5 Things I’ve Learnt from Writing my Debut Novel

strasbourg-90012_1280Now the euphoria of having sent my debut novel ‘From Here to Nashville’ to the proofreader has died down a little, I have no more excuses to stop me from starting the rewrite of book two. Just to refresh your memories, this is the book that I wrote for NaNoWriMo 2013, yes, nearly 14 months ago 😦 After NaNoWriMo and a few more writing chunks some months later, it stood at 80,000 words. Not bad for a first draft, I hear you cry!

However, when I got to that point and read it all through, I could see that the story had veered off in the wrong direction and that I was really going to have my work cut out to get it back on track. So it has been really easy to put off doing anything to move book two forward, especially as I’ve been so busy with finishing my first novel and getting it ready for publication next month.

This weekend, I decided I had to get on with it at last. I have been thinking about it on and off for weeks and adding new thoughts to my outline so when I went back and reread it, things didn’t seem so bad. By the end of the day yesterday, I had almost finished my first rewrite of chapter one and I was buzzing with excitement for my new story, which was a great feeling. I could also see that I’d grown as a writer since the very first rewrite of ‘From Here to Nashville’ and it was a pleasure to implement some of the things I’d learnt from that experience as I was actually writing.

So here are some tips I’d like to share with you today.

1. You don’t need to write your characters’ names into every single line of dialogue. As long as it is clear who is talking, your reader will be fine without the reminder. When you think about it, you hardly ever say the name of the person you are talking to because it’s not necessary. I only use my husband’s name for example, if I’m calling him from afar. I certainly don’t use it in texts or on the ‘phone but my writing was littered with names. I have been really brutal about cutting them out and the result is much more realistic dialogue. Similarly, don’t put in too many examples of ‘er’ and ‘oh’ etc because they clog up the dialogue.

2. The reader does not necessarily need to have the timeline spelt out for them, even if you need to know it to make sure it’s consistent. I had put in dates for all my scenes in ‘From Here to Nashville,’ partly to help me keep on top of the timeline but also to show the whirlwind nature of the romance. I have now taken them all out because I could see that I had explained the timeline in other ways so the dates weren’t necessary. I have also put days into my second book which I’m going to keep there for now but as I progress through my drafts, I will finally remove them. As well as this, my scenes often started in the morning and ended in the evening to give me a structure to work through and to show time passing so I had to work hard to vary this and not start and finish the same way all the time.

3. To help with pace, it’s a good idea to check the length of your sentences and your paragraphs. A shorter sentence every now and then moves the action forward and keeps your reader reading and if you start a new paragraph every time a new action occurs, it makes reading easier and maintains the pace and excitement for the reader. You don’t need an empty line between paragraphs either, you just need to go to the next line. This formatting issue took me ages to put right. An empty line signals a new scene.

4. As a new writer, it is very easy to fall into the trap of over-describing physical movements. By this I mean, the ‘then I did this, then I did that’ style of writing. More often than not, you can cut this and jump straight to the action because that is what your reader will do and if they’re skimming your words, not reading them, they’re going to feel disappointed when they get to the end of the story. This is especially useful at the start of chapters, which don’t need to be bogged down with interior monologue like ‘The next day dawned bright with another beautiful blue sky,’ for example. Instead, jump straight to the action and draw your reader in.

5. Even by the time I sent my book to be professionally edited, I still hadn’t included enough detailed description of people and settings. Even my hero, Jackson needed to be better described the first time Rachel saw him. I think that I’d made it a glimpse for the reader like it was for her but the reader wants more than that so I had to rewrite that first sight of him to include a lot more detail. Similarly, I needed to develop some of my descriptions of settings, from quaysides, to weddings, to apartments and much more detail about Nashville and its iconic sights.

These are just a few of the things I had to deal with when I got my final edit back but they are all things I’m taking on with me to book two. The new book is set in France, in the picturesque region of Alsace which is near the German border (see the photo above). It is a story about self-discovery, as well as being a romance and I look forward to telling you more about it as I progress. I hope you find these tips helpful and I would love to hear your comments on them. Thanks for reading as always and have a good writing week 🙂

17 thoughts on “5 Things I’ve Learnt from Writing my Debut Novel

  1. You’re such a methodical person with such attention to detail that I can see why you felt the need to put all the dates in – I totally get that!!! I’ve got over that need in a couple of chapters I’ve written by doing it in diary format – sometimes it really suits the character. For instance, in Kings and Queens, the story is told by (mostly) by six women (my modern day versions of Henry VIII’s wives). The fifth one, Keira, was young, full of energy and a bit ditzy – the diary format was just right for her. Similarly, a chapter in my new one, which is from the POV of a 13 year old boy.

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    • It’s funny but when I first started writing it, I had a diary format in mind but it didn’t turn out like that at all! I am methodical though, as you’ve noticed (!) and it definitely helps me keep the timeline straight, even if it comes out of the final version. Your new one sounds interesting. How far down the road with it are you with all the other distractions around?!

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      • Julie, am looking at Feb 20 for publication day! Cross fingers. It’s been proofread and is now having my other test reader do the final ‘go-through’ before I make any more tweaks, then the formatting! Um…. better start promoting it, I suppose….! This week I’m going to start my next one, a novella about the length of Round and Round. I’ve written the basic plan, just need to type Chapter One!

        Being a methodical person too, I say three cheers to us – keeping the timeline straight must be a nightmare if you’re not! But even with 7 drafts, Julia spotted two continuity errors in the 2nd proofread – amazing!

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      • Wow, that seems to have come up quickly! I’m aiming for the 16th so we can celebrate together (I hope!) What’s yours called? Have I missed the name? You certainly like to keep yourself busy. I’ve been thinking about a novella but not really sure how to go about it?

        Yes, three cheers for being methodical. Thank goodness for proofreaders, I say 🙂

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  2. Glad you got your enthusiasm back, Julie. I agree with most of these points, especially on cutting names and dates, but not sure about the descriptions, although how much the reader requires probably varies across genres. Personally, I don’t want a lot of description, just enough of a hint to help me separate character A from character B. But then I’m not a very visual reader.

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    • Yes, it is a fine balance with the description. Too much will read like a guide book so I did have to think carefully about how much to put in. Hopefully, I’ve got it right but I’ll find out soon enough 🙂 Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

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    • Anne, that’s how I feel, too. I tend to skip read descriptions, because if the writing works I picture it all in my head anyway. I don’t write much myself, because I don’t like to read it.

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      • Description is a very personal thing, I’m finding. Some like a lot, some don’t. Fingers crossed that you get the right readers, eh? 😉

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  3. Thank you for sharing what you learned from writing your novel! I am currently editing the first draft of my first novel, and I can already see a few things from your tips that I need to adjust. Good luck with your next rewrite!

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  4. The thing about description always has me uncertain. Some seem to say ‘I like to fill in the gaps my self’ while others prefer a clear painting of the image. Me…I’m unsure!! It’s a helpful article though with lots of excellent reminders. Thank you. X

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    • Yes, I know what you mean, Ros. I think you have to go with what you like as a reader in the end or with what feels comfortable to you. I’m reading a book at the moment which I know is partly set in Dorset but I don’t feel it shouts that out particularly. But I like that. If someone has been to Dorset or a seaside town, they will have a pretty good idea anyway. If the fact that it was set in Dorset was integral to the plot, then more description might be necessary. Don’t know if you agree but that’s MHO 🙂

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