Things I Learned from Writing Two Novels in Eight Months

I know it’s been pretty quiet on the blog front lately, but I promise there’s a good reason for that: I spent the month of March finishing up the first draft of my second novel.

Yes, that’s right. The book that was causing me so much trouble, and causing me to lament my case of second book syndrome, is done. Done for now, anyway. There will clearly need to be a second draft, once my agent and critique partners have read it and given me their thoughts on what most needs to be fixed (and I have ideas of my own about that, as well). But the important thing right now is that the first draft is done, and I’m still riding that finishing-a-manuscript-high, which all writers will be familiar with.

What I didn’t realize until a good friend (and critique partner) pointed it out is that the completion of this manuscript means that I have now written two full drafts of two different books in just eight months. Something that, if you had told me last year at this time that I was going to do it, I would have laughed in your face. I would have thought it was impossible.

Back in August I started the book that I most recently finished, the one I am intending to be the second book of my two-book contract with St. Martin’s Press. I was excited about it at first, it was going really well, in the way that shiny new ideas usually start out.

Then I started to hit a wall. This, I think, is where the second book syndrome began to sink in. You can read about this in more detail in my earlier post on the subject, but I think the fact that I was getting a book published – and that I was being paid to write another one which would also be published – really got in my head a bit and began to freak me out. It happens.

Yet at the same time, another book idea had come to me. It was a variation on an idea I had had a few years before, yet for whatever reason at this particular time – about halfway through September of 2014 – the last pieces of it clicked into place. So I started writing it, because I couldn’t not write it. I started writing it because I had a compulsion to write it. I started calling it my “love affair project”, because in writing it I was “cheating” on the book I was supposed to be working on. I kept writing it, half hoping that it would sort of peter out once the initial excitement of it wore off and I could get back to what I was supposed to be writing.

But it didn’t, and soon I had hit 20,000 words, and then 30,000. By this time it was almost November, known to many in the writing world as National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo). So since the story showed no sign of slowing done or going away, I made a deal with myself: I would use NaNoWriMo as the impetus to finish the draft, and then get back to my historical novel. This one had to be done by the end of November – it had to be – simply because I didn’t have any more time to spend on it.

So I did it. I took my laptop to work and wrote on my lunch break most days; I used every spare evening and weekend day that I could. I turned down invitations to parties and to hang out (my friends are used to me by now). And I finished it on November 30th.

It’s kind of a weird book. It’s not historical fiction; it’s set in contemporary times. It’s about a heavy metal band. I don’t really know what genre it is – it’s definitely an adult novel, but it’s not a romance, it’s not really literary fiction, it’s not women’s fiction (not that there aren’t a lot of female metal fans, contrary to popular belief – I see you, my sisters in metal). At 69,000 words, it’s a short manuscript for me. It’s had two titles already in its short life. It has lots of issues and needs a lot of work, work I’m more than willing to put in at some point because I have a strange love for it. Maybe it’ll see the light of day someday, and maybe not. I don’t know at the moment.

But that’s not really the point. The point is that I wrote a complete draft of a novel in two and a half months – something I had never before thought I could do. Not when the first draft of The Violinist of Venice took me a year and a half. Now, granted, I began that first draft when I was a sophomore in college, going to school full time and working part time. There were lots of other things that needed to get written in that year and a half – essays;  short stories; research papers; final exams; articles for the college newspaper, to which I contributed weekly while also being editor of the sports section. Furthermore, that first draft of Violinist was its longest ever, coming in at 560 pages and 178,000 words.

Yet even knowing all this, I still had it in my head that I was a slow drafter. So in writing my “love affair” project, I finally managed to show myself that that wasn’t true.

The other thing that writing that book did for me is it helped to open the floodgates. I was writing something just because I loved it, just because I wanted to. Who knew if anyone was ever going to see it. There was no pressure. I was making words again, filling up page after page, in a way that I hadn’t in a really long time. It felt good. It felt great, in fact.

And so when my “love affair” project was done, and it was time to go back to my long-suffering historical project, a few things were different: 1) Like I said, the floodgates were open again; I felt like I had been unblocked, and 2) I knew then that I could pound out a draft if I had to. I knew that I was capable of turning off my inner editor – and chasing away said inner editor whenever she popped up again by repeating the phrase, “It’s only a first draft” as many times as necessary – and just getting the words on the page.

So I did it again.

Of course, it wasn’t quite that easy. When I went back to my historical project, there was some anguish and frustration for sure. It always takes me a bit of time to switch gears from one project to the next, so that was part of it. What was also part of it was the lingering fear in the back of my mind from when the story had started to stall on me initially, the fear that I’d never be able to get it going again. For the first month of working on that manuscript again, it was a tough, uphill battle, and I wasn’t happy writing it. I was afraid I never would be.

Yet soon it got better. One of the things that was really helpful was the fact that I went to New York City at the end of January and got to meet my agent and my editor in person. That got me excited about writing and about the whole process all over again. What helped even more so was the fact that my agent asked how the book was going, and I finally confessed that it wasn’t going well. As it turned out, it was invaluable to me to just be able to articulate to her the problems I was having, and why I thought I was having those problems. She listened, she sympathized, and she gave me some suggestions and strategies to help me work through it, most of which I took. Another lesson learned: when in doubt, talk to your agent, especially if she is as amazing as mine is!

So, when I got back from New York, slowly it all began to pick up again.

And, like I said, I knew I could do it. I knew I could pound this draft out if I really set my mind to it. I gave myself a deadline of the end of March for the first draft, since I figured that would give all my beta readers time to read it and get me their thoughts in enough time for me to have the second draft ready to go to my editor at the end of August.

The beginning of March was kind of a wash, just due to various personal stuff and general life craziness that sprang up. But I committed. I started dragging my laptop to work again and writing on my lunch breaks. I made myself write at least 2,000 words on each weekend day, when I generally have the most writing time. And the more I wrote, the more I worked on it, the more I switched off my inner editor (and kept her switched off), the more the characters came alive for me, the more their dialogue seemed to flow naturally, the more I grew to love the story and where it was headed.

Love. That had been the missing ingredient for me for a while. It took me some time to really love the story, but I finally did. I finally do. As I wrote I started to get excited for people to read it, to see what people thought. That, to me, is always a good sign.

Of course, as I neared the end my momentum picked up, as it usually does. It became a sprint to the finish, so I excited was I to see this manuscript through at last (and also because some really exciting things happen at the very end of this one, so I’d long been looking forward to writing those scenes). Everything in my life that intruded on my writing time induced a very specific kind of rage that all you writers will know well.

I didn’t make my initial goal of finishing by March 31st, but I finished on April 2nd – close enough.

Of course, now that it’s done and my agent and critique partners have it, all the insecurity comes in: it’s done, but is it any good? Did I go too fast? Is it not developed enough? Will they like it?

But, as I repeated to myself over and over as I wrote, it’s only a first draft. Yes, there are things that will need to be fleshed out more, details that will need to be added, characters that will need to be beefed up and plot threads that will need to be smoothed out. But that’s okay. As I learned from the five years I spent working on Violinist, I like revising. A lot. I love the feeling of taking something I’ve already written it and polishing it until it really shines; of adding a new word to a sentence that makes it pop in a way it didn’t before; of cutting what’s unnecessary and adding what should have been there all along. Getting the words on the page is the hardest part for me; once they’re there, I can revise until the cows come home.

And there’s something else I’d forgotten, as well. I was a much better writer starting the first draft of this historical novel than I was when I started Violinist. Hell, I was a better writer when I started this first draft than I was when I finished the last draft of Violinist. That’s just how it works: the more you write, the more you revise, the more you learn and improve. You can’t write a book and not learn things in the process. And so there’s something else I know now, eight months and two books later:

I am a better writer now than I was when I first started this first draft.

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4 responses to “Things I Learned from Writing Two Novels in Eight Months

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