I’ve Finished 2 Novels. Here’s What I’ve Learned.

With the release of Harbingers, the story I began working on in 2009 with the hazy goal of finishing a single novel has now materialized into 2 published books. Hooray!

But something looks a little off there. 8 years to finish 2 books? Lots of authors publish novels on a yearly basis.

I’ll tell you right now: I’m not “lots of authors.” I haven’t distilled novel-writing down to a crank-’em-out science. But, I also don’t think it’ll take 4 years to outline, draft, and finish Sword and Starship Book 3. Here are some factors that should aid my turnaround time.

1. I’m more disciplined about writing now. This is the big one. From 2009 to 2014, I was only writing once a week or less, flying by the seat of my pants with no outline. Quitting my day-job allowed me to make writing my full-time focus. Once I got connected with an editor who could guide me in the ways of book-planning, things really started falling into place.

All planning and good intentions aside, the book only gets written if I sit down to write it. I’m blessed to be able to do that every single day. (Though I do take breaks on weekends. Breaks are necessary.)

2. I’m more informed about the novel-writing process. Novels are a LOT more complicated than short stories, which I was more accustomed to prior to starting this project. My first draft of Blood’s Force (which was later expanded into Blood’s Force and Harbingers) was only about 80K words, and performed a breakneck speed-run through the plot without pausing to build up suspense, relationships, or other really important stuff.

A ton of prep work has to happen before any writing starts: figuring out character goals, constructing an outline, mapping character arcs and relationships. They won’t be set in stone—while drafting, surprises always happen that force you to change course—but working in the mid-draft revelation is much better than petering out after 80 pages because you have no idea what happens next.

3. I know to finish the first draft before doing any editing. Long before a first draft of Blood’s Force was done, I was taking chapters to critique groups, obsessing over word choices, etc. This is a HUGE waste of time. Surprises happen constantly while you’re drafting. You don’t want to know how many really polished scenes I ended up cutting as my outline changed, and how much I was tempted not to cut only because I’d spent so much time on it. This time around, I know not to start rewriting or soliciting critique in earnest until I have a complete story done.

4. I’m letting myself be OK with imperfection. This is hard, because it goes against the grain of my upbringing. “Make all As!” “Always give 110%!” The demands of perfectionism are like a harsh spotlight blaring over everything I do. When writing, I pause constantly in search of the right word or turn of phrase. A voice in my skull tells me I need to be funnier, more clever, more profound. Get it right, or else!

Then a whole morning passes, and I only have three sentences written.

It helps to remember that the writing process isn’t a one-time orchestral performance in front of a huge audience. It’s more like sculpting alone in a studio. I can start rough where no one will see, then chisel out something more beautiful while editing.

Eventually, though, I have to stop chiseling and release my work into the world as-is. There are always parts I think are still unacceptably weak, but they’re probably not as bad as I fear.

5. I’ve learned to prize clarity and simplicity. As a younger writer, I wanted my prose to be profound and complex and thought-provoking. Now, I just want to communicate clearly, which should make drafting easier. I don’t need the fancy $10 thesaurus word when the first word off the top of my head will do—especially in a first-person narrative where the main character is talking informally to her audience.

6. I know how to leverage the strengths of my reviewers. I’ve learned my husband is great for taking a pitch and improving it. “Why don’t you do X instead?” where X is something so much cooler than what I thought of. What he’s not so good at is at challenging me on the weak points in my writing—pointing out awkward phrases, noting where I could include more emotion and reflection, etc. My editor is much better at this. So I’ll keep these things in mind when seeking critique.

All that said, I’m now outlining what I’d like to have happen in future Sword and Starship books! Wish me luck! :)