What the first two drafts of my novel taught me about writing


When I started writing the first draft of my novel way too many years ago, I was writing a very different story. At its core it's the same, or at least similar, but almost everything else has changed in some way. 

This is the first book I attempt to write. I could have been frustrated by the amount of work it has taken me to get to where I am today, writing draft three, but I've learned so much from all those mistakes I've made.

This novel has been a ruthless but fantastic writing teacher. Today, I'd like to share some of what those first and second drafts taught me.

There are many different parts to writing a good novel

In high school and in the night classes I've taken in creative writing, the focus was always on the craft of words rather than constructing a story. The language and voice, descriptions and dialogue, perhaps building up a scene, but not much on the big picture of storytelling.

It's like they assume we know instinctively how to tell a good story, but it's hard, especially for a new writer. And storytelling is essential to writing a good novel. I don't know if it's a Swedish thing, or if it's a generation of writing advice, or if I've just been unlucky.

Either way, I wish I'd read books on storytelling earlier, or that the courses I took had talked more about it, because this is an area where I know my first two drafts were lacking. 

The more I work on my novel, the more I realize how utterly complex writing a good book is. There are so many moving parts and it's one hell of a learning curve. A very enjoyable one, fortunately.

To just keep writing might not be such a good idea after all

If you don't know what should come next, if you feel lost and unsure about the next part of your novel, the solution isn't always to just plow through and ignore the uncomfortable feeling. If it stems from a lack of confidence in your abilities, then writing through the doubt is a great idea. But for me it's most often a sign that I need to develop something in my story.

If I just keep writing when I'm uncertain, I often end up writing something I can't use. I'm better off spending the time working out what the problem is and fixing it, before I resume writing.

To stop writing isn't the same thing as to stop working on your novel. The most important work I've done in the third draft has been all the other things – backstory, character development and arcs, sewing together the plot with the growth of my main character. Very little of that is actual writing.

Writing indeed makes you a better writer

When you're in the middle of a creative process and struggling, it's easy to think that you never make any progress at all. But each time I've reread something, rewritten a scene, I've seen that I actually do write better now than in the beginning. 

While to just keep writing might not always work in writing a good novel, it does work to make you a better writer. So in terms of honing your craft, don't underestimate plain practice. 

Rereading scenes in my first draft is slightly cringe invoking, but also very enjoyable. Because just think; had I not spent all those hours writing and rewriting, good and bad, then I'd still write as I did back then. Who knows how I'll write when I've spent a couple of thousands of hours writing.

Big and painful changes pay off

My first draft was shitty. I wish I was saying it to be humble, but no, it really was a bad novel. Just polishing the scenes and the language couldn't possibly have fixed it. Instead, I decided to make some big changes - introducing a new character with a huge subplot and editing out another, changing it from third to first person, moving back the beginning in the time-line and substituting many scenes.

Did it get better? Yes. But it still wasn't a good novel. When I did these changes, the story ended up pulling in two different directions. It lacked something to hold it together, something that would drive the story forward.

So for my third draft, I'm making another huge change. I'm remaking the main plot so that it will tie the book together. I've also spent a whole lot of time developing my characters, and again letting one of them go. 

I hope this isn't how I will always work, not after writing a couple of books. I hope that this is the steep beginning of my learning curve, that it's me figuring out how the hell to write a novel. One of those lessons being that when I know I need to make a hard and big change, it will be worth the pain of doing so.

When to settle for good enough is a choice

I could have polished my first draft a bit and sent it off to publishers. I’d likely have gathered a fat stack of rejection letters, because as you know by now, that novel wasn't much to brag about. 

I know that many writers wouldn’t put so much effort into remaking a story, they’d move on to a new book and try to make that story better. I could have done that, but I'm kinda stubborn and I always loved the core of my novel. I just couldn't leave it and move on. I had to do it justice. 

Besides, I think figuring out how to make something better might be an even more valuable lesson than just starting over. As long as you don't fiddle with it forever, which I've promised myself I won't do. 

Persistence is one of the biggest virtues in creativity. At the same time, letting go is essential to move forward. The big question is when, and I just know that that time hasn't come yet. But I dearly hope the third draft will be a big step towards good enough.