Lessons Learned From a Finished Novel

The eighth grade was the first time I remember writing stories for fun instead of homework.

I’ve started a whole lot of stories, but I’ve never really finished one.  Eight times out of ten, I haven’t gotten to the end of the first draft. Another 10% of the time, I’ve finished the rough cut, but haven’t polished or finished anything.  Most of my other finished pieces are short stories. This is the first novel.

My day job has taught me to record lessons learned after completing a large project.  Little notes to self about how things worked out.

“Pantsing” Has Value, Within Limits

Almost anyone who has participated in NaNoWriMo has experienced writing by the seat of his or her pants (hence: “pantsing”, or being “a pantser”).  Pantsing is the opposite of writing with a pre-planned outline.  The reason Chris Baty and others advocate pantsing is because it’s a good way to practice turning off the inner editor and let the inner writer out to play.   The reason so few NaNo novels hit the shelves is because this is essentially an over-sized writing exercise, not a viable way to write a novel.

First, most of what is created during a seat-of-the-pants free write is utter crap. It might flow trippingly off the tongue, but it has no place in that finished novel. You spend so much time creating it, then rewriting and editing it, then rewriting it again, that that scene has become a huge investment. You love it. You want this conversation to be on the back cover of the book.  It is against human nature to edit it out. (We value more highly that which costs us the most dearly.)  Often, it is what most needs to be cut from the final product.

When “pantsing” can be useful is between point A and point B. You need to get your characters from Des Moines to Boise, and they have to be angry at each other when they arrive. How do you do that?  This is when pantsing allows your characters to do their own things and surprise you, when you learn more about them, when it gets rich and interesting.  Within the confines of the space between A and B, this is freeing and fun.  It will still need to be edited.

This is Easy, Damn it.

I’d force myself to keep working on stories that just weren’t that interesting to me. I’ve forced myself to stick to one worn out story line and get discouraged by it. I’ve forced myself to sit at my computer to write, even when I really needed to be reading or running.

This story demanded to be told.   If I got stuck on a plot direction, I’d go back to the point where it stopped being easy. I’d delete all of the swamp and get back on dry paths. I gave myself breaks when I needed them.  This is the secret for me. Keep it fun, keep it entertaining. If the story needs to marinate for a while, work on something else.  It only makes it better.

Personality Matters

For years, I’ve tried to edit my stories like a copy editor. I’m not a copy editor. I’m a macro editor who can occasionally spot typos.  INFJ is my Myers-Briggs Type, and that NF means “big picture”. When I studied literature in college, I was great at pulling out themes and over-arching ideas. Not so much at picking apart metaphors.   This is how I read. Why did I think I’d write or edit differently?

Of course, this also means that I have to be very aware of my limitations as a writer. I can write the big picture version of a scene and not include a single sensory detail (as an NF, my opposite is an ST – one who zooms in on sensory details.)  My first pass at a scene will essentially read like a screenplay: It will contain dialogue, blocking and essential emotions.  It’s an outline with quotation marks.  My second pass at the scene is when I add in sensory details, thoughts and feelings. I intentionally add more than I think the scene calls for, because then I can choose the ones I like best during the editing phase.

Pre-Writing is Vital

Pre-writing, for me at least, looks a heck of a lot like daydreaming. OK, so it is daydreaming.  But it really is important. Pre-writing/daydreaming about my story is what allows me to write new scenes with fluidity and grace. It is what lets me know where the sequel to the book is going (so I know what to foreshadow now).   It is how I work out various ways that a scene can go, and see which ones are dead-ends and which ones are viable.   Pre-writing is how I know how much staying power a world has, how many finite stories can be told from within its particular geography.

Most importantly, I rarely take notes about my prewrites. I let them go back into the ether once I’m done with them. I let them slide back into the mental marinade of my subconscious for a while longer.

I used to stress myself out because I didn’t want to write, I just wanted to daydream. But now that I’ve seen the fruits of this imaginative work, I’m willing to prewrite as often as I need to.


The next novel I write, here are things I’m going to do differently based on what I’ve learned:

  1. Know the conflict, crisis and conclusion before I write — and outline against them
  2. Trying to add in more details the first time around
  3. Macro edit the flow long before line editing or copy editing the piece

This novel, I pantsed, and I wasted at least 10 months on that content. I rewrote it entirely with an outline, and still the crisis scene fell flat. Now, I’ve got a process that seems to be workable. Working full-time and writing in evenings and weekends, I still don’t think I could finish a novel in under a year. At least not the next one. I’m still learning!


2 thoughts on “Lessons Learned From a Finished Novel

  1. Pingback: Camp NaNoWriMo « A.K. Anderson | Science Fiction and Fantasy Author

  2. Pingback: Nattering about NaNoWriMo | A.K. Anderson | Science Fiction and Fantasy Author

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