing Salon and signed up, eventually landing in a 6 month Novel Continuation Class. Aside from teaching me some basic elements of fiction writing, the classes taught me how to build my own writing practice and week by week over a year I managed to keep going. I finished up on July 4th, Independence day in the U.S.
Here are some of the lessons I learned as I worked my way through:
You MUST lower your standards
Ira Glass, host of This American Life, hints at the conundrum of working on a first novel when he talks about beginning creative work: You have more taste than skill. In my case, I told myself that this first draft was supposed to be the “Twilight” version of my novel and no better. If my pages wanted to be cheesy and awful, I let them. If a character had an urge to do something completely “out of character,” I let them. There are run-on sentences, phrases which are repeated too many times and I can’t even tell you what’s going on with the point of view. For your imagination to work, it has to go where it wants to go and there’s very little steering involved when writing a first draft. In fact, I found it useful to acknowledge that the craft side of writing exists, and to then ignore the bulk of it.
Once you get through the pages that set up your novel, you will need help with mapping the plot
Eventually you will have some vague sense of your characters and the world that they live in. At this point, it is likely you will have to map out some of the plot. There are different ways to do this. I chose to read John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story which was written for film but can also help for novel planning. Another suggestion that I might try as I work on my second draft is to read the second half of The Art of Story Engineering. When mapping a plot, expect your page count to go down.
There are people who can write a whole novel in 6 weeks. Screw them.
If you have a job and/or children, this will not be you. If you manage to consistently write 5 pages a week, you’re doing great, and some weeks your page count will be as low as one or two. If you’re sick, just give it up and get better. The pages will be there.
Other areas of your life will suffer
This past year has seen me withdraw somewhat from blogging, and very much from attending conferences or even working on tech projects at home. It’s been painful letting all of that go, but it needed to happen. I don’t even promise that I’ll be picking those things back up because there’s more work for me to do on the novel.
Don’t write about tech unless you have no other choice
We’ve got 3-d printers, robots helping the elderly and cars that drive themselves. Good luck staying ahead of that curve. Since I began writing, the name I chose for a fictitious company has turned into a real company and meanwhile, “mobile first” is here. After reading this interview with Warren Ellis, I made a conscious choice to stop writing in technical details because they change too quickly. The bottom of all conflict is always inherently based on people and their relationships so I tried to focus on that as much as possible and leave the technical details for later. It is no accident that my other ideas for novels are as far away from tech as I could make them.
You will be a different writer when you finish than you were when you started
This was something Karen pointed out in one of our classes. As I progressed through the pages, I found myself digging into my characters more and finding that some of them were different than I had initially imagined. In fact, some of the main plot points in the novel changed in front of me in ways I had not expected at all, yet if I go back and read the first pages, the bones were there. My mental archaeological digging uprooted ideas buried so far down there is no way I would have seen them in the beginning.
The end of the first draft is just the beginning
So, here I am with my bag full of bones. The next step is to assemble this Pterodactyl.