Most of the people I work with don’t believe their prose is deathless, which is good, but there’s a trap that a lot–and I mean a lot–of new writers fall into. It’s called “I have to make my first novel work.” If you’re typical, you either have already or will at some point fall into this trap too.
Many of the novice writers I know (and I say this with affection and respect; no one is bad, or should be mocked or made to feel inferior for this) are spending a tremendous amount of time trying to make their first novels work. They must have this first novel published. They must tell this story. This is their story. It’s a part of them, and they need to share it with the world. It’s a visceral need; they’re not being melodramatic and they don’t think the world can’t live without this book. It’s more like a compulsion. I fell into that trap and worked on my first novel for something like three years before I put it in a drawer (code for “stopped working on it”). I know people who stuck with their first novel for quite a bit longer than that.
One of the reasons writers obsess about their first novels is that, often, the writer is using pieces of his life, past experiences, and his own personality in the story. This is not precisely like writing a Mary Sue character, which is a character that’s too good and perfect to be true. Although most characters should be characters you at least understand and empathize with, if you base your characters too much on yourself, you’re going to have real difficulty with your plot, your theme, applying your critiques, or some other vital part of your book because you will not be able to make the necessary changes needed to make your book work. Also, you’ll never develop the skill to write any other characters, and every book you ever write will feel like the one that came before.
A book is fundamentally not about real life. Life does not work like fiction. Stories have structure that doesn’t exist in real life, which is why those movies are all “based on” true stories, instead of being actual true stories. Your characters and plot generate each other, and that means sometimes your characters aren’t going to be able to have the ending or results you want when you plot out your book.
Books must be neat and tidy, with loose ends all wrapped up, and they should leave the reader with a sense that everything that happened in the story is understandable. They must have resolution. Life isn’t like that. In life, we often experience things that make no sense, that shouldn’t have happened, and that don’t lead to neat conclusions that make us feel satisfied. If books were like life, the typical reader would throw them across the room in frustration.
If you try to force your characters, which you can’t change because changing them would be like betraying yourself, into a plot which you’re also not willing to change because it’s how you wish your situation had turned out, then your story will fail. Readers will say, “it made no sense.” It will have fundamental flaws. If you don’t understand how this could happen, read the articles on structure, character, and plot, then come back and re-read this. (Note to current readers: these articles don’t exist yet.)
In addition to all that, most novice writers–and many published ones!–have no idea how story structure works. (Again, all due respect and affection. This is not their fault. I had no idea story structure existed until I stumbled across it by accident and began to study it. They certainly don’t cover it in school.*) This is because storytelling is fundamental to our species. It is an absolute necessity to tell and hear stories. It probably evolved with language well over 100,000 years ago, and might have evolved in one of our evolutionary ancestors before it got to us. How did Brud kill the rhinoceros, and can Din do it too? Well, here’s how it happened. How did Mar manage to find the new cave? Here’s the story. Both directions and instructions can be turned into stories, and explaining how we feel and why can be told as stories as well. Educating the young can certainly be done in story form. In fact, children learn best from songs and stories.
So we read lots of stories and we see lots of stories and we hear lots of stories. Our entire existences are based on stories, to the point where we can begin to believe narratives that don’t match reality. (Climate change deniers are a good example of this. They’re not crazy, but they believe things that aren’t true.) Then we go to write them, and we usually manage to more or less hit the mark and possibly even get published if we’re lucky enough, sensitive enough, and pay close enough attention to our critique partners. The problem is, writers like that are fumbling their way to success. They don’t know what they’re doing, so they can’t replicate it.
I recently watched a vlog episode in which a traditionally published writer was struggling with outlining her thriller. She’s a pantser and is trying the outline process for the first time. And as I was listening to her talk about her problems, I realized that she didn’t know anything about story structure. Here’s this successful, educated, talented, helpful person who is trying to help other people and trying to explain her process and trying to write a good book, but who is missing some fundamental pieces of the process. She even bought a book about story structure, but she’s missing how character relates to story and that’s what’s giving her the trouble. I wanted to say something, but the video is many, many months old and she probably figured it out by now.
If she, published as she is, didn’t know, how can anyone be expected to know? How can New Writer know? Now I’m betting this traditional publisher has written other books for the drawer and that her first published book wasn’t her first novel. If it was, I’m betting that she didn’t base her characters, their back stories, or how their stories should end on her own life and experiences. I don’t know these things, but I’m betting this is so.
When I wrote my first novel, I didn’t base my characters on myself, though I parceled out to them traits that I do have. I didn’t do any wish fulfillment endings. I didn’t even use my own past experiences as material. In fact, my first novel was the overly-developed back story for a character I wrote for the Dresden Files FATE role playing game. (They do a really awesome character generation process that writers could easily adapt for novels.) I wrote a paragraph for my character’s background, then expanded that to twelve pages because I wanted to understand what made her tick. Then I expanded that to 75 pages, and then I expanded that to a 120,000 word novel. At that point I realized I’d actually written a novel and that, with a little world-building work, I could write it as an original novel and even publish it. I did that, and pretty soon I had a novel that was not set in the Dresden Files world.
My problem was that, in the DF role playing game, she was 22 years old. In the original novel, she was 17. I based everything on how I wanted the story to end and on the traits I’d given her in the game, so it was incredibly difficult for me to deviate from that. I remember having a series of talks with myself about how I had to let go of the role playing game character and give the original world character a different ending in order to make the story work. But that turned out to be extraordinarily hard. The story kept wanting to go in the wrong direction because I was subconsciously forcing it there. Ultimately I got about 70% of the way through my fifth alpha rewrite, realized my character motivations didn’t match the plot (which meant they had no reason for doing what they were doing), and knew that if I didn’t put the story in a drawer for at least a little while, I’d never ‘lose’ enough of the characters to make the fundamental changes they needed for the story to work properly. With great reluctance and a sense of loss I put the story away and wrote a different novel.
Doing that probably saved my writing career, which hasn’t even really taken off yet. What it did was detach me from a book that had become a millstone around my neck. I loved my millstone, but it was still holding me back. I had a fresh start and could apply the things I’d learned in the interim to an entirely new story, one built from the ground up in a proper fashion. My next novel didn’t work either, but it failed better and I learned a lot from it. I got a lot of story structure down by writing the second book. My third book, which I’m working on now, is my struggle to match character to plot. I don’t quite have it, though I can certainly explain it, but I can see where I’m going wrong and why.** My fourth book should be miles better than my current WIP, and I’m betting I’ll have it down by the fifth book. I will probably publish my sixth book.
“Wait–who writes five books before publishing their first? OMG, isn’t that a lot of effort? Why write a book if you don’t intend to publish it? Are you nuts? I would never, ever do such a thing.” That’s in quotes because I’ve heard that response many, many times from other novice writers. And yeah, it’s a lot of work. Any learning process is.
But let me explain something to you. Do you think pro basketball players woke up one day, put on their first pair of athletic shoes, and played pro ball without ever practicing or playing for amateur teams? Of course not! Your average athlete has spent years learning how to do the thing. They practiced and competed on an amateur level and when they were good enough, they were hired to play at the pro level and get paid for it. People who bake and decorate complicated pastries first made a large number of mistakes. Those mistakes probably tasted good, but they weren’t worth a lot of money. So why should I think that my first efforts should net me fame and fortune? What makes me more special than the baker or the pro athlete? Did I put in more practice? More devotion? More time? How arrogant could I possibly be to believe I’m that much better than anyone else who wants to make professional money at a skillset that must be carefully developed?
Your first novel is priceless, but it’s not you. It is the vehicle through which you begin to learn to write. It’s where you learn to let go.
Let it go.
*I have an English credential. I know they do cover the basic three act structure. That’s about like plopping a bag of flour in front of a kid and saying “this is flour. Now make some phyllo dough from scratch.”
**Teaching something you can’t quite do yet is not only pretty ordinary but a great way of deeply learning the thing you’re teaching because it forces you to think about and articulate them, much like critiquing does. This is why kids should teach each other things.