Plus, how to avoid making my mistakes
Ten years ago, I started writing fiction as an “adult.” Sure, I’d been scribbling stories since I was a kid, but none of it was serious. I was filled with confidence (first mistake) that my new English Literature degree meant I had a leg up on every other writer on the planet.
I think you know where this is going.
To me, typing “The End” meant that I was on a crash course into bestseller stardom. Jonny Depp was slated to play one of my main characters, and obviously Tim Burton would direct. I was about to become the next JK Rowling.
Five drafts later, hundreds of agent rejections, hours spent with professional editors and critique groups, and I still thought I had a winning story. I wasn’t going to give up. This thing would be — must be– a hit.
Looking back, I see now that I was depending on this book to distract me from reality. I had just catapulted myself into the middle of an economic crisis with nothing but a BA in English Lit and a resume listing two summer jobs and an internship. Consequently, I was living at home and working part time at a candy shop (nice bonus: free chocolate).
So, I’m going to give my past-self a break. Times were difficult, and I was just starting out. Plus, my mistakes can be your gains!
- I didn’t bother outlining. At all. No, not one tiny bit.
This may evoke the eternal debate between plotters and pantsers, but as a new writer, I needed a map to guide my story. Or, at least a direction and a compass. Instead, I had a vague idea about what the climax would look like and no clue how to get there. I was very much a pantser, and while it was fun, it led to a story that didn’t have much of a plot.
I had to completely restructure my draft. Multiple times. To this day, I’m still not happy with it.
- My message wasn’t clear.
Call it theme, message, guiding light, whatever. I didn’t have it. My general goal was literally to enlighten people. Yeah.
Having a clear message that you can easily put into a single sentence and convey from page one is crucial to not only tying your story together, but also give the reader something to remember. I learned about this in detail when I researched linguistic refreshment in literature.
By the way, I’ve created a Cheat Sheet for creating compelling stories through the use of cognitive linguistics. Simply sign up for my newsletter to get access.
- My protagonist wasn’t interesting (but my side character was!)
I loved my protagonist, but she was so boring. Like, as basic as a Victorian socialite can be. At first I thought it would be a great way for readers to follow her character growth throughout the story, but if they don’t connect to the protagonist from page one, they won’t be following her anywhere.
Conversely, I’d created a compelling side character who stole the show. If you feel more excited about a member of the supporting cast than the protagonist, it might be time to rethink on whom you should shining the spotlight.
- I expected too much.
As I mentioned in the introduction, I believed that not only would I make this novel a bestseller, but I had to. I put too much pressure on myself to be a perfect author right out of the gate. That’s impossible.
I was so anxious about getting things right that I made things worse. Pitching to agents at conferences was terrifying. Even talking to friends and family about my story was enough to give me heartburn. And my insecurity showed.
- I refused to let go.
Sometimes, a story simply doesn’t work. No matter how much I wanted to stay in this universe and make it shine, I wasn’t in a place in my career where I could give it justice. I spent too much time hitting my head against a wall, when what I needed to do was set it down and try a new story.
First books are generally crap, no matter how much natural talent a writer has. And that’s okay.
This doesn’t mean you should give up now, or that if you do take a break, it shouldn’t necessarily be permanent. I hope that one day, with more experience, I’ll be able to go back in and tackle this story.
An important final note: even though my first book was a disaster, the six months I spent writing that draft continue to be some of the best memories. I felt not only hope, but a deep sense of purpose, one that I continue to hold on to with every new word I type.
So sure, your first book may not be the strongest, but it can definitely be the most meaningful.