Oh, I’m not finished yet.
Your First Novel is Going to be, Well, Not Good.
So you’ve graduated from writing short stories and now you’re ready to start a bigger project. Thing is, your first novel is not going to be your magnum opus; your first novel is going to be your practice girl. You’ve got sentence structure and grammar down, that’s cool, but it takes experience to entwine together a competent plot and structure. Most likely, your first novel is going to have some critical flaws in that department, even if it’s meticulously edited. There are plot holes, inconsistencies and pacing issues that are going to come to light as you write, and that’s okay, for your first novel.
When you’re all finished, take a look at your novel with a wider, big picture scope. Take what you learned in writing it and start another.
It’s Okay to Scrap Works While Learning.
The first novel I ever wrote was scrapped after the first draft because it was complete garbage. My second novel is in the perpetual editing stages of its second draft. My third was another throw-away, never to be seen again. My fourth was what you can see at the menu bar at the top. Fifth and six novels were abandoned at 80% completion of the first draft. However, my seventh novel is complete through the second draft and will be self-published within the year. My point: it’s okay to write garbage and throw it away as long as you’re learning. It takes hundreds of hours of practice to get something right, and sometimes that entails writing a 100,000 word story that will never be read or published. It is not a waste of time if you’re getting better while doing it.
You might hate giving up something that took hundreds of hours of work, but it’s even more of a waste to try and revive the corpse. Keep it for reference, but move on.
Cannibalize Ideas From Dead Stories.
Maybe you have an idea for a sweet mech fight, but don’t have a story planned out or you have no idea what story universe it takes place in. That’s okay. Keep the fight stored on your computer or in your brain because perhaps it can be placed in your next story once you get the idea for that. Sometimes two seemingly independent story concepts can be combined into one, once you finally get the idea that brings them together. This is also where your previously scrapped stories can come back stronger.
You will get better with age.
No, I don’t mean you’ll get better with experience (which is true), but you will get better with age. The problem with beginning writers is that they lack maturity, nuance in their world view, and are missing real-life experiences which they can draw from. Their influences are, well, juvenile. It’s understandable, because in your teens or in college you get ahold of anime, video games, superhero movies, which then influence your fiction. Problem is, most those things are made for younger or middle of the road audiences. They lack subtext or complex themes.
Those things you will pick up as life unfolds. So, if you’re a younger writer, your focus shouldn’t be on sending that superhero novel out the door as soon as possible, but learning to write and sending the next novel out the door.
Writing Forums are a Waste of Time.
Writing forums are a huge time sink and you won’t learn much from them at all. There is little explicit instruction, and very little mentoring from experienced writers. 90% of the population are newbies, and it’s hard to learn anything from them. The last 10% are knowledgeable writing hobbyists or actually published writers, but they are so busy that they won’t take the time out for individual mentoring. That’s just not practical. Add to that some of the egos these people have, then add on their politically correct sensibilities, and then add to that their modernist writing style and you have a negligible font of information.
The best writing forum can only really give you a critique every once in a while. At their worst, writing forums are bastions of ego and political correctness. Mainstream writers of today didn’t get popular because they mastered the craft; they’re popular because publishing houses want to publish inoffensive novels with blatant PC messages tacked on and those particular writers fit the ideological mold. That’s all. The “masters” you see on those forums with book covers on their signature are not master craftsmen, but poster boys. They have nothing to offer you.
You’re much better off simply stumbling around the internet for writing tips at first (like, oh, here). Then, write your own stories to know if you have the aptitude or not. Finally, find a critique group to really learn. However…
Avoid Your Average Critique Group.
No matter what kind of critique group it is, whether it’s a college class, a local writer’s group, or an online forum, your experience with any of them is going to be hit or miss.
The best critique group is going to be one that is harsh, but fair. If you sit down and everyone’s way too happy to be there, you need to leave, because they are going to pull their punches to avoid hurting your feelings. Trying to avoid a little heartbreak isn’t going to help your story at all. You need to know what’s wrong so you can fix it, even if it makes you look like a moron. Obviously, it doesn’t help if they blatantly insult you, hence why I said a group needs to be “fair.”
The best critique group I ever had was in the advanced fiction writing course in college. There, you get fifteen critiques a week, all from cutthroat and usually snobbish English majors. It is the one place where the college liberal’s status competition works to your advantage. They will tear apart your story and make the red ink run. Just don’t expect them to hold your hand. For the moment though, that’s all you’ll need.
A note for online critique groups: their effectiveness depends on the caliber of the community. If it’s newbies then you’ll be missing out on critical information. If they’re made of experienced writers then you might get some benefit, but, again, the masters might not really be masters.
In a perfect world, critiques are the best way to learn because they are a combination of experimentation, feedback, and instruction, however they are dependent on the human element to make it work. Always be skeptical of the group you’re about to enter.
With that in mind…
You Need a Thick Skin
Your story is your baby, but at some point you’re going to have to sacrifice it in the process of editing. It stings when your work comes back bleeding with marks and notations. It sucks, but get over it. Learn to put distance between you and your story. It doesn’t help your cause to get too attached. This is most difficult for young guys, and even more difficult for writers who invest so much emotional stock into their work. Kids will get offended when their others comment on their story, but older people understand the reality that everything has flaws. Again, maturity will help you here.
The first thing my instructor told us on the first day of the advanced writing class was: “Your writing is shit.” And she was right.