Better Next Time: Lessons From The First Book

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Lessons

I wrote the first three chapters of the manuscript that would become, Committed: A Novel About Dreams, Writing, and Self-Publishing, on July 11, 2014. A short 439 days later, I finished the manuscript and shipped it off to my editor. That’s a lot of time to write a three hundred page book. What took me so long?

Background

  • When I’m in pure writing mode, I write typically write about 3,000 words per day. That works out to about 12 pages.
  • I usually write Monday through Friday, from about nine to five, with a break for lunch. Life sometimes interferes, but my routine is pretty consistent. There are times where I’ll write on Saturday and Sunday too.
  • At this pace, I could have finished the first draft in 25 writing days.

Problems

So, given all this, what took me so long to finish? And how can I do better on Book 2? I already have an idea for Book 2 and Book 3. What have I learned that will help me finish them more quickly?

  • The Outline – Before I started, I made a lengthy outline. Or at least, the kind of outline I’d made for papers or speeches  in school. It was reasonably detailed about the kind of information I wanted to include in the book, and the general story line.
  • No Structure – At the time, I didn’t understand story structure. Like many beginners, I though it was enough to say, “This happened, then the next thing, and then the next after that.” I discovered I get several chapters into the story, and it wasn’t working the way I wanted, so I’d have to go back and rewrite, hoping the next version would be better.
  • Conflict – This morning, I went back and read the very first chapter I wrote. It was nice, well-worded, and almost completely lacking in any kind of real conflict.
  • Voice and Style: In the early writing, I can still “hear” my voice, loud and clear. But it was clear I wasn’t sure what to include, and what to leave out. The style seemed to wander.
  • You mean, people are going to really read this stuff?: So far, I’ve had two people (editors) review my manuscript. I’ve also posted a draft of the blurb on KBoards, and sent it to a small circle of family and friends for review. It’s a nervous, uncomfortable feeling putting so much of yourself out there for a small audience. I can’t imagine what it will feel like to release it to the world.

Solutions

  • Everything changed for me when I read John Truby’s, The Anatomy of Story. I ended up with a Scene Weave of all the important things that would happen in my story, that (hopefully) hit all the right emotional notes. Good stories have highs and lows and typically contain many similar technical elements. Once I had them in place, writing the story was easy.
  • I won’t start the next book until I have a crystal clear idea of the story structure, and a scene weave and outline that will lead me through the writing. The proper structure doesn’t preclude “pantsers” from making changes on the fly, but it does make ensure the writer won’t leave out anything important.
  • Every story and every chapter need to have conflict. Somebody wants something and someone or something stands in the way. That’s conflict. Can you point to it on the page? This is what our hero wants. Here is who is standing in his way.
  • The only way to improve voice and style is to read a lot and write a lot. I understand the advice to read widely, but the light went off for me when I read Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks. Beyond just the story, I liked his writing style and learned a lot by learning the way he did things. Voice gets better by writing all the time. By improving my voice and developing my own style, I’ll write better and faster the first time through.
  • There is no way, obviously, to please everyone. Although it doesn’t keep me from instinctively wanting to, logically it will never work. The only way to get around this problem it to write to satisfy the only reader who I can: me. As long as I like what I’ve done, I can live with that. There’s always hope that my book will be a runaway bestseller. I’ll have to release the bird into the world and see where its journey takes it. But if I like it, that’s enough.

The Next Book

I haven’t completely decided what my next project will be. Part of me wants to explore the next steps for Peter. As a follow-up to Committed, I think there is a lot of ground left to cover. From the writing process itself, story structure, website and blog creation, marketing, programs, and so much more, I think Peter has a lot left to learn. On the other hand, my long term direction is to write pure fiction. Inspired by Sparks’ The Guardian, it blends a relationship story with aspects of a thriller. It’s the kind of book I like to read, and the kind I want to write.

Whichever direction I choose, I will take two weeks to flesh out the story, complete with a full scene weave, and publish within three months from that date. I’ll report back on how that goes…

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