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When I tell people I’m a writer, their response is often: ‘Wow, I’ve always wanted to write a book. How do you go about doing that?’ I would like to tell them the truth: ‘Oh, it’s super simple: step one) get yourself a creative writing degree or similar—actually, make that a PhD; step two) read EVERYTHING; step 3) fail; step four) in the words of Samuel Beckett: “Fail again. Fail better”.’ Sound reasonable? Good. Read on.
It took me five years to write my first novel, In the Company of Saints, and while some authors will take a decade to write a 600-page literary masterpiece, my book is only a little over 200 pages and sits firmly in the genre fiction camp. Admittedly, that wasn’t all I was doing during that time, but still, I made a lot of rookie errors in the first draft that took a huge amount of work to fix and could easily have been avoided. Looking back, some of them were so basic it was downright embarrassing, but I’ve read enough first novels to know that I’m not the only one making them. Having gone through that process, even just laying down the groundwork for my second novel is proving much smoother and speedier than it was with Saints, so clearly all that stuffing around taught me something.
I had a lot of help from more experienced writers along the way, and now it’s time to pay it forward, so here they are: the top five mistakes of a first time novelist.
1) I have to write how many words?
Even for those people who notoriously go over the word count, the first novel is a different ballpark altogether. At 71,000 words, Saints is precisely 17.75 times longer than anything I’d written before it. And that’s actually very short for a novel (Saints is YA). I’d write a scene that would end up being 2,000 words, feel like it was huge, then realise it had barely made a dent in the overall word count. For a long time the manuscript sat at the 60,000-word mark, and I knew it needed to be around 70,000. It took me the better part of a summer to get it there.
The problem was that I couldn’t really grasp how much story that was, and it didn’t help that, at that stage, my characters didn’t have clear driving desires and my plot was sketchy at best and lacked an ending. To be honest, if you’re daunted by the word count, you’re probably not ready to start writing. For my second novel, I’ve spent a lot more time mapping out the plot before getting stuck into the manuscript. I’ve got my rising and falling action, my minor and major crises and I know roughly what’s going to happen in each chapter.
Plans are subject to change, but it’s good for your sanity, and the sanity of those unfortunate souls who live with you, if go in prepared.
2) What could possibly go wrong?
Brace yourself: you’re about to read something shocking. Sometimes writers get caught up in the romance of what they’re doing. We sit around in our pyjamas drinking whisky at inappropriate hours and chortling over The Oatmeal comics while kidding ourselves that we’re working. We spend entire afternoons scribbling notes in our Moleskines at hipster cafes, pausing only to sigh heavily and stare profoundly into the mid-distance (deny it, I dare you). We spend so much time inside our own heads that we start thinking about our characters not as narrative devices, but as people—friends. And the thing about friends is you don’t want bad things to happen to them. The first draft of my novel was a poorly-executed, five-page murder scene slapped in the middle of 200 pages of bliss, contentment and bad dialogue.
Humans are cruel. We like our stories to have tension, which means there must always be something at stake. My PhD supervisor gave me some wonderful advice: think of the worst possible thing that could happen to your protagonist. Do that. If my protagonist finally worked up the courage to kiss the boy she’d been obsessing over for months, he wouldn’t kiss her back. If she lied to her best friend, her best friend would find out and threaten to use it against her. If she and her friends committed a murder, the body had to resurface.
More importantly, all these minor conflicts need to be significant to the overall narrative and prevent the protagonist from achieving their driving desire.
3) Don’t write what you know
It’s often said that first novels are autobiographical. When I started writing Saints, my life was a little insular. I was a precocious university student who was friends with a group of other precocious university students, and I read a lot of books about cliques of precocious university students. So, shock, horror, I wrote a novel about a girl who befriends a group of precocious university students.
The novel was set in Adelaide, where I lived, and some of the characters bore uncanny resemblance to my actual friends. When things I deemed Important Life Events occurred, I promptly set about putting them in the book. It doesn’t take a genius to recognise that these were all monumentally bad decisions. Here’s why:
Setting: Few people that aren’t from Radelaide know or care much about it. If you’re from Adelaide, I know what you’re thinking: ADELAIDE IS THE GREATEST PLACE ON EARTH AND EVERYBODY ELSE SECRETLY WANTS TO LIVE HERE, ESPECIALLY MELBOURNIANS! Turns out that’s not actually the case. Ah, well, more wine for us. Second, people who are from Adelaide would notice if and when I screwed up the details (the characters drove from Goodwood Road to Aldgate in fifteen minutes? I think not).
Unless there’s a rock-solid reason for setting your story in a particular location, it’s safer to make it up.
Characters: The characters in Saints do awful things to themselves and each other. They are intentionally unlikable. I quickly learned that any resemblance to real persons living or dead was a surefire way to kill my social life.
In the beginning, however, I wasn’t even smart enough to use fully rounded people, but rather my two-dimensional, romantic projections of who my naive twenty-one-year old self wanted them to be. Needless to say, the characters in the final draft are all of my own imagining and any resemblance to anyone I know is entirely unintentional.
Real experiences: First, and most obviously, my life is not the riveting narrative my younger self wanted to believe, even after I threw in a murder. Second, it’s really difficult, and often bad for your general well being to write a novel about something you’re still living through. For example, this was me going through a terrible breakup: ‘Wow, this breakup I’m going through is super painful. I really don’t think I’ve ever been so hurt. I wasn’t going to have a big breakup in my novel, but my supervisor does want me to add conflict and I’ve got all these great raw emotions to draw on. My protagonist should totally go through a horrific breakup that closely mirrors the one I’m going through, and then I can keep reliving the experience for the five years it’s going to take me redraft the book. There’s no way this is the worst idea of all time in the history of forever!’
The really big problem with using autobiographical details, though, is that things that have significance for you may not have any resonance with your reader, or, more importantly, may not progress your narrative. See point five.
4) Be logical
An entire novel is a lot to hold in your head, especially in the early drafts where you’re still making a lot of plot changes, and it’s easy to end up with inconsistencies. For example, I might get to page 178 and decide it’s vitally important that my protagonist is a blonde rather than a brunette, so I need to go back through the manuscript and make sure she’s described as consistently blonde throughout.
Or, I might decide that my murder weapon should be a knife (it’s not), and that the murder is unplanned and happens in a university lecture theatre (it doesn’t). So how do I reasonably get the knife in the theatre without having to interrupt the narrative with a lengthy bit of exposition about how, conveniently, there was a crazy guy in the class who had brought a knife to uni because he planned to take violent and public revenge on his ex-girlfriend who was also in the class and had been sleeping with the guy who used to sit two rows behind them, but chose that particular day to show her ex-boyfriend that he was really the one she wanted by giving him a hand job during the lecture, and he was so shocked that the knife he was holding just out of sight dropped from his hand and he promptly forgot about it, leaving it for the murderer to find.
I might also decide that I need to keep something hidden for the big twist at the end. But if the reader has had no inkling about this thing, they will feel cheated. Detective novels are especially guilty of this. In my early drafts, the murder came out of nowhere, with the motive only revealed after the fact. The first half of the story was deliberately light and romantic so as to strike a contrast with the dark second half. So I had to go back and add a whole lot of foreshadowing to show that all was not as well as my narrator would have the reader believe.
5) Kill your darlings
Last but not least, readers don’t like waffle. You can write the most clever and witty dialogue, the most evocative descriptions and the most complex and well-rounded characters, but if they don’t progress the narrative, they’ve got to go. This can be painful, not to mention difficult as it’s almost impossible to look at your own work with a reasonable measure of objectivity. What I learned to do in later drafts, but, to save time and heartache, would recommend doing before you write something into the manuscript is to consider if you can still tell the story without that particular character, conversation, twelve-page description of the sunset, etc. If the answer is yes, leave it out. It hurts, but it gets easier. When my supervisor first started suggesting cuts, I would put on a brave face in her office, and then run to the library to sob over lost adjectives. By the last draft I could eliminate whole chapters unprompted and without a second thought.
And that brings us full circle from meeting the word count to slashing it down. Good luck and happy writing.