The Humbling Torture of Writing Your First Novel

Just under a year ago I finally began to undertake the task I had always promised myself I would, the personal assignment that I’d been driving myself to do since I was five-years-old: to write a novel.

During the years, growing up, I had started many ideas. I spent hours constructing character profiles, rough plotlines and small snippets of raw writing, but I was never able to get past the first chapter. In fact, until a year ago, I had never truly finished a chapter of writing.

So, November of last year, as my semester was coming to a close, I decided that it was finally time to put pen to paper (or rather, finger to keyboard) and churn out my first novel. I had had the idea for the Scarlet Fox saga for years. In fact, I had first thought of the character of Catriona Riordan when I was just thirteen years old.

As you can imagine, at first she was a reflection of my adolescent brain, a classic femme fatale: overly sexualised, no real substance and destined to become a glorified martyr. I’m glad to say her story has matured as I have, and she barely resembles the individual I had fantasised about all those years before.

I spent the majority of the summer holidays, closed off to the world, cultivating a Vitamin D deficiency. I had planned most of the story beforehand, breaking up what action would be in each chapter and a brief story-arc of each character and their relationship with others. When I finished my first chapter within two weeks, I was relieved but knew that I had to keep up the momentum. Days became weeks, and more and more pages of my manuscript were typed onto paper. If I wasn’t writing, I was researching or reading. It had consumed me to the point that if I wasn’t doing something related to the progression of my novel, then I was wasting my time, sabotaging my dreams of ever becoming an author.

In early January, I had finished the first draft, front to back. It was a great personal moment, achieving the first step in what I had always dreamt of. But it also harboured an unhealthy boost to my ego. I’ve done the hard yards, I had thought to myself foolishly, Publishing it will be easy. Picking up a novel from a shelf I would say, If this can get published, my story definitely can. It was with that attitude that I spent no more than a month editing, and “finalising” my work, and it was the first week of February when I sent it off to two publishing houses, with nobody’s eyes bar my own ever seeing it.

I waited for that one response, the email that would say, This book is a work of art, this deserves to be published.” But of course, what I had sent off hadn’t been a completed manuscript at all, it had only been a completed first draft. Only six months on today, when I look through that earlier submission, I cringe at the writing, the numerous mistakes and the rushed, forced action.

So, with fresh eyes, I had returned to my novel by April. I had gifted my manuscript to family and friends over March, and they had given me some advice in ways to approve. And of course, they were too nice, too gentle. I scrapped certain characters and added new ones, introduced more substance, crafted a better story arc, and added a more climactic ending. I had a break, and then went back to editing, and revising. But yet, there was still a rush in my mind, an unnecessary urgency to the whole endeavour. I have to finish it, I kept saying to myself, I have to publish it THIS year. I have to send it off soon, or it will never be recognised. 

So yet again, I sent it off to two other publishers and a small handful of agents. I waited, both knowing that my submissions would be rejected, but still holding onto some hope that an editor might see something in my work. After all, I thought to myself, if it’s a good story, can’t the writing be perfected later?

And so it was after months of rejections and silence that I finally got my manuscript professionally looked at by a family friend that is an editor. Her critique was a breath of fresh air and gave me an insight from a professional perspective, that I should have been seeking months previously. She recommended working on the craft of my writing alone, perfecting my style and flow. She also revealed to me, something that I had always known deep-down, that this novel was only really setting the scene for future books rather than being a conclusive story itself. It was also too short. I also needed to work on characterisation and the relationship between each character. She exposed to me, the way publishers and agents critique a manuscript, something that was invaluable to my realisation.

I acknowledged then, that I had never really set out to write a novel, only complete one. Patience and modesty are two virtues that are intrinsic to good writing. In fact, I would argue that they are the foundations of it.

So, it is now, after a year of trying to complete my novel, that I have gone back to the drawing board and aim to actually write a story. My time over the past year wasn’t wasted, my manuscript can be worked and tweaked to become the first half of the second volume but that isn’t the important point. This year-long process has been a transformative experience. It has enforced in me the real reason why I have always had this determination to write. Not because I want to become published (though that is still my ultimate goal) but rather to enjoy writing itself, crafting words and stories and relationships that (hopefully) evoke something within the reader. Simply, writing only for the sake of writing itself.

3 thoughts on “The Humbling Torture of Writing Your First Novel

  1. Such a great post! I can agree on so many lessons, conclusions and mistakes that you’ve written about because I have also made them on the road to writing and getting published. Good luck with your book/s. Thanks for sharing your insights and story.


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