“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
― Toni Morrison

10 Lessons I Learned While Writing My First Novel

Within the last week, I’ve completed the final round of revisions on my first novel and started querying agents.

Woo! Huzzah! Happy dances all around.

10 Lessons I Learned While Writing My First Novel

 

It’s been a long road… I started this novel about four-and-a-half years ago. It was my first novel, my first serious creative writing venture, and I’ve grown a lot as a writer and as a person along the way.

Here are the top ten lessons I learned while writing my first novel:

1. Everything will take longer than you expect.

And that means everything. Think you can whip through that revision in a few weeks? Try a few months. Plan on querying agents by the new year? Maybe by the end of next year.

Art simply doesn’t play nicely with timelines. So instead of expecting it to cater to yours, plan on needing more time than you think you need.

2. If you love an idea, trust it.

You know what I’m talking about, right? That totally-in-love feeling you get about an idea every once in a while.

Not the kind where it sparks and then deflates seconds later. The kind where you think about it all day and it keeps you up at night and maybe even enters your dreams. When you love a story idea that much, that’s an idea to run with.

3. The most important question is “What if … “

This simple question got me over every hump of writers block while writing my novel. What if the hero is too desperate to listen? What if the villain is right? What if I finish this whole bottle of vodka?*

*NOT REALLY OKAY.

4. Crazy is okay.

Yes, your plot needs to make sense. But that doesn’t mean crazy things can’t happen—I cite the Whomping Willow in the Harry Potter series. Stories (and fantasy especially) are a place to get wild.

5. The bulk of writing is rewriting.

I thought getting through my rough draft meant the hard part was over. I could not have been more wrong. The second and third drafts took even longer, and were way harder.

But, somewhere, eventually, edits start getting easier again… and that’s called the light at the end of tunnel.

6. Getting outside readers is crucial.

It’s just impossible to be an artist and view your own creation with an unbiased perspective.

My writing group partners and beta readers pointed out inconsistencies, missing information, and ways to make my story better that I would never have found on my own.

7. Critique is a gift.

Receiving critique can sting a little. But to offer that kind of insight takes time, attention and guts—no one likes to give negative feedback.

The ones who give it to you do it because they care, and they believe in you.

8. If you start hating your work, don’t trust it.

We al go through phases where we start hating our work … it’s inevitable when you spend so much time on something. Don’t let these feelings win. Fight through it.

9. By the time you’re done, you know nothing about your own story.

You’ve just spent years fleshing out every last intricacy of a world, characters, and plot, fighting to breathe life into them with rich complexity. Now boil down that 80,000-word manuscript to a paragraph for a query letter or promo summary.

It’s impossible. At first. But if you let go and step back for that birds-eye view, you’ll get there. Be patient and be willing to try a few different approaches.

10. The end is only the beginning.

Completing your manuscript is a huge feat. But the real adventure is still ahead—querying agents (or self-publishing), promoting, and connecting to readers.

Writing a Novel Is an Endless Learning Process

I’ve learned a lot over this four-year journey. But the biggest lesson? Despite all the early mornings, late nights, and cramming my novel into the corners of my life for four and a half years, it’s totally worth it.

Writing as an endless learning process… I don’t know if it’s possible to ever truly master it. But we can keep getting closer by continuing to look for the lessons in our writing.

Think about your recent writing efforts. What lessons have you learned from your efforts? Let us know in the comments!

PRACTICE

Think about your recent writing efforts. What lessons have you learned from your efforts? Share them below in the comments, and remember to support each other by responding to others’ comments, too.

About Emily Wenstrom

By day, Emily Wenstrom, is the editor of short story website wordhaus, author social media coach, and freelance content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstrom, a sci-fi and fantasy author whose first novel Mud will release in March 2016.

  • I learned that having others read your writing before submitting is crucial because they help you to see weaknesses that you didn’t know were there. I learned, also, that great writing is rewriting. I also learned that I actually enjoy rewriting. The first draft is the raw material that I get to shape into something great. But first I have to write the raw material.

    I also learned that tapping into people’s emotions with a story can be the most powerful way to keep people interested in your story.

    • Congratulations on finishing the novel, by the way!

    • LilianGardner

      For me too, the first draft is difficult, that is the ‘raw’ material as you call it. Then revision and rewriting is fun, cutting out redundancy, substituiting adjectives and rephrasing to aim for a smooth, flawless and interesting manuscript.
      I can confidently say that with each revision, I know I improve my story. At times I don’t know when to stop.
      I’m half way through my novel, and I hope to finish it, (the first draft) before Christmas.

      • Knowing where to stop is difficult to discern because only you can really decide what stays and what goes.

        Good luck on the first draft, Lilian.

        • LilianGardner

          Thanks Tom.
          I try not ot let my novel go beyond 60/80,000 words. which I find is the desired length for readers.

  • I finished my first novel two weeks ago ! First draft. I have two b-readers and I’m longing for their comments… i need them to be able to process. I won’t reopen my file until I receive their comments because I don’t want to change anything just because I’m doubting. I must be convinced that I have to rewrite and rewrite. i must step back and calm my heart ! Waou;;; Still so much to do… Thanks so much for your post : it helps !

  • Emily,
    How exciting!
    I can hardly wait to read your novel. I will bookmark this post as your ten lessons are practical and valuable.
    The main lesson I have learned is my book won’t get finished if I don’t write. Silly really. But true. Thinking about writing, or reading about writing, won’t finish my book.
    xo
    Pamela

    • Krithika Rangarajan

      I don’t think it’s silly at all, dear Pam! #HUGSS

      I have an article due tomorrow that has me stumped, probably because I care about the subject of the article too much! 🙁 But, yes, unless I plop my butt and place one painful word after another, I cannot ever move ahead – lol

  • I’m right in the heart of my first novel. I’ve been working on it for the better part of four years, and I’ve learned that I’m always learning. You can never learn too much. You can never know too much about your characters, their occupations, locations, past. You learn about them as you go, and that’s when they start to become real people.
    I completely agree with absolutely everything on this post. You put into words what every writer feels daily!
    One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that the story grows and becomes more complicated constantly. Sometimes faster than we can keep up with. You have to write absolutely EVERYTHING down, because you’re going to need it!
    And you need that ‘birds-eye view’, because that really helps when you lose focus.
    Thanks for the awesome post!
    Reagan
    “I can do ALL things through Christ who strengthens me”

    • Robert Ranck

      “One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that the story grows and becomes more complicated constantly.”

      Reagan, that one line so well expresses for me the essence of the story-writing process.

      Thank you

      Bob Ranck

      • Thanks, Bob. It can get ahead of us if we don’t keep up!

  • Sheila B

    I’ve learned that I need a professional line editor, because every time I revise, i find yet another typo! I learned that because I kept going back to read for creative revisions and found the misspellings, grammar, and punctuation errors, and passive sentences that would be better as active.
    I learned also that I enjoy revising and improving as much as writing the first draft. Although my first drafts often impress me for the story idea, I find I can always round out something, improve verb usage, delete a redundant phrase, chop long sentences into shorter better ones.

    • Drives me crazy when a typo gets through in anything I’ve written. I’m not at a point where I can afford a professional line editor, so I use Grammarly, which is really helpful. I use Google Chrome, and they have an extension that checks everything you write for errors. A few sneak through, but not much.

  • Krithika Rangarajan

    BRILLIANT – loved your insights!

    Congratulations on completing your first novel #HUGSSS

    Much love
    Kitto

  • Danni Thompson

    I love the article! It’s all so accurate! Personally, I’ve learnt of the importance of decision making, and that with literature (fantasy especially, which is what I’ve been working on), the wackier the better. But congratulations on finishing!

  • Robert Ranck

    Emily, I thank you for this article and I value the insights you have expressed here. I am progressing with a series of short stories,and these points all seem so true. Number two, especially seems appropriate for this project:as the idea I am in love with is the core of the stories. I just haven’t connected with a beta-reader or critique group yet, so hat is next on the agenda.

    In one of the comments, “Reagan” says “One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that the story grows and becomes more complicated constantly.”. Absolutely true! One thing leads to another,and .suddenly, six stories have become twelve chapters. And a follow-on book is a possibility.

    Bob Ranck http://www.bobranck.com

  • First draft is always challenging. With so much ideas in mind, it sometimes gets difficult to put them all in sequence. For me sequencing of events is always difficult. rewriting is a must thing and I always enjoy doing it. and letting others read your draft helps improve alot.

    Sometimes you are stuck where to start with, it seems lie you are out of ideas. I created an infographic just a few days before on how to get ideas for writing, hope it’s helpful for all writers:

    http://www.writeawriting.com/creative/6-ideas-for-writing-infographic/

    • So true! A story seems to have a life of its own!
      P.S.: Love the infographic!

      • Thanks for the like. Hope you have shared it around as well..

  • Elizabeth Varadan

    Congratulations on finishing your novel. I related to so many of your points. But one point that really resonated was your statement “If you start hating your work, don’t trust it.” I had an agent for awhile and she wanted me to write articles that I didn’t enjoy writing to boost audience, etc. Well, after awhile, for literally the first time in my life, I started to hate writing. I got through one article, and then just balked. I learned a lot from her that made the book I was working on better, but then she wanted me to make changes that I felt would violate the characters. Again I balked, and we parted ways (amicably, I’m happy to say). Now I love writing again, and there’s a happy ending to story: I found a small press ideally suited for the book the way it is, they released it last week, and it’s getting good reviews. Still, learning is never over, and I’m hoping to learn a lot here in The Write Practice.

  • John

    I’ve been trying to plot my novel inside my head and penned it down my journal. The idea all started when I was still in High School. and until now, i’m not yet done with it. hahaha. it seems like time is my enemy and life got in the way. but this time i know, i will finish it. i don’t know when but this article is a big help to continue further.

  • Great post, Emily. And congratulations on finishing that first novel. You’ve already accomplished more than 90 percent of the writers out there.

    What have I learned about writing? Hmmm, let me see….

    1. It’s more about persistence than inspiration most of the time. Yes, every story begins with an idea, but it takes discipline and persistence to produce the novel.

    2. No first draft is ever as bad as I think it is. It has faults, to be sure, but is it good for nothing but to be cast out and trodden under foot? Not very often.

    3. No first draft is a ever as good as I think it is. I’m funny that way. I think most of my first drafts are trash, but every once in a while, one comes along that I think is perfect. I’m generally wrong on both counts.

    4. Writing isn’t always a solitary endeavor. We do have to shut ourselves away to write, but we also need a cheering section. Writing friends who know what it’s like to hammer away at the keyboard for months or years. They cheer us up when we’re ready to throw in the towel, they hold our feet to the fire when we want to slop through a scene just to get it done, they celebrate with us when the manuscript is finished.

    Thanks again for the post. Best wishes with the next phase of the writing business!

  • Ann

    Emily you have hit the nail right on the head! Almost every point you mentioned is me. You had me chuckling at a few of them due to the insane accuracy. I am going on 3 years now and I too though that once I got through the first draft, the edits would be smooth sailing. Nope! I’m on my second revision and have now introduced two new character, killed off another and changed the entire ending!
    Also, you are absolutely bang on with point #2. In doing my rewrites I would get an idea and then the excitement would take over as I would imagine that new character or idea interacting with the existing players and it was a perfect match.
    Thank you for posting this and congratulations on finishing your novel! Very exciting!

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  • Jean

    Great post Emily! Thank you for this helpful information. I just
    started my first novel this week and I expect to finish that in a year, but I guess
    it need enough time to produce a good work so maybe I will extend it into four
    years. I am 27 years old now, and at least at the age of 31 I finished one
    novel. :D. By the way Tom, I am following “The Whisper Project” also. I used it
    as my guide. 😀
    thanks to everyone in here…. God Bless us!

    • Awesome! Glad I could be of help.

  • Julia Nesbitt

    Hi all! I usually don’t like when people self-promote, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do! My name is Julia Nesbitt and I’m a fiction short story writer. I would love it if you checked out my blog http://nesbittwrites.weebly.co… and could leave a comment or just simply read it. Thanks!

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  • This excellent post is exactly what I needed to read now that I’m knee-deep in revising my first draft and feeling the all too familiar tug of resistance. I’ve learned a great deal from this process, but the biggest lesson is that so much of writing a novel is about discipline — consistently showing up at the keyboard even when it’s hard and the muse seems to be on an extended vacation. I used to think it was simply about creativity and inspiration. I’ve also gained an enormous amount of respect for writers like you who see it through from first to final draft. What a wonderful accomplishment.

  • Beta readers and critique are gifts–once you learn how to sort through it. Holding onto your unique voice while giving each comment its due consideration can be a balancing act, but it’s worth it.

  • Varah Potter

    Hey! Any advice is welcome to this question. I just started my first book! I’ve been writing short stories here and there in secret for years and am now really trying to make something of my ideas. I wanted to start out as a Romance Novel but I feel like it’s turning into it’s own genre. Is that okay if I can’t categorize my book? I have
    so many fears about writing, there are so many tips and things I feel I missing I just feel as though I should write and do that. I’m just overwhelmed. Do any of you feel like this at times?

    • Olivia Rothsberg

      If you want to write and are afraid, don’t be. Everyone starts off somewhere. If your book turns into it’s own genre, more power to you! That’s talent. I write short stories and I love it. I’ve been in a rut lately, but that’s due to personal issues. I was always afraid my stories weren’t any good until I took comfort in a friend. Someone who I knew wouldn’t lie to me, but tell me how it was. Sometimes she would tell me an idea sucked and to give it up. If you’ve got someone like that, keep them around to help. Especially if they’ve been around you for years, someone you grew up with even. They wouldn’t be afraid to tell you how it is. Don’t hide your talent. Some people dream to be creative, while those who are creative are too afraid that they aren’t good enough. Just go with it. Writers should support one another. I’ve tried writing a book, and I’ve journaled and typed my heart out, and sometimes it seems like at the end of a page, or couple of pages I haven’t made any progress or my story has no form. Perhaps you’ve got some advice as well?