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Six things I’ve learnt from writing a novel

Recently (I say ‘recently,’ but actually mean about three years ago) I finished my debut novel, a crime fiction story about a young detective in the Australian bush. It didn’t happen overnight and no, it didn’t come naturally. I had to learn the craft of writing fiction; opposed to the ‘fiction’ I used to write as a detective myself. That’s a joke, by the way. All of my police writing was purely factual. 

Learning how to craft a story into something that someone – other than a judge – will actually want to read was a challenge. There’s a lot to it. Plot points. Central questions. Character arcs. Story themes. Rising pressure, antagonists, protagonists and inciting incidents. Not to forget to mention grammar, style, pacing and the host of other nuances that get taught as good writing. It’s definitely a skill that can be taught (and learnt). There are a million books and just as many courses that exist to help you on your writing ‘journey’ (ps. I hate that word). Let alone the myriad of writers/readers conferences, book launches, book clubs, presentations, online videos, websites, facebook pages and other material to guide you in writing your novel. 

Along the way I’ve picked up many things that will stay with me about writing, and here’s a six-pack sample of some of them.

1. You don’t just sit down and write a book

Let me explain. You could do this, but it would probably be ordinary. Fiction stories follow rules and those rules need to be learnt. Sure, there are those that break the rules and punch out blockbusters that make them millionaires. But I doubt that they didn’t know the basics of fiction before they started writing. You have to know them to break them. 

2. Writing a novel is not something that happens in a week or two

Almost everyone who interested in writing says “I’d love to write a book.” Unfortunately, ninety-nine percent of people never get started. If they did, they’d also realise that it’s bloody hard work that take a lot of time. I can whip up this blog post in an hour or two, but writing an 80,000 word novel is a different story (pardon the pun!). Expect to miss family outings, BBQ’s, movie nights and kids sporting games if you’re going to stay in the zone and get that book written. Throw in a job and your time will be severely limited. 

3. When you’re finished, you’re finished, right? 

Some famous author, somewhere, said “the first draft of everything is shit.” It’s very true. Experts in the writing craft agree that it’s best to get the story down, then mould it into something that is readable. The first draft is the easiest part of the writing process. The editing, re-editing (multiple times), structural editing, copy editing, proofreading is what takes the majority of time to mould your story. And, it’s the most boring part of the process. Prepare for hard work. 

4. Everyone’s going to love your story!

You’ve spent years crafting a magnificent novel. Every line, every paragraph is spot on. The plot is good. The story flows and is entertaining. Your characters are appealing. Everyone will love it! No, they won’t.

Reading is subjective. Just because a book wins an award, doesn’t mean that I’ll like it. And, just because someone doesn’t like your novel, doesn’t mean that it’s no good. That goes for agents, publishers, beta-readers, anyone really. Think about the reasons you’ve written. Are you writing for you or for someone else? Sure, you should definitely take note of structural/ grammatical issues to your story provided by experts (like professional editors), but not the story itself. 

5. It can’t be that hard to get published

I’ve got some bad (and good) news for you. Publishing houses receive thousands of manuscripts every year and they might decide to take on half a dozen. The percentages are not good. These days there are other options like self-publishing and assisted-publishing. A whole industry now exists to get your story out into the world. 

6. Never, never give up

Winston Churchill said it, so it must be true. If it’s your mission to tell a story, get published and talk about your book with those willing to listen, then it can be done. Once upon a time, if you weren’t lucky enough to get a publishing deal, then it was over. Have faith in your story, learn the craft and keep pushing. I learnt recently that “Fifty shades of Grey” was self-published initially. Think about that. 

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