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How I Finished My First Novel

TL;DR Version

I started Journey To "The End" at the same time as a bunch of my friends. I'm the only one who finished it (so far). Here's why:

I finished my novel because I stayed focused. I practiced writing first with other projects, including fanfiction, but I did so in a structured way and I abandoned each practice exercise once I sensed I was getting diminished returns.

I resisted the temptation to stay in the safe zone of fanfiction. I refused the commonly given advice to write short stories for practice. I ignored the inner voice telling me to back off and write an easier story. I rebelled against my fear of failure. I resisted these things because they did not bring me closer to my novel.

I wanted my book. I wanted it more than I wanted anything else*. More than I wanted to feel safe. More than I wanted to avoid anxiety, fear, or failure.

You won't finish your book until your desire is greater than your fear.

* Except for my loved ones, of course.

The Full Story

Originally, that was the whole blog post, that part up there. But after re-reading it, I felt like an explanation was in order, especially to any friends or family I may have sub-blogged. So, here is the full story of how I went from "person who has never written a single word" to "person who has finished an original novel".

As soon as I knew I wanted to write novels, all writing I did became devoted to that goal. I did not, however, immediately begin my novel. I delved some dungeons before tackling the Boss Fight--in other words, I practiced my craft on other projects before beginning the important one.

Here, Have An Extended Gaming Metaphor

Play enough RPGs and everything looks like a game. To unlock the Novel Writer elite class kit, I used this skill tree:

  1. Putting nouns and verbs together
  2. Cool characters that people like spending time with
  3. Narrating those characters doing cool things
  4. Stringing the cool things together into a coherent plot with a beginning, middle, and end
  5. Sticking the landing (making a good ending and wrap-up)
  6. Editing

I worked on these skills in that order. The first big hurdle was deciding that I could write anything at all. I had in my head that only special people can write. So, for me, step 1 was "put words on paper", the storytelling equivalent of Hello World. Or using a wooden sword to kill rats in a villager's basement.

Level-Grinding With Fanfiction

Shortly thereafter (we're talking, like, 2 sentences in here), I encountered the importance of characters, setting, plot, etc. Now, here is where most beginner writers get thrown into the deep end and told to swim or die. They are expected to learn ALL aspects of the writing craft at once. When the question is "Can I even write a sentence?" that is no time to ask "Can I come up with ideas?"

I think any accomplished artist knows that ideas are cheap. Learn to write (or draw, or play guitar) first, and the ideas will follow.

So, in a perfect world, a writer will learn the mechanics of writing first, before plot, character, etc. Fanfiction is perfect for that. It is like a cradle for authors, a virtual Mesopotamia, a Fertile Crescent that is the birthplace of literary civilizations.

The Fanfiction Community Is A Text-Based Hug

These folks are amazing. Especially in fandoms that cater to a more mature audience, where you're less likely to be dealing with teenagers who don't know how to say things nicely. Websites like fanfiction.net encourage a specific type of writing process where you write and post one chapter at a time, and readers can comment on it as you go.

This is awesome. You get real-time feedback on character and plot, often in time to revise your outline to make it more pleasing and fun, or avoid a pothole. And 98% of this comes in the form of POSITIVE feedback, not negative. We're talking "More of this!" rather than "Less of that!"

Level 1: To Use Your Sword, Press "A"

Level 1, which can be thought of as Easy Mode, is to literally re-tell your fandom's canonical story using canonical characters. This only really works for game and movie/TV fandoms, though, since the story there is largely told visually and that gives you the opportunity to create the written narrative yourself.

It's a brilliant way to practice your craft. The characters, setting, and plot are all done for you. All you need to worry about is putting words together.

Usually, though, fanfiction authors want to insert at least one new concept. In video game fandoms, it's most often themselves, the player. This is what I did. I don't mean a Mary Sue self-insert, I mean the impoverished dwarven rogue with a wry sense of humor and serious intimacy issues that I created for the roleplaying game Dragon Age. She is the reason I first put fingers to keyboard: she had things to say, and the fandom had not written much about dwarves yet, which made me feel like I was contributing something new.

While in Easy Mode, I practiced descriptions, body language interactions (since game dialogue was mostly text, not acted out), and narration of action sequences, including violence. I was working in the dangerous world of Dragon Age, and that meant my dudes were killing a lot of darkspawn. Wheee!

Level 2: Adding Variables to the Equation

Level 2 is to begin departing from canon, creating your own plots, characters, or locations within the fandom universe. Each variable is its own challenge, and I worked on these one at a time, very deliberately.

Once I felt like I had a handle on the whole nouns-and-verbs thing, I started telling little stories of my own, within the framework of the larger canonical story. Mainly I solved problems differently; while the game might offer only a simple "Go there, kill that" solution to a side quest, my shifty beggar Latitia might come up with a way around the bad guy--or, at the very least, a stealthy takedown instead of the game-mandated frontal assault. I got more ambitious as time went on and made bigger departures from the game story, all of them driven by Latitia's unconventional problem-solving. I met new characters and visited unique places, most of the underground because, ya know, dwarves.

Level 3: You Are Now Free To Move About The Canon

I took my next big step when I started a new story with a 100% original plot and cast of charaters largely of my own invention. This was my first exercise in plotting something longer than a side-quest, and an exciting adventure in character development. I got to flex the muscles I'd been working on and tackle some way bigger challenges, including multiple POVs, better backstories, and relationships of my own invention. It was exhilarating!

Short Stories

I also wrote a couple short stories during this time. Now, I have an opinion on short stories as a practice method for novel-writing. Specifically, I think it is a waste of time. Possibly worse.

Myke Cole, fantasy writer and national defender, tweeted this today: "Want to write novels? Practice by writing short stories. Want to be a sniper? Practice by making strawberry pie." I laughed milk up my nose, glad I wasn't the only one who thought short stories weren't merely small novels.

Writing a short story is totally different from writing a novel. (It's like Bard versus Thief: yeah, they're both rogues, but if you try to use them interchangeably you're gonna be orc food.) They are so different that I believe working on short stories makes it harder to write novels. It involves a shift of mindset, from large scope to small, and IMO the longer you spend in the small scope, the more intimidating the larger one seems. I have seen many a fellow writer get lost in short stories, losing more faith in their ability to write a novel with each piece.

Remember, everything I did was towards the end goal of writing novels. As soon as I sensed this weirdness happening in my own head, I abandoned short stories. I now use them exclusively as a way to refresh myself when I am feeling bogged down by my WIP.

The Level Cap

There came a point when I suddenly felt that fanfiction was not serving my novel-writing career anymore. It was upsetting because I had not finished my biggest stories yet. I had readers following along with my stories and I felt like I was abandoning them. I still feel guilty about it.

But I had met Laz and he needed his book written. I looked at my outline and my schedule, and knew that I would not finish the fanfiction for another six months or more. Laz refused to wait that long.

I had practiced style and liked my voice. I had played with plot until I thought I had a good handle on structure. I felt comfortable with all forms of interaction except romance, and I thought I could do romance if I had do, it just felt uncomfortable because of my social anxiety issues. And I had characters I loved. In other words, the only thing I had left to learn was setting.

And I couldn't learn that in Dragon Age. I had to leave my fertile crescent and strike out into the rocky desert in search of bigger adventures.

It's Dangerous To Go Alone!

I was leaving the fanfiction community. I was leaving my friends and loyal readers. I was leaving the safe space where support was available in any form I needed to give my stories a boost. Worst, I was leaving the constant positive feedback.

It had gotten to where the reader comments were an addiction. The dopamine rush from checking my email and seeing a new glowing review was akin to a runner's high or a really good kiss. It was hard to give that up and venture out to write alone.

So I brought my awesome mom with me. She read every chapter of CHAINBREAKER as I wrote it. Being my mom, she liked almost everything and is not a good way to test whether the general audience will "get" a weird concept, since we think almost exactly alike. But the encouragement was invaluable.

A Lost Party Member

I also brought my beta reader from fanfiction.net. We had become real-life friends after discovering we lived one town apart, by happy coincidence. But something went wrong with our working relationship. My friend gradually stopped liking my jokes, stopped praising things that I expected her to love, and stopped asking me to beta her own work (which was still mostly fanfiction).

This really hurt. I thought it was me for a long time... I lost a lot of faith in my ability to write outside of the Dragon Age universe. There is one specific chapter in CHAINBREAKER that I feel anxiety about every time I read it, because it was the chapter that shook me the worst. It was an action sequence of the type that I had come to consider my biggest strength as a writer, with a liberal dash of humor of the sort she normally enjoyed. I expected praise; I got sharp criticism. She didn't like even one word of it.

One of us was wrong. Either this was a good solid chapter or it was a piece of shit. There could be no middle ground this time. And I trusted my friend. So I thought I must be the one who was wrong. My confidence shattered like a windshield into a thousand glittering cubes.

I kept writing anyway. I couldn't do anything else. But I was scared.

Until one day about a month later I went back and re-read the bad chapter.

And loved it.

Well, fuck.

I asked my friend not to beta for me anymore. I told her I couldn't handle criticism just then, that I was taking it personally because writing an original story was so much harder than fanfiction. I reiterated that I valued her deeply as a friend. I think she understood... we still get together regularly.

But we don't talk about writing anymore. I still don't know what went wrong.

I told you that story because it was a terrifying speed bump on the road to finishing this novel, and I suspect other people have had similar experiences where they had to break up with their beloved beta. I want you to know you're not alone after all.

Finish Your Shit

I'm quoting Chuck Wendig now, but feel free to imagine that in a Mortal Kombat-style scream of "FINISH IT!"

I had never finished a longform story before. I didn't know for sure if I could. I felt a dreadful temptation to back away from my planned ending, to make it smaller, easier. I doubted my ability to pull off something so dramatically off the rails.

I wrote anyway.

I've heard a saying bandied about, and it applies: "You have to want it more than you fear it." I wanted my book, and I wanted it to be that book, the one I had outlined and planned. I cannot describe for you how badly I wanted to hold it and know it was done and it was mine, my book.

In other words, I wanted success more than I feared failure.

I credit this single fact for my finishing my novel. I wish I could tell you how to make yourself feel the same way, to want success more and fear failure less, but I can't really, other than to tell you to be careful what you think about. Mediate your own thoughts like a comment thread and banhammer the trolls. Think of your finished, beautiful book. Don't think about your plan B or what you'll tell your spouse if you can't do it.

When I hit "The End", I went on Twitter and shouted in all caps that I had FINISHED MY SHIT. That remains to this day my most popular tweet. Support and congratulations flowed in from the twitter writing community. It was nice, but it was nothing compared to the relief I felt after that crushing weight of doubt was lifted.

Tonight, we edit in HELL!

The flush of success lasted long enough to let me dive into editing like a Spartan hurling himself into a melee. And the result was pretty similar: I got all hacked to pieces and there was blood everywhere and it sucked, but ultimately, the battle was won. But that is a whole different blog post.

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