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What No One Ever Tells You About Writing a Novel

At the start of this year, I made a promise to myself.  Like ever other New Year's "resolutionist", I started making lists of my goals for 2016, and on that list - just like any other year - I wrote "get published".  This year however, I also started making a smaller list that I considered "actionable goals"; small tasks that I could do every day to break down my goal into something manageable.  This is what that task list looked like:

  1. Blog every week
  2. Submit to writing competitions
  3. 15 minutes of networking a day
  4. 15 minutes of drafting query letter a day
  5. 15 minutes (minimum) of revising Ravage a day

Of these five goals, as you might have guessed, I've only (barely) adhered to the first two.  I've hardly ever checked on my social media, with the exception of maybe Pinterest and Youtube.  I gave up pretty quickly on the idea of drafting my query letter once I discovered that a third of said letter consisted of my "credentials" as a writer: degrees, awards, positions of significant employment, certifications of merit - aka, all things of which I do not possess.

But I simply cannot condone the fact that I have not even stuck to the minimum minutes of revision a day I set out for myself.  I had honestly thought that 15 minutes was an incredibly manageable expectation, something I could do to work around the screenplay drafts, reading assignments, and short essays that I have due for school.  I was so sure of this that I marked a date on my planner - February 29th - and circled the words, "Ravage content edit due".

That due date is now less than a week away, and I have not even revised past my third chapter.

The process of writing and revising is different for every writer, and I know a lot of the authors that I greatly admire look forward to the revision process.  John Green has been known to say "that all writing is rewriting", and while I tend to agree, I've heard from a lot of authors - established or just starting off - that they find the process of revising infinitely easier than completing their first draft.

I beg to differ.  Then again, this is coming from someone who hasn't completed a new first draft in the last three years.  That being said, I probably still have a lot to learn from authors like John Green about the process of revision, but in the odd chance that I'm in the minority here, I thought I'd share some insights into what it is that makes the writing process the easier one for me; the things no one ever really tells you.

1. It's never easy

Okay.  I know I just said that writing is the easy part.  But the truth is, nothing is easy, fun, and enjoyable %100 of the time.  Not even the thing you're passionate about.  But if I've learned anything from participating in NaNoWriMo it's that, that's okay.  In fact, I don't know I would have ever completed a novel if I hadn't been introduced to the process from that mindset.

When you're writing a novel in the context of NaNoWriMo, furiously pounding out words on a daily basis at an incredible pace, slugging your way through to 50k, you know what you're signing up for.  It's not going to be easy, and it wasn't going to be any easier, honestly, if I gave myself the permission to sleep in and only write 500 words a day - or not at all.  Trust me, I've done both.  What makes writing difficult isn't the work itself, it's the way you think of the work.  Not to be overusing John Green here, but like a lot of authors, I know he initially condoned the concept of writing a novel in 30 days.  He felt it was a fruitless task, because simply no one can be expected to write a good book in a month.  The fact of the matter is, no one can be expected to write a good first book: period.  The process of writing isn't about being "good".  If anything, it's about sucking.  If you're a practicing writer, writing on a daily basis, the ratio of great material to crap that you'll be writing is probably 1:3, and that's if you're lucky.

But you simply cannot sit around and hope to wait it out through the bad parts.  The only way out is through.  So give yourself permission to suck.  You won't enjoy yourself all of the time, but once you allow yourself to fail, you'll enjoy yourself a whole lot more.

2. Things change

It might seem like a no-brainer, but the truth is that a lot of people - myself included - walk into the writing process with very strong convictions.  That kinda motivation is to be admired, but at a certain point that ambition can go so far as to get in your own way.  A part of becoming a good writer is being flexible.  Your original vision for what this book was going to be may change.  You may have to make sacrifices in order to continue your story.  You're definitely going to have to make those sacrifices when you revise.  Besides, there is always the incredibly real chance that you may fall out of love with the story you first started writing.  Whatever the case, you do what is necessary.  You cut your favorite scene.  You trash the ending you've been planning since last year.  That character you were so sure everyone was going to love?  You kill them off.  Whatever it takes to get the story flowing, whatever it takes to reinvest yourself in what it is you are writing: that is what you do.

3.  You don't always win

I've said this a lot now, but this, to me, is what stands out as being the first big obstacle all writers have to overcome: and that's a fear of failure.  The truth of the matter is, your first draft is going to suck.  It doesn't matter if you take five months to write it, or if you take five years.  There is no such thing as a good first draft.  So don't try to make it perfect.  Just try to make it work.  And have fun!  The first novel I ever started writing, before I was ever introduced to National Novel Writing Month, was essentially a glorified rip-off of the World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King storyline.  If I looked back at it now, I'm sure I would have myself a good laugh.  Honestly, the first novel I finished for NaNoWriMo wasn't much better.  But that's okay.  Writing a bad draft or even giving up on the first draft of your manuscript altogether isn't the end of the world.  It may feel like it at the time, but get comfortable with the idea that not everything you write is going to the next big American novel.  I might not have had the most original ideas when I was writing in middle school, but when you're writing in a mindset similar to a fan-fiction writer, the love you have for your story overrides any standards of success or other expectations you might be putting on the work you're doing.

So if you're thinking about writing a novel, or haven't been able to finish your first one yet, my advice to you is:

Don't wait.  And don't worry.  If you can tackle the story in your head with the same enthusiasm, flexibility, and imagination as any of the stories you are a big fan of, that passion will translate, and you'll have a finished manuscript within your hands in seemingly no time.

And then you'll be where I am.  Making resolution lists when you should be revising.

Have you got any tips on writing or revising?  Leave them in the comments below!  God knows I'm in need of some.

Shai Cotten

Must Reads To Cozy Up to This Winter

Like a lot of avid readers, I have a bit of a problem.  My eyes are bigger than my stomach, or in this case, my bookshelf, which was already over-spilling about a year ago.  And it certainly doesn't aid my cause that my part-time job is to sort and catalog books at my college's library, giving me tons of access to pretty much every novel, graphic novel, and comic I could dream of.

My "to-be-read" pile is through the roof, but I've been steadily trying to work my way through it in between all the work I've been putting into revising my novel, Ravage, for the umpteenth time. Between each draft, I try to give my manuscript a bit of distance, the way you might take a step back from a painting you've been working on for some hours, and there's no better way to get distance while revising than to get yourself some context - and read!

While these books might not feature high-stakes crimes, or mysterious secret vials sought after by covert organizations, the books I've been reading for the past couple months are all incredibly cozy, very apt for the snowy season, and beyond riveting.  So grab a cup of tea, and hunker down, because I promise these reads will get you through the winter.

Under Wildwood

This is the second book in the Wildwood series by author Colin Meloy and illustrator Carson Ellis, so if you haven't checked out the first book, I highly recommend it!  Under Wildwood was an especially good read for the season, taking place a couple of months after the events of the first book, in a snowed-down Portland in mid-February.  Life is pretty dull for Prue McKeel since she's returned home from her adventures in the Impassable Wilderness, and her only friend, Curtis, still remains within the Wilderness' hidden magic country - Wildwood.  But the danger isn't over for Prue yet, and she soon finds herself pulls herself pulled back into the thread of Wildwood's misadventures, to avert yet another crisis with her friend Curtis by her side.

My impression of the series thus far is Chronicles of Narnia meets the Spiderwick Chronicles  - and I ain't mad about it!  Wildwood has all the charm of C.S. Lewis' classic series, updated for a modern era, and all the heart of any of the great YA sagas to hit bookshelves.  It's a superb coming-of-age story for readers of all sizes, with delightful, charismatic characters, a silly sense of wit and humor, and some of the most beautiful watercolor illustrations I've ever seen.

Frankenstein

I've been a big fan of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein ever since I read it in high school, but I got the chance to read it again for a college course the other month, and revisiting it has only made my heart grow fonder of it.  Even if you haven't seen the James Whale 1931 film adaption, or any of the newer ones to date, chances are you know the basics of the Frankenstein tale.  A crazy scientist goes about assembling a monster from dead body parts, only to bring it alive in his laboratory, from whence it escapes and wreaks havoc on the neighboring village.

That's what I thought too.

The truth is that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is so much more nuisanced  and refreshing than that.  In the original story, Victor Frankenstein is a manic and obsessed man, who lets ambition blind him so, that he abandons the very thing he creates.  Every time I read Frankenstein, I always find it interesting just how unlikable of a character Victor Frankenstein is compared to his movie portrayals.  By far, it is the monster who is the sympathetic character, a creature who does not in fact communicate through intelligible grunts, but who gradually teaches himself to read and speak with incredible eloquence.  What makes the monster unsettling, contrary to the films, is not is deformity, but how very human-like he appears.  As far as classic literature goes - and the genre can be a little on the dry side -  I consider Frankenstein to be a very easy read.  If you're looking for a good, Gothic sci-fi, set in pristine, winter-y Swiss Alps, I highly recommend it.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here

Patrick Ness is by far one of my favorite authors of all time.  I've loved every single one of his books to date.  So when I heard he was coming out with a new one, I just had to pre-order it, and I was not disappointed!

I read it over the course of one weekend, because, as I've found with most of Ness' books, it was an incredibly quick and fluid read.  What makes this book brilliant is that its entire premise is a parody of the classic tropes in YA literature - the Mary Sues, the cheesy love triangles, and main protagonists who always manage to have an uncommon name like "Satchel" or "Finn" - inter-cut with the extraordinarily warming and down-to-earth story of the kids who didn't make that "YA" cut.  The novel's protagonist, Mikey, is just an average kid who wants to make it to graduation before another horde of zombies attacks, or the high school getting blown up.  But while the "Finns" and "Satchels" of their mountainous hometown duke it out with otherworldly forces, Mikey has to battle with his crippling OCD, a mother who has more of a fondness for politics than her own kids, and questions about his sexuality, relationships, and the real difference between infatuation and true love.

Whether or not you're familiar with YA tropes, this book will make you weep.  Chances are, you'll come away touched by the thought that it's not such a bad thing to lead an ordinary life after all.

That's three books down for me, and about another fifty-something to go!  Currently I'm working on Ernest Cline's Ready Player One.  But what are your winter favorites?  Got any suggestions?  Leave them in the comments down below!  Nothing gets you quite as motivated as a book by a good author, and a cup of warm tea!

Shai Cotten