Before you write your first novel, the task feels impossible. After you finish, you realize that not only is it possible, you must now embark on the whole experience again. Fortunately, while it may not get easier in the ways you want it to, each book project gives you a better idea of what to expect. Here are my biggest lessons from that first novel:
1. It’s not done
I used to say “the first time you think a final draft is done, you’re wrong.” Now I don’t claim to have any idea how many rounds it takes. It varies by project. Polishing your first draft is just the beginning. If you haven’t yet thought it was done at least once, you can assume it’s not done now.
2. Don’t get too attached
Anything I love too much seems destined for the chopping block. I’ve started to view my early-draft favorite scenes and chapters with a certain wistfulness, knowing I’ll probably cut them before the final draft. While I don’t believe in killing one’s darlings for the heck of it, I do believe in keeping a very open mind and a healthy amount of emotional detachment. You never know when your critique group will unanimously suggest deleting your favorite chapter.
3. It takes a village
Some people like to romanticize the solitary writer slaving away at the manuscript. Faulkner penning As I Lay Dying in six weeks during his shifts as a night watchmen provides a great example. Most of us mortals need outside critique for our manuscripts to reach their full potential. We lose perspective in the writing and editing weeds. Beta readers and critique partners provide fresh, objective eyes and keen insights that help us along the long road to the final draft.
4. Substantive rejections are a gift
Non-writers look at me funny when I celebrate a rejection, but I sincerely appreciate the personalized ones. They tell me I’m on the right track: something worked well enough for an agent or editor to take the time to write an email instead of copy-pasting a form response. The information in a personalized rejection can help inspire future revisions. The person writing it had no obligation to do me or my work any favors — but they did, and that gives me a nudge to keep at it.
5. It’s still not done
Once a manuscript is done for the first time, let those substantive rejections roll in. We can’t make changes based on every rejection — that’s just madness — but now is the time to look for common themes. Eventually a solution will emerge from the mists of our creative minds. That solution always comes in the form of new revisions — because it’s still not done.
6. Family will eventually stop asking about your writing
My family stopped asking about my fiction writing years ago. I don’t know if this is out of pity, lack of faith, or simply because the novelty has worn off. No matter. It’s quieter that way anyway. Better for writing.
7. No decision is permanent
Actually, this isn’t true. You could delete all your backups and take a magnet to your hard drive. That would be permanent. But failing willful destruction or extreme negligence (you are backing up your work, right?) no decision is irreversible. You can rewrite your book in a different point of view, add a point-of-view character, or cut large swaths of prose and safely tuck them away in another file. Get a little crazy. Experiment with something that might not work. You can always reverse course.
8. Don’t make any promises
When you start writing a new book, you never know where it will lead you. Try not to make black-and-white promises like “this time I won’t kill your favorite character” or “I’m going to make an outline and stick to it for this book.” Especially try to avoid any promises about how many drafts you’ll write or when the final one will truly be done. Because (see #1 and #5) even when you think it’s done, it probably won’t be (yet).