I began writing my first book in October of 2011, and now my publishment goal is December of 2020 (as I revisit this post, I’m looking actually at my first book being published in October 2021 INSTEAD! 10 YEARS!).
Did you come here for encouragement that you can knock out your book in just a few years? Don’t get too discouraged by my example. I’d like to encourage that dream of yours, and I’d like to give you some insight of what were the hiccups in my writing process that took this a long 9 years to get to the finish line of publishment.
I’ll be real with you, there were some big life events that put hiccups in the writing process, and there’s no way to account for all these. Still, I feel that the factors that have pushed my first book back into nine years of labor fell more me as a writer rather than me having a life.
As I think of the factors that got in the way of my writing, I think I could perhaps break the nine reasons into 3 categories which might be helpful: Energy, Craft, and Momentum. Writing is something we should want to do, something we are passionate about, and all that comes from our creative energy or fuel. Craft is our practice of getting better at writing, and although the best way to get better is to practice, proper planning can help us so that our limitations in our writing craft doesn’t get in the way of our writing process. Lastly is momentum, because if writing takes a fuel to kick it into motion, than we better hope to have something that can keep the wheels turning lest we hit a pothole. Thinking in these categories might help you identify what’s getting in the way of your writing process, what’s slowing down your progress towards publication, and while I’m sure there are more than 9 factors that get in the way of our writing, consider these categories as you see your book taking some time to being put to the press.
So, without further ado, allow me to encourage you in your dream of publishment and take heed of these nine factors that got in the way of me finishing and publishing my first book.
Vision is what promotes a great work environment. Having worked for a board of taskmasters whose only mission/vision statement was “we’re in this, all-together” to a state-wide organization that promoted, “to improve the well-being of those we serve by providing highest quality care and service”, I can attest that any entity–whether an individual or a corporation–excels when they have “their eye on the prize”.
We want to make sure we know what our book is about, specifically what aim we are looking to accomplish. For some time I’ve been an action movie junkie, enjoying a good flick because it promises a thrilling plot and flashy action and beautiful cinematography or graphics, but provides little in substance when speaking about theme or motif. This reflected in some of my earliest books growing up, writing up action-packed plots and fantastical characters in a cookie-cutter “good conquers evil” motif without really having any central “why” to it.
I confess, my first book began as such. I’d seen one Halloween a preacher standing on a soap box, decrying a crowd of costumed celebrants for putting on a mask and celebrating Halloween. I thought to myself, “that’d make a good opening to a book” without really putting much thought into what my intention with such a plot would be.
What helped me with my first book was wondering what the impact I wanted on my readers, or more specifically how I wanted my audience to change in reading the book. The “change” I reference here is not so much a total shift in ideas or lifestyle, but rather a change in thinking about a certain subject, of breaking some assumptions, of spurring some self-reflection on the topic of identity.
Before sitting down and writing that juicy prologue, consider at least one intended impact your book will have on the audience. Other impacts may sprout up as you write and some unintended impacts may also happen. But having a central “why” to your work is profitable not only in the writing business, but in every business.
Take a page from Nietzsche, that he who has a proper why, can bear any how. Consider your Why, your Theme, Your Impact. This is the first bit of fuel of energy we can use in our writing.
It is in my nature to have very few but very intimate relationships as opposed to many relationships that don’t have quite as much depth. Such is the problem I face with my readers in the writing and editing process.
I have a very strong reader who has not only offered me tips on writing style, but also feedback on character dynamics, critique as to how the plot does and does not serve my theme, and overall someone who has been an invested critic in the best sense of the word “critic”. My book and writing has grown so much from this one loyal reader, editor, and friend who I speak to weekly.
But my regret is not seeking out more of them. It’s easy to get protective of one’s own writing, but having few readers/editors on this journey with you from the start gives you more to catch up on as you start putting plans in to publish. I’ve had to scurry around to find readers who can offer multiple perspectives on not only the plot of the book but also my writing style.
I highly recommend having that one close critic you can lean on from the start, but somewhere in this journey–preferably earlier rather than later–start looking for other readers and editors who are happy to join you on your book’s journey towards its final draft.
You’ll find that having someone who is eagerly looking forward to your next chapter spurs you to keep writing, continues to fuel that creative energy knowing that you already have a “fan base” and people who are invested in your story and its progression. Fuel that tank and find those connections. Of course, use discernment when picking your audience, making sure you are selecting an audience you can trust and an audience that will groove with your genre, and make sure you have a few in your circle who are writers themselves.
3. Boredom & Distractions
Over my lifetime, this has been the greatest killer of my creative energy and of my “works in progress” that have never seen their end. Some of you writers out there may be like me, plagued with the gift of having too many ideas. As you are writing, or editing, you may find yourself tinkering on the side, working on the skeleton or a teaser chapter for another project that you promise you’ll only start once your current piece is at its final draft.
Do not trust such thoughts unless you are sure you are ready to can your book.
I’ve lost months to working on unrelated projects, beginnings of new novels that now have been put on the shelf.
The attraction of this fleeting spirit is that it’s a promise we make to ourselves that we will return to our beloved project once we’ve rejuvenated from a break, like a misguided teenage couple that says, “lets see other people for a while”.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be so harsh on this note as breaks sometimes do provide the much needed energy to return to one’s work with rejuvenation, new ideas, and a fresh perspective. Just be careful that it doesn’t become a repeating cycle of canning half-finished books.
I’ll close on that note that discipline is needed in the writing and editing process. Obviously writer’s fatigue sets in and stunts our ability to go back to the manuscript. In the same way that a new project might seem rejuvenating, we also might tell ourselves that taking a break to get caught up on our favorite Netflix series, to log some more hours into our favorite video game, or going down a YouTube rabbit hole might provide the necessary relief along with some new ideas. All things in moderation, but beware that this quickly becomes an excuse to leave a project when we feel the energy leaving from us in the writing process.
What honestly took up a lot of time in the beginning of my book was plotting, and I say this knowing that there are many schools of thought when it comes to plotting a book.
I’ll begin by saying the first rendition of my story was just a snapshot of character introductions, a haphazard montage of some eccentric heroes and villains, without any real direction as to how exactly they would all converge. Well, once I narrowed down from those characters a kind of plot forward, I came to find that I was spitting out chapters sequentially, writing in chapters for universe building, but not actually ever addressing the plot until far too late into the story.
My editor/friend one day on the phone said, “Don’t you think it’s about time we find out what the heroes are after and what this story is about?”
Now, I know that writing without a clear plot sometimes works for authors. I believe Steven King advocated for this route. If it works for you, you an probably skip this section.
Still, I caution anyone beginning a new project to at the very least to have a clear beginning, end, and idea of important “stops along the road”. For this process I highly recommend using either bullets in a word document or going free-hand with a plot arch. As you plot, keep in mind the “utility” of each chapter and what theme or emotion that will be at the spotlight, lest you find that some of your chapters are there to fill in space or to merely link up two points in your hero’s navigation of their quest.
If you really struggle with plotting out a story and feel that using a plot arch might help you provide a bit of a skeleton, I highly recommend looking into Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey”. It’s a 12-point skeleton that lots of ancient and modern stories follow. Some follow this arch tightly, others loosely, which I think is helpful if you know what kind of story and characters you want but aren’t quite sure about the progression of the trials they are to encounter.
As you perfect your writing craft you’ll find plotting theories that work best for you, but knowing that skeleton early on helps keep the finish line always in your sight, and helps you have a kind of measurement of how long your book might take to write.
5. Character Development
So many of my revisions came down to me being unhappy with my characters. Maybe I didn’t like how they looked. Maybe I though they were too dry. Maybe I just didn’t like their name. But I will freely admit that a big part of my problem in writing is that I enjoy working with many characters instead of being confined to few.
I highly recommend making character “profiles” somewhere, wherein you at least write down or think about a few key points: what’s their backstory, what are two or three defining features about them that you can especially use towards enriching the narrative, what they want, and what they offer to the story/plot. Even if you throw in a two-bit antagonist who literally just needs to stand in the way of the hero for one chapter, consider those points as it will have an impact on your narrative.
A problem I suffered in character creation/development was having “gimmicky” characters that felt like flashy fill ins to add to the universe, but didn’t actually contribute to the plot. I ended up going through so many revisions just to breathe a bit of life into these sorts of characters and to contemplate what real impact they would have on the story. It’s to be expected that characters will continue to grow as you continue to write and edit, but the more thought you can put into each character’s backstory and their impact on other characters the better position you’ll be in before doing dozens of rewrites.
Another problem some of you might share in with me is the temptation to write out a full rendering of your characters’ appearances. Save yourself the trouble. Despite how badly we want our readers to know EXACTLY what our favorite hero or villain looks like, adding too many details will only get in the way of discerning actual details that will be remembered or that will mean something throughout the story. Limit yourself to three key features, make sure to have one or two of them pop up in the narrative or the action to keep bringing that character to life, and let your readers fill in the rest.
6. Writing Style
One of my biggest regrets is not spending more time on my writing style before beginning my book. Going through old chapters to clean up to clean up run on sentences, passive voice, and a smattering of other syntax hiccups is not only time consuming, but also disheartening. In the editing process I’d often just highlight paragraphs and tell my future self “remove and rewrite all over again” because some sentences and paragraphs were just unsalvagable.
If you’re going through your manuscript for the first time and shaking your head and saying, “why on earth did I write that” or ” do I really write like that” don’t get too bent out of shape. When we start a project or are racing to get to the finish we will often ignore syntax for the sake of finishing the project.
To this end, I have two suggestions of how to improve your writing so as to reduce your time editing for syntax. The first suggestion is to make sure to be reading something as you are writing, specifically a book that fits the tone and audience that you are writing. Learning the narrative pattern of other published authors gives us a kind of alignment in our writing, because chances are that published author probably studied another successful author before they published their first work. The second piece of advice–which runs somewhat contrary to point #3 of getting distracted–is try writing small projects on the side that can sit on their own. Writing is an exercise and a skill that we need to grow in. We can use our novel to help hone that skill, though it may come at the cost of doing a lot more editing in the end. Work on a short story, nothing too ambitious, and have someone read it for readability instead of content.
I also encourage investing some time in listening/reading from other authors who offer advice–no this isn’t a self plug. I’ve spent hours watching youtube tutorials on the “dos and donts” of novel writing, dialog, plotting, publishing, etc. By listening to accomplished authors and editors on any myriad of writing topics will help you spot out your own blindspots in writing so that when you get to the finish line you don’t double your work after you find that one ill-attended blindspot.
And make sure to ask your readers what’s their opinion on your writing style. Do they find your sentences/paragraphs too lengthy or confusing? Is your vocab too lofty or misused? Do you write more thoughts and universe building instead of scenery or emotion? Do you write too much scenery or emotion? Get a second opinion, compare your style to your favorite authors that fit into your genre, and save yourself some time from doing serious facelifts at the very end.
7. Goal Setting
The last three topics are that of momentum, and setting goals is such a huge help in not just getting your book finished but also in keeping that writing discipline going strong. Not all of us can be career writers where deadlines are set for us, so being your own manager and staying self-motivated is important for us who are doing this on the side.
Setting goals such as “I’m going to finish this chapter in x days/weeks” or “I’m going to finish revising this buy the month of…” has helped me light a candle under my butt so that my writing time doesn’t suffer. When we’ve taken a break from our book or are finding it hard to open up the laptop and go back to the manuscript, having a looming deadline serves as a great motivator.
It goes without saying to make these goals reasonable and so that other parts of your life won’t suffer for your writing ambition. But also make sure that you have micro and macro goals, ideals of when large parts of your book might get finished, and small reasonable goals for the day or week of what you’d like to see accomplished.
8. Editing Fatigue
I swear it’s a real thing. We all have an inner critic that either kills our momentum as we are writing something new because we are afraid its not our best work, or that nagging compulsion to go back and totally revise an old chapter so that it fits with the new direction/character/whatever we have beset ourselves on.
I find that going back and editing chapters during the first draft process to rarely be of help. Still, I confess that I participate in this vice, that sometimes I can’t help but feel compelled to write an entirely new chapter so that I’m confident about my new direction for my book going forward.
Although I’ve mentioned above how not doing all you can in your writing craft of perfecting your plot, characters, and writing style at the start will cost time in the end, one must be careful that the constant editing doesn’t completely squash one’s motivation to write and to go forward with their first draft.
The truth is, when you get to your 2nd+ draft, you will be doing entire transplants of sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, so letting our anxiety of whether or not our chapter “was good enough” stop you in completing your first draft is really only to our detriment.
9. Writer’s Block
The best for last. Or rather the worst.
Much like true suffering, writer’s blocks are sometimes inexplicable. Sometimes we are merely at a loss for words. Sometimes we see the scene ahead of us and see it as an impossible thing to pen out. Sometimes our characters are just not working out the scene or dialog we intended and so we just leave the keyboard and chose not to return for some time.
Writer’s block is paralyzing, and it kills our momentum.
But what do we do about it?
A temporary break from the keyboard, I find, sometimes DOES alleviate the problem. Sometimes staring at the screen and knowing how much more I have to say is a crippling thing that requires a break. Sometimes I cannot write or finish a scene because I don’t know what’s supposed to happen next. Take a shower, take a walk, sit in silence, pray, mow the lawn, but do something to get away to do some thinking. I think subconsciously the bright screen of my computer is often pressuring me to write, and this is where the paralysis comes, and that somehow when I don’t have to focus on looking at something, when there isn’t that impatient screen looking back at me, I find my relief.
Or just write. And write it bad. Get the bad draft out of the way so that you can get to the good stuff. I say this as someone who has done entire rewrites of chapters and feels liberated after the 2nd and 3rd rewrite. Even if you are on your 3rd or 4th draft, if you can’t get over that writer’s block through a healthy break, then just plow right through and see what your reader might have to offer, or wait and see what might strike you for inspiration later.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of issues you may encounter in your writing, editing, and publishment of your magnum opus. But I write all this knowing the frustration of telling interested readers, “oh yeah, it’s been about 9 years of work I had to put into it…” I admit there’s some pride in knowing how much labor has gone into my first book, but I also look at that time as being years lost of working on something else as well.
Don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself in the same category as me or if you find yourself struggling in any of those 9 areas. You can get your book published. But it starts right now. So close this tab and get back to your manuscript!
And if you have any other obstacles that have gotten in the way of your book or would like to share how long its taken for you to get your book published, leave a comment below!