There are a lot of things one can learn from their own mistakes. This is true in all areas of life. But writing especially so. Recently, I stumbled upon my very first first draft of a manuscript. The first one I completed, anyway. If memory serves me, it was something like the third I started. And I’d only ever written one short story. I was eight. It was for a competition a teacher convinced me to enter. Which I did begrudgingly. Then I didn’t write much until I was around thirteen. But I got a good taste for it. I finished this draft in the fall of my freshman year of high school. A couple of friends read it, which now embarrasses me. But it was important to do it anyway. And the following are the reasons why.
1) The first thing you need to know is that whatever the first thing you write is is likely going to be complete and utter shit. I know mine was. This is for a bevy of reasons that I’ll get into later. But know that not everything you write is going to be good. And not everything has to be. And that’s completely and utterly alright. I’d even argue that it’s a good thing. It’s liberating. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t eve have to always be good. Just write. Write like you haven’t got any other choices. Because if it’s right, you don’t.
2) Writing a book isn’t for the feint of heart. The fact that I managed to write a novel at that age is a feat within itself. But I wanted to do it. I didn’t know why. I just did. I just had to. It takes work. And time. Even for a fast writer, it’s hard as all hell to do. But if it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth it. You have to have to write. That part is important for me. And it should be important for you. That doesn’t mean you should wait for the muse, but damn it, it’s easier when the muse does grace you with his or her presence. So write anyway.
3) Beta readers are important. I had a few of them in my life at that point. Friends of mine. I never did show it to more than a couple of people. It was laden with typos. It was horribly cliche in every possible way. But they said it was good anyway. I don’t know why they did. But it does lead me to another point. The right betas are important. Betas that are too agreeable or disagreeable are worthless to you. Betas who are honest are key. I did have one who was the perfect median. And now I have another that’s the same. You need those people. Badly.
4) Adverbs make things sound like shit. So does the passive voice. I avoid both whenever I can. It isn’t always easy. But do your absolute best. It makes you sound tough. It makes you sound decisive. It makes you sound like you know what you’re talking about. Even though you’re making it up as you go, quite literally. So figure out what issues you have writing. Figure out all your dirty habits. Phrases you use too much. Anything that makes you sound less tight. And destroy them without any mercy.
5) Don’t give up on things. This is sort of a continuation of the whole writing is hard thing. I wanted to quit. I wanted to quit a lot. But I didn’t do it. I still go through phases that make me want to quit. This happens approximately two-thirds of the way through any novel. And invariably it happens at the start of any editing project. But more on editing later. I have some opinions on that. There’s a reason Hemingway said you have to do it sober. Because it’s even harder than the writing is. For me, at least.
6) Rereading your own work is sometimes cringeworthy. What matters is figuring out why that’s the case. Take notes. Reread things you think are awful even if they aren’t your own work. You learn more from these than from the things that sound right. But it isn’t enough to just read something you think is awful. You have to know why it doesn’t work to avoid the mistakes of everyone else. To avoid repeating the mistakes you made yourself. This is how you grow. This is how you get better. Even if you’ve got a lot of learning to do. You can do it.
7) When you’re new, you wear your influences on your sleeve a little too much. I was lucky in the sense that I read an insanely wide variety of works. So only certain influences came out. Mostly this was in the form of writers like Meg Cabot, for some reason. Not that there’s a damned thing wrong with her. But the world already has a Meg Cabot. Or a Stephen King. Or an Agatha Christie. No need in being just like them. No two people have the same voice because no two people have lived the same life. It’s important to remember that. It’s okay to admire other writers. In fact, it’s a great thing. But don’t let it consume you.
8) Don’t be the kind of writer that writes thinly veiled versions of people you know. I know this reads as particularly awful and self-indulgent because I did that. Every character in that novel was based on someone who was a big part of my life at the time. A crush. An ex. A handful of friends. A relative or two. It was all pretty awful to read in hindsight. So do everyone a favor. Don’t be that guy. Or that girl. It’s going to make people hate you. And if you do fall into this self-indulgent train wreck? Please. Don’t show it to the people you’re writing about. Dipshit. (I did this, for the record).
9) Editing is hard. And I for one hate it with all of my heart. But it’s a necessary evil. One caveat, though. I never edited my first novel. By the time it had rested a few months, I’d written something like four more. When I went back to read the first one, I found it in such a bad state. A complete rewrite would have been quicker and less painful than an edit. But the story itself wasn’t all that great, so I let it go and focused my efforts on the next project. And the next. And the next. And here we are, nineteen first drafts later. For the record, I still hate editing more than I hate licorice or bigots. Which is saying a lot.
10) Know what works for you. I learned that on my very first novel. At least part of it. For example, fast drafting works well for me. It makes the edit harder. But getting that first draft done is hard. Even if you’re writing because it makes you happy. Which it should. In a sense. Not pure happiness, of course. But a sort of contentment. It isn’t going to be bliss all the time. It’s going to suck some days. Other days the words are going to flow like a damned river. You can’t ever not do anything, though. Work hard. Whether it’s easy or not.
So that’s all of it. The hell and heaven of what I learned writing my first manuscript. Writing a book is hard. It isn’t supposed to be easy. But it is supposed to be worth it. And I hope that it always is, despite the work, despite the tears, despite the ecstasy and the agony. May whatever you write always be worth the rollercoaster.