Lessons learned from writing four novels

I used to be a chronic unfinisher of novels. I would start one with great excitement and fervour, then get distracted by the next shiny fiction idea. Rinse. Repeat. 

But when I took fiction more seriously, I came across an author who said that authors should finish their shit. Since this wisdom was echoed by many authors I admired, I decided to make it my life mission to finish my shit. (Fiction, that is. I always finished my articles or I don't get to eat!)

Not only did I get big a burst of satisfaction and confidence each time I completed a book, I learned new skills with each one. And guess what, Bird by Bird as Anne Lamott said. After making that promise to myself, I have since written nearly a dozen novellas and short stories, and four novels that ranged from 50,000 to 100,000 words.

If I may ever be so bold, you may take a bazillion writing workshops or get a souped up MFA, but finishing your novels is the No.1 way to improve as a writer. And note that I said novels. Yup, you got it. Write so much that you forget how many novels you've ever written.

May I present to you exhibit A - How I grew as a novelist, novel by novel:

First novel (80k words): An Angel fanfic

Frustrated by a rather painful season cliffhanger, I wrote this one to ease the pain. I wrote on pure instinct, pantsing wildly, and dreaming up plot twists. I posted a new chapter on Fanfiction.net each week (though I didn't keep a strict schedule). It was thrilling to see how readers responded. They cheered me on. Yelled at me to write faster. One even said she cried at work reading a chapter. As a writer, there was no greater achievement than that! It took me two years to complete the novel, and it remains, to date, one of the few works I truly enjoyed working on.

What I learned: Using digital media to interact with readers - there's no thrill greater!  

Second novel (50k): A young adult novel

I wrote this on order, meaning, a publisher wanted it and I had to come up with an enthralling story that will sell. Needless to say, I panicked a little, wondering what the hell I got myself into. Then, with only six months left to deadline, I wrote up a storm. It wasn't an enjoyable process, especially compared to the orgasmic experience I had writing the Angel fanfic. I quickly learned that deadlines = stress, especially if you didn't have a method to ensure that you met the deadline. Although I wasn't exactly thrilled by the novel I wrote, I was absolutely floored I managed to reach the finishing line. I may dust it off one day, rework it, and put it up on Wattpad. See? You can't do that with an unfinished novel!

What I learned: Pantsing isn't a great way to write a novel in six months. It makes for lots of rewrites, unnecessary scenes,  wasted time and stressss. I need a new method - but can a pantser be a plotter?

Third Novel (60k): Shadows of Corinar  

Because the YA novel took so much out of me, I wasn't sure if I could ever write another novel again. Perhaps I loved self-torture, but in 2012 not only did I decide to write another novel, I did it during Nanowrimo. Gah! It was exhilarating to pound out thousands of words a day with millions around the world - I made great friends, some of which are still best friends till this day - but I promptly fell ill at the end of November and was left with a mess of a novel. An incomplete one at that!

Doggedly, I told myself I'd finish this thing. And I pecked at it. And pecked at it. And I swear I pecked at it until my proverbial beak fell off but the granite which was the plot wouldn't give. One night, I moaned/cried at my fellow writing friends' home, convinced that perhaps I should abandon this loveless hunk of words. Hell, I even thought that my main character was a whiny bastard.

What I learned: That sometimes it was necessary to be cold and cruel and abandon your word baby ... and start from a blank page. I was so determined to use the words I wrote during Nanowrimo that I inadvertently blocked myself. When I finally detached from the sunk costs of it all, I waved the Nano zero draft goodbye and wrote from scratch. To my surprise, the words flowed really easily. And it was during the writing of this novel, while typing outdoors during a cool autumn day in Hahndorf, that I discovered a crucial skill that would help me plot far easier: Brainstorming.

Fourth novel: Nexus Point (Science Fiction)

Surely writing this word monster would be easier this time? Like, no. Nexus Point, the sequel to Shadows of Corinar, turned out to be the most complex novel I've ever written. Not only was it the longest novel I've ever attempted, I was also juggling multiple points of view, character arcs, writing more action scenes, which I'm weak at. Oh, how about the fact that I'm establishing what could possibly be a four to five-novel space opera series with dozens of accompanying short stories? This was my most ambitious project to date, and I felt the heat.
On top of that, I was now working full-time so time was of the essence. I decided to learn techniques on how to write faster and sharpen my brainstorming technique to create a more systematic way to plot my novel.
What I learned: I became a student of story structure. Before, I knew a novel was not working but didn't know why or how to fix it. The book that helped me finally get it was Larry Brooks' Story Engineering. I also changed the way I wrote; I stopped editing while I wrote, I began to write as fast as I can in 30 minutes. I also created a novel journal to organise my ideas, adopted a bullet journal system, and created a TODO task list system that enabled me to not only see my progress with my novel but gave me a clear idea what to work on each day.

Phew. Wow. Damn, it's not until writing this blog post did I realise the huge range of skills I've developed since my first novel. Time management, creative skills, plotting ... All because I made a promise to myself that I'd finish every novel, novella and short story that I started.

So, yeah, finish your shit. That's how you learn!

Fanfiction: Wacky, Weird, and never boring

Well, that's not necessarily true, of course. I read fanfiction even if I have money to buy more books! It's free, it's there, and it's utterly fun. Fanfiction.net is a great place to start your fanfic hunt, though there are some sites out there, run by adoring fans, that can be leagues better in story selection. If you're a wee bit clueless what fanfiction is, it is fiction based on the characters of a television (usually) show. However, fans have written fanfiction based on certain books as well, such as The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and even comics like X-Men.

Wanna see Aragorn ditch Arwen and hook up with Eowyn instead? Never fear! It's merely a fanfiction away!

I discovered fanfiction through my sister, who was reading Sailor Moon fanfiction. I thought the whole exercise was incredibly weird at first, but nevertheless curiosity won out and I tried my hand at reading Star Trek fanfiction, and I got hopelessly hooked from that day onwards.

The one fascinating thing about fanfiction, and the whole addictivness of it all, is that you see your favourite TV/Book characters placed in situations you would never see on television.

Like seeing Chakotay and Capt Janeway having a wild, romantic night out in the holodeck. Or Gil Grissom (of CSI) doing the liplock with Sara Sidle.

I'm not much into the whole romance thing, but am more interested in the action/adventure aspect of fanfic.

But finding good fanfiction can be a painful endevour at times. Since most fanfics are written by fans, not all of them are great writers. Some fanfics are downright painful to read. Characters are out of character, and although I'm very forgiving of spelling and grammatical errors (since I'm no Grammar Queen myself), these errors do get tiresome after a while.

I notice that certain shows attract better writers and stories for some reason. Shows like X-Files, Stargate: SG-1 and Star Trek have a wealth of good stories. Don't be surprised to find novel-length stories. But for some shows, especially those with a big teen audience like Buffy, Angel, Smallville and The O.C., finding good fanfiction can be an incredibly frustrating endevour. Maybe it is for me since it's always about who is with who, who is in love with who, and who wants to sleep with who.

Yes, there's a whole debate on whether fanfic is legal or not. However, fans are not stopping anytime soon, worshipping their favourite characters on stories they've created, placing them in weird, weird, weird situations.

And when I mean weird, it's usually in the pairing department. Fanfic writers love to pair up their favourite characters. Sometimes it something all of us want. Sometimes it's something few of us ever want (Boromir + Faramir [Lord of the Rings] love relationship anyone? Incest is not taboo in the fanfic world). Fanfic writers can sometimes speak in code, and for the first-timer, they'd probably get confused by the various terminology used. Such as:

  • slash: male and male relationships
  • UST: Unresolved Sexual Tension. Used a lot in the X-files universe!
  • Hurt/comfort: Where a character gets hurt, and another comforts the poor fella
  • Smarm: Imagine tough-looking guys talking about their feelings and dreams around a campfire and you'll get the idea.
  • sibcest: Let's not even go there.
  • fluff: A story of little substance, but read/written merely for the heck of it.
  • Smut: I don't think this needs translation

Pairings are indicated by "/". For example, if you have written a story where Scully and Mulder are lovers, you indicate: S/M.

Fans have even invented cute little names to indicate their favourite pairings. In the smallville universe, the Clark and Lana Lang pairing is "Clana". Hehe.

Well, since I've joined a gym, and my expenses will inevitably go up, one of the first things I'd have to cut from my spending bill is books. So ... looks like it's a raid at the fanfiction archives for me from now on!