Writing Your First Novel: A Tragicomedy in Three Acts

Act One: Inspiration

You are possessed of an idea. A singular, radical notion that makes your every synapse fire. An earworm that just won’t let you go unless you get it out.

You’re certain your idea is unique… unprecedented. It came to you out of the blue, in a sudden flash too unexpected and brilliant to be anything less than divine inspiration. It’s as if you’re remembering a book that already exists, and you need to read it now.

You’ve never written a novel. In fact, you’ve never written anything – at least, not anything you’ve ever published. But you know friends who’ve done it. You’ve heard of people knocking out first drafts in a couple weeks. How hard can it be?

Act Two: Perspiration

You sit back from your keyboard with a sigh. The first chapter is done. The story is underway. The words flowed from your brain to your fingers until they became a blur. A perfect start. On to chapter two.

And yet you stop. You glance back out of curiosity. You read the first five words of your 100,000-word epic: the hook that will draw legions of adoring readers, the sentence that is sure to be remembered in the same breath as “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

You misspelled the first word.

A cold sweat runs down your back. With surgeon’s precision, you maneuver the cursor over the error and correct it with two quick keystrokes. Okay. Now it’s perfect.

Except it’s not.  Reading it again, you find the first sentence short, declarative, and exciting – everything your high school teacher told you a hook should be. Yet it’s missing one small detail – meaning. It doesn’t make any sense. You only wrote it a few hours ago, and even you can’t tell what it’s supposed to say. After a moment’s thought, you change the word order. Then change it again. Then delete it. Oh well – the next sentence is better anyways.

Except your entire first paragraph was structured around references to that first line. It doesn’t work without it. Ugh, you think, fine, obliterating the entire opening paragraph. This must be what writers mean by “kill your darlings.”

You move on to paragraph two, then freeze again. Disbelieving, You stare down a half-page block of text describing three generations of your protagonist’s familial history. You’re fairly certain your past self just copy/pasted it from your outline (what a jerk).

You can’t keep this! It’s definitely not an opening paragraph. It has to go.

You strike it. You move on. Third paragraph: rambling and incoherent. The cold sweat is now dripping down your face and onto the keyboard. You delete, and, on a hunch, scroll down. With a sudden flash of lucidity, you realize you just spent pages and pages talking about your premise. Nothing happens. Your protagonist doesn’t even appear until the lasts paragraph – which is, you realize with a similar rush of dread, actually your first.

With shaking hand you close your laptop, stand up, and go to the bathroom to scream.

Act Three: Exhaustion

Flash forward six months.

You finished the first draft (or it finished you) twelve weeks ago. It almost didn’t happen – there were too many long nights, too many unanswerable questions, and too many moments when you wondered if writing was even worth the trouble. But it’s done: your first line has a (less than perfect) match in your final line, and when you closed your laptop for the last time, your spirit soared.

A week later you looked back at the manuscript and almost set your laptop on fire.

This? This is what you got up early and stayed up late to write? This was the novel you were so excited about? The one that lit your brain on fire? It’s horrible – irredeemably horrible. You briefly start calculating the number of hours you poured into writing it and stop because your head starts spinning and you need to sit down.

After a glass of water and a not-insubstantial number of tears, you chalk it up to experience and decide writing books just isn’t for you. You don’t delete the manuscript from your hard drive, but that’s only because you forget to do it.

And life goes on.

Until today, when you accidentally opened the wrong file at work. You see the title page and almost throw the computer across the room. The presence of your manager is the only thing that stops you. You manage to breathe, close the document, and continue with your day.

Except you don’t. You haven’t thought about your once-called magnum opus since you finished it, but suddenly, it’s all you can think about. It was a good idea, you realize, and it’s not really that bad. You’ve read worse. Maybe with a little work…

And so you spend the weekend pouring over the text. You wince a lot, but you also smile a handful of times and even feel a tear in your eye when you reach the ending. It’s far from perfect, true, but there are things you can improve. Reluctant but hopeful, you pick up an old red pen and begin.

Epilogue: Agitation

Flash forward six years.

You crack open a copy of your first book and shake your head. It’s been so long since you began, and you’ve come so far. It took a while, but the manuscript was eventually published – along with a sequel and several other books. When you started writing, you never thought it would lead to this. You just wanted to tell your story as well as you could. And now…

Your stomach drops. There’s a typo on the first page.

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