Writing a Book Review: 10 Things I Learned In 79,497 words

After 79,497 words, 144 A4 pages, 424,977 characters all put in to one 325kb Word document, I have finally completed my first ever first draft of a novel.

Two things:

  1. Despite how the title might read, this is a review of writing a book, not a story about writing a book review.
  2. HOLY SH*T YOU GUYS I JUST WROTE A WHOLE BOOK.

While I have always loved writing, this was the first time I attempted a project of this scale and followed it through. Over the last 14 months I’ve learned a lot about myself, both as a writer and a person.

I’ve also learned a lot about the writing process in general. When I’m ready to kick off the next project, there are ten things I’ve learned from this one that I’ll try to take with me:

1. Just do it.

I could have benefited from listening to the wise words from those guys at Nike a lot sooner.

Yes, work is busy right now. I take my job home with me. I occasionally have early mornings and late nights. I spend 2 hours a day commuting. When I get home I’m tired and just want to watch nonsense on TV. There are always a million reasons not to do something, but there is never a better time than right now. Pick up that pen (or keyboard, if you live after 1990) and just start doing it. It’s so worth it.

2. Building character.

For essentially every great story, the heart is in the characters. You can have the most exciting, unique idea known to man, but if your characters are two-dimensional plot-drivers it won’t work. Well-rounded, flawed, consistent characterisations are so important.

There are two benefits to focusing on this. The first is that your characters pop off the page, and will get the readers to engage with them.

But secondly, a good, well-rounded character will help you to write the story. You may know where your plot is going, but a well-written character will help you to take it in places you hadn’t even considered.

3. Plan, plan, plan.

The great Karl Pilkington once said “you get nothin’ done by planning”. When it comes to  writing a novel, this couldn’t be more wrong.

I’m lucky in that I actually enjoy the planning stage more than any other. It’s when the idea is at its most exciting and unrealised. Putting a plan in place is taking these weird thoughts you had on the train home and making it in to something viable. That’s tremendous fun. After that, actually writing can (at times) be a bit of a slog, adding the detail to what already exists fully formed in your head.

Having a detailed plan for the entire piece is so useful to keep you on the straight and narrow and keeping you pointed in the right direction. If you know where this is going and you know why, that character arc is going to be a lot easier.

4. Be flexible.

Sure, a plan is useful, but you also need to willing to let things change. As detailed as my plan was (and let me tell you, it was stupidly detailed), it’s only when you start writing that you start to fully flesh the characters out, no matter how much you think you have done that already.

Sometimes, a well-written character will want to take your plot in a direction you hadn’t anticipated. Don’t fight it! This is the good stuff! It means the characters are leading themselves, and not going where you are trying to force them.

5. Don’t think. Just write.

This is a first draft. If you wanted, this could sit on your computer for all time and never be seen by anyone. So if it sucks, it sucks.

Don’t overthink it, and don’t meticulously edit every word as soon as you’ve written it. Write as much as you can, as quickly as you can, and worry about it later. Right now, the key is pushing through so you have something complete in front of you.

A great metaphor I read recently (man, I’m bad at giving out credit where it’s due, huh?) was that of Michelangelo’s David. The first draft is getting the marble shape. With edits, you can make the little distinctions and idiosyncrasies that will make your piece a work of art. Without the marble block to chip in to, it won’t work. And meticulously carving a toe in to a quarry full of rock isn’t going to help you get to the end.

6. Be easy on yourself (whilst being your biggest critic).

This should be fun. It won’t always be, but you’re doing it because you want to. Even if you write the biggest piece of garbage the world has ever seen, who cares? Beating yourself up over things isn’t going to help you get to that sweet, sweet 79,497 word count.

With that said, a messiah complex isn’t helping anyone either. Accept that you aren’t writing War and Peace, but also want the best for what you are doing. If this section you are currently writing doesn’t seem interesting to you, why would it be for anyone else? If it’s not working, scrap it.

Throughout this process, I have found that I have a tendency to add way too much background at the start of each chapter. If two people are meeting in a bar, I want to spell out how they got there, the small talk when they arrived, what drinks they ordered, and so on. This is SO BORING.

Often, I’d read this nothingness and realise that if I cut the first 300 words and started part way through, the story would be so much more interesting. If two people are at a bar, the reader will presume they travelled there and ordered a drink. They don’t need to be told that they didn’t teleport there. (… unless they can? Oh man, your story sounds better than mine).

Get to the good stuff. For me, that meant usually deleting whole sections of text as soon as they were written when I realised there were going nowhere. If it isn’t interesting, get rid of it.

7. Tell people what you’re doing.

18 months ago, there were only two people who had ever seen anything I had written. These days, I put my cretinous pop culture related thoughts out there on to a blog that is read by literally dozens of people. I’ve just written the first draft of a book, and here I am telling strangers about it. This is such an important step for me.

As long as I kept it as my dirty little secret, it was hard to find time. It was kept for when I was completely on my own with nothing to do, because otherwise people would find out, and, I don’t know? Tell me not to do it? Laugh at me? Want to read it? I don’t know.

Telling people what I do has really liberated me to take it seriously and press on. I haven’t told a single person who has looked down on me or given me anything other than amazing support. Being able to talk about it is really motivating.

This also has the added bonus of applying pressure. For me, I need people looking at what I’m doing to keep me in shape. If I’ve told someone I’m writing a book, I’ll keep pushing on even through the hard times just to avoid being the guy that once said he would write a book but got bored. Writing requires real self-motivation, and dragging other people in to help with that can be pretty helpful.

8. In the land of chaos, structure is king

It’s hard finding time to write at the best of times. It’s even worse when you’re trying to do it with a full time job. Hoping to feel up for it every now and again is no way to get through a mammoth task like this.

That’s how I started. I’d write whenever I felt like it, which was pretty rare. “I’m just so tired after work” I’d say to myself, justifying why I was staying up until midnight watching nothing on TV.

Eventually, I chose a new approach. Writing would be a second career for me. I’d go to bed sooner so I could wake up earlier and write in the morning before work. I’d write during lunchtimes. I’d put time aside in evenings where I’d hide out in my bedroom to write while my girlfriend hung out in the sitting room.

None of these things felt ideal at the time, but I’d have never got through it without putting a structure in place to force me to write.

9. Keep going!

It can get tough sometimes. The halfway point was hard, when you realise that you have to do everything you’ve just done all over again. Getting towards the end might have been even harder, as I’d grown so tired of working on one thing and really wanted to move on to a newer, better project I had in mind.

At times, I’d become totally and utterly stuck on a scene that wasn’t working, and I couldn’t see the point of carrying on. Sometimes, I didn’t bother, and left it for a while.

But on other occasions, I wrote through it. I pushed on when it was a struggle and kept going to the end. It might not always be fun, but pushing through even when motivation is at its lowest is well and truly worth it. It’ll come back eventually.

10.Enjoy it

This is supposed to be fun! It might not be 100% of the time, but nothing is. Trying to make it as enjoyable as possible is the key here, however you choose to do it.

Now, one first draft does not a novelist make. I know that. I still have a ridiculous amount to learn, and I know that the worst is still to come (you mean I have to actually read what I have written and edit it? Jeez). But as someone with a full time job, who self identifies as a lazy procrastinator, just getting to this stage feels like one hell of an achievement.

And I can’t wait to do it again.

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11 thoughts on “Writing a Book Review: 10 Things I Learned In 79,497 words

  1. K.L. Allendoerfer says:

    I have 3 unfinished manuscripts sitting on my hard drive from the last 3 years of National Novel Writing Month. Two are a little over 50K words, one is up to about 75K, as I keep trying to finish it, and not succeeding.

    My novels have taken shape (so to speak) as they are being written. The characters say what they want to say, “through me,” and I sometimes don’t even know what they’re going to say until after they’ve said it.

    As I look through your list, I feel like I have most of this under control except #3, the planning part. I see that you enjoy this part. Or, more to the point, I see that you can actually *do* this part. Is it possible to explain in any more detail how you get from point A (random thoughts on the train) to point B (whole thing fully formed in your head that you just have to write down)? I mean, really, whole thing fully formed in your head? I can’t even fathom what that feels like.

    Like

    1. larnerholt says:

      Hey KL, thanks for the comment.

      Firstly, congrats for writing 175k words, completed or not. That’s a fantastic achievement in itself.

      My planning process usually starts with a brain dump, writing absolutely everything I have thought about the project regardless of whether I can actually use it or if it is good.

      I then start to work out how I can turn this in to a rough story, then put the bits in order, then consider what elements it needs to be a “proper” story (I still feel like a novice for this kind of stuff, so tend to lean in to the formula for the sort of stories I write).

      I then work on characters. I put together a biography for them, based on how I’m planning on having them behave and why they might do that. I spend a while on names too, as they can sometimes provide inspiration as well. As the biographies start to build, this lends itself to how I think they might act, which in turn lends itself to developing the plot.

      By the time this is done, I have an idea for every scene I plan to include in the story. This is entirely flexible, and often changes as I go along. I don’t fully get to know the charatcers until I start writing them, but having an idea about who they are, what they are doing and what their arc is can be helpful for me.

      The result is that the story isn’t so much fully formed in my head, but is logged on a Word document (or two; one for the plot, one for the characters) so I can always resort back to it. I don’t think it’s necessary to plot as much as I do, but it’s something that I find keeps me moving in the right direction when I’m finding it tough.

      It does mean that some of the excitement of actually writing is taken away though, so I don’t think this approach is necesarily for everyone.

      What do you think of this approach?

      Like

  2. K.L. Allendoerfer says:

    That approach sounds like a lot of work ;-) But I can see the appeal. The brain dump part sounds interesting. How many words is that, usually? (Maybe that’s what my entire oeuvre of 50K words is, a brain dump.)

    I get tripped up by the plot outline part. Often, for me, when a plot is stripped down to its bare bones like that, I see all the holes and get discouraged or stuck.

    To take a famous, recent example, “The Force Awakens” is terrible in this regard. Here’s a list of “40 unforgivable plot holes”:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/seth-abramson/40-unforgivable-plot-holes-in-star-wars-the-force-awakens_b_8850324.html

    I still enjoyed the movie, because I thought Finn and Rey were great characters, I liked the homages to previous movies. I enjoyed the setting, the effects, even most of the dialogue. I was able to suspend disbelief and just have fun while I was watching, because I didn’t think about it too much and I was able to focus on the aspects I did like, and there were a lot of those.

    Whereas if I’d had to write a movie myself based on that plot outline, I wouldn’t have gotten past the first scene because I would have thought the plot was unworkable.

    Maybe the lesson here is that you can have a good story/movie/book etc. without a great or even very original plot if the other elements are there.

    You say you “lean into the formula for the sort of stories [I] write.” What does that mean? Do you have a workbook or something else to follow? (I know there are plotting workbooks, I just have never used one, but maybe should consider it). Or do you just have enough familiarity with the genre that you have a formula in your head that you can follow?

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  3. larnerholt says:

    Yeah, it’s a lot to do. But I don’t really view it as work. This is the point that I really get to know my plot and characters. If anything, this can be be most rewarding part.

    Sometimes, when trying this approach I quickly realise the idea doesn’t really have legs, so I save it in a separate file with all the other discarded ideas for another time. I may come back to it later and work out the issues. I’d sooner find out early that it doesn’t work than start the project and find out later on (which has definitely happened to me more than once!)

    If I can get as far as character biographies and planning out the entire plot, chances are the idea works.

    It’s worth adding that I tend to think in a plot/story format, and even then he brain dump often doesn’t work as a plot. That’s where the rest of it comes in, to help mould it in to something workable.

    The main formula I lean in to is Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces. I try not to follow it too closely, but it certainly helps to add a little a structure. Dan Harmon, creator of Community, wrote a fantastic series of “lectures” on this here: .

    I may also be inclined to read up on my genre to get a better feel for it. The manuscript I just started is kind of a neo-western, post-apocalyptic adventure, so I’ve tried to find out a little about the usual form to see if I can pick anything up that I might not have considered. Although a little hard to wrap your head around at first, the TV Tropes website can be really useful for this.

    One final thing- the list of plot holes for The Force Awakens. I’m not sure I agree that any of those are plot holes per se? Some I think the author has just misunderstood/not watched the situation, but some are just coincidences, which pretty much Beverly work of fiction would include. Even in the very first Star Wars film, Luke finding Ben is totally reliant on a few coincidences.

    Plot holes can absolutely be the death of an idea, but I personally don’t see anything wrong with the odd coincidence here and there, as long as it is well done.

    What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. larnerholt says:

      Sorry, forgot the link to Harmon article on story structure- http://channel101.wikia.com/wiki/Story_Structure_101:_Super_Basic_Shit

      If needed, here is a little more on the original theory- http://www.thewritersjourney.com/hero's_journey.htm

      I find both helpful when trying to craft a structure of the story from the brain dump. How much I use it is dependent on how well I’m doing for forging a path already, but gives me an idea of where it could go.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. K.L. Allendoerfer says:

      Thanks for the links! Sure, I can deal with a few coincidences–after all, life has some of those too. I think what bothered me most about the plot of TFA was that they couldn’t come up with anything better than blowing up planet-killer #3 with a small flotilla of fighters after “getting the shields down.” Once was fine. Twice is pushing it. And three times made me want to use that vomit gif you had in your Still Alice review ;-)

      Liked by 1 person

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