Five Things I Learned Writing My First Novel (and what you should avoid!)

Did you know roughly 80% of Americans aspire to write a book? Also, that most (some disparagingly high percent I won’t bore you with) of them–like millions of people–will never write the book burning in their hearts. While that number is high and surprised me when I first heard it, the stat that most people never end up writing that novel did not. Why?

Because writing a book is damn hard.

Did you know roughly 80% of Americans aspire to write a book? Also, that most (some disparagingly high percent I won’t bore you with) of them–like millions of people–will never write the book burning in their hearts. While that number is high and surprised me when I first heard it, the stat that most people never end up writing that novel did not. Why?

Because writing a book is damn hard.

And, in my opinion, writing your first book is the hardest of them all. The inertia of writing the first book, which is usually not so great compared the subsequent ones (especially after the first draft), is difficult to overcome and most people simply can’t/won’t/don’t want to do it.

Fair enough. There are lots of things I can’t/won’t/don’t want to do in my life, but writing books is not one of them! Still, I honestly think more people can write that book burning in their hearts if they simply prepared themselves for the realities of what writing a book means. Hint: Not usually romantic days at the coffee shop, occasionally staring out the window, and then typing out gold. Though, good grief I wish it was!

As I’m currently writing my seventh novel (three of which are in current stages of drafts), I feel like I finally have enough perspective to communicate what I learned writing my first. Some of these tips, specifically the last three, may be more suited to an indie author, but I think they’re all valuable. So, here it goes!

  1. It will take WAY longer than you think to write that novel. Like exponentially longer. This is one of the hallmarks that makes a first book stand out from the ones that come after. And the reason why it takes longer is simple:

You are learning gobs about writing a book by actually doing it.

This is the best way to learn (IMO) but takes so damn long. And can be very disheartening. Especially, when you get to the end of your first draft, which probably took years, and realize it’s not very good (there may be some exceptions to this, but I haven’t met any).

Just know, you’re in good company there and that most of the writing is actually editing anyhow. Once you start editing that sucker you can make it better, what you want it to be, what you dreamt it would be. But it won’t just spring into existence like that, especially not in a weeks time, or hell even a few month’s time!

If you think writing is for you just know now, you must be patient with yourself.

2) Not everyone’s an expert. 

Once you have that first draft done and have gone through it a few times it’s time to find some beta readers!

SIDE NOTE: PLEASE never ask anyone to beta read your first (Hell, even your second draft, unless you’re doing a beta swap). Like I said, the first draft of your first novel probably isn’t very good, and I consider it disrespectful to ask someone to put in their time reading something that the author has barely edited. If you do this, be prepared for those who offered their time not to finish reading your work.

Now that that’s out of the way!

Finding beta readers can be fun, and a lot of people can be a pleasure to work with and learn from, but there’s always two sides to every coin. For Prophecy of Three, my debut novel I had about 15 beta readers. I felt having so many opinions could only help me make it as good as it could be.

Man, was I wrong.

Yes, a lot of readers had great input and I took their advice into consideration and I believe it made the book better. But some people–some people–let me tell you, they just want to hear themselves talk. These are often the people who are the harshest (not constructive, just cruel-which I’ve been lucky to avoid for the most part), or say the exact opposite of what others say. However, in my opinion, the worst beta readers to have are people who do not understand or enjoy the genre you are writing.

For example, one time I had a beta reader continually comment on the lack of romance in a novella I was tinkering with. Then, when it got to the end and hinted at a romance said the novella should have started there, at the very end. But my novella wasn’t about the romance, it was about one woman’s journey through a tough time . . . the romance would come later and I wasn’t really interested in that. This woman, as you may guess, is a romance writer, whereas I am a fantasy/paranormal writer who dabbles in romance from time to time. My work is not about romance, nor did I tell her it was (that’s another thing, be clear to your beta readers what they are signing up for!). Her expectations were unrealistic and therefore I had to discount much of what she said. Not a win-win for either of us. I feel like if I was a newer writer and less confident in my ability I would have taken all her advice to heart along with my other beta readers good advice and been very confused. Side note: Every other beta reader understood the story as a non-romance and liked it, so I don’t feel like discounting her opinion is out of line in the slightest.

Be clear about what you’re writing (stick to 1-2 genres when describing), find beta readers in your genre, and don’t give them your crappy first draft.

3) Your novel is not a multi-cross genre novel, and if it is, there’s probably a problem. 

I see this ALL THE TIME, and I DID IT TOO. 😉 We write our first novel and think there are so many unique elements of all the genres we’re ever read. It’s fantasy-sci-f-historical fiction-womens adventure-AND-crime thriller all wrapped into one. It will appease all audiences! It will sell!

Nope.

You’re just going to confuse a hell of a lot of people. Also, if you’re considering indie publishing this is terrible for your marketing. Probably it isn’t great for pitching agents focused on traditional publishing either. Like I said, too confusing, and people don’t want to be confused when they read a book. They want to be swept away! Entertained! Immersed in a different life! Learn something (non-fic). Not think: What the hell was that I just read?

Let’s put it this way, you’re trying to please everyone with one mega-book. But it will never work (maybe if the book is a million pages long but whose going to read that?!). Instead of trying to please everyone, please a niche you love.

So, instead of putting all your amazing ideas into one book, probably making it harder on yourself, why don’t you just pick a few? A few ideas that fit nicely within the parameters of 1-2 genres and go from there?

You’ll have a much easier time finding an audience and that’s a major key to a writers success.

4) Keep your expectations low and you’ll be much happier with your results.

Of course, everyone, and I do mean everyone, wants that spectacular, best-selling debut novel. And because everyone wants this novel and the experience that comes along with it, that means it is very unlikely you (or I-oh wait this already wasn’t my experience!)  will be the one to get it.

I believe the lightening-strike, millionaire-making debut thinking is even more prevalent in the traditional publishing community. Which is unfortunate, since the fact is that most debut novelists in the traditional publishing industry do not even earn out their advance, let alone become a bestseller.

At least in indie (independent author) community, there’re subcultures such as the 20 books to 50K community, where the numbers tend to think of their writing career as a marathon, not a sprint. Something to build over time through hard work, learning from each experience, and growing with your craft. This is the belief I subscribe to as well.

In fact, I did not want my first novel to be the best thing I’ve ever written, the thing people knew me for, the shining star in my career. Because after that the only way to go is down and I figured it would be pretty anti-climactic and sad to peek before I knew what the hell I was really doing. To be honest, as I was nearing the end of my drafting of Prophecy of Three the idea of keeping my expectations low for my first book launch seriously saved my mental health when I actually launched the book.

I’m not saying my book flopped. It still sells, and will continue to sell; I hope even more so when I begin to experiment with paid advertising. It’s a good book, and I know it. But it’s probably not the best book I’ve ever written or will right. And that’s OK because I was prepared to grow with every book, and not have a mega best seller the first time around. I didn’t expect miracles to happen or hordes of crazy fans to come out and buy it or to make it on the Today Show. I expected to sell my book for years to come, fulfill a lifelong goal, and launch myself into a new career.

And, if you want a healthy author career that spans years, perhaps even decades, I suggest you think of your career as a marathon and not a sprint as well.

5) Probably one of the most important things I learned from publishing my first book and the thing I wish I’d done more of, was to give away as many books as possible to strangers.

Yes, I know, you (and I) spent years working on this one project. Shouldn’t we be paid for it? The answer, of course, is yes. Artists should be paid for their work. We should not be expected to entertain people for free just as starlets are not expected to star in movies for free and athletes are not expected to play in arenas for entertainment, while the team owner reaps all the financial benefits. But seriously, that post for another day. And while I believe we should be paid for our work, I also believe that as a new author, on your first, second, or even third book (depending on your specific scenario), it’s in your best interest to get your book into as many hands as possible. Get as many eyeballs on it without making it a hassle for those eyeballs.

This means giving away your book for free.

And before you start wailing about it, just remember, the traditional publishing industry has been doing this for YEARS. Why? Because it works. People talk about things they love or hate. If you want people to talk about your book, you have to make it easy for them to get it. If they don’t know you, this may mean flat out approaching them (or more likely posting about it) and offering that book up for free! No barrier to entry.

Since Prophecy of Three’s release, I have learned to give out more advanced reader copies. And since I’ve done so, my sales have improved. With each free copy given, the chance that a reader reviewed it was higher. With that review being public, another person is more likely to hear of my book and buy it. In short, if you give out a free book and that reader has any sort of social media or friends or family or voice that they like people to hear (who doesn’t?), it’s possible they will tell someone else about your book. And that is how you get the ball rolling on the best form of organic marketing–word of mouth.

Honestly, I could go on. There are many more things I learned after publishing my first book, but those are probably the top ones and I can’t go on writing for forever because I have books to write, you know? So, I’ll leave it there for the day and save any other tips for future articles. If you’re already an author, or are an aspiring writer, and would like to leave a comment or question, I’d love to hear your thoughts. What was the biggest thing you learned about publishing? What are you discovering for yourself if you’re writing your first novel?

And please, now that you’ve read about my experience, try not to make the same mistakes I did. 😉

Happy writing!

Where do you get your ideas?

Where do you get your ideas? I think it’s kind of a funny question, to be honest.

Where do you get your ideas? This has to be the question writers, and probably other creatives (a term I define fairly broadly), get most often. I think it’s kind of a funny one, to be honest. For me, I never feel a shortage of ideas. I’m currently only three books (of five) into writing The Bonegates Series and already I have another fantasy-dystopian-esque series, concerning Portland, witches, a plethora of tattoos, and talking crows brewing in the back of my mind!

But still, people ask it, so I’d like to try and answer where my ideas come from. Clearly, this is different for different people, so don’t take this as prescriptive advice. It’s merely my situation.

  1. My most influential source of ideas is other books. Or audiobooks (found for free at your local library or pay for an audible subscription) for those people who are about to tell me they don’t have time to read but have a commute and a smartphone. Guess what? You also have time to read! Personally, I believe to be a writer, especially a fiction writer, you have to be a reader and you have to read widely. That being said, many people disagree with this idea. They claim that if they read other people’s works they won’t be able to come up with original content. To that I say, “Do you really think your work is that original?” I can’t think of a single book, show, movie, etc that is NOT derivative of SOMETHING. Let’s cut the BS. It’s all been done before, stop being so precious about being creative. What hasn’t been done is your (or my) particular spin on what has been done before. No one other person on Earth has had your exact life experience and you bring your particular experience to your story. Your experience, your words, your life, and your spin are what makes the story special.
  2. Film is another hotbed of ideas. Sometimes, when I’m actually trying to study pacing (which I think film gets right more often than novels because they have to) or a character I know is particularly well done in a film and I want to emulate I’m all attention, taking it in. I’ve even been known to take a note or two. Most of the time, however, when I watch a movie or show my brain is off. I read all day and to just be able to sit back and not actively work to take in a story is a really nice reprieve. Still, my brain is working when I’m trying to be a vegetable! In fact, just recently, I watched a movie and a single line said as a joke by one particularly annoying character spawned an opening scene of a novel I’d like to write one day. A single line out of thousands! That’s pretty amazing and I bet that if you let your mind wander where it will on whatever interests you in a movie/show you too could easily find inspiration to create.
  3. Folklore/religion/myths are personal favorites for sources of inspiration because I try to inject a little bit of them into every project I write. Even my most urban and contemporary ideas will have something, a line, a subplot, a character which harkens back to one of these cultural aspects. It’s how I make my world richer, more full. I may never tell the reader explicitly that is what I did (though I often do), but I’ll know, and perhaps a few very perceptive readers will catch it. In some of my works like The Starseed Trilogy, my love for mythology and studying religion is quite obvious.
  4. Writers can often be known for being hermits, and I’m not going to lie, I do like being at home, alone, in the quiet and writing. I like it a lot. But if that was all I did how would I ever be able to accurately represent the world around me? You could say other books and film but those are only a person/person’s spin on what is around you. Easily manipulated, just as your worldview is. And maybe that’s OK to write from another person’s worldview, but not for me. I want to write from mine and to do that, I have to get outside. Walk your neighborhood, go to a coffee shop, watch and listen on the metro instead of staring at your phone, do whatever is accessible to you! The outside world is rife with inspiration, but you have to get out there to find it.
  5. Podcasts are a wealth of inspiration! Even after I listen to the purely informative/business ones I usually come out with an idea for some sort of project (it may veer more towards marketing – but that’s still creative right?). If you don’t listen to podcasts specializing in the industry you are interested in, you are really missing out on a wellspring of free, accessible if you have a smartphone, usually well researched (do your homework people, don’t just listen to any Tom, Dick, or Henrietta), and you can listen on the go.
  6. Kids. I don’t have kids, but I do watch children at a daycare occasionally. Not to mention, many of my friends have kids and let me tell you, they are never without some sort of crazy inspiration! If you’re uninspired sometimes it helps to look to someone who is inspired. Look to your child, go to a park and sit on a bench and just listen to what they are saying (in a non-creepy manner please). You can find some gold nuggets in those tiny-humans because their imagination is limitless and often, they have little filter. If you’re not into the idea of hanging around kids, perhaps try to invite a sense of child-like wonder into your day. Do a cartwheel just because. Color. Sprint down the street grinning. Do anything you’ve ever seen a child do, perhaps it will spark a bit of inspiration in your own life.

I could go on, but those are definitely my tops sources of inspiration. I think the key is to keep your eyes open. LISTEN more than you speak because if you’re busy talking how are you ever going to notice anything else happening around you? If you listen now you can use your voice later, like when you want to launch your awesome new creation into the world.

Now, go forth and create.

Character Motivations (?) Writer Talk

Please prepare for some major writerly musings . . . 
As an author, I’ve received the feedback

Please prepare for some major writerly musings . . .

As an author, I’ve received the feedback “I’m not sure this character knows what they want”, one or two times. I’ve also given that same feedback and felt it justified giving it. However, the more I read and research the craft, the more I begin to question if that feedback is helpful. I question this for one primary reason:

How many people do you know in life, who actually, seriously, one hundred percent know what they want?

Yeah . . . I know, right? If you have an extremely self-aware group of friends and family, I’d still expect this answer to be “not a lot”. I only recently realized what I wanted to do for a career and I’d been thinking about that for . . . oh, only about half my life. And this knowing what you want thing extends to much more than just a career! There are so many other aspects of life one could question what they want. Kids? Marriage or no? Where to live? What should I eat? What sort of movement practice is best for me? Political parties? Religion?

Every time you answer or even attempt to answer, one of these questions, I swear five more spring up.

Recently when I read about younger characters (young adult genre or new adult genre) I try to cut them some slack. It’s entirely possible they have no idea what they want, and you know what? I don’t blame them! I’ve always found it ridiculous that we ask a 16-year-old to choose what he/she wants to do for the rest of their lives. Most adults don’t even know what they want in life (I’ll cut them slack too), why do teenagers need to know? Societal pressure is why so many people are searching hard for something else to fulfill them. Or spend time procrastinating on social media instead of pursuing the thing they claim to want (side hustle, a book deal, a happy family, a pre-paid trip to Bali). Maybe the character is meant to act a little sporadic (obviously there are limits because I don’t need to know everything the character does-I only have so much time for a book) and make some bad choices that don’t seem in line with their “wants” because you know what? THEY HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THEY WANT ANYHOW. I mean, maybe they do, however, if the story is well-crafted that will probably change anyhow around 50-60%. Plus, the addition of seemingly crazy behavior is not only realistic, but it’s likely adding conflict, which is necessary for any story.

People not knowing what they want and acting a little crazy to figure it out is a truth in life.

So, now when I read and come across a character who doesn’t seem to know what they want I think that character is simply believable. Astringent “want” is no longer needed for me to feel satisfied. As long as they figure out their real “want” eventually in the story and complete their arc I’m usually happy anyhow. For the rest, I’m just along for the ride.