• Jacob Turk

I'm Almost Finished My Manuscript . . . Here's what I Learned

The process of writing a novel has gone differently than I expected. Over the last few months, I've learned a lot about what it takes to be a successful author. Here's a summary of the lessons I learned. 4/8/19.

Around four months ago, in December 2018, I set out to plan and write the manuscript for my debut novel, The Injection Game. Today, I’m about two-thirds done writing the first draft (80,000 words out of an anticipated 120,000).

Damn, what a journey it’s been, and I’m not even finished yet. I say it’s been a journey without having finished because I’ve learned a ton of lessons along the way. I’ve learned things about my personal attitude and tendencies, about myself as a writer, about the writing process in general, and about the true difficulty of writing a novel.

I boiled down all my smashed assumptions and tough lessons into six pieces of information that I received from the process of writing a novel. While these lessons are derived from my personal experiences, many of them serve as general messages that can apply to many writers. If you’ve written a novel (or any large project) before, I hope you can relate to some of these lessons. If you haven’t written a novel, at least you’ll have a better idea of what to expect if you do, after reading this.

1. I constantly crave distraction

The first and most glaring issue about myself that I spotted during the writing process is that I constantly crave distraction. Every fifteen minutes or so, I would lose focus and turn to some source to temporarily distract me from my writing. I would check social media, open YouTube and watch a short video, or chat with my friends for a bit.

My problem with distraction caused my writing efficiency to decrease from what I expected it to be. I can write around 800 words per hour if I focus and stay on task. Staying on task is the key, however. With distractions, my word count per hour would drop to about 500, sometimes even lower.

I partially solved this problem by keeping my phone away from my desk and uninstalling some of the video games I liked to play. Unfortunately, since I write using a laptop (like most others), I have access to social media websites at the drop of a hat. So, my distraction is an ongoing problem that I’m slowly chipping away at through sheer willpower.

2. I describe the same topics from scene to scene

This is a funny one.

When describing a room or a person in a specific scene, I found that I would describe the same aspects of that room and that person as I had in previous scenes. I love describing eyes, how they move, and where they’re focused. I also describe a lot of arm movement for characters. In terms of scenery, I mention a lot about colour and mood specifically.

Moreover, the similar aspects that I would describe usually appeared in the same order from scene to scene as well. First, I would talk about eye and lip shape, then skin tone, then the overall expression, then body type, etc.

For a first-draft, mistakes like those are perfectly fine; they can be dealt with in editing. Still, it was hilarious for me to recognize this algorithmic pattern of description that I was implementing.

3. Writing any more than 3000 words per day is inefficient

When I first started writing, I was unsure how many words per day I should have been writing. Initially, I aimed for 3,000 per day (full-time) and 1,000 on a day when I worked my part-time job. Although I didn’t end up meeting that goal every day, I met it often enough to feel I could increase my word goal to 5,000 per day.

In striving to write 5,000 words each day, I felt I would burn out after around 3,000 words. I lost confidence in my writing after that point; it felt stinted and dry. I figure the biggest reason was because, at around 3,000 words, I was getting tired and was merely racing to meet the goal.

Although I had the time to dedicate to writing 5,000 words, achieving that objective made me feel strained and burnt out. In the end, I settled for being happy with reaching 3,000 words in a given day and using any additional time to read, relax, or work on other projects.

4. The planning was fun, but the writing . . . not so much

Don’t get me wrong, writing is still fun, but the planning phase was more fun. Let me explain.

My first step in writing The Injection Game was to spend 3-4 weeks thoroughly planning the novel. I made detailed notes about the plot, settings, characters, and did a ton of research. As I moved through the process of planning, I was “discovering” how the plot would develop. I loved the planning phase because my ideas for the movement of the plot and character arcs were often exciting and surprising.

When it came time to write the novel, I had most details about the plot and characters nailed down. Nothing I wrote was surprising. I no longer received enjoyment for new (broad) ideas about the book; I could only receive enjoyment from specific ideas for my writing. For example, how to phrase a sentence or what to describe when introducing a new character.

My writing phase was simply following a detailed map to a destination which I had known for months. Well, I technically still haven’t got there, but I know exactly where I’m going!

In all, I learned to appreciate the planning phase of novels more, and to focus more on the joys of writing, itself, when working on the first draft.

5. “Needing to write” is an acceptable reason to turn down social invitations

Before I started working on my novel, I didn’t have very many friends. If I wanted to dedicate myself to a project, I would certainly have the time to immerse myself for weeks on end.

At the start of 2019, I reconnected with a fantastic group of friends from high school (we play Dungeons and Dragons together every Monday). Throughout the week, I also participate in a chat room with that friend group where we talk and play video games together.

The good news? I now have some sort of relationship with other human beings! The bad news? The idea of talking with friends and playing video games is very enticing, often above the idea of getting some writing done.

When I first started writing my novel, I felt like the reasoning of “I have to go write” wasn’t good enough to turn down social invitations. Even though I knew I was going to feel guilty afterward, I refrained from using that as a reason to stay true to my writing time. As a result, I would often give into the temptation of hanging out with my friends instead of writing.

Eventually, I got angry enough at myself to invoke some change. I consumed a ton of content from YouTube authors and blogs that bolstered the idea of “writing time” being an acceptable reason to skip out on social events. I want writing to be my career. Just like any other career, working on writing is a worthy reason to isolate myself and focus.

Over time, I grew used to using my writing as an explanation for my lack of social presence. Of course, I made sure to balance writing time with social time, but I no longer felt bad about it.

6. Breaking down my manuscript into chunks was a great idea

In school, I struggled to write 1,000-word essays in a few days. All the sudden, I’ve set out to write a 120,000-word novel. That seemed like an insurmountable task.

Fortunately, in doing some research regarding the best way to go about writing a novel, I learned a nifty trick for insurmountable tasks: break them up into a collection of smaller, achievable goals.

Instead of focusing on when I would finish my manuscript, I chose to focus on achieving my word count goal each day. When I planned out each chapter of my novel, I included an estimate of how many words would comprise each one. Alike the word count goal, I looked to the end of each chapter as a completed task rather than to the end of the novel altogether.

Breaking the large task down into small, manageable ones helped me stay motivated in the face of a daunting project. I kept a good perspective as I wrote more and more, which allowed me to continue with fervor even though I was only writing 1-2% of my novel each day I chose to write.

That’s the summary of my lessons from working on my first novel. Again, I’m not even finished yet, so I’m sure I’ll learn more from now until I’m done. Then, next will be the editing process, which will come with a whole new set of lessons, too.

Overall, working on a novel has been extremely gratifying and fun. I’m not a fan of the idea that my book may never get published, so I constantly remind myself that all the work I’m putting into it functions as practice. Even if I don’t get this book published (or the next few, too), I’m inching my way closer to writing well. Plus, I’m slowly falling in love with the process, which is more important than any amount of success I could ever achieve in my lifetime.

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