What I Learned Writing Five Terrible, Unpublished Novels Before I Got One Right
How to avoid my amateur mistakes and write a working novel faster
I started my fiction career four years ago. Before I put one fictional word to paper I self-educated three years prior to that. I thought I knew what I was doing. I read, listened, and watched the masters teach their work.
But I waited too long to start writing.
I watched movies. I read a lot of books. I figured storytelling was easy. All we’ve got to do is run the movie in our minds and record what we see on paper, right? Man, was I ignorant.
I wrote like a damn animal. I wrote five full manuscripts during that first year after my learning/training period. Once I finished a manuscript I went straight into the next one, assuming I’d edit them later, in bulk. Ha!
I wrote over three hundred thousand words in a year. The pace was insane. Some days I’d write 8–10k words. I didn’t want to wait ten years before becoming a full-time author, so I figured I’d do 5–10 years worth of work in one.
I was a fool.
Although I learned a lot over that year, the bulk of that writing went in the trash. The biggest problem I faced was not a lack of structure, a cohesive story, or a Hero’s Journey.
My biggest lesson was not how I learned to eliminate excessive exposition, choose every word carefully, or grab the reader within the first 30 seconds of the novel.
I learned all that stuff, but anyone can memorize the tenets of writing well.
The biggest lesson I learned from writing five failed manuscripts was much bigger than all the writing rules combined.
What I really learned writing five failed manuscripts
All the rules, scenes, and tropes can be learned. Most of the basics are memorize-able, list-able, and include-able. When you write a failed manuscript there’s a much bigger, more-important lesson to be learned.
A novel isn’t a novel until it’s done. My title of this post isn’t really honest. I refer to five unpublished novels. Manuscripts, when failed or unfinished, shouldn’t be called novels.
There’s no novel until the manuscript is complete.
Until then, we’ve got a half-story heading towards a finished story. But we don’t have a book. Finishing is what makes writing so hard, not starting.
Starting a project is easy — too easy.
I’ve got almost no attention span. It took me years to train myself to work on one book at a time, until it’s finished. I’ve got a graveyard of half-stories in my phone, because my squirrel brain decided it was a good idea to start a new project before finishing the last.
Avoid my foibles.
My first five were so bad they were un-salvageable. I thought I could just keep writing until the story was over. But the story never finished, because I pulled my perfectly good characters in five different sub-plots.
There’s a huge difference between learning and doing.
I did all the learning (I thought). I had piles of notes and a graveyard of ideas. But you can’t fly a commercial plane by watching a YouTube video. You’ve got to put in the hours behind the stick.
Same thing’s true with writing.
I learn terribly hard lessons. I had to repeat my manic mistakes five times before I hit myself over the melon with the proverbial frying pan. Enough was enough. I developed a writing system for myself and I started again.
How to train yourself to persevere through your writing projects
We’ve got to finish what we start or it’s not a thing. We can’t call ourselves authors if we haven’t published a book. We can’t publish a book if we don’t persevere to the end of the manuscript. The rules are simple, but the process is mental hell.
I don’t know, maybe it’s different for you.
Maybe you can finish a novel no problem. For me, however, every writing day is another battle to finish the project at hand before I appease my monkey-mind to start a new one.
How I persevere:
I write every. Damn. Day. No matter what I write something. One sentence counts. I don’t beat myself up. I know if I can write one sentence I can call myself a person who writes every day.
I usually write a lot more, but there are hard days when it’s hard to squeak out a word.
If I can get myself behind my phone or keyboard and punch through a little bit of the story, I’ve done my job. Writing is my vocation. It’s a blue collar process. I don’t think writing is some fancy, artsy thing. We sit. We write. We get up the next day and we do it again.
Step one is to train your mind to overcome all your daily nonsense and write no matter what. Step two is to get one-percent better every day. If we just sit and write, with no thought of improving our craft, our work will stay at the same level.
We write to improve.
I’ve got those five manuscripts, but they’re not worth the brain juice to change their tires and replace the engine. I moved-on. Every writer must write the failed novel. It’s part of the process.
You think it won’t happen to you.
You think you’re different. That your training gave you more tools than the average bear. That you can write a first novel that works. Then you write the first novel and it’s a hot, steamy pile. But it’s OK. The first novel is a must before you can write the second.
I hope you don’t write five disasters like I did, but you’ve got to write the one.
It’s hard. It’s frustrating. You’ll question everything about yourself, down to your inner-core. You might think you’re the worst writer ever. And a lot of people stop there.
You’ll practice perseverance. First today. Then again tomorrow and the day after that. After 30 days you can call yourself a person who writes every day. After 100 consecutive days you can celebrate. After 300 you won’t dare miss a day, because It’ll kill you to break your chain.
You’ll write your first manuscript. You’ll be so proud. Then you’ll read it and realize it’s a steamy pile. But once that moment happens you’ll celebrate. You ran the gauntlet and lived. You got your drawer novel out of the way.
Now, never show the first manuscript to anyone — ever.
You won’t enjoy the feedback and you may never write again. Start your real, first novel instead. Don’t try to fix the first one. Remember what you did wrong and fix it on the next.
I know there are many writers who won’t agree with this. Cool. This is my method. Maybe it’ll work for you. If you want to salvage your first pile, you go for it.
I’ll be here writing the next one.
We need more writers like you
There are far too many people who think writing is fancy — almost a religion. Writing’s a vocation. We sit. We do our job. We tweak and we learn. Once we get a fancy-pants attitude about our work we end up writing stories no one wants to read.
But you don’t believe that.
You want people to read your work. You’d like to get paid for your efforts. You also know you’ve got to show up Every. Damn. Day. if you want to create work that matters.
We’re not performing heart surgery. We teach and entertain. We allow people to escape, to feel, and improve. There’s so much room to explore with writing. But we’ve got to persevere.
When I write these posts I speak to myself.
I’ve got the same baggage slung over my shoulders as you have. I should be working on my novel right now, but I’m here instead. We need you to get back to work. We want you to finish that manuscript and persevere to the end.
We’re waiting for you.