Ever since I was a kid, my dream was to be an author. I scribbled stories in notebooks, daydreamed about pirates and mermaids, and devoured any fantasy book I came across.
But as much as I loved writing, I never finished anything longer than a short story.
Understatement of the year: writing a book is hard. Here are 12 lessons I learned while writing my first book.
1. You really do have to write every day
Unfortunately, all those vaguely guilt-inducing motivational quotes are true. To write a book, you really do need to write every single day. If not for the discipline, then solely for the ability to keep the thread going and stay immersed in your work. (Have you ever tried to pick up an unfinished draft after half a year has elapsed? I’ve nearly forgotten the characters by then.)
This is the reason why I was never able to write more than 50,000 words in a row until after college—I couldn’t devote the extensive time I needed to the project. Only after I graduated was I able to dedicate six solid months to writing and completing a draft.
2. It may take you years
It may take you years to sift through your ideas, solidify your plot, and truly understand the story.
I started with my main character, who fell into my head when I was 12. Throughout high school and college, I went through about six years and as many failed drafts before I was able to crystallize the story and shape it into something sensible. And that was just for my terrible first draft—I still have many rounds of revisions ahead.
There are plenty of stories about authors who took years or even decades to complete their books; you and I can take heart that a slow process can still work!
3. Mood swings ahead
Sometimes I think I’m a literary genius. Other days, I feel like I’ve written a load of garbage. These swings are par for the course and nothing to get too caught up in.
I think it’s the writer’s curse to never have a truly objective sense of their own skill; I seem to tilt from puffed-up egoism to downright despair with no reasonable halt in the middle. (This is why criticism can be so helpful—it’s a more objective looking-glass for understanding your own work.)
When you find yourself trumpeting your achievements or wallowing in your terribleness, rouse yourself, give yourself a stern talking-to, and move on.
4. Have an outline
This lesson was experiential, drawn out, and annoying.
I did have an outline when I started writing my book, some sort of a plan, but it wasn’t a very good one. I had a vague idea of the story—where it started, where it ended, and some sense of the middle—but my outline wasn’t nearly detailed enough.
As a result, I’ve spent countless hours revising, reforming, viciously cutting, judiciously adding, and pulling out my hair.
I’ve learned that when you skimp on the preparation, you pay for it in editing.
5. Screw the outline
On the other hand, my vague plan allowed me a ton of room while I was writing. Nothing dictated which scenes I wrote, which order they were in, where my characters traveled, or what they experienced. It was fifty chapters of pure pantsing, baby.
And in spite of the extra work all that pantsing has generated—the months of editing and restructuring—it was a welcome exercise for me, to simply to keep pushing, writing, reaching the end without more than a hazy goal in sight.
My story has changed drastically with each revision, largely as a byproduct of pantsing. Throughout the different drafts I’ve written, I let my imagination run wild, my middles run saggy, my characters bumble and wander. But within all that boggy mess, there’ve been a few gems, a scene or two that solidified my understanding of a character, the setting, or the plot.
The lesson here? Don’t be afraid to stray off the path every once in a while. After all, it’s in the dark forest that our courage is tested, our character revealed. You never know what you’re going to find.
6. Reaching flow is priceless
A lot of book-writing is a long slog—pushing through scenes that don’t really work, trying to summon witty dialogue when your brain feels sluggish, struggling with descriptive language when you’re not feeling particularly imaginative.
But there are moments, elusive moments, when everything clicks. You’re in your story—nothing could pull you out. Your fingers fly over the keyboard; the words flow from you like water. Your ideas cohere, your characters shine, the scene is tight and striking.
There’s no telling when you’ll stumble across these incredible moments, but I can guarantee that if you write a book, it’ll happen. And it makes everything worth it.
7. Most days are hard
On the flip side, most days are downright difficult. You may start out with energy, with great excitement, but it will quickly vanish when you’re facing down your daily word count goal and have written yourself into a corner.
Writing a book will teach you a form of mental discipline—perhaps the people who manage to write books are also the ones with a high tolerance for tedium. (Or the ones who never lose sight of the far-distant snowy peak despite the ankle-deep mud they’re trudging through.)
8. You’ll get better at writing
If you practice anything long enough, you will get better.
When I read my writing from even a year ago, I can spot the difference. And when I read my writing from two or three years ago, it’s astonishing (and laughable.)
If you write every day, you will improve. And you’ll start to notice it in your drafts.
9. Anything is better than nothing
Jodi Picoult said, “If it’s writing time, I write. I may write garbage, but you can always edit garbage. You can’t edit a blank page.”
Her sentiment has been echoed by many, especially those in the NaNoWriMo camp, and it’s an adage I hold close to my heart.
When you write a book, you quickly learn that most of what you write is not great. But that’s okay—the goal of a first draft is not to write a complete novel; it’s to lay the foundation.
It’s the goal of editing to create a complete novel, and I’d argue that editing can be the most rewarding part of the process.
10. Editing is the fun part
Not everyone will agree with this statement, but I’ve found that editing is the fun part of writing a book. Once your draft is complete, you get to improve and polish it, weave together loose storylines, hack away at the thicket choking your plot.
Editing makes me intensely excited because I know that I can only go up from here; I can only strengthen and streamline my story. When I’m editing, I can see the book I always imagined start to emerge, bit by bit. The thing I always dreamed of begins to take shape—it’s intoxicating.
11. You must put your writing first
I have a close friend who’s an extrovert and a lover of words. She’s been working on a novel on and off, but as she says to me, “It’s so much easier to write when you’re an introvert!”
I’d have to agree. If you want to write a book, be prepared to say no—to dinners, days at the beach, excursions, etc. As you probably know, writing takes a lot of time, and if you want to write, you must prioritize your book over other things, even good things, like spending time with people.
This isn’t to say that you should never leave the house. But writing daily over a long stretch of time requires discipline and the ability to put your book first. When you reach your daily word count or time allotment, then you can goof off as much as you want.
Also, keep in mind that you’re in control of your writing. That is, if you know that you’d like to finish your book in a shorter period of time, and are resigned to putting it first for a few months, then you can set a high daily word count, like 1,000 or 2,000 words. However, if you know that you’d like to have a life while you’re writing, you can set the word count lower, at 500 or 600 words a day, and commit to a longer stretch of time for writing. Find the balance that works for you and stick with it.
12. Nothing feels better than having a finished draft
Many people want to write a book, but most of them don’t put in the effort required.
When you type “THE END,” no matter how terrible the draft is—despite the plot holes, rusty dialogue, or boring characters—you’ve done something many only aspire to.
And now you can begin the real work.
I’ve learned a lot from writing my book, lessons that I’ll carry over when I write the next, and the next. (Although I suspect I’ll learn even more lessons after writing the notorious second book…)
What have you learned from writing your first book? Let me know! I’d love to hear your insights.