Wednesday, 4 July 2012

What I Learnt From Completing My First Novel

The first book I wrote started with just a simple image.

In reality I was in the UK studying my Masters, it was freezing cold and I was in a room that could have passed for the Griffindor Common Room, except swap the fireplace for a bar. All my life I had written stories set in England. Finally I was there, and the first image that got suck in my head? A summer scene down at a river just outside of an Australian country town. It was so warm, with heat shimmering off the long grass fields leading up to the picnic grounds. I could smell the eucalyptus in the air, and anticipated the water on my skin.

But where to go after that?

For a few weeks I struggled on writing bits and pieces. I got a main character, Sally, a bit of a tom-boy, from a dysfunctional family. I wanted a motorbike. She got a dirt bike.

I dedicated myself to writing 1,000 words a day. Hand written, in my notebook. After a fortnight, maybe more, I found that I was slipping. It went downhill very quickly. The point when I slipped? When I told people my project.

At first I had refused to tell anyone, in case they laughed: Buffy trying to be a writer, again. Finish your thesis, girl. (That last one was my mother, you can tell, right?) But after faithfully writing 1,000 words every day for almost two weeks, I had 10,000 words. Not bad. Better than my thesis at the time. So I typed up my first chapter and sent it to just a few people I trusted. Two of them were blandly supportive, and the third, my little sister, came back with, ‘well, it’s like the books we were made to read at school. But on the bright side, those were published books.’ It was not all that inspiring. It didn’t dishearten me, but I found other things getting in the way of my writing pretty soon after that.

I kept just writing bits and pieces on and off for the next year. Finally I sat down and wrote out all that I had into one draft. 20,000 words. Well, it wasn’t bad, but it was no book.

What happened next is the result of my Muse, who happens to occasionally be a bit bossy. Lent 2012 was coming around and usually I work on some spiritual element during Lent. This year my directions were clear: No TV, write every day. I felt sort of bad, because while sitting down to write was a struggle, once I started it was self indulgent joy, which I was pretty sure was not what Lent was about. But God was firm, that’s what he wanted.

I broke it three times: watched TV once with my sister, and didn’t write twice.

By the end of the 40 days I had lots of words but it wasn't yet a book. After starting with an image and developing the characters, the next bits to come were important chunks of dialogue, but didn't fit together into a story. Then, in the space of about two weeks, I found myself starting at the beginning of the book, and just writing through to the end, connecting in the dialogue to actual action and all those bits you need to make it seem real.

As it happened, I had intended to finish it around June, as there was a Christian writing competition I wanted to enter it into which last year I thought closed in July. Luckily, I decided to just double check the closing date. It was actually the 18th of May. I had 10 days to finish the book, edit it, edit it some more, and then send it in. That was when the being able to just sit down and write from one end to the other connecting all the dots really came in handy. Also, having great support network who were happy to drop everything and proof read an entire draft was super handy too.

The important things I learned from this:

  1. An idea, an image, can be enough to make a book.

  2. Working out the nature of the main characters is more important than the action, as the action depends on the nature of the characters.

  3. Books don't need to be written from one end to the other.

  4. For me it works well to write up an image, find suitable characters for that image and then write any important dialogue/scenes, trusting that when all the major bits are in place, I'll be able to just flow through and fill in all the rest.

So, will see how that all goes for my next 12 novels!

Day 3 of Prep Week has seen me:

  1. Go out for brunch and say 'farewell for a bit' to a friend.

  2. Listen to some sermons and also to some podcasts on writing (my favourite which I highly recommend to anyone interested in writing fiction is Writing Excuses, now in Season 7.)

  3. Start reading a new fantasy book.

  4. Cook enough Pumpkin and Sweet Potato Risotto to last me through a minor blizzard.

  5. Do my tax return (which will hopefully allow me enough money not to starve when I drop my work hours).

  6. Finally, take one of the 12 novels I've scheduled for the next six months, one of the ones I know the least about, and write out the image that suggested it could be a novel, then develop descriptions for the major characters.
Until Later Today!

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