When I started my very first novel back in the spring of 2016, I already knew that a writer’s first book often isn’t the one they end up publishing. I’d read on countless blogs about authors who wrote manuscripts thinking it was their masterpiece and then got rejected over and over to the point where they hung it up and started from scratch on a new project.
While that didn’t exactly happen to me, after a lot of trouble with revisions on my first novel, I decided to start a second novel. I’m currently in the revision process but one thing I’ve learned is that writing a book is the best way to learn how to write a book.
Here’s a few lessons I learned from my first novel that have really helped my writing process with the second:
1. Don’t Skip the Hard Parts
I can’t remember if I heard this advice in a workshop or from a blog but writing my first novel I decided to skip the hard scenes and come back to them later. So there I was, flying through the draft, skipping to the end, back to the beginning, then the middle, etc.
But it was like leaving the dishes in the sink and waiting til the next day to do them. The longer you wait, the worse it’s gonna be. My draft had lots of empty chapters and when I went back to write them, it was much harder because I had to make sure these filled in scenes worked with the scenes I had already written.
For the second novel, I didn’t skip scenes. I find that it’s better to just get them out of the way before moving forward.
2. DO Use a Plot Chart
The first time around, I didn’t use a plot chart. I thought, hey, if I’m not surprised, the reader won’t be surprised either. Let’s just write and see where it goes!
This is totally fine depending on what kind of writer you are, but if you’re like me, you get easily distracted and start doing way too much with the plot and lose your pacing.
While I still think it’s better not to know every single scene in your story before you write it, I think it’s okay to at least plot things out up until the climax. This time, I did a sloppy but effective plot chart on a memo pad in pencil so I can go in and erase things that don’t work or add things in.
Some people do this with post it notes and stick em to the wall but technically these aren’t my walls and there would be a gajillion post it notes falling off and getting lost if I did it that way!
3. Just Because it Sounds Good Doesn’t Mean You Need It
With my first novel, I just could not stop adding things that didn’t need to be there. I didn’t have a plot chart to follow so I kept adding all types of scenes and conflicts that were so unnecessary and ultimately led to the manuscript being over 400 pages.
This time, I set a goal for my YA manuscript of at least 200 pages. The story I want to tell can fit in 200-300 pages. This length min/max also makes it easier for me to cut the bs, so to speak. Now I know just because something sounds good doesn’t mean it belongs in my novel. Especially if it opens up another conflict in the last twenty pages or it’s the 3’rd plot twist in a row.
4. Length DOES Matter
Originally, I wanted to write the book I wanted to read. I enjoy a good long book that lets me live in another world for at least 400 pages. I like a good series, too. The plan was for my book to be part of a trilogy, the first installment being 400+ pages.
One agent did tell me it was rather long for YA. There’s a lot of lengthy YA books, but not a lot of lengthy YA books worth reading. While I think my first novel could work as an epic or a series, I wasn’t ready to write it at that point.
This time, I looked at the conflict of my novel and decided that 200-300 pages would be enough. It’s right in the YA sweet spot and I’m not pushing myself to write more than I really need to in order to get the story across.
Plus shorter books are much quicker and easier to organize imo. Not saying I won’t return to my epic and polish it up one day, but for now, I’m sticking to the basics.
5. Set Deadlines, Have a Plan, STICK TO IT!
As an MFA student whose first novel was also my thesis, this was relatively easy for me: turn your story in on this day or you don’t graduate. So I paced myself throughout the year and actually ended up finishing a few weeks sooner than scheduled.
Now that I’m no longer a student and there’s no serious repercussions for not finishing my novel on a certain day, I have to be my own boss. I looked at how quickly I was working, how much time I’d need to give my beta readers to get through it and then I allowed a little more time for a third and final revision after that.
Once I finish those final revisions, I’ll be querying 8 brand new agents. The first time I queried, I looked at the success of the agent and the agency as a whole. This time, I focused on reading books along the same genre as my own and checking the acknowledgments page to find their agents.
Although I’m not ready to query just yet, I have the 8 agents already lined up when I do. I won’t be querying any agents I’m iffy or on the fence about.
I’m still in the midst of my second novel but so far I’m much happier with my writing process this time around!