Teaching Myself to Write a Novel: Part 1
Two and a half years ago, I decided to write a fiction novel. “I’ve loved books all my life—becoming an author is a natural progression!” I thought. “I’ve been a professional journalist for over a decade, I have the abilities and experience!” I assumed. “Crap books get published all the time, how hard can it be?” I asked. Well. Two and a half years, one horrible first draft, and three outlines later I’m…still working on writing that novel. Hubris, thy name is Past Katie!
I'm clearly no expert on the subject, that's for sure. But no one knows how to write their first book until they've done it—that's what makes the process so frustrating, painful, and—ultimately (I assume)—satisfying! When I first started in June 2018, I spent months sketching a messy outline, then toiled for four months writing a 65,000-word first draft that ended up being trash (figuratively and very, very literally—I ceremoniously burned the manuscript print-out in a fit of frustration). After that, I spent a few months thinking about the story and realized I didn't believe in it enough to see it through. I didn't want to quit, but I didn't know where to go from there. So I figured if I couldn't write, I'd learn. I read craft books, took classes, and studied the work and processes of writers I admire. This past spring, I came up with an entirely new story idea and spent four months researching and outlining it before I started my second-first-draft in September.
So why am I writing about writing my first novel when I haven't even finished writing said first novel? To procrastinate writing my novel, obviously.
I kid. (Mostly.) The only thing that's kept me going is sheer stubborn determination, and I've reached a point of no return in the process that's made me feel as though I'd like to document all the setbacks, lessons learned, and tiny victories celebrated along the way—like leaving little font breadcrumbs for me to follow once I'm (lord willing) holding my published debut novel in my hands, so I remember exactly what got me there. This is the "speak it to the universe" of blog series, I suppose.
Currently, in my first draft, I've just re-outlined the first act after getting 22,000 words in and realizing I was veering off track. I'm about to start all over again, possibly salvaging some of what I've already written, possibly not. I'm already exhausted. And yet I persist! So for this first installment of Novice Novelry (Nov[ic]el? Novicelry?) I'll dive into the resources that got me to this stage and what I've learned thus far. And then once I'm through the first act of my draft for real this time, I'll write about that process next.
First, I just want to say: if you're thinking about writing a book and you don't know any of this, it's okay! I didn't either! Culling through all the good, bad, and utterly pompous advice about writing a book has been overwhelming—it's also given me a whopping case of imposter syndrome. I don't have an MFA—how can I possibly understand the craft of creative writing? I've found that the answer is: by doing it, by sucking at it, by doing it again, by sucking at it a little less, rinse, repeat. The number of times I've wanted to quit is perpetually less than the number of times I've convinced myself to keep going, and that's all that matters.
The mostly-set-in-stone steps of writing a book are:
Outline. For me, knowing what to put in a novel outline involved a lot of Googling and reading of form books. Once you have a basic idea, you can make it your own. But not everyone outlines! If you do, you're a plotter (hi, it's me!). If you don't, you're a pantser (yes, as in fly-by-the-seat-of-your). Pantsers dive into their first draft and let the story reveal itself as they write—they don't mind doing a lot more work on their second drafts. Plotters like to know where they're going so they can wander off course with purpose. How your outline is structured and what it contains is completely up to you—as with everything about writing a first book, you have to do it a bunch of times before you find a technique that sticks. There are no shortcuts! I'm sorry!
First draft. There is no such thing as a good first draft, so just get that right out of your head. You will always forget to include stuff, you will never get all the details right, you will miss so many important things—that is the point. You are not going to be some miraculous exception who churns out a brilliant first draft. I'm telling you this because I need you to take the pressure all the way off before you begin. I also cannot stress this enough: agonizing over word usage, sentence structure, and other flowery choices is a waste of damn time. Most of what you write in your first draft is going to change. You can be in denial of this (my GOD have I been there, hello thesaurus dot com!), or you can accept it and put words on a page over and over until you type "the end." I constantly recall a brilliant nugget of wisdom writer Maya Rodale gave me—that, "The first draft is just you telling the story to yourself." I've begun to think of my first draft as an extended outline, which has made the daunting process of constantly confronting a blank page and blinking cursor somewhat more manageable. I even start a scene by copying its corresponding piece of the outline into my Word doc, then I cross off each part as I write it out.
Second draft. This is where you take the unwieldy, misshapen lump of clay that is your first draft and whittle away at it, scene by scene, act by act, until it's something resembling a book-like shape if you maybe squint at it and cover one eye. I haven't made it to this part of the process, but I'm already beginning to understand the questions that need to be asked in order to polish a draft thanks to a bunch of the resources I've listed in the study section below. I'm going to hold off from saying I'm looking forward to this step so as to save Future Katie a massive cringe.
Alpha and beta readers. These are the folks you trust enough to read your novel in progress and give you feedback. Alpha readers come first—they take a look at your super rough draft, and then beta readers are the people who peruse it once you've incorporated the feedback from your alpha readers. It is completely your choice when you send your draft to readers—you can do it after the first draft and before the second, after the second and before the third, etc. The point is: you definitely need some trusted outside opinions. Choose your alpha readers wisely—letting someone see your in-process work is incredibly intimate and nerve-wracking. Back in fall 2019, I sent my first try first draft to two very close, trusted friends. They were extremely kind and diplomatic with their feedback but, knowing now how I feel about that draft and story in general, I will never live down the embarrassment. This is why your alpha readers should ideally be people who've seen you belligerently drunk, naked, snotty-crying, or any combination thereof. You gotta know their love's unconditional.
Final draft. There's no number in front of "draft," here, and there's a reason for that. Your manuscript will go through as many re-drafts as necessary to get it into query-ready (more on that below) shape. You'll be incorporating feedback from multiple readers, working out scenes that don't quite fit, honing in on your protagonist's arc—and any number of other things. You also might find that you hate the process of editing and need to hire a freelance book editor. The possibilities—and amount of drafts—are endless! I remain shocked that any novel ever gets published at all because holy shit this is a JOURNEY. Books are tiny miracles, y'all!
Querying. This is the process of reaching out to book agents in hopes that one of them will represent you. Once you're lucky enough to acquire representation, your agent will then shop your manuscript around to publishers. It may sell! It may not! Representation does not guarantee publication! Honestly, why do we writers do this to ourselves?!?!?! ANYWAY. I'm only putting this under the "writing a book" part because it's not uncommon for agents you query to request a full manuscript, and then to send notes and ask that you re-submit once you've redrafted. If this is the case (and you agree with their comments), you'll need to go back and rework that bad boy, thus: the writing process continues.
Wow. This is already so long. If you're still with me, you're a champ. I spent the better part of a Sunday writing this, which should temper the sting of however long it takes for you to read it. But I digress (part of the problem, clearly!) Here's a list of all the resources that I've found helpful in my fiction writing journey.
Form books. Remember those words I used above—acts, scenes, etc.? This is how you'll learn what they mean and how to incorporate them into your own novel's structure. Most books are three acts (though some romance books observe a four-act structure). There's also a list of story beats you need to hit in a novel for it to be satisfying to read (aka: sellable). There are all different kinds of form books that cover every piece of the process—how to structure a scene, how to write believable dialogue, how to create character arcs, etc. When you're first learning, it's utterly crazy-making! All I can say is: read as much as you can until just before you feel overwhelmed, then take a break. Know that you'll never perfectly grasp every rule, but you'll come to understand them enough to embrace—or disregard—them. And know that much of this is learned during the act of writing (and re-writing, and re-writing...) Some of the most helpful general form books I've read are Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, Romancing the Beat, K.M. Weiland's workbooks, and Story Genius. But again, I implore you to not take what's outlined in these too literally—you'll drive yourself nuts trying to adhere to all of it. Know that the rules are more like guideposts to consider than hurdles to clear.
Narrative books. The best way to learn to write a book is to read them! Find a bunch of novels in the genre you're writing and go to town. Revisit books by your favorite authors. Make note of what you do and don't enjoy about each story, and pay attention to how dialogue and tense are written, how the setting is described, how tension is ramped up, etc. When I'm stuck in a scene, I consult my bookshelf for a similar story and see how someone else did it.
Podcasts. Whether they're hosted by authors or they feature interviews with writers you love, listening to people in the know talk through their process is soothing af. For instructional options, I love K.M. Weiland's Helping Writers Become Authors, Dave Chen and C. Robert Cargill's Write Along with David and Cargill, and Nina LaCour's Keeping a Notebook. Interview-wise, whatever you seek out should be based on your preferences. In my case, I haven't limited myself to interviews with fiction authors—screenwriters, in particular, have given me some fascinating insights. I love these two Phoebe Waller-Bridge interviews: How to Fail and The Hollywood Reporter's Awards Chatter. This episode of On Writing with Greta Gerwig is amazing. I recently joined writer Suleika Jaouad's Isolation Journals, and her studio visit with Elizabeth Gilbert was one of my favorites (if you sign up, you'll get access to that, along with the archive of all past studio visits!)
Classes. If you need an extra helping hand, seek out beginner writing workshops that cater to the type of book you're creating. The Center for Fiction hosts excellent classes, as does the Sackett Street Writers' Workshop. I ended up taking Nina LaCour's The Slow Novel Lab last year after learning about it through her podcast. I really appreciated that Nina taught with a hands-off approach re: rules, instead underscoring the fluidity of the creative process and emphasizing thoughtful character development.
Experts. Whatever your social media stream of choice, make sure it's chock full of your favorite writers, agents, and publishers. A lot of what they say about the industry will feel super inside baseball at first—don't let it intimidate you! The advice and wisdom they offer will become invaluable. Just one example: I followed agent Kate McKean on Twitter and it led me to her amazing Agents & Books newsletter.
Fellow writers. Whether you join a writing group or sync up with a writer buddy, it's super important to be able to bounce ideas off someone who understands the process of writing first-hand. Trust me, you are going to want to cry to someone about a scene you can't work your way through, or text someone at midnight to gleefully report a 4000-word day. It's also important for keeping yourself accountable. In my case, I'd be lost without my dear friend Jon, who has loads of screenwriting expertise and who I consult about literally every novel writing decision I make. I'm sure he loves it. Over the summer we started a tradition where we meet on Zoom once a week to discuss where I am in the process (I always have a list of questions for him hahaha SORRY JON) and then we watch and discuss a film related to what I'm working on. (Writing this out, I'm struck by how selfless Jon is. I need to send the man an Edible Arrangement or something!) When I was stuck and crying about how I just didn't get the three-act beat sheet structure, Jon told me to watch a film and literally write out every beat as I saw it happen. He said it'd be really hard at first, but it'd get easier with practice. And he was right! He's full of amazing advice like that. Find you a Jon, y'all.
You could fertilize the entire surface of the earth with the amount of shit no one tells you about what it's really like to try and write your first novel. Unfortunately, you kind of just have to wade your way through a lot of it until you reach higher ground. The best I can do is tell you what I've found surprising so far.
Journalism doesn't exactly prepare you for fiction writing. For one, a journalism assignment doesn't require years of sustained attention. The longest I've spent on a piece is three months. On the flip side, though: feature writing has trained me to stick with a subject for lengthy periods of time. But in the less obvious sense, each form of writing requires the flexing of vastly different mental muscles. In journalism, you're writing about factual things—you research and report and interview to amass your material, and you utilize an inverted pyramid format to string your narrative together. In fiction, you're writing about made-up things—you sketch and think and discuss to create your story, and you organize it in a three or four-act structure. I don't think starting out as a journalist has hindered my move into creative writing—it's certainly helped me hone my writing and researching skills—but it's also made me very, very rigid. While writing my novel, I'm being forced to un-learn a lot of the deadline, structure, and result-driven lessons my journalism work has taught me. I have so much respect for authors—this work requires an almost superhuman level of mental and emotional fortitude.
Your outline isn't done until your draft is. I spent four months on the outline for my current first draft. I was so damn proud of myself when I finished! And then, as I mentioned, I got 22,000 words into my first act and realized something was off. I had to pull apart my Act 1 outline and completely rearrange and rewrite it. I spent a day crying about it before I came to the conclusion that I never could've gotten to that point of understanding if I hadn't written all those words first. Writing your first draft creates ripple effects that touch everything that comes next. Once I'm done writing Act 1, I'll have to do the same thing for the outlines of the next two acts—possibly more than once! No matter how much you plan, you won't be able to get ahead of it.
Draft writing is not a one-way journey down a straight road. Fumbling and backtracking are two load-bearing pillars of the draft-writing process. There are some very dark days when the only thing that keeps you in the game is the belief in your story. You need to dispel the romantic idea of sitting down and writing a first draft in a fever of inspiration. Writing your first draft is thinking about it, outlining it (and re-outlining it), discussing it, and expending precious word count simply getting yourself to a different understanding so you can delete everything and start again. Finding your way to the truth of your story doesn’t mean churning out words—you have to really think about what you’re writing as you’re writing it. It’s not just words on a page, it’s how’s and why’s that create a butterfly effect for all your future plans, no matter how well-laid. The process is often a one step forward, two steps back puzzle. A successful writing day doesn’t always boil down to added words or pages. It is made far, far easier if you can find your way into some kind of excitement about the fact that it is a creative, non-linear process. I’m trying very hard to retrain my journalist, assignment-driven brain about that last part.
Not all advice is good. And yes, that includes mine! I don't care how best-selling the author or degreed the teacher: if what they say makes you feel bad, they're no good for you. A pretty well-known YA author once told me, "Your first draft is like falling in love. Your second draft is like making the relationship work." I was struggling mightily through my first draft at the time, and I thought, "Damn—if it's this bad already, why am I even bothering? If that's not my experience, I must be doing something wrong! Maybe I'm not cut out for this." NOPE! Some people just like to rhapsodize their personal experience into fact. If you come across advice that discourages you, disregard it. Here's an example: an oft-cited "rule" is that you need to read at least 100 books in the genre you're writing before you start. Boy, bye. How is that helpful?! Read as much as you can of what you love, and the writing will follow. Maybe your story will end up being a combination of genres and you'll create something new that no one's ever read before! You get to say who tells you what about this process. Pay attention to what makes you feel capable, motivated, excited, and creative—and screw the rest!
NaNoWriNOPE. I get how NaNoWriMo is all about community and instilling good daily work habits. But frankly, I hate it. This sprint-like braggadocios event where people hit and report back on their daily pages and word counts can be at best intimidating and at worst super harmful to the creative process. Personally, I feel it breeds competitiveness, unrealistic expectations, and it underscores the aforementioned romantic myth about writing. No matter how popular, if this type of group event gives you feelings of inadequacy, please know that it's not through some fault of yours. As with the advice you gravitate to: only seek out participatory events that motivate you in a supportive, nurturing way.
To be continued on the flip side of Act 1!