Russell F. Hirsch
Lessons from a First Novel: Patterns and Parameters
Last winter, I finished a polished draft of my first novel manuscript. Of course, “finished” and “polished” are words that automatically come with a caveat for writers. Novels are like those curving lines on graphs that stretch to infinity, always approaching (but never quite reaching) the x and y axis.
That’s right–a math analogy!
Even defining “first” novel can be dubious. Is it the first novel you begin? The first that results in a full rough draft? The first you query? Submit? Publish?
Anyway, let’s just say I finished a novel that I felt ready to show to strangers and query to agents. As that process unfolds, and with a second novel now drafted, I’ll take a few posts to explore what I learned from “finishing” that “first” manuscript.
Today, I’ll start with the least technical, but most valuable lesson: learning about my own writing process; my particular patterns and parameters.
Really, the best way to learn about writing a novel is just going through the process of writing a novel. Having to sit with a project, day in and day out, taught me about my own writing habits and patterns:
What time of day I work best and where I work best.
What parts of the outlining –> drafting –> rewriting –> editing process I enjoy and which I have to accept as a necessary slog.
How to sleep on a difficult scene and trust my unconscious to sort it out.
How to (sort of) stop worrying about the things I need to fix in the manuscript because I spend more time and energy worrying about them than it actually requires to sit down and fix them!
How to pretty much drop everything else and meet a deadline, even if it leaves you like this by the end…
Understanding my own habits allowed me to vastly improve my efficiency when working on a second project.
Drafting the first novel also gave me a better sense of how to judge the parameters of my writing. By that, I mean things like:
How many pages my chapters tend to be.
How many chapters it takes me to cover a major plot event.
How many plot events it takes to reach a target word count.
Knowing this made the outlining process for the second novel much easier. The first project was like building a puzzle without knowing how many pieces there were and where the edges went. The second project was much easier to frame. Sure enough, drafting the first novel was a matter of years; the second, a matter of months. Rough drafts of the first novel were nearly twice my anticipated word count; the second stayed on target.
I hope this improved self-awareness holds true for future projects, but each new work poses its own challenges, so take this advice with…
Every writer has a different experience. Some find the second manuscript more difficult than the first. For me, I think working so long on the first novel allowed the second to percolate in my unconscious and flow freely when I finally set my fingers to the keyboard. The third project I write won’t have had that same amount of unconscious incubation–so maybe it will prove much harder!
“You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel that you’re writing.” — Gene Wolfe, Fantasy Author
I think Wolfe’s quote is a wise one. And don’t just take my word for it; Maggie Stiefvater agrees and she is pretty much the coolest author out there.
But although each project is different, I do believe the more you write, the better prepared (or perhaps better steeled!) you will be for the challenges of your next project. For me, I suspect some foundational lessons from that first novel will absolutely carry forward for many novels to come…
So, next time, I’ll discuss what I learned about outlining from that first project. I knew I wasn’t a “pantser,” but I wasn’t as much of a “plotter” as I thought. At first, I was like this…
But I learned from it and now I’m a bit more like this…
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