The Thrill of the First NovelI wrote my first book during NaNoWriMo 2007. I still have the T-shirt. For those not familiar with it, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, a personal challenge event where people all over the world attempt to write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November.
The feeling of exhilaration when I hit that goal, and again when I finished that rough draft, was powerful. Writing a novel is no easy task. Right away, I wanted to share my amazing creation with the world. I still feel this way when I finish a rough draft.
I see a lot of posts on social media from newbie authors, awash in the euphoric throes of accomplishment, saying, "I just wrote my first book. How do I publish it?" It is often followed by a rambling, convoluted, sometimes incoherent, explanation of the plot.
But despite the urgent desire to want to show a rough draft to the world, especially the rough draft of a first novel, my most fervent advice to anyone having completed such a momentous task is "Don't!" More specifically, "Don't publish it!"
By all means, bask in the glow of your accomplishment. Writing a book is not easy. But you are just getting started. Writing is a craft with many skills to master (story structure, scene structure, dialogue, character development, etc.) and many pitfalls to learn how to avoid (info dumps, "as you know's", clichés, etc.) It will take you time to learn them. And to do that, you will need to study your craft. You will need to get honest feedback from fellow writers and editors. You will have to write a lot.
Study Your CraftI have read dozens of books on the craft of writing. Some of my favorites are Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey, Jordan Rosenfeld's Make A Scene, and Blake Snyder's Save the Cat. Other good books for the budding writer are Stephen King's On Writing and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. Finding a good book on grammar is also invaluable. Each one of these books offers a different perspective. Some focus on a specific skill, while others are more general.
At the same time, I read heavily in my genre, which happens to be crime fiction. This includes the classics like Sherlock Holmes and the works of Agatha Christie; the works of seasoned veterans like Lawrence Block, Sara Paretsky, and Sue Grafton; and books by newer authors including Kellye Garrett, Vivien Chien, and Thomas Pluck (just to name a few). I also read books outside my genre, including romance, sci-fi, fantasy, and literary.
Reading the books on craft gives you the theory, while reading in your genre (whatever genre it may be) shows you these skills in action. You begin to recognize the patterns, the tropes, and what writing looks like when it is done well and even not so well.
A writer who doesn't read is like a boat with no rudder. Lost, directionless, and ultimately doomed.
Get FeedbackWhen we are riding that rush of excitement having finished a draft, the last thing we want is to be told everything that is wrong with it. Talk about harshing your mellow. But it is very much needed. Better to be told what's wrong by a fellow author or editor before publication than in a review on Amazon.
Don't look to get feedback from your family or friends. Unless they are writers themselves, they will just blow sunshine up your ass because they don't want to hurt your feelings. Believe me!
For newbie writers, I suggest joining a local critique group, where each member lets the others read a short story or a chapter (not the whole bloody manuscript) and tells you what works and what doesn't. Meetup.com can be a great way to find such a group.
Each critique group is its own animal with its own rules and experience. Some require members to read their work aloud, while others swap work and read silently. Most I've found offer good insights. Sometimes you can get conflicting advice. But it's a starting point.
Don't take critiques personally. No one is judging you. The goal is to help each other improve their work.
Once your story has been critiqued by the group, you might want to look at beta readers. Beta readers may or may not be writers. Ideally, they should be well-read in your genre and be willing to read the whole book and give you honest feedback. Again, the goal is to make you aware of problem areas in your story. Beta readers may or may not know how to fix them. They may just tell you they don't like a particular character or how a certain scene plays out.
At some point, you may want to hire a freelance editor, even if you intend to go the traditional publishing route. Hiring an editor isn't cheap. For a 100,000-word novel, it could cost you a $1,000. Maybe less, maybe more, depending on what level of editing you are looking for.
I would suggest starting out with just a developmental edit. It's a bird's-eye view that will give you insights into the major areas where your story is lacking. The focus isn't on typos or punctuation.
Later on, if you decide to go the self-publishing (or indie) route, you may want to hire an editor to do a line edit (also called a copy edit) that focuses less on story structure and more on sentence structure and word usage. From there you would hire a proofreader to fix typos and punctuation.
Write a LotThere is a saying that a new writer should write a million words before they are ready to write anything worth publishing. The point is that your first novel probably isn't worth publishing. Even if you hired the finest of editors to help you polish it. But do work with critique groups, beta readers, and maybe editors to get it as polished as you can. Learning the various stages of writing and editing is as important as learning a three-act structure or when to use a semicolon.
Before I wrote Iron Goddess, my first published novel, I had written multiple drafts of two complete novels and several short stories. Was writing them a waste of time? No! It was practice. Skills require practice to learn. Each story was a way to learn how not to write a story so I could do it differently the next time.
I realize setting aside a first book or a second book, stashing them forever in a drawer (or folder on your computer), can feel like you are abandoning your work. But this is a vital part of the process. Learning when to move on to the next story.
Taking the Leap Into PublishingI spent eight years honing my skills before I was ready to get series and writing something worth publishing. That's a long time. Maybe it won't take you as long. Or maybe it will take you longer. Each writer's journey is unique. But it will take time.
Eventually, you may decide it really is time to publish. Now you are faced with a decision. Do you go the traditional route and try to get published by one of the Big Five or perhaps a small press? Or do you brave the ever-change waters of indie publishing? Well, that is a discussion for next time.
Until then, focus on your writing. Ass in chair, hands on keyboard.
She is the author of the Jinx Ballou bounty hunter series and the Shea Stevens outlaw biker series. You can learn more about Dharma and her work at https://dharmakelleher.com.
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