Writing a novel is a big deal. There are so many components that you need to consider and educate yourself on: writing craft, publishing, business. And there are so many habits that you need to develop: discipline, a writing routine, time management skills.
I learned so much writing Every Time He Dies, but there are two massive lessons that I want to cover in this week’s blog, and they are:
- Writing a novel takes as long as it takes
- The story will change. A lot.
It takes as long as it takes
Of course, I wasn’t consistently working on the novel that entire time (that would be embarrassing!). There were HUGE caps of time when I wasn’t working on the novel because of various factors (study, work, relocating, travel). By the end of 2017, I realised I had taken the novel as far as I could and that it was time to get an editor. The only problem was a) I had no money and b) I was about to start Honours.
I tucked the manuscript away for an entire year while I saved money and concentrated on my studies. I didn’t touch the book for all of 2018.
With that in mind, you could say that it took six years to write and revise the novel. To be clear, I didn’t work on the novel every day for six years. Sometimes I didn’t work on the novel for three-six months because other things had to become the priority.
Sometimes these stretches of inactivity were intentional; sometimes I needed to put distance between me and the work so that I could gain a better perspective. Sometimes I needed to detach from the work so that I could be more ruthless when it came time to begin the next round of revisions.
The story will change
Every Time He Dies changed many times. Some elements stayed the same, but the plot and characters were overhauled more than once.
Every Time He Dies is about a woman, Daff, who finds a watch buried in the sand at Gold Beach, only the watch is haunted by a ghost with no memory of who he is or who he died. While trying to uncover his identity, Daff becomes entangled in her estranged father’s homicide investigation.
This is not the novel I set out to write seven years ago. Initially, I wanted to write a murder mystery involving two teenage boys: boy number one dies under suspicious circumstances and boy number two tries to find out what happened. The plot thickens when boy number one returns as a ghost and together they try to solve his murder. Pretty different, no?
I drafted a couple of chapters, but the story lacked life.
One day, I was driving back home after running errands when a scene bloomed before my eyes. It was a conversation between a woman and a man, only the man was dead. The scene was electric. I pulled up at the front of my house (I wasn’t going to waste time hauling open the roller door or locking the car behind me, I had a scene to write!), raced in the front door and madly wrote out the scene. Seven years later, those three pages have remained virtually untouched.
You may have noticed that this scene was not about two teenage boys … Fortunately, I was in the early days of writing, so I had no qualms about scrapping those early chapters and starting again.
I was teaching myself how to write a novel while writing a novel.
Writing regularly was helpful, but I supported my learning by reading writing advice books and by watching YouTube videos (regardless of genre, Brandon Sanderson’s lecturer series is a fantastic entry point!).
Basically, I knew that I was green and that there was nothing valuable in those early chapters I was throwing out.
The scene that occurred to me was a gift from the muse (please note: this moment of inspired writing only happened twice in seven years). The scene was dramatic and climactic, and it gave me a point to work towards. All I had to do was figure out who the heck these characters were and what lead them to this moment. Easy, right? Um, no.
It took seven years, countless re-writes, a ton of research, one mentorship, a Master Program (thanks USC), five beta-readers, a great structural editor, a great copy editor, three wonderful proofreaders and seven tons of coffee to write and publish, Every Time He Dies.
In that time, the novel changed from a story about a group of strangers coming together to create a community, to a family drama about grief, identity, and secrets.
Characters’ changed names, gender, and occupations. Some characters were blended together, some removed and new ones added. A chapter from the middle of the book was moved to the start. The novel changed from a first-person perspective to a rotating third-person limited perspective (god, did that hurt!).
The novel was initially set in Chicago, then Sydney, until finally, I settled on Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast.
The title changed from Ghost Story (hey, I had to call it something) to Haunted to Concealed Constellations (don’t laugh) to Death Walkers and then finally Every Time He Dies.
The tag line shifted from A Forensic Fairy Tale to A Ghost, A Cop and An embalmer Walk into a bar … to Even the Dead Can Lie.
I wrote 80, 000 words and then delete 20, 000 from the beginning because it wasn’t very interesting. Then I wrote another 40, 000. Then I deleted another 10, 000 of fluff. This expansion and contraction continued until the story settled at a comfortable 85, 000 words.
The point is, if you’re starting your first novel, don’t get too attached to the premise, setting, characters, voice or perspective. Cos, girlfriend, that shits gonna change. And usually for the better.
Now that Every Time He Dies is on the cusp of release, I’ve finally started working on a new project. Perhaps this journey will be smoother, maybe it will be even more turbulent, either way, I’m in for the ride.
I hope you are too.
Every Time He Dies will be available for preorder September 16.
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