What it’s like to write your first novel: a first hand account

I have just written my first novel. 

Before we continue, I should state: I have half-written fifteen novels in my life so far. Fifteen. There’s a sci-fi MS, an historic thriller MS, a fantasy saga MS, three more horror novels, a VR thriller MS, a dystopian underworld MS…the list goes on and on. 

I’ve never finished a single one of them. I *have* finished a collection of short stories called CRUEL WORKS OF NATURE, a novella called DEAR LAURA, both of which are published and have been well received. I’ve also written numerous audio drama scripts, countless items of marketing copy, am a digital copywriter and have another short story collection called TILL THE SCORE IS PAID that is due out in December from @gilespress. What I’m trying to say is that I am a writer, a published author, I get paid for the craft. My writing chops are chubby and yet. 

Yet. 

I’ve never been able to finish a novel. 

Until now. 

The reason they’re all unfinished is simple: every time I get to the 40k mark, I give up. The story peters out because I didn’t do enough planning. Or, I did the planning and got bored of my own story. Or, I made things too complicated, or the original concept didn’t have enough steam to make a full novel out of. Or, life got in the way: work being the primary culprit. Its insanely hard to write anything as life-sucking as a novel while you also work a job and parent or any of that other adult shit that intrudes on the creative process. This is because novels need momentum. By that I mean you need to pick up where you left off easily. You have to remember every tiny detail about your plot, and write in a way that keeps that momentum and allows for continuity and narrative pacing. Otherwise you end up with a ‘bitty’ book. You write in fits and starts. You lose momentum. You lose enthusiasm, and you give up. Or at least, I did. 

Because when I write, I want to get lost in it. I sink into it like sinking into a warm bath: I’m gone in there for hours, and when I come out I never really come out. I’m thinking about this character or that plot device or this unresolved issue or that location. Its life consuming. But that’s how it should be. When you create something you should sacrifice yourself to it wholly. Give it your full attention. That way, whatever comes out the other end is genuine and worthwhile and has your soul and blood and sweat and life experience in it, and that feels like nectar on the page. 

So I had the will to write, but not the time or motivation. When I quit marketing to become a writer, the time issue resolved itself. But motivation remained the thing. And the only true motivation is accountability. I needed to get it done. 

My way of doing this was crowdfunding. I had an idea in my mind for a novel I wanted to write, about a town that disappears one day, taking all its residents with it. I decided to crowd-fund it so that I knew it would actually get done. 

My kickstarter for White Pines went live in Jan this year. The idea was simple: support the fundraiser, get a book in return. This essentially meant people were pre-ordering the novel. Ergo, accountability. If people had already bought the book, I knew I had to finish it, or risk letting those people down. 

The fundraiser did better than I ever imagined. Within no time at all I had passed the target and then some, and all of a sudden I had 213 people waiting on my new novel. 

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/whitepines/white-pines-a-novel-and-audiobook-from-author-gemm/description

Enough motivation indeed. And so, buoyed by the support of the wonderful community of horror lovers, I began to write my very first novel. 

The idea was solid. I started with great enthusiasm, building a world in my mind and a plot and attacking it with gusto. I got to 10,000 words with no trouble. And then things started to slow down. I lost a clear image of what I was writing. I fumbled as I wrote. I lost interest in certain scenes. I lost momentum. 

This time, however, I could not quit. I needed to figure out why it was not working. And after walks and chats with friends, I realised the problem was not the idea I had, but the setting. I had set the book in a vague part of america I knew nothing about. I had no real voice as I was writing, or authenticity, because I just didn’t know what I was writing about. The prose was colourless and stodgy as a result. 

I had a think. I needed a new location. One that was isolated, evocative, realistic. My husband suggested a place, and I started to research. 

And the more research I did about the location and the area, the mythology, the geography…the more things began to click into place. I grew inspired again. I got fired up. 

I scrapped 10,000 words and started again. And oh, boy am I glad I did. 

At 20,000 words I hit a new challenge. Pacing. I was trying to fit too much information and back story in at too early a stage. I tried to fill potential plot holes all in one go within the first ten chapters. I did this with dialogue. Clumsy, tedious dialogue between the main characters. It was a way of avoiding exposition, which I struggle with. It made the book heavy and hard work. I couldn’t see a way out of it.

So I did the most significant thing in my novel writing journey so far: I reached out for help. I’m not good at asking for help, but I did, and it changed everything. I sent what I had written to a wonderful developmental editor called Dan Hanks. He told me that what I had was good, but lacked grounding. He told me to add more sense of ‘place’ and atmosphere, and cut down on the dialogue. Pull back on information the overload. I did this. I had fun with the location. I trawled google maps. I sank myself into more research. I added the colour the book needed, and focused less on trying to tie off all the loose ends before the plot was fully established. 

I got to 50k. I sent it to Dan. He loved it. His feedback spurred me on. I would keep going. Even if I wrote one hundred words in a day, it was progress. Little scenes came to me as I did housework, went on the school run, cooked dinner. Things I would see in the news would fire up my imagination, and I found ways to work that into the story. Little by little, my characters developed a real sense of solidarity, and their behaviour became more authentic as a result.  

Then I took a trip. I went to the Scottish Highlands in a little rented car by myself, visited several of the locations from the novel. This trip changed everything for me. I stood in a small cemetery on the shore of a beautiful blue bay and looked out to sea, marveling at how far I’d come. Pinching myself at this surreal journey. I was standing in a location from my book, breathing the same air my characters breathed. I was writing a book, and I was going to fucking finish, come hell or high water. I went back to the hotel I was staying in, ordered room service, wrote three pivotal scenes. The book changed beyond recognition from that point onwards, and became something very, very different to the original concept, but became something I adored. 

My plot, which I had planned three times and scrapped, went in the bin, and instead I just let the book flow. I am a pantser, and always will be, and fighting that was a mistake. Next time I’ll remember this (this is also why I will never be able to write crime, ha ha). 

The research trip gave me insane levels of motivation. I tightened up my prose, and added some lovely details about the area and location that I could only have gotten from being there. An atmosphere built that carried me through the slow writing days. I created a world, and lived in it, and I was happy there. 

I also built a playlist. I am heavily mood-driven and music is essential for that. It gave me the push I needed to write certain scenes and kept me focused. It’s here for anyone interested:

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLh8Y5zWxQ6boLcgKak0o7LSi3nd2oIemN

At 57k I hit another wall. I was tired. I was struggling a bit with the concept, which had grown more and more cosmic and wide-reaching and philosophical.

I decided not to let this slump get to me, so I made a call that I needed to pause, jump ahead, and write the ending, so that I knew where I was going. I did just that: I left my MS at 57k, and jumped forward to the end scenes, which were amazing fun to write, as they were climactic and dramatic and fulfilling. Again, the love for the story came flooding back in. Every time I found myself enjoying the process again, I knew I was on the right track. 

Then I went back, and filled in the gaps. illogical, but it worked for me. The book fleshed out, the word count went up every day. I battled fatigue. I battled self doubt. I battled plot holes and challenges. I used white boards, wrote down questions. I spoke to myself a lot, and to others. I walked. I listened to music. I watched movies in a similar genre for inspiration. I took long baths and thought a lot. I filled notebooks with ideas I never used, but it all helped unlock my stiff writing muscles, sore from overuse. 

And then I realised I had only three chapters left to go.

The feeling was terrifying, rather than euphoric. Three chapters, so much riding on those three. 

And today, I finished.

I plugged the gaps. I tied the bow on my FIRST EVER NOVEL.

And I feel so drained its unreal. Like I’ve climbed a mountain and come down, sore and stiff and exhausted. BUT. Also, insanely proud. It still needs editing. It still needs beta reading and formatting and line editing and no doubt will change some more as a result. 

BUT. 

IT IS DONE.

So now, it’s time to think about those other fifteen manuscripts.  

Only kidding. I won’t lie- I’ve nearly burned myself out writing White Pines. It was a worthwhile endeavor, and I shiver with anticipation at the thought of those 214 people receiving their book, a book that they made possible. But after its gone, and the audio book is done, I’ll need a rest. A recharge. Let’s gloss over the next book already jostling for attention in my mind. I will force myself to have some time.

If anyone is struggling through their first novel, please feel free to reach out. I’ve been there, I know how soul crushing it can be. I hope this post has helped you, even if only a little. 

Keep going!

4 thoughts on “What it’s like to write your first novel: a first hand account

  1. Found this at just the right time. I’m exactly at the “3 chapters away from finishing” stage. I’ve gone through all of this! The blocks, the restarts, getting halfway through and suddenly realizing something important about a character I needed to reveal 5 chapters earlier. Taking long walks, only thinking about my book. Creating playlists! So important. I take public transit to and from my day job, and listen to the songs on repeat. I can’t say how many times I’ll be listening to a song for the 30th time and it will suddenly tell me what to do with a scene I’ve been stuck on. I used to take 3 or 4 day breaks to get rejuvenated until I gave myself a deadline that required I write every day. It was terribly difficult at first, but now I can write 1k words in about 30 minutes sometimes when it used to take me 3+ hours. Sticking to momentum is a serious muscle building workout, but worth it. I’m eyeing my finish date (Nov. 16th) and planning a celebration for myself. It’s only my first draft. There’s SO much work to do still when it comes to tightening up holes & rewriting backstory. But this is the first novel attempt that I told myself it’s okay to keep going, don’t stick in one chapter trying to make it perfect, and the permission has been wonderful.

    I know this has all been about myself, just wanted to show how much your experience mirrored my own 2019 (I tell people I’m on the fourth draft of my first draft after a couple dustbin dumps). I missed your Kickstarter, but I’ll be preordering your book. Knowing some of the exact same pains that went into it, I’m sure I’ll relish the reading of it that much more. Congratulations!

  2. Thank you! It’s very reassuring to know I’m not alone in this process. Best of luck with November the 16th, let me know when it comes out and I’ll add it to my TBR! All the best.

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