Milestone or millstone? How the first book gets written, part 2

Few would-be authors ever manage to complete that first book. Odd, though, once they have, few stop at just one. Clearly finishing your first book is a major milestone. But how do you get there?

We asked several of our authors what wisdom they gained from the process of completing their first novel. Published many times over, authors Michelle Leighton Barbara Freethy Hugh Howey Alison BrennanPhyllis Smallman, and Olivia Cunning are as different as erotica and mystery. But they all share one important feature: there was a time when they hadn’t completed a single book.

Here’s what the process taught them — lessons they still use today.

Don’t fret, it’s just a draft.

Hugh Howey: Keep in mind that you’re writing a rough draft, not a finished product. Most writers come from a long history of being readers. We tend to compare the tripe we’re laying down with what we’ve sampled off bookstore shelves. But these completed works are the result of a dozen revisions and edits. They had other readers and critical eyes involved. What I learned most of all was to trust the revision process, to write for the scrap heap, and to power through to the end so that I could discover my story.

A rough draft is like throwing clay onto the potter’s wheel. Expecting that clay to land in the shape of an exquisite vase is lunacy. And yet, I still find myself falling into this trap. I have to remind myself that yes, this is ugly and out of order, but I’ll clean it up on the next pass. Or the third pass. Or the sixth one.

Hugh writes fantasy. Read his work here.  

Sometimes knowing where you’re going helps you get there. Plot your plot.

Barbara Freethy: I learned that writing a book is a challenging process. Everyone attacks writing from a different perspective. Some authors will do a lot of pre-writing in terms of character interviews and plot charts with sticky notes. Others just jump in and start writing. I tend to start out with a few key plot points and then begin the writing as I enjoy the process of learning about my characters as they come to life. But it’s important for every writer to understand that whatever works for them is fine. There’s no one way to write a book.

Barbara is a romance writer. Here are the finished products.

There’s no substitute for hard work.

Alison Brennan: Focus and commitment. I write every day because if I don’t, it’s too easy to procrastinate. 

Alison writes crime fiction, mysteries, romantic suspense and more. Here is some of her finished work.

Know you’ll learn from mistakes, so go ahead and make them.

Phyllis Smallman: Everything you learn from the day you outline a story until you write, “the end,” will be of use in your next writing project. You learn the most from your mistakes and your determination not to make the same ones a second time will make the next book better.

Phyllis is a mystery writer. Here is her finished work.

Give them a reason to turn the page.

Olivia Cunning: I learn something from every book I write. And I have never written two books in exactly the same way. I learned a bit about writing hooks at the end of chapters in that first book. Try to end chapters on a hook instead of giving closure. You don’t really want the reader to put the book down at the end of every chapter. You want them to keep turning pages until they get to the end. So when I reach a natural stopping point, that’s where I add a little twist to lead into the next chapter, then and only then, do I end the chapter. I still use that technique. I didn’t realize what it was called when I wrote my first novel. I just noticed my favorite author at that time, Sidney Sheldon, did it and I could never put his books down until I reached the end.

Olivia writes erotic romance. Here are some of her finished books.

Comments

  1. Know my plot, but don’t write an outline- I know a lot of writers like to outline their main storyline, subplots, individual scenes, everything. For me, though, that takes the emotion out of my writing- it makes me feel less like my characters are prompting my words.
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