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October 31, 2010

The lessons I learnt writing my first novel

It's been a while since I looked back at my first manuscript. Many of us have one; the first baby we laboured over and poured love into, and thought was wonderful in every way...back when we didn't know any better.

I first started writing just for me. Back before I'd ever read another novel analytically, trying to see what worked. Back before I'd ever read any of the writing 'how to' tips. Or more importantly, tips on what not to do. In other words, back before I'd ever put any effort into thinking about how to express my ideas in a way which would be interesting for others to read.

I'm not sure why I had so many big writing epiphanies between my first and second novels. Maybe it was because I was so unhappy with my first novel. I could sense there were lots of things wrong with it but didn't have the clarity or experience to identify what was wrong. It was a manuscript I wrote over several years - about six years in fact - and I still wouldn't say it's actually finished.

Anyway, suffice to say that I did change significantly as a writer between my first and second novels, with one of the biggest changes being my level of self-awareness. When I recently opened the old file and read the beginning of my first novel I was amazed at how clearly I could see what I had been doing wrong. Time, and experience, had brought a clarity I simply didn't have at the time. The lessons I learnt writing my first door-stopper travesty novel have given me a clearer blueprint for future writing projects.

So, for those still learning the ropes (or not sure where they're positioned on the road to being a self-aware writer!) I'm going to outline as simply as possible the major mistakes I made writing my first novel. And they were big ones! Keep in mind though, that these tips are mostly directed at those writing commercial fiction. And it's also important to remember that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. Even if you're just starting out you may already be doing correctly the things I struggled with for my whole first novel.

My newbie mistakes:
  1. Lots of telling, not much showing. My first manuscript was chock full of narrative and exposition. Long paragraphs of description. I've since learnt to show not tell, at least some of the time, and my work is better for it.
  2. Constant jumps in point of view. The story was told in third person. I had more than one point of view character (which is certainly permissible) but I changed from one person's point of view to another's and back again mid-scene. And if that's not done very skillfully (mine wasn't) it's just confusing. Make sure you know who your point of view character is, and stay with that person's point of view unless you have a reason for changing. If you change point of view, do so clearly (and not too often). In my writing now, I'll usually stay with one character's point of view for an entire scene. More on point of view here.
  3. Meandering scenes. My first manuscript was full of fluff. Sections of scenes or whole scenes which didn't pull their weight. They were 'filler material' and if I ever go back and work on this manuscript again, I'll be pruning ruthlessly. A scene should be included for a reason; it needs to give the reader required information, advance the plot, show us something important about the characters....I think you get the idea. If your scene doesn't have a solid purpose, give some serious thought to why you've included it.
I could go on, but the three mistakes outlined above were far and away the biggest cause of problems - for me, anyway. And the good news is, once you've identified things like these as problems you'll be aware of them for anything you write in the future and probably won't make the same mistake twice.

That's the theory, anyway. Thoughts, anyone?


charlotteotter said...

Yup, my experience was fairly similar, especially with the showing. Unlearning that was the hardest lesson and I'm not sure if I'm there yet.

My novel turned from literary fiction to crime, so while it's still the same setting and characters, the driving force has changed. There is almost no resemblance between draft one and draft eight, where I am now. However, I am grateful for all those drafts because they were where I learnt to write. The process was an amazing one for me, and still is.

Joanna St. James said...

The funniest bit is once you have gone past that stage it becomes easier to see your faux pas.
I tried explaining this to a first timer and i swear i have a new frenemy.

Madeleine said...

Yes there's lots to grasp in writing. I wish I kept some of my earlier MS's, I don't know why I allowed myself to ditch them I'd love to look back on them now. If you get a chance come join my halloween blog party. All welcome. :O)

Quinn said...

It's great that you've grown and can actually see it. I have the same issue with my first manuscript and #1. But the curious thing is it's just in the beginning of the book. I was sending chapters to betas as I completed them and they all commented on how my writing got stronger with each chapter.

Adina West said...

I'm heartened by the comments so far. Looks like I wasn't alone with my mistakes - and that the learning curve is a steep one for all of us when we're starting out. The good news is, we do learn - and we get better.

Thank heavens for that. ;-)

Rachael Harrie said...

I'm so there with you. Showing not telling is my number one enemy as well. Though I'm starting to find it in my own work now, rather than being completely oblivious as I used to be :)


erica and christy said...

I haven't given up hope on that first one yet. But I did change genres for the second, hoping some of the bad stuff from the 1st wouldn't try to creep its way in. But I'm sure some have, like "showing" and some dialogue issues. I hope that's what edits will be for! Good luck!

Hart Johnson said...

I have been seriously considering going back to my first book, too, and i REALLY hope that same kind of clarity comes! I had to edit down from 200K words, so I know a lot of the fluff has already been cleaned (that happens when you dump more than 60K) but I know there are still newbie mistakes in there. My latest intention is to convert it from 4 PoVs to just 2 and make it YA (my strongest voice is already my teen)--I think it dumps my weaker pieces, though means a fair amount of writing to then get that action in there... 2011 will be the year of the Edit.

kangaroobee said...

I am a p.o.v nightmare! And I don't think I'm much better. It seems to be easier with a rhyming novel for some reason. But yikes, I'm scared of reading my first novel again.

The Sisterhood said...

Adina, I was guilty of all of the above! (especially head-hopping and meandering scenes!) I identify with the nostalgia you felt when reading your first manuscript (mine took as long as yours but I wrote three complete drafts.) Those first works, written with blissful abandonment and innocence, came about so easily and freely. I haven't been able to write like that again (which is a good thing because I don't waste my time and effort in scenes that lead nowhere :).) However, I miss the freedom of writing without a care, assuming that those sacred rules of publishing didn't apply to my work. Now I'm very guarded when I write (I still enjoy it, but the experience is very different.)

Thanks for joining The Sisterhood blog!


Amanda said...

It's amazing the things we learn along the way. I remember sending in my first three chapters of my first attempt at a novel yonks ago and the agent saying *you've got to show more and tell less* - I didn't even know what she meant, that's how naive I was. But we all learn and grow - and hopefully ... one day ... we'll all get there!

Ann Best said...

I found you at D.L. Harmon. I was impressed with your comment about writing. I love psychological thrillers so I'd like to follow your writing journey. It's obvious you've learned a lot so far about writing, and I have no doubt you'll just keep improving!

Mary Mary said...

I feel your pain! The difference is, is that I love my first novel to this day. I reworked it entirely, it's won some awards, and it's gotten positive feedback from agents (but, of course, no one has room for it). With your first work, I really think it depends on what you learn and if the manuscript is salvageable. In my case, I really think it worked out fine for what I ended up with.

Adina West said...

@Mary Mary: I still love my first novel too - but I just can't quite face the task of fixing it. And it definitely needs fixing! There are scenes I really love in there though, so definitely, one day...

Hope your first novel finds the home it deserves one of these days!

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