3 Mistakes I Made In My First Novel
Several years ago, I began writing a novel that was destined to be the first I would actually finish. It was an action-packed thriller set in a harsh dystopian society with all the lovely perks a harsh dystopian society usually possesses–evil dictators, cool futuristic weapons, and impassive henchmen with sunglasses and shaved heads. I finished it in early 2011. At some point before the beginning of 2012, I realized how awful it was.
It wasn’t that everyone who read the thing hated the living Courier New out of it. In fact, everyone had really good things to say about it. I heard a lot of things like, “This is the best story I’ve read all year!” (It was early in the year.) “I felt like I was reading a REAL book!” (As opposed to a fake one?) and the ever-popular “Hey man, when this book is published I want a signed copy, so I can sell it on E-bay when you’re famous!” (That gets old. That gets so old.)
And they meant well. They really did.
But then there were the few who read my novel with a critical eye and were understanding enough to give me painfully honest feedback. They confirmed the niggling doubts that had been lurking in my own brain about this story I loved so much.
It was an interesting story. It had its good moments. But publication, all those young author’s dreams I’d allowed myself to harbor while I pounded away at my keyboard? Nah. Not with this one. The story didn’t just need a check-up and a few tweaks–it needed a Gucci Westman makeover, knee replacements, open-heart surgery, and probably a lobotomy.
Which depressed me. A whole bunch.
But looking back, my frustration over the “failure” of that first novel was like entering a unicycle marathon with two-and-a-half riding lessons under my belt and then throwing a tantrum after finishing last. That’s not failure. Just finishing the marathon in the first place was a ginormous accomplishment. And looking back, I learned more from the mistakes I made in that first marathon of a story than from any book I’ve ever read, webinar I’ve ever sat through, or workshop I’ve ever attended. I’d like to share a few of those mistakes with you now.
Big Mistake No. 1: Not enough Middle
I am a terrible planner. I think it’s because I’m impatient. I’m like one of those guys who gets so set on delivering that magnificent, Hollywood-esque proposal to the girl they love, they forget that buying a ring or something first might be a good idea.
When I started writing my first novel, I’d planned out the chilling prologue scene that would set the stage for the story to come.
I knew what would happen from there until the disaster that would change my hero’s life forever and send him hurtling into the maelstrom of Act Two.
I could envision my climax, the moment where my hero would rise up and overcome against all odds, right down to the tear-jerking denouement that would tie off all the loose ends into a neat little package, all ready to be shipped off to the nearest agent. Who would send back a gushing letter full of exclamation marks and smiley emoticons, telling me that my story was the greatest thing since the semicolon, and she was prepared to bend over backwards to get me in print. I had that part all planned out too.
Unfortunately, the part I didn’t have planned was Act Two–the seventy-five percent of story that looms between the head and feet of the novel, the meat of the metaphorical story sandwich. More unfortunately, it wasn’t until I had written to the end of Act One that I realized this.
So after staring at my computer screen and making strangled noises for several days, I finally threw planning to the wind and threw up a rigged series of events that served no purpose but to connect the exciting stuff in the first part of my story to the exciting stuff in the last part.
The result? My novel was a little like a vegetarian sub: Big and bready, but with a disturbing lack of substance in the middle.
No offense intended to anyone who likes vegetarian sub sandwiches.
So yes. If you’re writing an outline, don’t skimp on the middle. If you prefer to write without any outline or pre-planning, know your characters well enough that when you hit that middle seventy-five-percent, they’ll carry you through.
Big Mistake No. 2: Making Myself the Protagonist
Like any good little outliner, I took the time to fill out the character development sheets during the early phases of my first novel.
You’ve all seen them–downloadable PDF files the size of a Tolstoy novel that want to know all kinds of obscure facts about your character. Favorite Childhood Memories, Favorite Childhood Places, Favorite Relatives, Favorite Bathroom Rituals. You dutifully fill out each one, and when you finish—voila, you have created a character of deep and unfathomable complexity.
Only I got a little daunted by the prospect of creating an entire life history for this dude in my head, so I cheated. I just made him me.
Favorite Childhood Memories? Easy. Favorite Relatives? No problem. Favorite Bathroom Rituals? (True toothbrushing Zen can only be achieved by tapping the brush three times on the edge of the sink bowl after finishing.) Easy shmeasy.
The problem? My hero ended up with all my good qualities, and very few of my bad ones. Certainly none of my worst. He wasn’t me, he was a cardboard cutout of me. As a good friend of mine commented, he suffered from Luke Skywalker syndrome.
We don’t like to write about our failings. It’s painful. And this is why it’s very seldom a good idea to base a protagonist off yourself, unless you are willing to put all your worst thoughts, habits, and impulses right down there on the page with all your good ones.
Big Mistake No. 3: Lack of Setting
A lack of setting, of description, is one of the most common mistakes I see in first novels. And it’s most frustrating in speculative genres such as sci-fi or fantasy, because the reader is journeying into a completely new world, with no idea of what to expect from their surroundings. If they can’t visualize your world, they’re not going to stick around very long.
I still struggle with this, in fact. Creating an entire world from scratch is incredibly hard, and often our impatience to sit down and start writing will result in our story beginning before we really know what it looks like. I think the closest I came to describing the setting in my first novel was dropping lines like, “The room was about the size of a walk-in closet…”, “The room was a little bigger than the closet-sized one…”, “This room was way bigger than the slightly-bigger-than-the-closet-one…” Et cetera.
Description of setting is too big a topic to really delve into here–that’s food for a future post. But until then, I want to encourage you to know your setting. Before you ever start writing Chapter One, before your hands ever hit the keyboard, you should be able to close your eyes and see the scene in front of you, right down to every building, vehicle, plant, and cloud. And smell.
And then tell the reader about it.
Embrace Your Whoopsies
One thing I can promise you about your first novel. You will make whoopsies. The same for your second novel, and your third novel, and your twentieth novel. Every time, it will hurt. But every time, you’ll have grown a little bit more as a writer and storyteller.
Don’t hate on your mistakes. They’re just doing their job–and you’ll thank them later.