It’s been eight months since my debut novel released. If you’ve been there, you know what a busy, challenging year that is for authors. If you haven’t– it’s months and months of constant learning, screw-ups, trial-and-error, thrills, and pretty much every emotion available to humans. I learned a few things this past year, and I’m pretty sure this next year I’m going to unlearn them all and re-learn them in better and less newbie ways. However, here are 5 things I learned while writing and releasing my debut novel:
Thing One: WRITE A BETTER BOOK
One of the hardest things I’ve been learning as my debut starts to hit shelves is that I can’t really control how well it does. I can’t control reviews, publication timeline, what other fabulous book releases the same week, deadlines, or bestseller lists. I can’t control how much my publishing house invests in my book, whether the concept appeals to readers, or whether YA contemporary is hot right now. Not everyone is going to like a first cousins romance, and a lot of people are going to really not like it. What I can do is write the best book I possibly can—and then to make it even better. “Good enough” is not good enough. If you know you struggle with pacing, don’t let that remain an issue. Tackle it. Resolve it. If you suspect there’s a tension wobble somewhere, dig into the problem. How We Fall had both of these issues, but I didn’t listen to myself and kept plowing on through drafts, revising other things and ignoring those problems because I didn’t know what to do about them. I convinced myself it wasn’t that big a deal, that no book was perfect. Don’t do that. Have the guts to stop, evaluate, and dig into those problems you half-suspect are there. Don’t stop at “good enough.” Go all the way.
My writing, my book, is what I can control. I can become a better writer, I can push myself, and I can write a better book.
Thing Two: BOOKS ARE MADE IN REVISIONS
The first draft of How We Fall was 60,000 words, and it’s now 89,000. The story was there in the first draft, mostly, but it needed a lot of work. In its final version, the mystery is darker, the romance between the cousins is a little more obsessive, and the pacing is much faster. I had to dig deeper into the legal issues of cousin marriage (it’s legal in about half the states, and only considered incest in a few), as well as the ethical and safety issues, and let those pressure the relationship. Between revisions with critique partners, my agent, and my editor, it went through six major rounds of revisions. Even in final edits, it gained a new first chapter and a new final chapter. Revisions made my ugly first draft almost an entirely new book.
Don’t get discouraged when you’re drafting if you’re not seeing magic happen. That magical touch and those insightful moments you see in great books aren’t magic at all. They’re the result of blood and sweat. First drafts are limp and flat and awkward—that’s normal. The depth and layers come as you revise. And revise. And revise.
Thing Three: TEACH YOUR GUT, THEN FOLLOW IT
Writers get told a lot to follow their intuition. And that’s great advice—as long as you’re training your intuition. Good writers aren’t born knowing how to magically write brilliant books. They learn and learn and learn until it becomes second nature. So read, and read a lot. A book a week—or two. Consume, so you can see what’s been done and what hasn’t, and how it was done, and how you could do it differently or better. Read out of your genre to see what those authors tackle, and how they pull it off. Make your own blend. And as you’re reading so much, and reading new and different things, dissect what you’re reading to see what worked, what didn’t, and why. Teach your gut, and then listen to it when it says something is forced or too thin or just right.
Thing Four: KEEP YOUR EYES ON YOUR OWN PLATE
When I was querying, it was sometimes a struggle to not be jealous when someone else signed with an agent. When I was on submission, it was hard to not be jealous when someone else landed a book deal. Even though I was happy for my friends, it often turned into a “does this mean I’m not as good?” self-defeating little sad-party. And now that I have a book out, there are other authors’ awards, bestseller lists, and publicity and buzz I could be upset over.
But no one else’s success diminishes mine. One of the most wonderful things I’ve been realizing as I find critique partners and connect and blog with other authors, particularly in YA, is that we’re much more colleagues than competitors. Readers can pick up my book, and they can pick up someone else’s, too. Another author’s success doesn’t limit or detract from mine. What does limit my success is me looking at someone else’s plate, and wishing I had what they had, and letting my own work suffer.
Thing Five: STORY IS CONFLICT
A lot of people have asked me why I would write about two cousins who fall in love. I mean, weird, right? And as I tried to write a better book, and revise revise revise, and teach my gut, I started to realize what drew me to the concept in the first place: story is conflict. Usually, the deeper the struggle, the more fascinating the story. We’ve seen that with other forbidden love stories– biracial, cross-cultural, and same-gender relationships, relationships crossing political, religious, and status lines, and just about any other boundary we put up between people. When the conflict is an immoveable fact with deep-rooted prejudices and potential to harm people you love, that’s a significant and difficult struggle. What does this do to your family? What if your siblings get bullied because of it? What if the relationship fails and you’re stuck related to an ex-boyfriend? The issues involved in cousin relationships are a huge part of why I wanted to write about it. It would test my characters in ways not much else could.
Story centers around conflict. Without a problem, there’s no story. A page or chapter or book that lacks conflict is lacking story.
So revisit your conflict, keep in mind that genius writing likely won’t happen in the first few drafts, and train your instinct. Read out of your genre, read a lot, focus on your own successes, and keep writing the best book you can front and center. This career takes blood and sweat and persistence, so keep at it.
I originally wrote this post for Chuck Wendig’s blog, Terrible Minds, as part of my blog tour for my book release– I wrote about 30 posts that went up on different sites over November and December, and with all that content out there, I’d like to keep it all in one place, so I’m posting it here for archiving purposes!