The Five BIG Lessons I Wish I’d Known Before Writing My Novel

(Click here to watch the video version of this week’s blog).

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, it took seven years to write and then publish Every Time He Dies. 

That’s a long time to stick with one project, and the manuscript changed many times as a result.  

The great thing about sticking with a project for a long period of time is that you learn many, many, lessons. For today’s blog, I’m going to unpack the five big lessons I wish I’d known before writing my novel, Every Time He Dies. Hopefully, these lessons will be useful to you as you continue along your own path to publication. 

1 / Have Patience

Like I said at the top of this blog, it takes a long time to write a book. You have to be patient with yourself and the project. Of course, it doesn’t have to take a long time to write a book, like the Book Writing Police won’t be banging on your door, fine in hand, if you write and publish a book in three weeks. But this is my blog, so I’m talking about my experience, and ETHD took a long time. There were so many times when I thought I was pulling the train into the station only to discover that some nasty so-so had extended the tracks. 

If I knew on day one that it would be seven years until my novel was published … well … this book may not exist. Huh? Who am I kidding, I still would have written it. I’m a writer, after all, so what else could I do? Watch Netflix? Pft. 

You will hit blocks.

You will suddenly realise there is a massive plot hole and you don’t know how to fix it.

You will worry that maybe this manuscript is unsalvageable and maybe you should start working on something else, but please (!), do not be quick to throw away a manuscript! 

Let things simmer. Consider how the story could be saved, restructured or overhauled.

Chances are, if you roll up your sleeves and get to work on fixing your broken down bicycle of a book, you’ll wind up with a manuscript that becomes the envy of every kid in the neighbourhood. 

2 / Resistance is greatest at the end

I never got sick of my book. Okay, look, I never got sick of my story, but I definitely got sick of proofreading and checking meticulous details such as formatting. Weirdly enough, I often had to remind myself to pay attention to the language and grammar of each sentence while I was proofreading (alongside five other readers I had enlisted), because I kept getting caught up in the story — the story I had written!

Working on ETHD was mostly a joy. However, I technically could have published this novel two years ago. So, why didn’t I? 

Well, there’s a bunch of logistical and practical reasons, but basically, it boiled down to two factors:

  1. Money
  2. Time

I could have published the book two years ago, it was good enough, but I wanted the book to be great and I wanted to be fully prepared myself.

I needed to know more about the industry, more about self-publishing, I wanted to add a bit more description, to enlist another round of beta-readers, to save a bit more cash etc. etc. Basically, I wanted the book and the book launch to be as successful as possible. 

Perfectionism is a bitch. 

This resistance to publishing my novel really boiled down to one factor: fear. 

I wanted reassurance that I was making good decisions. Is now the best time to publish? Is the book ready? Am I ready? Do I know what I’m doing? (Pst! You never know what you are doing).

Now, to be honest, the book has benefited from this two-year delay. Those extra two years gave me the time I needed to polish the manuscript to the best of my abilities, to hire the professionals I wanted to work with and to have a solid understanding of how to publish, marketing and promoting the book. 

So, it was worth it. However, perfectionism can easily turn into procrastination. Don’t let your manuscript become mouldy in the bottom drawer. Fix it up, pay a bunch of professionals to help you, and get that baby out there!

3 / Don’t do it by yourself

Don’t do it by yourself because you can’t do it by yourself. It takes a village to raise a child, and it also takes a village to publish a book.

Personally, I love reading the acknowledgement page at the back of a book (this isn’t always featured in fiction books but it’s becoming more common). While the author’s name may appear on the cover, I love learning about the many hands that were involved in the writing, revising, publishing and distributing of that text. 

My novel was shaped indirectly by the advice and guidance of my creative writing lecturers as they taught me how to write, and it was also directly shaped by their feedback on early drafts. The critique I receive from classmates and later, beta-reader, provided much needed direction as they identified the weaknesses that I couldn’t.

The markups I got from friends and family (ie: non-writers) told me what the ‘average’ reader would think of my story. Mentorships with professional editors and later, hiring professional editors showed me how to add body to my skeletal draft and how the story could have a totally different — and better — shape. 

Somewhere along the way, an early reader said, “You’re a great writer, but your ideas need a bit of work.” Now, I would have been offended had it not been the truth.

I am a good writer, but sometimes I need the input of others to lift my work to the next level. 

The thing is, our life experiences and perspectives are limited. When we share our art with (trusted) others and invite their feedback, we get the rare opportunity to see our work through another person’s eyes. Then, we can see where the story is weak and we can get to the business of fixing it. 

4 / It’s okay for the story to change

The version of Every Time He Dies that I am publishing is TOTALLY different from the book I set out to write seven years ago. 

The thing is, I am a fast writer and a slow reviser. I wrote the first draft of this book in a matter of months. I then spent years considering how the story could be different. What could I do to make it stronger, better?

It took a while to figure out whose story it really was, what voice I wanted to use, the perspective it should be told in, the mood and so much more. 

The novel’s premise changed dramatically twice.

First, it changed from a novel about two teenage boys to a novel about an adult woman and a ghost. Then it changed again from a novel about a group of strangers coming together to create a community to a novel about distigrated families, told through a dual perspective of a father and his daughter — don’t worry, I kept the ghost. 🙂

The first time the premise changed, I was excited. The second time, I was exhausted. Probably because I knew how much work would go into changing the story. However, the story is so much better now.

Hard work is hard, but the results are so much more pleasing. So, don’t be afraid to make big, dramatic changes!

5 / Seeing your book for the first time

Okay. So, I totally squealed the first time I saw the digital file that showed the front, spine and back cover. Finally, I got to see what my book was actually going to look like!

Maybe it’s because we live in such a visually orientated world, but for so long I’d been living with the vision of Daff, Lawrence and Liam’s story inside my head in the same way that we can recall memories or scenes from a movie.

For the first time, I was now seeing an exterior, visual symbol of the book I had spent so long writing. Hell, even viewing the files for the interior format design was exciting! Now, I could see the layout my pages were going to have, how the chapter titles were going to be presented, what the book itself was going to look like. 

Now, this euphoria was doubled the first time I held a physical copy.

So much of our life occurs in the digital space, so sometimes we forget how amazing tactical products or experiences can be. I could see how big my book was, and rather than looking at my words on the screen, I could now touch them with my fingers. I could sign the flyleaf and easily pop the book in my bag. My story was now mobile! Hmmm I mean, digital versions are mobile too, but you’d be WAY more upset if you left your i-reader or kindle at the bus stop!

It’s taken a lot of time, money and energy to get to this point, but I have to say that it was totally worth it.

I had to write Every Time He Dies, but I’m also ready to release it.

It’s time for the novel to go off and have its own experience in the world away from my meddling grasp! While my work on the novel is completed, your experience of this story is just beginning, and I can’t wait to hear all about it. 


EVERY TIME HE DIES

AVAILABLE FOR PREORDER + GIVEAWAY

‘Who knew that a book about murder, grief and disintegrated families could be so funny?’ – Paul WilliamsEverytimeHeDies_3D

‘A unique modern mystery that is one part psychic practices and one part police procedural. The fast pace, dynamic characters and intricate plot will keep readers hooked until the end.’ – Gregory James

‘It’s rare to find an Australian-set book of this scope and genre that could stand among its international peers and hold its own, but I won’t be surprised to see this book find its success in all corners of the crime genre reading world.’ – Shayla Morgansen

‘Can someone please make this into a TV series? This is a fabulous read and I want to see Liam and Daff on the small screen.’ – Carol Seeley


CLICK BELOW TO PREORDER NOW

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PREORDER GIVEAWAY!

Everyone who preorders a copy of Every Time He Dies (paperback or ebook) will go into the draw to win one of THREE MAJOR GRAND PRIZES.

To celebrate the release of Every Time He Dies, I’m running an EPIC book giveaway. The three grand prize packs include signed copies of:

🎉Dying in the First Person by Nike Sulway
🎉Bordertown by Gregory James
🎉Haunted by Shayla Morgansen
🎉The Spark Ignites by Kathleen Kelly
🎉Every Time He Dies by Tara Louise East

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If you preorder a copy, simply take a snapshot of your proof of purchase and fill out the entry form here. 

WAIT, THERE’S MORE!

Everyone who preorders a copy will ALSO receive the first five chapters straight to their inboxNot only will this tide you over until the book arrives, but it’s also my way of saying thanks!

How To Make Your Daily Walk Part of Your Creative Practice

In previous posts, I’ve written about how walking in a relaxed state with an open mind can lead to creative insight and new ideas. In fact, many authors consider their daily walking a part of their creative practice, as they use this time to solve plot holes and other creative problems. 

The walking practice I’m going to unpack in this post is different.  

Instead of walking with the intention of observing your surroundings and allowing your mind to wander, this post is about walking with the intention of solving creative problems by concentrating on them intensely. Cal Newport refers to this practice as productive meditation.  

Productive Meditation: walking as a way to solve creative problems

I first heard of productive meditation when listening to a podcast with the aforementioned Newport — an Associate Professor at Georgetown University and author of six productivity books. The phrase productive meditation may sound like an oxymoron and hard-core meditators may find this term slightly blasphemous but don’t discredit this practice just yet. 

The intention of meditation is to become detached from your thoughts; the purpose of productive meditation is to hone your thoughts on a creative problem. In this way, both practices are requiring you to take control of your thoughts. Meditation is about focussing on a mantra or your breath where disruptive thoughts are acknowledged and released before the meditator returns their focus to the mantra or their breath. Productive meditation is about focusing on a creative problem in order to find a solution. The idea is that when your mind wanders, you notice this disruption and shift your focus back to the issue at hand. 

Productive meditation is its most effective when done while going for a long walk, 60-120 minutes. Walking activates parts of our brain that are dormant when we’re sitting. This is why we often coming up with fresh ideas, creative solutions or insights during an afternoon stroll. 

My Experience

I decided to experiment with productive meditation after listening to the interview with Cal Newport. At the time, I was dealing with a particularly sticky creative problem. As you may or may not know, I started a doctorate in creative writing earlier this year. My doctorate comprises of two components, a creative work (in my case, a novel) and an accompanying exegesis. 

My research covers multiple areas of study including, but not limited to, ecofeminism, Anthropogenic fiction, the trickster archetype and human-animal relations. 

The problem? 

I was struggling to pull these seemingly incongruous areas of study into one cohesive narrative. While the novel doesn’t have to explicitly reflect ALL my research, I was unsatisfied with the work as it currently stood.

Basically, I knew I could do better. 

So, I followed Newport’s advice. 

To be clear, productive meditation is not as easy as it sounds. You are not simply thinking while walking. No, in order to get the most out of this practice, you must push your mind to think harder and to actively look for new connections, possibilities and solutions. Little will be gained by lazily cycling through the facts you already know and repeating the familiar thoughts you’ve already had about this particular problem.  

You needn’t power walk, this process isn’t about exercise. A gentle stroll or amble is suffice – preferable in fact – because you want your attention to be focussed on the problem at hand. Your thoughts should be turned inwards, not outwards. That being said, creative idealisation is heightened again when walking outside in nature as opposed to urban settings or office stairwells … after all, you’re not going to find much inspiration in there! 

It’s also a good idea to take a notepad and pen with you to record any ideas or insights that occur during your walk. 

My first productive meditation session went for two hours and to be totally transparent, the first twenty minutes were incredibly difficult.

Here’s a snapshot of some of the thoughts that were cycling through my mind:

  • You don’t have time for this
  • You should be back at your desk reading that journal article/writing that paper/working on the next chapter/revising that other chapter/replying to that email blah blah blah
  • This is stupid
  • Screw you, Newport
  • This isn’t working
  • I can’t find a solution because there is no solution to find
  • I’ve painted myself into a corner
  • I’ve totally screwed up this research project, what the heck was I thinking?

Now, to be even more transparent … I was terrified of finding a solution. 

Let me elaborate.

The reason I was resisting this exercise is because I was afraid that I might come up with a solution that would require me to scrap the manuscript and start again.

This is an unwelcome thought for any writer. The idea that I may have to toss my 60,000 word draft in the bin was .. let’s say … disheartening. 

Despite these thoughts, I was determined to stick with the experiment, mostly because Newport’s anecdotes were so convincing. For the first 20-30 minutes, I really struggled to stretch my mind. My thoughts alternated between all the research I had gathered over the past six months and the novel’s premise; cycling and repeating the same information over and over. 

I could sense the connections that ran between these supposedly unrelated topics, but I couldn’t articulate what those threads were.

If these connections were a school of fish, then I was standing on the pier with neither a line nor bait. 

I kept walking and I kept thinking; hard. Slowly and painfully, the connections between my research and the manuscript started to become clearer. The fish swam closer to the surface of the lake. 

After an hour, something shifting. 

If there is one thing I learned from this exercise it is this: you must stick with this process until you experience that first shift. 

That first shift is the key to unlocking your thinking process. Like a domino effect or a chain-reaction, once that first new idea pops into your head, you’d be surprised how this dislodges creative blocks and new ideas start flooding trickling in. 

As I continued my walk, I pushed harder against the boundaries of my limited thinking. I actively sought out new solutions, stopping every ten minutes to write down whatever ideas came to me. This may all sound a little vague, so let me get super-specific. 

During this stage, my thought process looked a little like this:

  • How can the research be turned into the premise for a novel?
  • How else might the research be reflected in a novel?
    (Hint: this is one of the best ways to come up with better ideas. Don’t ever accept the first answer/solution your mind comes up with. Ask what other possibilities many exist. Dig a little deeper and try to come up with at least five responses to every question or problem). 
  • What do I really want the novel to be about? 
  • How big of a scale do I want this novel to be? 
  • How do I want people to feel when they read this novel?
  • Do I want the voice/style/tone to be warm/literary/moody/eerie?

These were the general question that eventually leads to the first BIG realisation. After that, I was able to drill down on the structure of the manuscript. Another 90 minutes of walking passed. I continued to write down ideas and to ask myself further questions. Eventually, I had clarified my ideas enough to sit down at a picnic table and to write a fresh outline. 

To be clear, this was a broad outline that filled two A4 pages. (I tried to follow Steven Pressfield’s method of a single page outline, but failed!)

The Take-Away?

Productive meditation is a very effective tool that can add great value to your creative practice. My project benefited so much from this process that I’ve decided to do one session every week. 

To date, I have only used these sessions as a way to develop my creative work, but I have no doubt that they would be equally beneficial for academic work such as outlining research papers or thesis chapters. 

If you choose to experiment with this method, then I urge you to fully commit to the process. Push yourself to break out of your cycling thinking, challenge yourself to find new solutions and stick with the walk for the allotted time period (60-120 minutes). 

If you do decide to give this method a whirl, please reply in the comments or send me an email. I’d love to hear about how this method works for other creatives.


 

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