Monday, April 18, 2011

One Year Ago... What Not to Do With Your First Draft

One year ago this month, I did something I'd never done before: wrote a draft of a novel from beginning to end.

It was a huge deal, because I'd talked about writing a novel for most of my life.  Normally I'd write a few pages, stop because I'd have no idea where I wanted to take the darn thing, and then never pick it back up again.

One year ago this month, all that changed.

My very first blog post was about my inspiration and endeavor to get that novel finished, and since I had about, oh, zero readers at the time, I thought it be worth revisiting.  So, once again, here's the story of How I Finally Finished a Novel:

In the Beginning

For the longest time, I said I was going to write a book. But alas, college came and went, and after graduation I put my BA in English to good use as... a purchasing agent? Eight years later, I felt like the last of my creativity had drained out of my toes, and was pretty sure I'd never see the day inspiration would strike again, let alone actually sit down and finish a novel.

Then, much like everyone else on the planet, I read and loved Twilight. For the first time in years, I felt the desire to create something again. I went online and read about how the idea came to Stephenie Meyer in the form of a dream. I admit, (hanging my head in shame) I was instantly jealous. I moaned to anyone who would listen that I had wanted to write a book my whole life, and here this woman was handed the mother of ideas on a platter as sparkly as Edward's skin. HMPH.
edward cullen sparkling edward cullen wallpaper small Shirtless Sparkling Edward Cullen Wallpaper from Italy Images
I should have kept my mouth shut. Earlier this year, I woke up from the strangest dream and knew it was going to be the subject of my story. 

I tossed ideas around in my head for two weeks before I ever put a word on paper. I had to figure out how to connect the characters, how to fill in their backstory, how to develop the plot based on the little snippet my subconscious had shown me. Once I had a clue, I started to write.

And O.M.G. was I rusty. But just four months later, I had a completed draft of word vomit, and I was as excited as a pig in you-know-what.

I decided I was ready to query.  Wrong.

Don't misunderstand, I was not - AM not - under the impression that my story is the next Twilight. But Stephenie Meyer proclaimed her query "sucked", and still scored herself an agent. I was pretty sure my query sucked too, but I was hoping the whole book-based-on-a-dream scenario would work in my favor, too. 

Twenty rejections later, I realized just how badly my query sucked. Not one request for a partial, not one request for a full.

I knew I had to buckle down and do even more homework. I bought reference books and found new websites, opened every link pertaining to queries (including the ones that popped up when my search was "why does my query suck") and tore my letter apart time and time again.

In the process, I realized how much work my manuscript needed. I came across a website, I think Chuck Sambuchino's, where I read YA novels over 80K words reflect the author's inability to edit. My story was 95,000 words. I chewed my nails, agonizing over my word count. I was sure there was nothing I could eliminate without hurting the plot.

Wrong again.

Three months after my last rejection, my manuscript is down to a more polished 88,700 words. And you know what else? It's not YA, either. I was nervous that my college student protagonist was too old, and I was right. My novel falls under the paranormal romance/urban fantasy umbrella. Good to know BEFORE you query, don't you think?

Looking back on that entry, I had even more to learn than I thought.  I had no critique partners at that point, because I was too scared and embarrassed to let someone read my writing.  I was afraid of people stealing my idea, and also of someone telling me how badly it sucked.

Now, I'm still pruning away the evidence of amateur writing, and excess words.  I was happy when I got down to 88,700, but now I'm down to 81,200 and still convinced I can trim it up some more.

I have two great critique partners I met through the blogosphere, both of whom believe my story could really have a shot with the right "renovations."  Their input and encouragement has been invaluable.

So if there are any newbies out there reading this, my advice is this: do it right.  Do LOTS of research.  Go to the how-to websites like Nathan Bransford and Query Shark.  Find helpful, introspective posts like this one from J.L. Campbell, and use all of them to hone your writing.  Then, find people you can trust, and let them tell you the strengths and weaknesses of your manuscript, because when you're looking at it day after day, there are things you just won't see.

And don't rush it.  Stephenie Meyer is the EXCEPTION, not the rule, which I would have known if I'd done more research.  I thought her piddly "seven or eight" rejections was the norm.  I wish I'd known then that most people liken getting published to hitting the lottery.  I wish I'd known about authors like Brodi Ashton, who faced over a hundred rejections and went through two agents before landing her book deal.

Finally, I advise newbies to follow the blogs of published authors and agents, but also follow the unpublished ones.  We're quite the worker bees, and there are plenty of us who'll link to the posts we've found most helpful on a regular basis.  Stina and Heather are great for this.  Check them out BEFORE you jump into querying.

Hopefully one day, my finished novel will become a published novel.  But in one year I've come far enough to know it might never happen.  All the more motivation to reach another milestone- finishing a second novel.

So how did your first novel come about?  Did you always know you'd finish it, or were you as shocked as I was?

** Also, there's a great giveaway going on at Cleverly Inked.  Stop by and check it out!**


  1. Thank you for sharing your story! I started my current manuscript almost a year and a half ago. It took me one month to write 2/3 of it and five months to write the last 1/3 b/c I had no idea how to finish it. But when I finally wrote 'The End'... it was like a forest of rainbows and unicorns lol. And then I realized I had no plot. haha. Ow. Cue epic rewrite. And rewrite. And rewrite ;_; A year and a few CPs later, I'm just about ready to query.

    Man this writing business is something, isn't it? :D

  2. Thank you for sharing your story. I love reading about how first novels came about--that joy of the first one when there is nothing but the blind, demanding desire to finish.

    I wholeheartedly believe you are going to find success with this one. I am excited for you!

    My first novel was also word vomit--100k in 8 weeks. It was a practice novel for me, so after getting two critiques back and doing a few months worth of editing, I dropped it. I'm glad I did. I wrote another novel. I enjoyed that second novel, but some of the characters from the first novel wouldn't leave me alone. So I changed the setting and the plot and dropped the characters from that first one into another novel, which is currently with my alpha reader. Which means, in a way, I'm still working on my first novel.

    I'm not entirely certain that this third one isn't practice as well. But I'm going to go the distance with it--"finish" it even if it doesn't get queried. Which means--I hope you will be looking at in sometime in the future!

  3. Lori- I totally hear you! When I finished, I thought I was actually finished. Then I went away for a week, came back, started reading and thought, "Wow... this sucks!"

    Heidi- 100K in 8 weeks?! Holy crap! I hope you're right about my success, because so far I seem to be falling back into my old pattern. I have one WiP all outlined but only partially written, another partially written but a beginning and an end, but no middle. And the third is dying to be written but I'm having self-doubt demons! And I'm ready to read your stuff whenever you are!

  4. Oh, I hear ya. I made all the rookie mistakes and now that I'm much more 'in the know', knowledge hasn't scored me an agent. I think part of it is hard work, learning the craft and bettering your ms. The other part is writing the right query to the right agent at the RIGHT TIME. Some agents stop taking YA because MG is hot. Some agents stop taking paranormal because there's a demand for contemporary romance. It's a dog eat dog world out there!

  5. Now THAT is something to celebrate!! woo hoo! I think Twilight may have inspired lots of writers, b/c her story felt accessible. GO YOU!!

  6. This was a great entry, and I know how you feel - this whole writing shindig is really a huge learning curve.

  7. I spent ten months outlining my five book series, doing characterizations, and creating my fantasy word. Ten months!!!!! And that didn't count the first draft. (Trust me, I don't do that anymore).

    I spent another year writing and editing the book. I had a couple of beta readers (two adults and two teens) give me feedback (okay, only the teens gave me feedback). I had no idea how important crit partners were.

    In the end, I did land a partial then a full request on my 104 K YA fantasy, but the agent felt I needed to cut it down. She wished me luck and that was it. 14 agents later (I didn't query it very much), I decided to move on and write a YA urban fantasy but it first person this time. ROFL. Let's just say that was a big disaster. But at least I had a crit group this time (which is now dysfunct).

    I do the links because all those articles I read really do help me grow as a writer (as have the writerly books I blog about). Let's just say there's a huge difference in my writing since my early days. :D

  8. I had no idea what to do with my manuscript. I knew it would be tough, but I expected someone to at least read it. I was fairly grounded, because I was following steps laid out by Bransford's blog and query tracker, but I've still learned a lot for #2.

  9. Well, you already know my story of how my first novel faired, but it crashed and burned pretty spectacularly.

    Here's to your road being even easier! And thanks for the mention.

  10. Thanks for sharing all of that! (New follower...!) Those "easy" successes are so much more accessible than reality.

    I had no idea I would ever write a book, let alone finish one. Now, here I am, four re-writes later, and finally OK with the end product ;) It is amazing what you learn along the way, but I LOVED EVERY STEP OF IT! (and have hopefully come out a better storyteller/writer)

    We'll see what happens next.

  11. Hello! I'm a new follower from the DejaVu Blogfest. Nice to meet you!

  12. So appreciative of this post, Gina! I can relate.

  13. Thanks a lot for sharing this post again. I am not yet done with my first draft and know that I need to do much editing before going to the query round but right now I´m just excited about powering through until the magic words: "The end" :-)

  14. Enjoyed your story. Yes, I often look to Stephenie M.'s story as inspiration (and mention it occasionally on my blogspot, too!). But in this publishing day and age, you have to get that query nailed. Then revise endlessly on your novel. But I'll admit a little Stephenie Meyer-ish jealousy strikes me now and then!

  15. Sorry to be so late coming here, I'm trying to catch up with all the blogs I missed in this event and am loving visiting them all!

    Great post, My first published novel went through about seventeen self edits before I was happy with it, and I had some wonderful crit partners - I'd say never be without at least one c.p. you can really trust to be honest with you! Better make your mistakes for them to read than an editor!