Today I finished the first round of edits to my novel. Technically, I think it is the second round since my wife reads each chapter and marks it up as I finish. What I’ve really been doing is going back through it and mixing her suggestions with a few of my own and also putting it together in one file. Normally when I am working on a project, I make a folder with the project name and each chapter gets its own sub folder. When it is complete, I merge them all into one. I’m sending it out to Beta readers now. Some are reading it for subject matter content (ie: any historical anachronisms, etc) while others are reading it for general flow, characterization, and overall story. Once I receive their feedback, I’ll incorporate it into the next draft. I hope to pass it off to the professional editor in August. Then will come more changes and more drafts. Hopefully it will be ready to submit to agents by the first of the year.
After I finished today’s work, I began to ponder what I’d learned in the year that has gone by between the first typed word and the finished draft. This isn’t my first completed novel, but it is the first that I feel somewhat comfortable with though I know it still needs quite a bit of work. I’m not qualified to give writing advice to anyone, but here are the lessons I’ve learned while I devoted myself to this book. Some of it might be of use to you.
1. Your first draft isn’t going to be perfect! And do you know what? That’s perfectly fine. The trick is to get it down on paper. When I took creative writing courses in college, my instructors always said that good books are not written, they are re-written. Your first draft simply provides the bones. Sure, good bones are important, but you can flesh them out when you start working on revisions.
2. Good research is essential for historical fiction, but don’t get bogged down. I love research. I love diving into the archives, reading old newspapers, interviewing people, and watching old films. This book has its genesis in an interview I conducted in graduate school. The elderly man I spoke with had been a teenage firefighter in Germany during World War Two. After he described a horrific experience to me, I asked him how one gets over something like that. He looked me dead in the eye and said “You don’t.” The dozens of interviews and hundreds of books prepared me to write, but I still found things I didn’t know as I was writing. Rather than stop and go back to the books, I just made a note to myself to fact check the items and kept on getting the draft pounded out. If I had stopped each time to do more research, I’d still be researching and would have no completed novel.
3. Immersion helps with historical fiction. What do I mean? My book is set during World War Two. While I worked on it, I only listened to 1940s music, watched movies from the 1940s, and even listened to baseball games from the 40s. I turned my bedroom into what looks like a squadron ready room (I write in the bedroom). Since I wear 1940s clothes anyway, I got inside the time period as best I could. I do know that this would not work for every historical time period, but for the more recent ones, it is a way to get caught up in the world inhabited by your characters.
4. Bounce ideas off of people. The internet is a wonderful place for writers to meet and exchange ideas and support. There are some excellent Facebook groups for writers in general, writers of historical fiction, and even writers of World War Two fiction specifically. What you’ll find is that other writers will be quick to offer help, encouragement, or ideas. The only person who knows what struggles you go through both internally and externally as a writer is another writer! Writing does not have to be a solitary task. Certainly you are the one putting finger to keyboard, but let others cheer you on. I’ve written stories since I was in elementary school and up until a few years ago, only my closest relatives (and by that I pretty much just mean my wife and cats) knew that I liked to write. I don’t think I was ashamed of it, I just didn’t want people thinking I was…..I don’t know…..weird or something. Well, I got over that and now have no problem “coming out” of the writing closet.
5. But Social Media can be a double edged sword. It is nice to make new friends and interact with other writers, but take care lest social media consume your world. I once lived on Facebook. Now I visit a few times a day, but I take time out for other things too. In fact, when I set out to finish the last 40K words of my novel, I did it in November. To aid me in that endeavor, I took a social media vacation wherein I did not post for the month. I did keep up my cat Anastasia’s page (since she has more followers than I do), but I made no personal posts. The withdrawal ended after the first week or so and rather than spending my time reading stuff, I spent it writing stuff. I met my goal of finishing the book in the nick of time, as it turned out.
6. Life happens, so be prepared. Write what you can while you can. The day after I finished my first draft was Thanksgiving. That evening I ended up in the Emergency Room with a bowel obstruction and spent the next six days in the hospital. I got out, only to return on January 15th with the same problem. This next trip, I had an emergency surgery and spent 19 days in a hospital bed. As it turns out, the surgery didn’t work and I was once again in the hospital for a week in early March. I need a second surgery, a much bigger one this time. Right now it is planned for May when my semester ends, but the problem could reoccur at any time and necessitate an immediate surgery. This is why I was pushing so hard to finish my revisions and ship it off to the Beta Readers. Now I don’t have to worry about that while I worry about my surgery. So my advice is to take advantage of good writing days/times whenever you can. They won’t always be there.
7. Take time for yourself too. Even though you are hard at work trying to write a book, you need some “me” time. Don’t become so wrapped up in your project that you forgo food or human companionship. Step away from the keyboard every now and then. Go for a walk. Go to the library. Play with your kids or pets. The exercise will do you good and help clear your head. Since I’m a college professor, my lecture days provide me with an outlet to move around and interact with others. Writing is important, but so is your family. I’m fortunate that my redheaded wife supports my creative endeavors, but that doesn’t mean I can lock myself in my room 24 hours a day. No matter how many words I’d written that day, each evening at around 6pm, we’d sit on the front porch of our 1932 bungalow a few blocks from Galveston Bay and discuss our day. Sometimes we’d discuss my writing, but more often we talked about anything but writing.
8. Try to limit the self doubt. Easier said than done, I know. I’m the world’s worst at laying in bed at night and thinking of all the things I suck at and replaying every negative event in my life. It is tempting when reading a well written to novel to think “I’ll never write as good as this. I should just give it up.” If you have a sliver of talent, you’ll get better every day. Writing, like anything else, takes practice to master. If you read authors who write numerous books, often you can chart their own development across the years. As a writer, all you have to fear is your own mind. Don’t engage in negative self talk and pull yourself down. That doesn’t mean you should travel with an admiring entourage either. Be realistic but be realistic. If you are just starting out, don’t assume that because you don’t write like [insert your favorite author here] that you’ll never amount to anything. I’d be willing to be that your favorite author probably felt the same when they started out.
9. Finishing the book is a success. Am I working towards getting my novel published? Absolutely. Will I cry in my beer if it doesn’t? No, for two reasons. First, I don’t drink alcohol. Second, by finishing the book I’ve already accomplished more than most who start out to write a novel. If it never leaves the binder I place the printed pages in on my bookshelf, I’ve still done something worthwhile. I don’t write for fame, money, or adoring fans. I’m actually a fairly private person. I write because I don’t know how to not write. The urge to write/tell stories comes from deep within my psyche and has been there as long as I can remember. I finished the novel, anything that comes after that is simply a bonus.
10. When you finish one, start a new one! I finished So Others May Live in November and set it aside for several months. I wanted to be able to look at it with fresh eyes for the editing round. That doesn’t meant I twiddled my thumbs. I had already plotted out another novel and so I started on that one. It is also historical fiction, though not WW2 era. When that one ends, I have a mystery novel plotted. I’ll keep writing as long as I have the strength to tap the keys. Someone out there in this big old world is waiting to read your story, so don’t let them down.
So that’s it, Dear Readers. I hope that you might find what I learned to be useful. Good luck and happy writing.