Five Things To Avoid When Writing Your First Book
On Monday, I wrote about five of the things I learned writing my first book that I wish I'd known earlier. I'm following that article up today with five things to avoid when writing your first book. These are lessons I learned along the way that made a huge difference in my growth as a writer and in my ability to complete my bo
Don't get hung up on research
I love doing research. Give me a topic, and I will research every aspect of it and be an armchair expert by dinner. When I first started my novel, I found myself taking two approaches to research––neither of which were successful. The first was researching everything I thought I needed to know and all the questions I thought I needed to answer before I began to draft at all. I did that for a few months before I had to call myself out for what I was: a virtuous procrastinator wanting to stay in my comfort zone rather than write a novel. The second was research what I needed to know when I needed to know it, as it came up in my writing. The result was the same: the pace and flow of my writing suffered. I stopped making progress on my novel, but I had a notebook full of information I'd researched. That's when I changed tactics. That's when I tabled all research, and just made myself focus on writing the actual story.
A caveat: if you're writing historical fiction or if your project is period-based, you'll need some beginning research. I'm not talking to you here (though I do think the message of limiting your research to only what is necessary to get started drafting still holds). Beyond that, I think most novels don't need much research to at least begin the writing process, and many finished books would benefit from more emphasis on story construction and character development and less on getting the research right. For myself, I started inserting "(XXXXX)" wherever I knew I needed information as I drafted. Whether that was deciding on the name of a bar in a scene or referencing an historical event, the insertion of that text allowed me to push forward with my draft while signaling to myself that I needed to pull from external information. As much as those x's irritated me, I made myself ignore them and keep writing, knowing I'd return to them once the draft was complete. So if you find yourself in research mode, especially while sitting in front of an unfinished draft, I suggest taking a hard look at whether virtuous procrastination may be at the root of your stalled writing.
Don't over plan or overwork your characters
I once read a blog that included a downloadable pdf with a three-page character sketch sheet. I printed one for each of the main players in my manuscript, and then I spent about a month filling them all out. Imagine my frustration when, as I drafted, my characters wanted to do things I hadn't anticipated and become people I didn't recognize. This is one reason I'm skeptical of the plotting model. Maybe I'm a unicorn (hint: I'm not), but my relationship with my characters is co-creative. They show me who they want to be, and I help them be better versions of that. Again, that happens in the drafting process. If, between this post and my last one, you're started to feel like I'm advocating for some radical, jump-in-feet-first, messy, fast drafting process, you're right. Most of the recommendations I'm making today come down to one central theme: stop do all the shit that circles around drafting and just draft.
When I do astrology work, I'm careful to emphasize to my clients the notion that zodiac signs (Gemini, Leo, etc.) don't enact karma; planets in places (houses) do. It's great to learn about your sign, but it's only lip service until you place that sign in a house ruled by a planet. The same goes with writing. Talking and thinking and planning about characters is fun, but it's only lip service until you put that character into a world and let them do stuff. That's when and where the magic happens. Through revision, those characters will become more and more developed, their motives more apparent. But only in revision, not on a worksheet, not in a sketchbook, not on a white board.
Don't revise as you go
This was a huge challenge for me. I'm a tweaker when it comes to my writing, so the notion of continuing to move forward when I knew what I'd written needed revising, felt like going against the very grain of the universe. Okay, that may be a little dramatic, but not much. I spent so much time revising what I now refer to as my zero draft. I outlined chapters, wrote, rewrote, overwrote, but all I really accomplished was spinning my writing wheels. Only the tiniest fraction of that zero draft in recognizable in the manuscript as it stands now. Someone might argue that I needed to write all those words in order to get to where the manuscript ended up, but I don't think that's true. I think revising as I went along became another form of virtuous procrastination. It's probably not a coincidence that the places I spent the most time revising were the ones where I didn't know what came next. Instead of just allowing myself to free write, I focused on the minutia of what came before. I'd compare it to a seamstress putting the finishing touches on the sleeve of a shirt before sewing the entire shirt. It makes no sense, but it allows you to feel like you're making progress. All you're really doing, though, is pandering to your inner perfectionist, and I promise you, your inner projectionist will never complete a manuscript. Write and move on; save revisions for the next draft.
Don't allow anyone to read your zero draft
I love receiving surprises, but I am terrible at giving them. If I buy a gift for someone, I want to give it to them right away. I used to be the same way with my writing. I'd be so excited, I wanted to share my work with the people closest to me right away. The problem is when you share your work you invite feedback, and when a project is in its infancy, that feedback can shape its outcome. It's almost like you've invited another cook into the kitchen except you're still writing the recipe, so anything they add at that earliest stage is going to alter your finished product. I am now of the opinion that zero drafts get shared with no one. Maybe even the first couple drafts get shared with no one. In those stages, you're still developing the recipe. That time alone between you and your creation is precious and necessary in order for your story to fully reveal itself to you.
Don't forget to refill your creative cup
The Internet is filled with stories about all the ways in which writers write. We love to hear about an author's writing routine or about their software setup. We don't often ask, and aren't often told, about how they care for themselves as creatives. The act of writing, the act of creating, can come to be understood on the same level as any employee completing any task or working any job, but the creative process is different. In order to maintain an energetic output of creative energy, we have to refill that well. The things I always want to know from working authors is what they do to fuel their creativity, how they keep their imaginations fired up. For me, most of my "writing" time is spent getting in an energetic space to write. That means participating in some physical activity like brisk walking or weightlifting or a Pilates session. It means meditating and lighting my creativity candle. It means dabbing an essential oil I only use when I'm creating on the pulse points at my wrists. Writing means spending my weekends outdoors, exploring the world around me and taking a ton of pictures. It means game night and attending local festivals. Writing is working on a different kind of art project like a painting or a sketch. All of those things I do to refill my creative cup enable my efforts as a writer. I've learned that the more I prioritize creative play, the easier my writing sessions have become. So the next time you find yourself sitting at a desk staring into an empty page, maybe put the writing away. Go for a walk. Take in a play. Do something to fuel your creative spirit before you attempt to make a withdraw from it.
What writing lessons have you learned as you've written your manuscript? I'd love to hear and tips you have to share.