Lessons Learned: Another Finish Line

Once upon a time, I finished a novel. Then another. Then another. Each time, at the end, I paused to reflect and understand the lessons learned in this particular iteration of my ongoing process of refinement and education in the fine art of Writing a Novel. At one point (circa 2005 or so) I had convinced myself that I had found the perfect process for getting a novel written. I can only look back at that time and laugh; there really is no such thing, even for the same author, from book to book. Oh, sure, we learn new things each time that can apply to future works, and I’m going to talk about some of that today, but each book is such a unique experience that the process must differ in some ways, either large or small. At least, if we’re doing it right and bringing it from our heart.

So I find myself in the closing of the first draft of Room 3. I wrote the ending to the novel yesterday, and all that remains is to craft the Epilogue, which is quite important to the overall narrative, and a new Chapter 1, my intention always being to write the framing story last. Next step is a very quick and brisk edit, then off to the eager hands of my beta readers, as I’ve found my best bet is to carry out my own deep edit concurrent with the beta readers, rolling all of those changes into one big edit prior to the editor’s work. This means that most of the heavy lifting of writing this book is complete, and I can start the work of plotting City of the Dead.

This means it’s time to reflect on the biggest lessons that I learned during the writing of Room 3, as I did when I reached several milestones on Corridors. Here are the main ones:

Less is More. This was the #1 lesson to take from this novel. Where in the past I have struggled with feeling like I need to fill a certain amount of words, with describing every action from Point A to Point B, I saw this time that broad strokes can work just as well. Here’s an example of what I mean: if a character shows up behind the other characters, there’s no need to definitively state that every character turns and looks at that character. The reader’s mind will fill in the blanks there with something as simple as the word “faced”. I think in general a lot of newbie writers struggle with this – how much detail is too much, and how little too little? I think – I hope – that I’m finding the correct balance at last.

Trust Your Instincts. That last statement belies this one a little. Maybe I should be more definitive. I HAVE found the correct balance. YEAH! Actually, what I mean by this is to trust when your instincts tell you that something isn’t working – or is. I can’t tell you how many times in this book I thought I might have written myself into a corner, or a chapter had become flat, only to have something pop out of nowhere to redeem the direction. The chase at the end of the novel is just such a great example. It was pure seat-of-the-pants writing, throwing away the game plan entirely, but it all ended up working in a much more organic fashion than what I had plotted. Happy little accidents like that always amaze me, and I’ve learned that it’s time to allow those to breathe – I can trust my own ability to work my way out of those corners.

Don’t Give Up. This is the paramount lesson. This book changed protagonist and narrator between three iterations. The first involved a kidnapped woman held in a cellar along with a white man working an office job. When that didn’t work, it moved over to an overweight white woman who was kidnapped and forced to write a novel that slowly started coming to life around her (including that man in his office job). When that didn’t work, it changed to its current protagonist, Kelli, and even then the original intention was for her to simply be narrator and have Carla as the protagonist, carried over from the last version, with a whole new plot. In the end, Kelli took center stage, but was able to share it in a way with Carla. You’ll understand when you read it.

So those are my three big lessons, and they are valuable ones. Tune in next week when I hope to have the cover reveal, just in time to get the draft out to beta readers. Have a great weekend!

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  1. You’re lessons learned are the lessons we must all learn. Thanks for sharing them – hopefully you’ve shortened the learning curve for many.

  2. I liked reading about your writing process, something that always fascinates me about any author. To paraphrase Dory, from Finding Nemo: Just keep writing!

  3. I’m just encouraged to see people doing this, reflecting on their work. To me, it’s one of the deep satisfactions of writing, watching yourself learn. Wishing you all the best with this new one.

    • Thanks, Christina. I think it’s really the only way to get better; if writers don’t examine what went right and wrong, I believe they just spin their wheels. Have a great one 🙂

  4. Nice words from someone that has done it. Each story is unique and each experience is personal. Many times people ask me which one is my favorite. That is like asking a parent which child is their most cherished. Each novel has moments that the author loves and remembers. The reward comes with the last word because it takes a lot or perseverance to get there.

    • Great point, James. I mean, objectively I might be able to say one book is better than the other because of lessons learned, but that doesn’t mean I look back on the “inferior” book as somehow lesser. Even if I don’t love it anymore, it was an essential stepping stone to get to where I am.

  5. Excellent post. I agree with all the lessons and ones I’ve learned myself. The less is more is always a big one and I find myself telling authors this one all the time.

    Thanks for sharing,
    BK Walker

    • Thanks BK! The funny thing is, I read that over and over and never quite grasped it. I just wasn’t sure where the line was – how little was too little? How was I supposed to know? It turns out it’s something you have to arrive at by feel. Didn’t expect that.

  6. I agree with these lessons and find myself learning more about ME with each book I write. Somehow, the process not only refines my writing, by my own beliefs, character. If you keep doing that, I think you can only become a better writer and person at the end of each story.

    • Awesome point, Shannon. That is, without a doubt, happening to me as I write. I feel like a different person at the end of each one, and I think it has to do with exploring different parts of my psyche. The best thing is that those changes in perspective just help to make the next book all the stronger.

  7. Interesting post (and some wise words). I have been editing a short story I wrote several years ago, and it’s been a huge chore simply because of how much my writing has improved over the years (specifically over the years of editing The Imaginings). It’s almost been a complete rewrite.

    I think the only area I would differ is doing a major “deep edit” at the same time as your beta readers are going through it. I can see your reasoning on one side, but seems like you could save both yourself and your beta readers time by taking care of certain issues before giving it to them and having them go into great detail about what they would change, only to have you say, “oh yeah, I’ve already changed that.” I think your beta readers would appreciate it, as well. But just my opinion.

    Paul D. Dail
    http://www.pauldail.com- A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

    • Good point, Paul, and I think I might have misrepresented what I meant by a deep edit. Right now I’m in the middle of going through and hammering out any continuity and theme issues, and I’ve built an aggressive schedule to have all of that complete by the end of this week (thankfully I used a lot of notes and plotting to keep these items fairly consistent).

      I’m thinking that might be what you have in mind when you say deep edit, judging by the context. For me a deep edit is more one of poring over every line and making sure that each sentence works for me, at least in terms of communicating what I mean to say. That’s what I incorporate when I incorporate beta readers’ comments – it’s best to save this for that point because while a beta reader’s idea will change some of those sentences, I have an ingrained grasp of what’s meant in those passages and can better tweak it, if that makes sense.

  8. Pingback: From Zero to First Draft | L.M. Gil, Author's Blog

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