Writing a book is dang hard. And even though experienced writers know that writing the thing is the easy part, that doesn’t diminish what an amazing accomplishment it is to finish a book. A lot of people don’t get that far, so it’s pretty incredible if you do. I mean, you are awesome.
You learn a lot going from your first completed manuscript to your second. In no special order, here are 12 things I wish I could go back and tell my former self — a newbie fiction writer with a lot ahead of her.
#1: No one gets it right on the first try
Dear past self: You just finished that manuscript, wrote “the end,” and your whole body is shaking. YOU WROTE A BOOK. You’re excited and proud, and you damn well should be.
But as amazing as you think your book is, it’s going to need a lot of work — a little thing called revision. There’s a reason most writers consider their very first finished MS their “practice novel.” You’re flexing a muscle you’ve never used before, at least not so rigorously — it’s gonna take awhile before you compose a masterpiece.
So don’t feel bad if this isn’t “the one.” First drafts are never, ever perfect. First novels rarely ever are.
#2: Listen to what your gut is telling you
Dear past self: When you were writing that book, you thought that this was the hard part. But now revision looms ahead of you, and you just can’t bring yourself to get past the first few chapters. You’ve polished them each about ten times, and you still have tens of thousands of words left to go. How can you even.
Truth is, you’re procrastinating for a reason: You don’t love your book. You don’t believe in it. You think it’s boring, and that’s hard to admit, and it’s going to take you a year or two to finally concede to it. But hey. That’s okay. You can put this one in a drawer somewhere and start working on something that’s going to excite you again. Because if you don’t love your story, chances are no reader will.
#3: Publishing isn’t the point
Dear past self: The totally delusional write to make millions. (Not gonna happen.) The semi-delusional write to get published. The realistic write because they love writing, and if publishing follows at some point, hey, that’s pretty awesome.
Every writer wants to get published, but as soon as you accept that that’s not why you’re doing this — that you’re writing because you can’t not write — then things will fall into place. You’ll become more disciplined, more serious about getting the work done in a timely manner. And that’s what counts. That you treat it like a profession. That you hone your skills. That you keep writing. Publishing is not proof that you’re a writer. Your writing habits are.
#4: Study your craft
Dear past self: You’ve got a lot to learn, kiddo, so you better study up. Start researching story structure. POV. Character development. Info dumps. Show versus tell. Internalization and dialogue. And most importantly, REVISION.
Fiction University is going to help you a lot. You’re going to recommend it to every writer you meet who’s struggling with the basics. You’re a whiz at grammar and punctuation, and that will take you far. Now it’s time to master technique.
#5: Get over your fear of sharing
Dear past self: The best revision you’ll ever do will be the product of having other writers look at your writing. No writer should revise in a vacuum — you’re too close to your work to see what needs fixing, and you have no sense of what you should be focusing on.
Without the guidance of critique partners and beta readers, you’ll be changing things that don’t need changed and making edits that don’t have much impact. Having someone provide feedback on your work will be ten times more valuable than trying to figure out revision when you have no idea where you should even begin. Revision is hard enough; don’t do it alone. The only way to get over your shyness about sharing your writing is to share your writing.
#6: Negative feedback isn’t a death sentence
Getting critiqued is hard. You’re going to cry the first few times. You’re going to feel nervous. You’re going to have to train yourself not to get angry when someone thinks your story needs work.
But guess what: The more you do it, the less sensitive you’ll be to negative feedback, and the more you’ll crave it. Because this is the good stuff. This is going to make your writing better. And with time, you’ll start to realize that the difference between a bad chapter someone hates and a good chapter they love can come down to a few key edits. It’s not as a hard as you think. It’s practically magic.
#7: Revision will get easier
Dear past self: Just like getting critiqued, revising will get easier, too. Right now, you hate it. It’s so much work. You spend so many hours on one chapter. You feel like this is going to take forever and that you’ll never get there.
But listen: You will get there. And you will get used to revision. In fact, you’ll actually start to love it more than writing a first draft, because revision is how your story transforms. How it becomes everything you envisioned it to be. As the changes you make pile up, you’ll actually start seeing the forest for the trees. And revision becomes … fun. Imagine that.
#8: Schedules are VERY important
Dear past self: In order to write a book, you have to stick to a schedule. That could be anything — 300 words every day of the week, or 500 words every other day. You decide.
And just like with writing, revision only gets done when you set a schedule. And as soon as you make that schedule a habit that you follow, it won’t be so hard to stick to anymore. And hey — you’ll learn that if you plan your schedule at the start of each week, you’ll get so much done. And getting shit done is a GOOD FEELING. You’ll want as much of that good feeling as you can get.
#9: Stop worrying about word count
Dear past self: Okay, so you’re an underwriter. While other writers can churn out 130,000 words and then have to spend their time trimming, you’re stuck adding to your novel more than you need to take away. You basically have to flesh out every scene — paint in the details.
But for the love of god, stop obsessing about word count. You’re not doing yourself any favors. Sure, publishers expect certain genres to be within a certain word count range. But you’re going to drive yourself crazy with this one, trust me. Focus on the story now — word count later. Story matters more, and oftentimes in filling out and also tightening your story, word count will take care of itself.
#10: Stop comparing yourself to other writers
Dear past (and present) self: On your worst days, you’re going to hate every word you write. Don’t look at your novel on these days. Don’t go anywhere near it. And above all, do not compare your writing to someone else’s.
Your style is your style, and trying to be like That Author You Love isn’t going to change that. In fact, trying to emulate them won’t get you published. A fresh voice will. A unique voice. Your voice.
Every writer’s journey to success — and to publication (which are separate things) — is different. Some take longer than others. Some are harder than others. So a published author you admire is just a writer who’s been at it longer. Who’s practiced more. Don’t get down on yourself because they’re far along in their own story and you’re just starting yours.
#11: You will get better
Dear past self: When you see how much better your second manuscript is going to be than your first, you’re going to flip. It’ll be so obvious in the writing, structure, and characters how much you’ve grown. You’ve learned from some of your mistakes. You’ve gotten better. And of course, you still have more to learn.
But when you go for your third time around, you’re going to use that new knowledge and write an even better story. All stories involve work — involve rewriting. That’s how it’s done. And even if novel one through novel four don’t get you published, the experience of writing them — of revising them — will make you stronger. So much more than you think.
#12: Never give up
Dear past (and present) self: Never give up on your dream.
Writing is hard. It’s a thankless job. It takes years of your life. And sometimes you’re going to wonder if it’s even worth doing.
But in your heart, you know it is. Because you love this. Because this is who you are. And because you’ll never be truly happy until you see your first book on the shelves — and then your next book, and the next. Writing stories makes you happy. And when you don’t write, you’re anxious and grumpy and restless, and you know it.
So keep writing. Keep going. Whether it takes you two manuscripts or ten to get published. Write to write. Write because you want to. Because you can. Because you’re unstoppable. Because you’ve got a story to tell, dammit. And never let anyone else tell you otherwise — especially yourself.