Which is kind of crazy. But also awesome! It's just surprising to me that I have readers who aren't reading my books or my blog out of pure social obligation. Like, "Oh, that girl Heidi used to be friends with one of my friends, so I guess I'll see if she has anything interesting to say." Or, "Oh, this author is here at a signing and her book looks kind of cool. I guess I'll buy one so she doesn't feel bad."
Anyway, that's beside the point. This totally awesome girl that I've never met, named Tara, actually commented on my blog a couple of weeks ago asking if I had any advice for writers who are currently trying to finish up and/or publish their first books. I am not making this up, Mom. I have fans.
I know this post is long, so if you're in a hurry, you can skip the next three paragraphs which can basically be summarized as, "Blah, blah, blah . . . other people have better answers for this, etc., etc., I don't know what I'm talking about." Or you can read this post instead wherein I talk specifically about the process of getting my first novel published.
For those who aren't skipping ahead or now reading a different post entirely, let me just start by saying that I feel totally unqualified to answer this question. But at the same time I feel pretty certain that if I continue writing, like I plan to do, I doubt this is the last time I'll get asked this question. In fact, on the same day that Tara commented, I went to Comic Con where someone asked me a similar question and I kind of just went, "Uh . . . here talk to this other author. She's way cooler than I am." Special thanks to Alyson Peterson for fielding that question way better than I could. (Seriously, you guys should check her out. She's super cool.)
Anyway, what I'm saying is that I should probably come up with my own personal version of how to answer this question. I feel like all of my favorite authors have one. Most of them you can find online. For example, Meg Cabot answers this question here. Here's a pithy answer from Hilary McKay. And Scott Westerfeld talks about this, and gives lots of advice about the mechanics of writing, here. Even old, dead authors used to answer this question, like Jane Austen. You can check out this list to find writing advice from your favorite authors. Or just try googling, "(Author's Name) on writing."
But I'm not here to give you other people's advice on how to write your first book. I'm here to give you my own. The trouble is, I sort of fell into this whole writing novels thing. That's what makes me feel so unqualified. That and the annoying fact that the more you know about something, the more you realize you don't know anything about it.
START reading again if you skipped ahead.
I'm into lists these days, (and I'm into alliteration every day) so I think that the best way to answer this question is by copying what Meg Cabot did and giving you my personal . . .
Top Ten Tips for writing your first novelBonus tip: Copy other writers as much as possible. You already know they're good.
1. Read like you're obsessed with something.
I don't care if the thing you're obsessed with is a character or a point of view or a setting or the way in which a story is told. Whatever it is that you love, let it suck you in. And then read more of the same kind of thing. That's how you figure out when it works and when it doesn't. For me, this was epistolary novels and anything with a really unique voice.
2. Turn off your inner editor.
This is way easier said than done, especially for someone like me whose background is in editing. Not to sound braggy, but I'm a pretty good copy editor. I should be by now; I've been doing it professionally for nearly ten years. The problem with being a good editor is that you can't draft when you're in editing mode and you can't write a novel without first writing a rough draft. Believe me. I've tried. It doesn't happen. You get stuck on page 2, if you even make it that far. If you're not a good editor, don't worry about it. You'll probably have an easier time in the drafting stage and you can always hire someone to edit for you later. Although it never hurts to learn the basic rules of punctuation and grammar.
3. Set realistic goals.
If you want to finish a novel in a month, you can do it. I know several people who have. But I am not one of them. Like J. Alfred Prufrock, "I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be." I write at a slower pace, and that's okay. It's taken me awhile to accept the ebb and flow that is my writing and not get discouraged when I feel behind or limit myself when I feel productive. But one thing that really helps is to have a basic goal of how many words you want to write in a day or at least how many words you think your book should have. Along with this, I cannot stress enough the importance of learning what kind of a routine is best for you. I do my best writing in the morning. Figure out what works for you, and work with it not against it—even if it means you're writing until three in the morning. Although, if that's you, I'm so sorry because that's going to make it tricky to have a normal life.
4. Pants yourself.
Hahahaha. Okay, sorry. For those who aren't familiar with the term, to be a pantser is to write without an outline, as in "fly by the seat of your pants." I am a self-proclaimed pantser. It's not like I think there's anything inherently wrong with having an outline. It just doesn't work for me. In fact, I started writing something new last week and I forced myself to outline it because I was experimenting in a different genre. Guys, I am stuck. And it's only been a week! I just have so much less motivation to write this story because I feel like I already know what happens. I will admit that there's a good possibility that I'm exaggerating this whole thing in my head. If my life depended on it, I'm sure I could write a book using an outline. But the point isn't to torture yourself with imaginary life-threatening situations. Writing is supposed to be fun. So if you have more fun writing without an outline, then by all means, pants yourself. Just, you know, maybe not in public.
5. Make friends with other authors.
They will become your mentors and your best critics and the only ones who really understand what it's like. If you don't know any authors in your area, you can start by finding the authors you like on social media. If you're worried about friending an author you really admire, I get that. But you should also know that your chances of rejection are slim to none. Most of us will accept your friend request if for no other reason than that having more followers makes us look good to our publishers. (And it serves as extra proof to our moms that we have fans.)
6. Attend conferences and get involved in a writing community.
This one goes along with the previous tip. Writing conferences are a great way to hone your craft and they're an ideal place to meet other writers. If you're the kind of person who needs to be accountable to others or enjoys social interaction, join a writing group. Don't be afraid to let others see your writing. If you're trying to get published, people are going to read it eventually and you might as well get their opinions early when you've still got time to change things. That being said, I prefer not to let anyone read my books until the first draft is done. I just know that if I started tweaking any earlier than that, I would never finish that first draft and then I would never finish writing my books (see tip 2).
7. Don't write what you love, just write what you write.
I think the hardest part about writing your first book is that most people have to make several attempts before they figure out what it is that they can write. My first real attempts at writing were:
1. A YA fantasy fairytale retelling (Hansel and Gretel, in case you're curious. I rarely talk about this book because I didn't get very far into it and it wasn't good. It just wasn't.)
2. A middle grade family story with some low fantasy elements (I keep going back to this one and trying to write it. I've drafted at least three different versions, but I can never finish it, and sometimes I can't even get it started.)
3. A three-part YA fantasy (My first Nanowrimo attempt. It was . . . pointless. As in, I couldn't figure out what the point of the book was. I just knew it was going to have three parts.)
4. A paranormal YA written in first-person present POV (This one was almost published.)
These are only the books that made it past chapter two or three. A lot of the other, even less successful attempts, also included bits of fantasy or magic or some paranormal element. As you may have noticed by now, none of these come very close to what my first book actually was.
Liam Darcy, I Loathe You is a contemporary YA Jane Austen retelling. It's also funny. Or at least it's supposed to be. It's more like the stuff I was reading all along—the Meg Cabot, Hilary McKay, Louise Rennison kind of stuff. It's just that for some reason when I thought about writing, my brain automatically went to fantasy plots. I like to read fantasy too. Not high fantasy so much, but the low kind, yes. Ditto with reading paranormal. But those genres are not as easy for me to write. And I love reading middle grade. Maybe someday I'll actually finish that middle grade book, but who knows.
My point is that if something's not working for you, keep trying different things. Eventually you'll land where you're supposed to, even if it's not your top reading genre.
8. Learn how to write about your writing. (Or hire someone to do it for you.)
This is one of those things you never hear about until you have to do it. Writing a book is only half the battle. The other half is getting it published and for that you will need to know how to write about your book. You'll need to be able to write a synopsis and a query letter. You might be asked to write ad copy. You will definitely need to be able to sell your book in writing, if not in speaking. Speaking is the third half of the battle. And yes, I know that's an improper fraction. Sometimes you think a battle is over and then it's not so much.
9. Put yourself in the right place at the right time.
I told my grandparents I was writing this post just now and I asked my grandmother if she had any words of wisdom. She's not a novelist, but she's written the lyrics to a couple of songs in the Children's Songbook so she's been asked a variation of this question before. Her advice was to be in the right place at the right time. I've heard that before, of course, but sometimes it sounds more like luck than advice. It's true that sometimes people genuinely luck out. It just so happens that the book they wrote hits a chord at just the right time and it takes off. I think that's awesome. But since you can't count on luck, try to capitalize on what you've got. Be involved in organizations. Be persistent. Say yes to even small opportunities. No one ever really becomes a success overnight, so trust that at some point the timing will work out. And in the meantime, keep writing and getting better.
Speaking of which . . .
10. Write down words.
This sounds so obvious, but it's the best piece of advice there is. The only way to write your first book is to just keep writing. Every chance you get, you write down more words. This might mean you don't see as many movies as other people or watch all the TV shows they do. It might mean you can't always hang out with your friends every day. (Case in point: Here I am blogging on a Friday night when I should be out on a date or something.) Honestly, I try to stay balanced but there are some days when I just have to write—even if it means not cleaning up after myself or skipping meals or waking up so early that it feels like the middle of the night. But if you really want to write, you just write.
And if you really don't want to write, I am so sorry that you've had to read this entire post about the writing process. I hope you gave up halfway through.
To those who didn't give up, I salute you. Keep writing. The world needs your books.
And to Tara specifically, thank you for making me feel like a writer today. I wish you all the best with your book!