Lessons Learnt from Writing 20,000 Words of my First Novel

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When I was small, I always imagined myself as a writer. I would get through stacks of jotter notebooks, filled with short stories all written out by hand. As I got older, I started to abandon the ambition the more I read. I used to think, but what do I have to say that’s any different? Am I even good enough?

But the reality is, everyone has something to say. As writers, our job is to write it in the best way we can, put it out into the world, and then readers will decide.

I soo shifted my mindset to realise that having the ambition to be a bestseller straight off the bat was not helpful. In fact, it was hindering me from even starting. So I lowered my expectations, started writing, and haven’t looked back. Of course, nobody has read any of it yet, and I don’t know what will come off it, but I’m writing and continuing to write it, and for me, after years of stopping and starting book ideas, that’s what really counts.

I’ve been consistently working on this novel for several months now. Here’s what I’ve learnt throughout the process so far.

“The scariest moment is always just before you start.” — Stephen King

Despite wanting to write a book being one of my first and prominent ambitions, however much I used to try, I would procrastinate, never even starting in the first place. In that way, I’d set myself up for failure by not giving myself a chance. I would convince myself that what I had to say didn’t matter and that there was no point in even experimenting.

But the truth is, you’ve got to put pen to paper to find out what you have inside you that’s worth writing about. It’s not enough to just hope and dream; you’ve got to put in the grind and start from square one. It doesn’t have to be a fully-fledged idea but merely be triggered by a spark of inspiration. My idea for this book occurred when I was out walking one day and saw an interesting building.

After I had that initial seed, I planted it, and by writing, it started to grow. I have no idea what it will turn into or how it will progress, but that’s part of the fun. When you start to remove all those heavy expectations on yourself and start writing a novel for yourself and for fun, you may just find out all sorts of things.

Once you’ve done the difficult task of starting, the next step is to keep coming back to work on it. Whatever amount of time you can realistically fit into your routine — whether that’s an hour a week or a day — you need to set aside time to keep it ticking over. Nothing is worse than having a stagnant draft tucked neatly away in a folder.

I’ve found that the more time I’ve left between writing sessions, the more I’ve tended to put it off. This is because you forget parts of your story and have to go over and read it back to get a feel for it again. And of course, the more you write, the more you have to re-read. If you’ve been able to make a successful habit of writing articles, writing some of your book can easily be replicated in a similar way.

It doesn’t have to be a lengthy day-long session or even an hour. If you have a busy schedule, it may just be half an hour a week, but that’s okay. As long as you fit in those writing sessions dedicated solely to your book in some form of regularity, you’ll get there and make progress.

“The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.” — George R. R Martin

This was another way I would procrastinate from writing or even starting. Novel’s can be long and complicated, and there’s a reason they can take a considerable amount of time to write. But this is where I have actually succeeded in keeping to this idea this time — I haven’t planned.

Planning out an entire novel from start to finish is enough to make me not want to start at all. By abandoning this, I’ve been able to sustain the motivation to write because I have more freedom, and I feel like the story is naturally unfolding as I write it. Of course, I have some idea about where the story might go, but I haven’t made a plot outline or anything like that. I like the creativity and breathing space of writing this way, and it’s currently working for me.

In many ways, I think you can over plan a novel, and sometimes it’s better not to have one at all, because in that way, it’s created more organically. Take your first idea, open up a blank page, and run with it. It may well surprise you.

Creating believable characters from start to finish is really hard. In the beginning, I worried that my characters all sounded the same. My book shifts perspectives between a range of characters, so it mattered to me to create different personalities between them in the dialogue and how they come across. But when you’re writing, it can seem as if there’s no particular distinction between them.

I have one character who is a 40-year-old man and another who is a 19-year-old girl, and there’s no way I wanted them to sound the same as they are from a completely different generation. But from an outside perspective, by someone who hasn’t been in their heads and writing it, they probably come across far differently (or at least, I hope that’s the case.)

When you feel like this, my advice is to keep going. The more you write, the more your characters will develop organically, a bit like the plot. There’s definitely danger in overthinking how your characters are going to be perceived and whether they seem different or not.

But again, that’s something for a reader to decide later down the line. For now, the focus needs to be on getting the idea down on paper, and all the rest can come later.

Of course, like anything, there will be good days and bad days. There will be days where you’ll want to walk away, delete the whole thing and never look back. But then you’ll have another day where you lose yourself in the story and feel the words start to breathe for themselves, and it all becomes a little bit magical.

I’ve had days where it feels like I am living in the story because what I’m writing is starting to come together and feel real. There’s no sugar coating it — writing a novel is no easy feat. It takes hard work, grit and determination. But it’s worth it for those days when writing reminds you that it was always your dream all along, and you are finally getting started on it.

The more I spend time writing, the easier it is to sink into and enjoy. Once you decide on that one fleeting idea, commit it to paper, make an effort to show up in some form of regularity and work on it, and abandon any expectations of where it will go, you’ll get there.

Here’s my favourite passage I’ve written so far:

“As we pull out of the supermarket, and make the journey back to our spot, I wind down the windows and feel the gentle breeze on my wet hair. It reminds me of day trips to the beach in the summer and feeling the comforting grip of sticky salt in my hair from a day spent in the sand and sea. And then falling asleep in the car journey home, from a day spent in the sun and dipping in and out of the sea. That all sounds nice right now, maybe one day it will be possible again.”

Once you start to remove any expectations of what you are writing and just go with the flow, starting a novel becomes easier. It’s taken me several months of showing up every week to work on it, but now I can say I’m one-third of the way through and enjoying every moment of working on it.

I have no idea where it’s going to go or what it’s going to be — but that’s part of the fun. It can be whatever I want it to. In the past, I would place these heavy expectations and convince myself that I could never write a book. So much so that it would obscure me from even starting. Once you start to beat those self-made barriers down, starting becomes easier.

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