Ten Things I Learned Writing My First Novel
I published my first novel, The Shadow Broker, in October of 2014. It was a fascinating experience, and after releasing my second novel, Scar Tissue, last month I took some time to reflect on the process.
Your mileage may vary, but here’s what I learned along the way.
1. Writing a novel is only as intimidating as you make it. Starting a novel is like holding your newborn for the first time. You’re ready to crap yourself thinking about your newfound responsibilities of raising a living, breathing human being. Taking on a novel can feel the same way, but it’s only as bad as you make it out to be. Take it one word or one page at a time and one day you’ll wake up with an 80,000-word novel.
2. Outlines make the process easier. Other writers will debate this, but for me creating an outline kept me on track. I create a brief outline for each chapter, including no more detail than can fit on one side of an index card. After I have the story fleshed out, I sit down with my stack of cards and write each scene or chapter. Yes, the story changes. Yes, you’ll throw away some of your ideas or characters, but having a road map will help you get to your destination, even if you take a few detours along the way.
3. It takes a long time. If you want to unleash quality work into the world, put on your patient pants. If you work with a traditional publisher, it can take a year or more to bring your novel to market. But even if you self publish, it takes time to write, edit, solicit beta reader feedback, rewrite, edit again, create a cover, layout the novel, and more.
4. Your worst critic is you. I can’t remember a time in my life when I experienced more self-doubt than when I was writing my first novel. Every author has that voice in their head that tells them they’re no good, their work sucks, they’ll fail miserably, or they’re wasting their time. I haven’t figured out a way to silence this inner critic, but I have learned to kick him in the balls and tell him to fuck off.
5. There’s no such thing as writer’s block. It’s all bullshit. Writer’s block is an excuse writers tell themselves when they can’t produce. Maybe it’s a slow idea day or the words aren’t coming as fast as they did yesterday. Doesn’t matter. Put your ass in the chair and write. Even if you feel like you’re walking through quicksand. Move forward, one step (or word) at a time and you’ll make it to the other side.
6. Marketing is hard as hell. You think writing a novel is hard? Wait until you have to market it. Even if you sign a big deal with a publisher you’re going to have to market your book. Get comfortable with the idea, even if you aren’t. Get comfortable talking about it, contacting the media, researching book blogs, responding to readers, hosting signings, doing interviews, and writing blog posts to support your work.
7. You’ll become obsessed with metrics. You’ll spend hours Googling yourself, watching your sales, scrutinizing your Amazon author ranking, and stalking your reviews. Then one day you’ll realize you’re wasting your time and you’ll get back to work.
8. Your friends won’t buy your book. Some of them will, but most won’t. Most of your friends don’t read. Maybe because they prefer to spend what little free time they have binging on Netflix. Or maybe you just have shitty friends. Either way, don’t expect them to buy your book, but do expect them to lie and say they will.
9. You have to field a shit ton of questions. Once people discover you’ve written a novel they’ll throw more questions at you than a presidential debate. Who’s your publisher? How did you get your agent? Did you get an advance? What’s your book about? How long did it take you to write it? Where can I buy it? Where do you get your ideas? Can I be a character in your next book? Listen to every question, even the stupid ones, and answer with a smile. Everyone is a potential customer.
10. Authors are an incredibly supportive bunch. Maybe it’s because they’ve been in your shoes or understand your struggle, but authors are some of the most supportive people I’ve ever met. Two huge authors, Joe R. Lansdale and Jonathan Maberry, gave me incredible advice (even if they don’t remember doing it). Don’t be afraid to reach out to those authors you admire. Ask questions and listen to their advice. You’ll be surprised at how accessible and helpful they can be.