My Novel Writing Battles: Part One

It was almost a year ago I set out with only one goal in mind; to write my first novel.

I had found myself at a crossroads, spurred by my twenty-eighth birthday and an encroaching sense of doom. I’ve spent my twenties working a dead-end job that usually leaves me emotionally and physically exhausted at the end of every day. I needed something to give me hope, or at least a long term distraction.

Looking back, there were few things I ever felt good about growing up, in school or otherwise, but one of those things was my writing. I filled notebook after notebook with my poetry, I won school contests and state competitions with my essays and short stories, I participated in online writing communities, and all the while I received positive encouragement from those that read my work. I decided that writing was the one thing I had ever been successful at, so I may as well attempt to continue the theme.

And so I jumped head first into my initial novel, with only two names- Starling and Sparrow, and the desire to write a California inspired fairy tale. I knew I wanted to use the landscapes I had grown up with, from the small towns of Sierra City and Downieville, to the rolling hills and ancient oaks of the foothills, and down into the farmland beyond. This, and the knowledge that Starling would be on a quest to find her sister was all I knew.

I started brainstorming, researching, and taking notes, filling journals with character, scene, and back story ideas. I was completely disorganized, had no idea how to start, and wasted more time attempting rewrite after rewrite then I should have. I finished my first draft seven weeks ago, and here are a few things that I learned.

  • Don’t start the rewrite till it’s done.

I wasted so much time writing and rewriting when I could have been finishing. I struggled with a weak intro for months, when what I should have done is started where I knew the story was headed, and fill in the beginning once I had a better grasp of who my characters were.

  • Plan, but not too much.

I structured my novel almost scene by scene before I started writing it. This may work for some, but what ended up happening is that I felt as though I was trapped, forcing my characters into situations that they had no business being in. So now I try to write blind, if I get stuck I’ll do some brainstorming, but for the most part I write till I get to the end of a scene, decide what I need to happen in terms of character and/or plot development, then I dive right in.

  • Write sober, edit sober.

The Hemingway quote which is apparently not actually a quote, “Write drunk, edit sober” doesn’t work. Sloppy grammar, repeating yourself, confusing and forgetting names of characters and places, all of this and more can be yours if you try to write while inebriated. So don’t.

  • Give Yourself (and your manuscript) time to breathe.

Feeling stuck, or like your brain is encased in a glass wall you simply cannot break? Step back, work on something different, take a walk, exercise, make a cup of tea, have sex, play with your cats, whatever. If you keep forcing it, you’ll get burnt out, just like any fire- you start out by feeding it slowly, if you inundate it you will only smother it. When I first started the only writing I did was for my novel, which is the creative equivalent of throwing yourself down a well just because you’re thirsty. Now I have several short stories I’m working on, as well as this blog, so I can write and feel accomplished, but not necessarily go into overdrive with my novel.

I’m pleased to say the second draft is coming along swimmingly, a vast improvement to the sloppy drivel that I was throwing onto the page before. I’ve read vast amounts of literature on grammar, story development, and writing in general, and it’s absolutely improved my grasp of the craft. There is nothing like the feeling of accomplishment when a page of dialogue flows, or an idea floats from the black void of your subconscious to the bright, shining lights of the real world.

There is still much to accomplish, hurdles and plot holes to overcome, a main character I have yet to fully understand, and constant, crippling self-doubt. There are days I’m too tired to think straight, days I’m too depressed to focus. But I’ll take them in exchange for those days when the words pour from my fingers and I feel as though I found an oasis, instead of sitting at the bottom of a well.

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