Lessons From Five Years of (Attempted) Novel-Writing
My resolution for the New Year is to finally finish my novel. It’s been quite a journey that started more than four years ago and has resulted in, well, a lot of hard-learned lessons.
When I started out I had just the seed of an idea. A premise. A story about robots who think they’re human on an Earth where no actual humans exist anymore. With a few bullet points serving as my outline, I was off to the races.
I encountered problems immediately.
I was about 10,000 to 20,000 words in when I realized that I had written myself into a hole and had to start again, cutting much of what I had. That’s okay, I thought. Writing is all about re-writing.
Over the next two years, I struggled to bang out my first draft. I enjoyed the sheer creativity of writing with abandon but was constantly doubting myself, unsure of what happens next in the story, all the while feeling no connection to my characters.
My first draft clocked in at 110,150 words and 242 Word pages.
I started re-writing almost immediately.
It was too big of a story. It made no sense. Mainly, I was writing a story about robots who think they’re human, then contract a flesh-eating disease which reveals to them that they are, in fact, mechanical beings. The story had too many threads. I was trying to weave together the thread of the robot revelation with the overarching disease that afflicts the city with the story of how best friends become arch-enemies. And I just couldn’t do it. Mostly I thought the whole flesh-eating disease thing wasn’t working and I didn’t think it made any sense with the whole, you know, robot thing.
For the second draft, I tried to wrangle with what I had but gave up after revising only a few chapters, which weren’t really revisions but rather me adding another element to the world which I thought would make things clearer.
My third draft was a complete re-write. I focused the story on my main character’s daughter and turned her into the only human left, thinking that would up the stakes somehow. The fourth draft was more of the same, except I added more government oversight.
I’m not sure what I changed in my fifth draft, because I seem to have saved over it with my sixth draft. But to complete the sixth draft I actually went away for a week to a writing retreat in order to bang it out. But it was the same story focused on the daughter and how my characters find out they are robots and that the daughter is the only human. My friend Madeleine and my brother, Andrew, actually beta read this draft.
Then I realized that I had to put the novel down, maybe indefinitely.
I hated the story, hated how I still felt no connection to my characters, hated how because I had created this omniscient government entity/computer thing everything seemed to be happening to my characters, rather than my characters directly pushing the story forward. I was so fed up, so frustrated, that through tears I made the hard decision to put the damn thing down.
After four and a half years, I needed a break.
A couple of weeks passed and ideas started creeping into my brain. I had promised myself I would not think about the novel, and did my utmost to push all thoughts of it out of my mind. But the cogs kept turning even when I wasn’t paying attention.
I still loved the premise: robots finding out they’re robots. That’s the story I wanted to tell. I just wanted to write about a guy who discovers he’s a robot and has to deal with it. He thought he was one thing and it turns out that he’s very much another. We’ve all dealt with that in one way or another.
Over those weeks I also realized that I had been going about novel-writing the wrong way. I was constantly thinking of cool plot points or wanting to add cool sci-fi elements. I wasn’t writing from the characters.
Maybe that’s why I felt I didn’t know them at all.
During this break I also read a few of Chuck Wendig’s writing advice books, and writing from character is a point he really drives home.
If you don’t know what happens next in your story, it’s because you don’t know your characters well enough. If you did, you would know what their next move is. And their next move is the only thing that should push the story forward.
This realization really changed the game for me.
So after a few weeks, I started all over again. A story started taking shape in my mind that I got more and more excited about. So I downloaded Scrivener, read the tutorial, and started outlining. Just a couple of paragraphs for each chapter, really thinking about who my characters are and what they’re going through, what they’re trying to achieve.
Many writers don’t like to outline because they feel it stifles their organic creativity, but I realized it’s essential for me. Writing an outline is a creative act as well because you can discover who your characters are in that time. I didn’t simply write down plot points, rather I came at it from a place of “What do my characters do next?” And if I got stuck, then I went back to the file on that character and dug into them more, their background, their internal and external struggles. All those exercises helped me answer that question.
So last week, I completed my outline and started writing the first draft. I’ve been hitting 1,500 words a day (my daily goal), which takes me about two hours to write.
For the first time in almost five years, I am genuinely excited about the story I’m writing and about going on that journey with my characters and putting them through the intense development they need to come out on the other side of it all.
I can’t believe it took me almost five years to learn these lessons: outline; write a story you’re genuinely excited about; but most importantly, write from the characters.
Who knows if my novel will ever get published (though that’s the goal). I just know that finishing this story will be one of the best things I’ve ever done.
And it will have been a story worth telling.