The End is Nigh!
The End. Not the usual way to start a blog post, I’ll grant you, but these two words are the catalyst for the post. I’ve just written them at the bottom of the manuscript for my first ever novel. There will be many of you out there who have written multiple novels and are old hands at this, but there will be many others who are on the verge of starting, expertly procrastinating, or downright avoiding their computer. This post is for those people. I thought I would share my own experience of reaching The End for the first time in the hopes it might help someone else get their novel out.
much of what kept me from writing a novel was the fear of the amount of effort involved. Everything I’ve written to date could fit inside one Percy Jackson novel, so the idea of effectively doubling my lifetime output of words was fairly daunting. I also had a perception that I would need to do a whole load of planning, building storylines, character arcs, plot twists and the like before I could even start writing, and I just couldn’t seem to bring myself to do all of that. In the end, however, I started writing with just two sides of A4 of notes and completing the first draft only took me three months at around 750 words a day on average. I could easily have spent those three months planning, procrastinating and avoiding.
Fix it in post
The common wisdom with drafting is ‘once you start, don’t stop’ and I can’t really disagree with that. I spotted loads of issues along the way (more on that below) but, rather than go back and try and fix them there and then, I simply noted down what would need editing in a change log and I’ll address all those points when I go through and do my first edit. I know I’d have never got close to completing the draft by now if I had tried to fix things as I went along. Keeping going is important, as it is impossible to edit text you don’t have. However, for this to work, there are a couple more rules you need to follow:
Don't be too precious about characters/plot Always work on the assumption that everything can be changed, and probably will be. I’ve got a lot of characters in my book and hard be amazed if an editor didn’t say to me ‘take that one out’ or ‘merge those two’. This, in turn, will also mean rewriting the plot. If I get too precious and now about details in the book, it will become harder to make the edits later. That’s not to say any old rubbish will do, but it does mean that you should be prepared for things to evolve.
Your ending may change, too
I thought I had a brilliant ending for my book and was working towards it, until I told my kids about it. There were howls of protest as they felt it was too ambiguous and they wanted a nice clear ‘good guys winning’ ending. I still liked my version, but I’m not the target audience, so I had to sacrifice my ending and develop a new one. Which, I must say, is better than the original.
Punctuate as you go
This is the one exception to the ‘Fix it in post’ rule. Adding in speech marks is a massive pain in the backside. I’ve just done a quick count and there are 3344 speech marks in the book, plus 5385 commas and 215 semicolons. Even in the picture book, going back through and punctuating conversations is slow and boring. Do your future self a favour and put them in as you go.
It can take a long time to say a little
I had a line in my notes that said ‘heroes arrive on the island’. Once I’d finished writing that section, those five words had turned into 750. Coming from a background of concise writing (business writing, then picture books), the amount of richness of detail needed to say something in a novel was a bit surprising, and I found myself getting frustrated at times that I was adding a lot of words without moving the story forward. However, if you embrace that aspect of novel writing, there’s a huge amount of joy to be found there and I found I really enjoyed adding detail in the later chapters. My only concern now is that I’ll go back through the first half of the book, adding more richness, and end up with another 10,000 words to edit down.
Delete your browsing history I hope I’m never wrongly linked to a crime because, if police go through my browsing history, I’ll probably be found guilty. My novel has a lot of action in and is also very closely connected to reality. As such, I had to do a lot of research around issues such as the effects of stun grenades on hearing, the effect of high velocity rifle rounds on the shoulder joint, hand-held lasers, most powerful acids available and what would happen if you dropped a blasting cap down the back of someone’s trousers. Read each chapter as you go
Probably the single best thing I did in writing the novel was to read it to my children. This is achieved three things:
it threw up anything contentious that might affect later elements of the plot. I’ve ended up making a few changes thanks to objections and, in one case, tears, to ensure I was hitting the mark with my readers
it made me listen to the story and understand how it would be read, allowing me to spot issues myself
it kept the pressure on the finish. The kids wanted to find out what happened next, so there was always an impetus to keep going.
It’s not always the case that you have a captive audience to do this with but, if you have nieces, nephews, friends’ children, etc, you could always to audio recordings and send them the next chapter.
Future top tip - How to get authentic voice I haven’t done this one yet, so I’ll let you know how it goes, but I’ve got a plan to help with the dialogue in the book. I have four main characters and, as they spend a lot of time together, there is inevitably a lot of chat amongst them. Last time I checked, I wasn’t a 13-year-old girl from Surrey or a 13-year-old Asian lad from Birmingham, so the chances of me getting the dialogue right first time are pretty slim. To address this, I plan on approaching the drama club at my daughter’s school. I’ll give them sections of the dialogue to act out in character, then get their feedback on whether it feels authentic or not, and how to change it in the latter case. My hope is this will result in more realistic conversations between the characters but, as a say, I’ll let you know how it goes.
And that’s it. That’s everything I’ve learned from the last three months and 70,000 words. I know the hard work really starts here with the edit, but I might just bask in the glory of those two little words a little longer:
If you learnt anything writing a novel that you would like to share, add it to the comments below.