Five Things I Learned Writing My First Book That I Wish I'd Known Earlier
I started writing my first book sometime in 2019. Here it is, 2022, and I'm still in final edits, preparing to query this summer. When I look back, I don't regret any stage of this arduous process, because it has made me the writer I am today. That said, had I known and trusted the things on this list earlier, my path to completion may have been more linear, and I definitely could have saved myself some words (I've currently written about 350,000 words for what is ultimately an 80,000 word novel). So in the hopes of helping another emerging author, here are the five things I learned writing my first book that I wish I'd know ea
Fast draft the first draft.
I started calling my first drafts zero drafts, because that language helps me give them less weight. I spent so much time planning and plotting and tweaking and revising my first draft only to have it gutted in revisions. I actually ended up doing a full rewrite after the zero draft, because as the characters developed, I could see the arc of the story more clearly. Reading my shoddy zero draft helped me go on to write the book I did. Had I not put so much investment in what is the most basic skeleton of a story, I could have saved a lot of time and a lot of words. Also, don't worry about word count or chapter lengths in this draft. The zero draft serves one purpose: get a semi-succinct and workable rough sketch of a story down in words.
A note on the pantser vs planner writing style: I think fast drafting works for both. I started out more of a planner, because I thought I needed to know everything about my story before I got writing. Now I'm a diehard pantser. When I start a project, I have the idea of the main character, what they want, and where the story needs to end up, but that's it. And as I write, a lot of that changes anyway. Characters evolve with words, and so their motivations become more clear to me. Trying to force that process on the front end has not worked for me at all, and I wonder how well it works for anyone. So yes, even if you're a planner, I suggest planning only what you absolutely feel you have to in order to get writing, and then write that zero draft as fast as you can. That leads me to the second thing I learned writing my first book.
Take a four-week break between drafts and keep reader feedback to a minimum
Okay, so this is common advice in the writing world, but some of us are more stubborn than others and we need to experience it ourselves. Fast draft that zero draft and then lock it in a drawer for four weeks. Don't let anyone read it, especially you. At the end of the four weeks, take it out, and read it front to back. If you're like me, you'll think it's the worst thing anyone has ever written, but you'll see what the draft is trying to do (away from your heavy writing hands) and ways that you can help it achieve its goal. Or, as in my case, you'll see how you were trying to make it one thing, when the document clearly wanted to be something else. Either way, the distance will be beneficial for both your sanity and your creativity. I recommend (if deadlines allow) taking a four-week break between all drafts or versions of your manuscript (how many versions you'll have depends on your writing style. I've rewritten and revised my manuscript eight times over three years. This is the luxury of the first novel).
Make a detailed outline of each chapter after you've written it (and for every version)
When the day comes to release the manuscript from its locked drawer––and after you've read it front to back––go through chapter by chapter and type a detailed outline of the story. This is especially important if you're writing a series, but I find it works well for most writers regardless. Writing is revising, and story details can get lost in the revision process. Timelines can blur; it's a lot to remember. I found myself pouring back through chapters to look up when an event happened or what I'd named the cat in chapter four. A detailed outline serves as roadmap for the writer.
This isn't the kind of outline a plotter makes to begin the writing process. Much less formal, this outline is a list of major events and details in each chapter. You're basically creating a quick-reference guide for your own story. I didn't do this until my fourth version maybe, but when I finally did it was a game-changer in terms of time and accessibility. I'll admit that as the revisions piled up, this exercise felt redundant and I wanted to skip it. I didn't, though, and I'm glad. Having an up-to-date outline of my story made looking up details for revision easy. When it came time to write the dreaded story synopsis, I was able to write the entire thing from my outline alone.
Establish a consistent naming system for your files
I really struggled with organization for the first year or so of this process. I started out writing in Pages, then I tried my damnedest to fall in love with Scrivener (because that's what all the cool kids use, right?). I had files everywhere––Dropbox, iCloud, OneDrive, my desktop––and my relationship with Scrivener never took off much to my irrational sadness. I can't feel constrained when I write. I hate Word. That's worth repeating: I hate Word. Because I couldn't find a writing system I liked, I didn't have a naming system that worked. As the revisions and support documents piled up, my files became harder to locate and organize. I think maybe this isn't as hard for some people as it was for me. Cool. Good for them, but I struggled.
I have since trained myself (i.e., forced my soul into obedience) to write directly in Word. While I still prefer Pages, Word is the industry standard, and I'd rather be used to working in it. I have multiple backups up my writing, and I have a meticulous naming system that is simple and works for me. I give each writing project a shortened title and list the version of the draft first, then the type of document. So the third revision of my query letter for Marjorie Flack looks like, ver3_Query_Flack. Having a structured naming system has made all the difference for me in terms making the business side of writing easier.
Identify yourself as a writer...because you are.
Imposter syndrome runs rampant in creative communities, especially writing. I have an entire article on the importance of claiming your identity as an artist here. When I look back at myself as a writer three years ago––despite the fact that I'd written and published academic articles, had ran a successful academic journal, and nearly completed a dissertation––I see a woman steeped in insecurity and doubt. I'm sure those feelings were influenced by a lot in my life, but the notion that I was somehow able to write a book was definitely at the forefront. I didn't feel like a writer. Even though I studied the craft, even though I communicated with writers, and even though I wrote everyday, I didn't feel authorized to claim the title for myself. And my writing suffered because of it.
When I was a Registered Nurse training new nurses, I gave them this whole talk about the importance of their attitude and how they carried themselves when they first introduced themselves to a patient. People in hospital beds decide in about five seconds if they can trust you. If you walk into a room with slumped shoulders, soft-spoken, and barely making eye contact, you're gonna be in for a long night. The patient won't trust you, and so they won't talk with you about things going on with them. They won't tell you important symptoms or ask you for the things they need, because they don't feel safe with you. In the nurse-patient interaction, such a relationship can be dangerous to the patient. I found it works the same way in writing. Characters want to know you can handle their story, that they can trust you to do the job and carry it to completion. If you present yourself as unsure or if you internalize the imposter syndrome, I believe it alters your writing. I see it time and again in working with coaching clients.
We forget we're always in a state of co-creating. Our attitudes, our subconscious programming is always a main player in what our world looks like, in what we create. Now, I feel like a writer, no doubt about it. But the only that changed between three years ago and now is all the personal growth and development work I've done, all the trauma healing work I've engaged with. What's changed now isn't my writing; it's what I believe about my writing and about myself.
So tell everyone and anyone who will listen that you're a writer. Make an author website. Change your social media bio, even if it feel like a mask at first. Make the change, and watch how quickly your life shifts to match your description. People don't become writers once they get publishes. Only writers ever get published in the first place.