Friday, 7 November 2008

Coffee Break: Learning Lessons

Good morning all! Help yourself to a coffee, tea or hot chocolate (doesn't hot chocolate taste even better on a cold day?).

Today's coffee morning is a blatant rip-off of a topic that was posted in my online writing group but it appealed to me and it's quite relevant as I start to plan novel 2.

The question is:

What have you learned from the novel(s) you've written so far?

I know we haven't all finished our first drafts but those of you still grafting on your first novels will still have learnt a few lessons along the way.

Here's my answer to the question:

1) When friends and family ask you what your novel is about:

a) don't tell them the title (they'll laugh or look at you funny. Well, they did in my case)

b) don't tell them what it's actually about. Instead tell them 'it's a bit like that film [a film vaguely similar]'. That just elicits an 'Oh right' instead of a quizzical look that just screams "That'll NEVER get published!"

2) If you work out what the first 5 scenes and the very last scene are you've got enough to get started. When you hit scene 6 hold the last scene in your brain and head in that direction. You'll get there in the end.

3) Editing takes about 3x as long as writing the damned thing in the first place (and is about a 1/4 as enjoyable).

4) Carry a notebook EVERYWHERE because you'll come up with a scene idea when you least expect it (although do expect to have an idea just when you're about to fall asleep).

5) Write your way through scenes you think are boring. Don't leave them for later. Use an exciting scene as a carrot to get you through a boring one. Who wants to go back and write lots of boring scenes one after another after writing all the exciting scenes?

6) Expect to hate your novel with a passion about 1/4 of the way through. Feel the same way about 2/3 of the way through.

7) Don't google for similar books/plots/titles/films. Chances are you'll find something similar to your 'great idea' which will give you such bad writers block you'll want to chuck the whole novel in the bin.

8) If you don't love your main character, if you don't think about her constantly and hurt when she hurts and laugh when she laughs your novel isn't working and you need to ditch it and start again.

9) Make sure you end each chapter with a hook and start each chapter with something that immediately captures the reader's attention.

10) Which ties in with... Go through the entire novel and check how many chapters you open with the main character waking up. There will be more than you think! Delete as many as possible, someone waking up is boring.

11) If you live alone and spend 2 or 3 days in a row working on your novel and ignoring the telephone/doorbell you'll feel like you've forgotten how to speak when you go to the newsagent and ask for a pint of milk.

12) When you've finished the novel you'll STILL alternate between hating it and loving it and how you feel will be hugely influenced by the comments you receive from readers/critiquers/agents.

I could go on (and on and on) but I'll leave it there for now.

So...what have you learned?


liz fenwick said...

My what a lot you've learned! Well done.

I've found many of the same things out, but I think now having done three books that I actually am loving the editing. It definately gets beter and better with each book. This I never would have imagined.

Biggest lessons learned - just keep writing :-)

JJ said...

There are some very useful points there (loving and hating etc) that I must remember.

I think the biggest single thing I've learned with the aborted novel last year is about 'moving the story on.' If it doesn't, ditch it.

Oh, and the other thing, yes: no-one is going to write it for you.

Debs said...

Great topic. Reading some of these points made me laugh in recognition of some of my blunders.

I think that the most important things I've learnt are: 1) You have to sit bum on chair and write, as well as thinking about it and making notes; 2) You are going to hate it at some point, and writing the book will feel like wading through glue, but you still have to keep going; and 3) Don't end a chapter with your character going to bed. I edited one novel where I'd done this a couple of times.

Graeme K Talboys said...

Computer died. Will try to get back when I've dusted off the old laptop and remembered all my passwords. Whimper.

Helen said...

All of what you've said, plus, from my own experience, don't expect to be able to write when suffering with morning sickness, pregnancy related tiredness and when your bump is too big to fit under the desk. ;)

ChrisH said...

Very good points there - I'm nodding in agreement! I think the point about loving your heroine is especially important or you won't get through the hating the book part. I've learned that it's better to get ANYTHING down, however rubbish I think it is because then you have something to work with. You can't do that when it sits in your head! Debs point about bum on seat is essential!

PS I have also learned how to do a blog roll (yes, finally caught up with everyone else)so have set up the NRs and can now keep up to speed.

Flowerpot said...

I agree with everything you wrote there, Cally, but I'd also add that I tend to write about loss. And that is one of my greatest fears - well, losing those that I love. So writing about that can be a very good healer as well.

Juliette M said...

*sips Gingerbread Latte*

The Things I Have Learned from my Novel, by Juliette aged 29 and a bit

1. Take out all your exclamation marks, unless they're vital. it makes your writing look like a Valley Girl's diary!! OMG!

2. Plan ahead. There's nothing more frustrating than saying "I'm not planning" and then ending up with a chapter full of people sitting in Starbucks (or the fantasy world equivalent - 'Ishmaels' anyone?) going "so, what do we do now?"... "don't know..."

3. With fantasy, dont get caught up in world-building rather than writing.

4. In my case, when friends ask what it's about and you try and fob them off with "It's a bit like Famous Successful X", they will tell you it's already been done. Think of the most original way to explain your novel and stick to that.

5. Carry a notebook everywhere and label it with your name and the novel title/working title. If you have a boyfriend like I do, who is interested in your work, add 'Spoilers!' on the front. :)

6. Write a vague chapter plan list first. I usually do this to keep myself on the right track.

7. Argue the toss over names. If someone says that they dont like the name Rebecca and you should call your heroine Keira, argue it, especially if you chose the name for its meaning.

8. Get a hook. Start the book with this. A good opening line makes all the difference.

9. Find a support network. Not just people you know will say "you're my friend! Of course you will be the next JK Rowling!" I have a proofreader boyfriend, a very (I mean VERY) blunt best friend, a professional editor, a hard to please arts graduate, my extremely bitchy GBF and a guy with ADHD as my beta readers. :)

10. Get on with it or you will take ten years to get from a novel about a bunch of live role players to a novel about the true Fairy court. (Er... just me, then?)

Nice topic Calistro!

Leatherdykeuk said...

Things I've learned: (a) Realise that reading for pleasure becomes reading to check out the competition and (b) it's ok to play a board of mah jong to reward yourself for writing 500 words but playing six boards is called procrastination.

Rowan Coleman said...

Wow - all of those things are good things to learn. I've learnt to plan a bit but not too much - over planning makes you feel like you've already written it and all the fun is gone. Also carefully read every single page at every single stage, especially when its being copy-editied or at page proof stage. You can never skimp here - the weirdest mistakes creep in and annoyingly typos do end up in the finished book even when you take so much care to avoid them.

Fiona said...

Fantastic topic Cally, thanks.

I've learnt;

1. You never stop learning so you can never get over confident or even confident.

2. Don't think because you know how the last three chapters will turn out that you can leave them and get on with editing. It seems to be a mental thing - I would have used a bigger word beginning with p but no spell checker - if you haven't written THE END you can't edit it. This may be just me of course.

3. If you are lucky enough to have someone who writes or edits for a living and they give you advice, take it seriously. Feel affronted for a couple of days if you must, be take it seriously.

4. There are no rules - if it works, it works.

Fiona said...


Where can I buy a gingerbread latte please Juliette

L-Plate Author said...

Well I'm usually too late for coffee mornings but as I am off today, I'll have capuccinno with lots of froth and chocolate bits. And a flake. And marshmallows...

For me, I've learned three valuable things this year alone. One was to write what I want and not what an agent wants (this relates to my previous agent). Two was to plan more than I did for SA, my 10k draft. I have to plan, for me that is more important than writing the draft. Even though most of the time I sit down with a single line of what the scene is about, the scene inevitably ends up different but still part of the story. So it's a kind of starting point for me, not a solid plan. The third thing is that I scrapped that first ever book that I've worked on for years and years. It was very emotional to let go of something that I have believed in for so long but it was the right thing to do.

Other things I've learned? God, I've been at this game for so long now...when you have an agent like I had for two and a half years, you haven't really got an agent...don't change everything to accommodate the last readers report (still talking previous agent)...have faith that no matter what, you will get there. Even if you don't get there, you have to have that faith....and it has been said so many times before above but you just gotta sit down and do it.

Great topic Calistro x

Juliette M said...


Fiona - Starbucks red cups came out on Wednesday. Gingerbread Lattes, Toffee Nut Lattes and Dark Cherry Mochas.
Yum yum yum. Go, seek them out.

end hijack!

Kate.Kingsley said...

Great topic, Calistro (and LMAO at Juliette’s “valley girl / exclamation mark” comment!).

One thing I've learned is to keep at it ~ it's easy to take a few days off and the next thing you know weeks have passed and you've forgotten what was happening, etc. I've fallen victim to this one, sadly.

Also, my first novel lies abandoned, because although I knew what I wanted to write about, my characters were too indistinct and so I was treading water for a long long time. It's nice to leave things for yourself to discover as you go along, but when you have a lot to discover about everyone involved it's a little suffocating!

Wishing happy weekends all round :-)

Crystal Jigsaw said...

Fabulous post this morning. So many excellent tips there and ones I shall keep on file.

One of the things I am still learning is to just get on with it. When I tell people it's paranormal I get the most ridiculous looks but I've learnt to just ignore them. This is my book and I'm the one who will be pushing for it to get published.

CJ xx

Lazy Perfectionista said...

Great post, very interesting to hear what everyone thinks. The main lesson I've learnt is that when I start writing, it's very hard to stop. Getting started, on the other hand, can be the most challenging part of the process, especially after a hard day at work etc.

I've also learnt that while planning helps, I think for the first draft it's best for me if this is just 'headlines' rather than the whole plot. If I plan too rigidly, I think it all just gets a bit stagnant. If I only have loose ideas, I can be more creative.

Most importantly, BACK YOUR WORK UP. Bad experiences come to those who don't, as I have learnt.

Lucy Diamond said...

Wow... haven't we all learned a lot!
I can't think of much to add that hasn't already been said except that, in my experience, letting the novel stew between first draft stage and edit stage really really helps you see it with fresh eyes - at least a month's stewing is preferable but whatever you can give it, if you are pressed for time.

Oh, and to cut adverbs wherever possible - especially those describing speech. ("I'm going to kill you," he said menacingly etc)Must confess I am not very strong-willed about this but am trying my hardest to break the adverb habit!

I am 16,000 words into my new novel now... really enjoying this one so far.
Have a good weekend everyone x

Clare Sudders said...

Blimey. I've learnt tons of stuff. Off the top of my head...

Er... I know I've learnt loads... hang on, it'll come to me...

1. Always keep going. Writing anything, even rubbish, is much better than agonising over whether you're any good or not. You can always edit.

2. You can always edit. Editing is fun, and that's where the real work is. First drafts don't really matter, they just have to exist.

3. It's better than you think. And if it isn't, you can always make it better.

4. Keep moving forwards. Don't dwell on completed projects. Move on.

5. Get to know your characters.

6. Kill your darlings.

7. Don't be self-indulgent. Don't use autobographical maerial unless it carries the novel forwards and is relevant. Kill your darlings.

8. Cut, cut, cut. Keep it tight.

9. Keep things simple. No need for complex plot details. Simple path from A to B is best.

10. Let trusted readers in on the process. Always seek feedback. Always listen to criticism with interest and no self loathing. Act on it if necessary. But remember not everyone is right and too many cooks can spoil the broth. Listen to yourself, too.

That'll do for now... I may come back if I think of more...

Clare Sudders said...

Ah, yes. Plotting. Don't over-plot, it can kill it. Stick with broad outlines.

Captain Black said...

I'm also addicted to hot chocolate (the drink, not the band), so I'll have a large one with lots of milk.

Wow Cally, that was really interesting and useful. I knew some of those things but definitely not all of them. The one about chapters starting off with characters waking up: guilty! I'll get on and fix those, or at list add it to my (ever growing) list of issues needing attention. Your #11 was funny, as I identified with that.

So here are my lessons, starting off with some fairly mechanical boring-yet-important ones.

i. Back-up your work every night. Use permanent storage media, not another hard-drive!

ii. Do not use single quotes as speech marks. If you do, and you then change your mind, all of your apostrophes will be friar tucked.

Now the more interesting ones, in no particular order.

1. You don't know nuffink! Rules can change and even be broken. And. If you don't believe me.
Read        Caroline's        book.

2. Read more and learn from those who have been published.

3. Get as much help as you can: Read how-to books, go on courses, join a community (*waves*), ask people questions...

4. Punctuation is bloomin (tm Spiral) complicated. I've spent a ridiculous time putting commas in, taking them out, putting them back in...

5. Points of view (POV) are also bloomin complicated. If you don't believe me, read Clare's post from a while back. <span class="shameless_plug"> Hey, I just used my own gadget to find that. How cool is that? </span>

6. A sequence of events is not a plot.

7. You can do writing in a blog environment, but not all blog posts count as writing.

8. Getting drunk in order to write a drunken scene, does not work.

9. I love telling people what I write about; I live for puzzled/scornful looks.

10. Do not start too many projects before you've finished any of them.

ps. Just noticed your new picture, Fiona. Very nice. Which one is you? Just kidding ;oP

pps. Juliette, do Starschmucks actually sell any coffee? You know, stuff made with coffee beans. Or is it just dairy products and confectionery?

Helen Shearer said...

Hi, all,

I think everyone else has covered it. You learn so much when you write a novel. I've learned to plot a little bit. I never liked the idea of plotting because I thought it took the spontaneity out of the story, but I now realize that I should have half a clue where I'm going so that when I run our of steam in the middle I have a point of reference to get me back on track. I also learned that there are no magic tricks when trying to finish it. You just have to sit down and plod through it.

Merry November, everyone. I'm feeling festive already.

Cathy said...

Sorry. Late again.

I've learnt:

1) That the book won't write itself. I need someone to give me a regular kick.

2) That I really need to write about something I care deeply about.

3) That plotting a novel doesn't come easy to me.

4) That I have a fairly distinctive 'voice' in my writing and need to work with, not against it.

5) That I enjoy interacting with other writers online and in real life.

6) That 'rules' are suggestions only and not prescriptive.

Juliette, I shall be sraight off to Starbucks tomrrow!

Calistro said...

Captain Black - Re #11, so relieved it's not just me!

Paige said...

I can’t think of anything that hasn’t already been mentioned. I have learnt a lot between the writing of Book 1 and starting Book 2 last week. I’m hopefully better for all the things I’ve learnt.

Calistro, your list made me laugh. I can completely relate to 1, 2, 3 and 5 in particular. That’s a bad habit of mine. And 10! God, Book 1 was full of my character ‘waking up’. Ick!!

I wrote Book 1 on my own. I had no other writers to turn to, I didn’t have any ‘how to write’ books... I was alone. I just did my thing. I’ve learnt to trust people’s opinions and to take advice about writing related issues. I’ve learnt that there are other people out there feeling exactly the same angst as I do and I can turn to them if I need to and if I can, in turn help them, then Yay!

wordtryst said...

Can identify with all of the above. My editor clued me in that my heroine in the first book went to sleep a lot at chapter ends, so that was something I had to fix. As for deflecting the family/friends questions, my standard response is: What book?

And like Fiona says, you never stop learning.

Zinnia Cyclamen said...

I've learned so much that I can't possibly summarise it in a blog comment. And I know I still have loads, heaps and stacks more to learn. But the lesson du jour for me, most jours at the moment, is 'don't give up'.

Captain Black said...

...coz you have friends :o)

KayJay said...

I've read your post (and laughed, and agreed with most of it) then started reading everyone else's comments and had to stop. I have to be excused from this week's topic (ok, I'm bloody late already) because I am SO CLOSE to finishing my book that my head is in completely the wrong place to do the reflection thing. It's a bit like if you've ever done any kind of sponsored walk or run and you spy the people who are already finished, milling around with their medals and their space blankets. You cannot wait to join them, but you can't allow yourself to think about how good it must feel to cross that finish line because otherwise you won't get there.

Does that make any sense at all?

KayJay said...

But I can say...that I've learned that writing a novel is BLOODY HARD WORK.

Looking forward to getting my head in order (in time for my coffee morning hosting by the end of the week!)

Annieye said...

Kevin told me last Monday that I was allowed to join in the coffee mornings and post on this blog even though I'm only on the waiting list, so apologies for my uncharacteristic silence up until now. (I wasn't being rude - honest)

What have I learned in the last year?

1. Stephen King really knows his stuff.

2. You have to write to suit the market if you want to get published.

3. I agree with KayJay - it's hard work and takes a lot of commitment.

4. If the going gets tough - just write a short story for pleasure. That usually gets the juices flowing again.

5. Kill those adjectives and adverbs.

6. Don't over-write.

7. Lots of edits/re-writes are required.

8. I'm not alone. Helpful advice is always at the end of your fingertips.

sexy said...
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