Over the course of my writing career, I’ve learned a lot, mostly how not to do things. And that’s been a hard journey in itself. Once a writer gets past that point, when they understand what not to do and what to avoid, then the learning becomes even more difficult. We know the rules by heart, but no matter how many books on craft we read or how many writing classes we take, no one can teach us how to do things right.
A lot of the time, to write a good book, you either got it, or you don’t. And most of us don’t. That’s something we have to earn. We have to work for it, book after book after book. I think I’m finally getting there. I’m at a level of competence, but I still have a lot to learn. Hardly anyone writes perfect first drafts, and those that do, well, they aren’t human. Biowriters. That’s what they are.
When I started my first ever novel, I didn’t think it would be all that hard. I’d bang out several thousand words and then I’d have a book. Easy, right? Well, banging out the book was hard. I never finished it. So I tried again. And again. By the time I actually finished the first draft of a book, I had about five or six unfinished novels collecting dust in my laptop hard drive, and I had been writing for about six years. Even that finished first draft never made it to a second draft. And after that, I started another book that I also never finished (NaNoWriMo is notorious for unfinished novels, at least for me).
I learned a lot from those unfinished novels. I learned a lot from the finished novel. And even better, I’ve learned from my latest novel, the one that might just get me into that elusive thing we know as the publishing industry.
The steampunk novel taught me how to balance a novel. Writing is a game of balance—between dialogue and exposition, tense scenes and calm scenes, short sentences and long sentences, emotion and logic, and between the main plot and subplots. Pacing.
I was lucky enough to have a good grasp of pacing early on in my writing career. I never knew what that meant, but my writing teachers told me that I did, and I believed them. I suppose they were right though. My beta-readers and the one agent that has read my steampunk novel agree that I have good pacing. And pacing equals balance. Dialogue, exposition, tense scenes, calm scenes, short sentences, long sentences, emotion, logic, main plots, and subplots—all of that contributes to pacing. It’s learning to balance them that gives a novel a good pace.
I’ve also learned things about myself as a writer, not just craft. I learned that in the first few chapters of a book, I’m still finding my voice. I tend to overwrite, including less than stellar scenes because I’m exploring the characters and the story to come. And when I reach the end, everything that I’ve worked so hard to include—voice, characterization, description, balance between exposition and dialogue—I toss it to the wind. I get in such a rush to finish that I don’t do it properly, and it reads that way.
I finished my second draft yesterday, and though my last two chapters are a lot better than they were, I think they still have a ways to go before they’re ready. The next to last scene is almost all dialogue. Explainy dialogue. The pacing is off. It reads too fast, and I’m not sure how to slow it down (that’s not entirely true; I know I need to break up the dialogue with action beats and exposition, but I don’t know where to add it or what to say). My voice disappeared because there’s no exposition. The characters are talking heads—there’s no real setting or movement. I’m not yet perfect at revising either. When I can revise a novel in one go and have it ready for submissions, that will be a glorious day. Until then, it looks like I’ll have a few more passes before it’s ready. Hopefully my critique partner and alpha reader can help me get there sooner.
And that’s another thing I’ve learned: writing is a collaborative effort. Some writers may be able to work with only a single editor. Not me. I need my alpha reader, my critique partner, my beta-readers, and someday maybe an agent and an editor too. They help me make my story better, and I want to give my readers the best damn story I can.
Hopefully, I continue to learn and grow as a writer, that each book will be better than the last.
What have you learned over the course of your writing career? How has your craft improved? How many books have you started but never finished? How many have you completed?