Lessons from Writing my First Manuscript

I knew I wanted to start my own Fantasy series after I began my Junior year at college. I was pursuing my English degree and thought, “I can do this. I don’t know how well I can do compared to my heroes, but I can write, and I’m fairly confident I can build my own world.” And my confidence wasn’t unreasonable. I had written published pieces and my writing had been praised by peers and professors, not just family and friends. But I had never written anything as complex as a novel, nor had I ever tried to bring readers into a fantastic world of my own creation. Trying to do both at the same time meant I had to face the first-time challenges of both simultaneously.

Believe it or not, it was actually the Fantasy element that gave me the most trouble. I wrote myself into a corner in my first attempt about 70% of the way through. I couldn’t even reasonably get to the climax of the story without breaking rules of the world I had created or having characters act completely contrary to how I had portrayed them to that point, with no reason for the change or opportunity for growth. I tried to go back and fix things to get back on track, but that just made things more muddled and confusing. At last, I scrapped the manuscript entirely.

It wouldn’t be until my third attempt that I finally wrote a draft that was sound both in both plot and character development, as well internally consistent. However, now knowing what it takes and what works for me, I know for a fact I could sit down and write my second right away (in fact, I have already started). All that time spent in frustration and confusion was just a necessary part of discovering my writing process. As we all know, there is no one way that works for all writers, but there are some recommendations I feel will benefit anyone trying to finish their first novel.

Tips for Finishing Your First Manuscript

1. Find the setup and tools that work best for you

For me, that is the writing software from Literature and Latte, Scrivener (found here). For Fantasy writers, this is an absolute must to keep your world organized. But it’s also great for writers who are doing a lot of research or have a lot of characters and complicated plots. For example, I had three groups of characters that were separated, and being able to quickly find scenes by short descriptions in the corkboard view, and then drag and drop them (or entire chapters) all over my manuscript until I found the perfect flow and pacing was invaluable. I was also able to keep all my character sheets and locale descriptions in a separate “Research” folder so I could quickly glance down at them without ever having to go hunt for separate files. Finally, at only $45, it’s a steal for all the compiling and publishing options alone (Book Baby, who I will be using, wanted to charge me $50 to format it for all the various e-readers. No thanks!). It’s available for both Mac and Windows, as well as iOS, so it’s useable for 99% of us that write using a digital workspace. With the upcoming release of Scrivener 3 later this year, it’s only getting better. However, since that will be a paid update (most Scrivener updates are free) you may want to check if Keith (lead developer for L&L) is going to be offering a program that lets new buyers upgrade for free.

2. How to Solve Writer’s Block: WRITE! (But change what you write based on the cause)

I know it sounds counter-intuitive that writing solves writer’s block, but it has been a consistent cure for me. I can hear the protests now though, “But I can’t write anything but trash now! I don’t want to have to rewrite everything in my novel that I do today!” Well, don’t write in your novel. Work on another project. A blog, another story (I’ve noticed that writer’s block often is tied to the project, not the writers themselves), anything to get the gears turning again. Unless of course your writer’s block is caused by something else…

3. Avoid burnout

Let’s face it, if you’re reading this list, you probably aren’t under contract to finish that novel in the upcoming weeks. Writing a novel isn’t just running a marathon – it’s running it in the open country. Dodging pits, scrambling up rocks, going into deep valleys…if you try to sprint before you can see the finish line, you’ll end up having to take a break. And once you stop completely to allow yourself a chance to recuperate, it will be easy to find reasons to not start again. To avoid this…

4. Write every day

Odd that the solution to avoid burnout is to write every day, isn’t it? I think this worked so well for me because I never felt the need to “make up” for writing I didn’t do the day before. However, you must have the correct mindset for this to work correctly, otherwise it can definitely backfire. Most importantly, you must pace yourself and set attainable goals. If you have a set target you achieve every day (Scrivener has a feature to track that…), several things will happen:

  1. You’ll feel accomplished, and will be eager to repeat that feeling tomorrow.
  2. If you actually stop when you meet your target amount instead of when you run out of words, you’ll already know where to start the next day, which will keep you both encouraged and more likely to repeat your accomplishment tomorrow.
  3. Again, similar to running, as you get used to achieving your goal, your stamina will build and you can slowly increase the amount you strive for each day.

5. Be willing to modify your outline

Eisenhower said this when it came to battle, but I find it equally apt for writing: “I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” You see, when you outline your novel, you and your story are getting to know each other (as you become more experienced as a writer, I imagine your ability to create better outlines will mean you won’t need to deviate as much). You are becoming acquainted with the characters, the world (whether Fantasy or Mundane) they live in, and themes and message you want to share. But you may find when it comes time write that crucial scene, that what you planned doesn’t make any sense at all now that it comes down to it. So, discover what would happen. Don’t break your characters and narrative out of vanity because it’s your book and you’re in charge. Yes, you can do with it what you want, but if you noticed that you’re forcing something, rest assured your readers will as well.

6. Most Importantly: Strive for perfection (but don’t wait for it!)

You will never finish if fear of failure gets in the way. The truth is, the best writers make mistakes, even in some of their best works. However, because we are blown away by their genius, we often give them a pass and just think we, the reader, must have missed something. So, try to make your story as perfect as you can. But if you have become paralyzed because you see mistakes and can’t fix them, step back and ask this: “Is this story still good, even with my mistakes?” If you think so, then go ahead and share it with a test audience – if you have friends you know are honest or a writing group, that’s best. In having someone to discuss the book with, you may find their fresh perspectives give you insight into your own work to help fix those persistent problems. If not, they’ll at least be able to tell you if they even saw the mistakes you fear so badly. If they didn’t, there’s a good chance many people won’t, even if a few astute readers will. When that happens, just learn from it, and make sure you don’t repeat the mistake in future works.

Hope that helps! Don’t forget to stay tuned for updates regarding the release of the Tales of Lugon’s first novel, Truth Unearthed, available on all popular e-readers as well as paperback and hardback this holiday season!

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