On Writing Your First Novel

To me, the best description of writing is that it’s like falling in love: it’s wonderful, incredibly comforting and unsettling all at once. It’s raw–you’ll get tumbled about and jostled, you’ll want to shed tears not only for your characters, but for your inability to capture them (and sometimes, for the joy of the description coming together). Robin McKinley said that “Every once upon a time for me is another experience of white-water rafting in a leaky inner tube,” and I have found it to be true.

But theĀ first novel… The first novel, the first time that you plunge headlong into your work and get hopelessly lost, is one of the best experiences you will ever have. I know that many of you are also writers, and that you have a piece that has been hanging out in your brain for ages. I hope you pick up a pen and scribble in the edges of your day calendar, or perhaps type a few words in you word processor when you get home. More, I hope you keep writing, and you finish that piece! Novel, novella, short story set, whatever it may be. It’s a wonderful feeling!

Perhaps you are already embroiled in this. Moira, you say, it is not going well. You’re not sure how to make the words come out correctly. In fact, you are astounded by how words and concepts that sound so moving in your head become so trite and flat when you get them down on the page. Your plot is a sinking ship and your characters sound like angsty teenagers.

So let me take your tear-stained face and wipe away the tears and say gently that this is normal. This is to be expected; in fact, it is to be hoped for, as odd as that sounds. You should feel outmatched by your story much of the time. But Moira, you say. I have read so many books. I know how this should be done. I wanted to be the special one who would pick up a pen and make angels weep with my first effort. Sorry. There are things about writing that you can only, ONLY learn from the act of writing your chosen format. Don’t get me wrong, reading will serve you well. Read often, read voraciously. Read with envy and throw the books across the room from sheer jealousy that the other author managed to describe things so well. But know that there are skills you will never be able to learn, save through writing. As someone wise once said, bad writing precedes good writing. You can’t get to the good stuff without going through the dreck first!

So tell me about your book. Or tell you about your book. Go sit in front of a mirror and chat away. I have never met an author who didn’t have a very lively (and somewhat combative) relationship with themselves. Go talk about your book. Tell me/you/your brain just what is so cool about this book. Remember the scenes you’ve written (or imagined) that have moved you to tears, and tell me about them. Bring tissues.

Then keep fighting with the writing itself. Bring all those tears, all the joy and hope and sorrow you feel when you imagine your book, and return to the manuscript. Give it the sort of Look that says, “I know what you are about to try, and I am going to win this battle no matter how long it takes.” As Anne Lamott suggests in Bird by Bird, break things down into tiny pieces. You don’t need to show me the character’s transformation from naive child to sophisticated city slicker, all you need to do for right now is show the view out the character’s window, or maybe the home-cooked meal they are eating. This is manageable. (Also, I highly recommend reading Bird by Bird.)

Over time, you will get better at writing – and I do not mean, better at stringing words together into sentences, although that will likely happen, too. I mean that you will get more accomplished at shutting down the paralyzing worry that comes with writing, and you will be able to suspend disbelief with more ease as you plunge into a paragraph. Your writing muscles will get bigger. Your writing style will become a bit smoother.

But you will never again be writing your first novel. So, for that if nothing else, slow down and savor it. That terrifying, wonderful-awful jumble of feelings as you launch headfirst into telling your story to the world? That feeling remarkably similar to falling in love and taking the leap? Revel in it. If you are afraid, remember that others have been here, and others have emerged. Remember also that you are here because you need to tell the story, not because you need to be finished telling the story.


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