Sunday, August 30, 2009

What I Wished I'd Known Before Writing My First Novel


I came across this topic Friday while reading some of the writing blogs I follow. What started as a single blog post seems to have become sort of a mini-MEME. It started over at the Creative Penn. Joanna Penn blogged about what she wishes she'd known before writing her first book. Then Alexis Grant, at Aspiring Author, picked up the theme and blogged about what she wished she'd known. Her post has a slightly different spin than Ms. Penn's because Ms. Grant is writing her memoirs instead of a novel. The next to take up the issue was J. Timothy King at be the story.

As I followed the links, I started me thinking -- Kate, quit snickering. I KNOW it's dangerous when I think. But what can I say? It happens sometimes. -- Anyway, I started thinking about what I wished I'd known before writing my first novel.

As a point of clarification, I don't mean any of those so-called books I've written that have been forever banished under my bed or in the far corner of my closet. Nor does it mean any of those that became the fodder for bonfires before Sarah started threatening to hurt me if I didn't quit playing with fire. I'm still not sure if she meant burning those pages I most certainly would not want someone finding and reading if anything ever happened to me or just telling her I'd done so. Hmmm. Maybe it's the latter and I can finish burning the rest of those pages....

Oh, sorry, back to the point. What I wished I'd known before writing my first novel, in this case, Nocturnal Origins:
  1. How important it is to have a core group of readers who will tell you the truth about your baby and be supportive at the same time. Critique groups are wonderful, as are first readers. But so often they tend to simply say the book is good or bad without specifics. I've been fortunate enough to have several people, writers all, who have taken the time to mentor me and help me through the process, pointing out where I needed to change or fix something, without ever making me feel like I was an idiot for wanting to be a writer.
  2. It can be as hard, sometimes even harder, to find an agent than it is a publisher. The corallary to this is that you don't have to have an agent to find a pubisher. It just takes more research and hard work.
  3. Research is not limited to what you need to make your novel believable. It also extends to where you are going to try to sell the book, marketing trends, etc. In other words, a writer has to be much more than a writer.
  4. Don't expect to hear from everyone you send a query/pages to. This is especially true with agents. More and more of them now say in their guidelines that they only respond if they are interested. I should probably understand that but, well, I don't. In this day and age of email, it doesn't take much to send a form rejection if you don't like something or if you feel it isn't right for your agency.
  5. How hard it is to turn loose of your baby and send it off. It's like sending your child off to that first day of school. You've lived with the novel for weeks or months -- or more -- and now you're sending it off into the world without you.
  6. You have to have a thick skin. No matter how much you prepare yourself for that first rejection -- or the tenth or the one hundredth -- it's never easy to hear that someone doesn't love your novel as much as you do. If you take the rejection too close to heart, it becomes harder and harder to write. Me, well, I think all those rejections make a nice conversation peice, especially when applied to the walls like wall paper ;-p
  7. Patience truly is a virtue in this business. It takes time to research for a book. Time to write it. Time to edit it and, most of all, time to hear back after you've sent it off.
So, to steal from Ms. Penn, as a writer, what do you wish you'd known before starting your first writing project?

16 comments:

Kate said...

Things I wish I'd known...

1. How to plot. (I'm actually serious here. I had a vague idea of what constituted a story, but mostly let it happen. Messy)

2. How hard it is to judge your own work. This causes much paranoia when I'm convinced I've got something horribly wrong but no-one else can see it. Knowing I can't judge what I write until I've put some mental and emotional distance between me and it helps.

3. What a difference an edit makes. A good edit can turn okay into "wow!" and a bad one can turn great into "why bother?"

4. A finished novel does not mean the end of the process. I had no clue about how to sell the things, I just wrote them. Now I'm learning how to sell them, and it's a whole lot harder than writing them.

matapam said...

If I'd known too much, I might never have started.

There's a lot to be learned, just floundering around cluelessly. Even if it's just learning that you need help, and maybe even a clue about what questions to ask.

Alexis Grant said...

Great list! Wish everyone would do this so we could all learn from each other.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Great ist of links, Amanda.

When do you get time to do all this web surfing?

Amanda Green said...

Kate, I agree with everything you listed and they are in my top 10. When I first started this, I had no idea how to plot -- still not sure I do, but at least I'm better at bluffing my way through it. As for judging my own work -- eeeeeep! I can't. I'm in love with it one moment, hate it the next and despair of ever writing anything worthwhile after that. Your other two are spot on and things I'm still working to get better at.

Amanda Green said...

Pam, I think it's a lot like childbirth. It's a good thing you don't know too much ahead of time and a great thing you tend not to dwell on it too much afterward. Otherwise, we'd never repeat the process and write another book after that first one.

Amanda Green said...

Hi, Alexis! Thanks. I found the lists I referenced in the post to be very interesting and insightful. And I agree with you. I really enjoy -- and learn -- from posts where authors discuss the nuts and bolts of the profession, including things like what they wished they'd known -- or now known.

Amanda Green said...

Thanks, Rowena. As for when I do my web surfing, in the mornings over coffee before starting the day or at night before heading to bed. When I find something that I think might make a good blog post, I bookmark it to go back to later.

So, what about you? What do you wish you'd known before writing your first novel?

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Amanda,

I think it is better if you don't know too much, as Matapam said.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Things I wish I'd known...

What I'd tell myself if I could go back in time twenty years to talk to myself. (As opposed to doing it in real-time ;) )

1- It doesn't matter how good your book is, if you're doing something in your world or characters that trips the industry's "ick factor." You can keep polishing it, and, sure, your plot sucks, but that is NOT why you're getting rejections.

2 - learn to write proposals. NOW. This thing of only submitting to people who take full manuscripts is insane and getting published is hard enough without that.

3- Yes, you CAN write more than a novel a year.

4 - For the love of heaven, find some writers and start a group. You have NO idea what you're doing or how to improve and even sharing ignorance is better.

5 - Attend as many conventions as you can. Sleep in the car if needed. It's not entirely who you know, but it doesn't hurt, either.

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, LOL. I have to agree, especially when it comes to the patience needed and the length of time it takes to hear back from just about everyone in the business. This is an especially tough one for me as patience most definitely is NOT one of my virtues. But I'm learning.

Amanda Green said...

Uh, Sarah, why didn't you tell all that to me? Oh, wait, you did. I just didn't listen -- as usual ;-p

Dave Freer said...

The it pays not to know too much is something I can vouch for. I'm an obstiante determined cuss but if I'd know that it would take 7 years of monkey volume of work (and that's pretty intense) I might not have... well, someone else might not have. I am fairly stupid, you know.
Anyway here are things that should know but no one tells you.
1)Publishing may use computers, but it's a front. The industry is in varying degrees somewhere between 1970...BC (and cuniform and stone tablets in the back room. Would I lie to you?) and 1990AD. You can't change this culture, it will change itself slowly, but in the meanwhile adapt around it. Responses are slow, and some people refuse electronic comms. That's the way it is. Live with it.
2)Personal contact is hugely important (see 1)
3)Do not confuse careful research on your part with the impressions that agents, editors and even other authors may cherish about what the reader wants, what works and where it is all going. You are probably right. But it's their ball, and you have to at least pretend to play their way.
4)Never try and assume that they won't like it because you don't or vice versa (see 3). You are a shitty judge of your own work.
5)You need more patience
6) It's actually not just based on merit. Get over it or get out. ie. the reason many of us start - 'I could do better than this crap' might be true. It's a good reason to write. But you will also need persistance, a willingness to learn, and also networking and luck
7)Yes, actually you do have to promote your own work (and I am still trying to learn that one).

Amanda Green said...

Dave, thank you! You confirmed my suspicions that there are still men with funny haircuts, wearing brown robes tied with rope, sitting in the back rooms of the publishing houses, trying to decide what these strange things called emailed submissions and ebooks are. I knew some of the publishers out there were still operating in the dark ages.

Tim King said...

Hi, Amanda. I just now got back online after the long weekend, believe it or not.

(No, not alcohol. It was proofreading & editing someone else's manuscript. And now maybe I should write "7 Things I Wish I Knew before I Agreed to Proofread Someone Else's Book.")

Anyhow, I'm really enjoying reading the discussion here. Thanks for posting.

-TimK

Amanda Green said...

Hey, Tim. Thanks for dropping in. And thanks for the inspiration for the post. BTW, I'd love to read "7 Things I Wish I Knew before I Agreed to Proofread Someone Else's Book." ;-)