I’d overcommitted myself (again) earlier this year and spent some time re-prioritising writing projects and other responsibilities. Some items were non-negotiable, including my young children and paid employment. In the wash-up, my novel got shelved – it came under the category of ‘It would make me sad to give it up entirely but it can wait a few years’.
A few months later I had the honour of being a beta reader for a good friend, Jess Newman. It was the second draft of her first novel and it was wonderful. It made me laugh out loud, cry buckets, dwell on memories long past and re-evaluate my opinions on life in general. It did everything a great book should do.
It also inspired me to have another look at my own novel. I pulled out my manuscript and decided to get it printed. This is what 62,000 words looks like, double-spaced and single-sided. Around fifty pages into the edit I was ready to feed the whole thing through a shredder.
MY FIRST DRAFT HAS SERIOUS PROBLEMS
Writing the initial draft consisted mainly of watching a film in my head and typing, as quickly as possible, what I saw. After the initial elation of completion, I’ve come back to my manuscript with fresh eyes. The story that was in my head didn’t quite translate onto paper.
Problem #1 – I’m a ‘pantser’
I’m a highly organised person, so naturally I assumed I’d be a plotter rather than a pantser. I wrote a few thousand words to get the feel of the story and then tried writing a chapter outline so I could simply ‘fill in the gaps’. It made sense to me – it’s the same as I write all of my non-fiction and it’s worked for decades.
It didn’t work for fiction – the plotting process nearly killed my entire story. After months of procrastination I threw away the outline and accepted my truth – as a novelist, I am a pantser.
The story continued to evolve as I followed my characters on their journey. Giving them the freedom to do what they needed to led to twists that surprised even me. Unfortunately it also means that the groundwork that would normally be at the start of a novel – the hints at things to come – isn’t there.
Problem #2 – My characters are inconsistent
A new, major character popped up towards the end. He should have been there from the beginning. I need to go back and write him in – introduce him earlier, give him a proper role, back story and development.
Some of the character relationships don’t quite make sense. I’ve written in the margin of one page in red capitals: ‘WHY ON EARTH DID SHE STAY WITH HIM? WHAT WAS SHE THINKING?’ She either needs to ditch him (which would ruin my entire storyline) or find a really good reason to stick with him.
Problem #3 – You can’t see what I can see
This is the biggest problem – it reads like a screenplay. It played like a movie in my head and I’ve written it like a script… except that I’m the only one who can see it. I’ve scrawled notes all over the manuscript: ‘Where are they in the room?’, ‘How did she get from there to here?’, ‘What does he look like?’. Sadly, telepathy hasn’t been invented yet, so if I want you to see what I can see, I have to pop in a few descriptive words to teleport the scenes into your brain.
Problem #4 – The ending
The ending barely exists. Minor issue.
THE GOOD NEWS
I didn’t give up after fifty pages. I kept reading and was pleasantly surprised – the second half is significantly better than the first. It turns out I managed to learn a few things about novel writing along the way, mostly by reading as much as I could find about the craft plus continuing to devour other novels by great writers and identifying what made them better than mine.
The other good news is that my manuscript needs more words so there’s plenty of space to expand the first half to accommodate a sense of place and a whole new character. A commercial fiction novel is usually around 80,000 words – mine falls about 18,000 words short at the moment.
FOCUSING ON THE LONG TERM
I’m taking a deep breath and pushing ahead.
I still love my story. It needs a lot of work – it won’t be a simple matter of brushing up a few typos and shooting it off to publishers, but that’s okay. This is my very first novel, it’s a massive learning process and it’s quite possible it will never get published.
That’s fine because even if I never publish a single book, it’s been great fun to write one and I’m learning so much. The thinking process is elating. The writing itself is liberating. It’s a draft, I have no deadline and my fictional world isn’t bound by hard reality – it falls into the futuristic sci-fi genre – think Divergent-ish.
If the biggest lesson I take away from this process is that writing a novel is really hard, I think that’s still a win – I’ll appreciate every book I pick up as a reader just a little bit more!
So for now, I won’t throw my manuscript in the bin. I’ll keep plugging away at it. Wish me luck. . .