I often get two responses when I tell people that I write books. The first is, "Oh, I don't think I could ever do that!" The second is just the opposite. "You know, I had an idea for a book myself."
The truth lies somewhere in between those two thoughts. It's certainly not impossible to write a book, but it takes more than a single good idea. You can write a great scene in a day, but a novel is often a labor of deliberate love. It takes time, planning, and revisions.
As a writer and an editor, I have seen many first-time authors (myself especially) struggle with the same few problems. This article highlights one issue I often see at the beginning, middle, and end of new authors' works—and how you can fix them.
If you are writing your first book, these tips can improve your manuscript and help you actually finish.
The Early-Book Mistake Sci-Fi/Fantasy Writers Make: Starting With a Bang
Everyone knows that the fist few pages of a novel are important. Those pages are what you submit to literary agents, and some readers make their purchasing decisions based on those pages.
You might think that means you should start with action and melodrama. Some authors have done so with success. For example, the assassin in white from chapter one of Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive sets the tone for an epic fantasy adventure. If you go that route, however, the reader is likely to ask two questions:
- Who are these people?
- Why do I care what happens to them?
There's a disconnect between an author and an audience here. You, of course, understand why the scene matters. You have lived with these characters for years. The reader has only known them for a few minutes. Without strong characterization, they'll have little guidance on how to react. Even the most action-packed thriller won't feel quite right to them, and they might move on before you get a chance to explain it.
How to fix it: Ask yourself this: How do some of the most beloved fantasy books begin?
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hold, and that means comfort.” —J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
"Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much." —J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” —C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Humor is often achieved more quickly than other emotions. There's a whole subsection of humor called one-liners for a reason.
Characterization can be achieved at a similar speed. You can picture a Eustace Clarence Scrubb in your mind with that singular line. You know a nosy neighbor like Mrs. Dursley.
Imagine your sci-fi/fantasy book like a big birthday party. All of your friends are there, performing all sorts of shenanigans, and you have decided to bring your new romantic partner. Your date doesn't know your friends yet. All your old games and inside jokes are new to them, but they are eager to learn. You wouldn't abandon your date, would you? You'd strive to make them feel included: Explain the joke, make introductions.
Do the same with your book. Prioritize the reader's experience. Give them a chance to party with you and your characters in the world you've made.
The Middle-Book Mistake Sci-Fi/Fantasy Writers Make: Giving Up
The first draft of your first book is going to be bad. It will not garner the attention of a literary agent, let alone a publisher, let alone a widespread audience.
That is not to say that your list book is doomed from the start. In fact it's just the opposite: You can't give up on your work before you've given it a real chance.
Take a look at some great fiction. For my money, maybe the best fantasy novel of the 21st century is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the debut novel by Susanna Clarke. One of the most important works in American history is Harper Lee's debut, To Kill a Mockingbird. In both cases, however, you can see that their success was not instantaneous.
Clarke established her magical world over the course of a decade, publishing short stories set within the same world in Starlight 1, Starlight 2, and Starlight 3 beginning in 1996. It was not until 2004 that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell hit shelves. The year 2015 saw the publication of Go Set a Watchman—an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird that Lee's editor called "more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel."
If Harper Lee's early draft was imperfect, none of us should expect immediate perfection, either.
How to fix it: There is an old saying that the best winters are really the best editors. If the writing was already perfect, there would be no need for editing. So, if you finish your first draft and decide you hate it, that's normal. But don't focus your energy on despair. Focus on identifying what is working and what needs fixing.
Think of your early drafts as rehearsal for a big performance. Inch toward improvement, so that when your big day comes, your audience will see only the work of art and not all of the struggle that came before.
At the end of the day, writers write. If you want to be a novelist, you have to push through the boredom, the self-critiques, and even the rejections that are sure to come. They happen to everyone, but the successful authors don't let setbacks stop them.
The End-Book Mistake Sci-Fi/Fantasy Writers Make: Skipping to the Finale
It's one thing to know, logically, that your first draft will be bad. It's another thing to have to read through it and cringe inwardly at your own mistakes for 400 consecutive pages.
In my own experience, by the time I've reached the halfway point of reading through a draft, I've decided that I hate the whole story and just want to be done with it as soon as possible.
Of course, I know that a book's ending can make or break a story, so I'll spend extra time on the climactic scenes. But there is a natural pull to reach that big finale as soon as possible.
"Let's unmask the villain," I think. "Let's write the big battle scene."
It's easy to cut corners when you're rushing, though. Without the proper setup, the impact of your ending will be muted.
Look at Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring. The climax revolves around a battle between the Fellowship and a band of orcs and Uruk-hai. Boromir comes to the aid of the hobbits Merry and Pippin while Frodo and Sam escape in a boat. Boromir is struck down by arrows, and if that were the totality of his arc, readers may have been satisfied.
But what comes just before the battle? Boromir confronts Frodo and attempts to take the ring by force. It is this action, which comes just a beat from the climactic battle, that convinces Frodo to abandon the Fellowship and strike out on his own. Likewise, it is Boromir's guilt that pushes him to defend Merry and Pippin until his last breath. His repentance to Aragorn as he dies breaks the reader's heart.
Don't gloss over the scene before the finale. Tolkien didn't.
How to fix it: Start your revisions at different points, especially as you get closer to a finished product. That way, you won't run out of gas at the same point of each draft. You'll give equal love to each part and your book won't look like that meme of the half-drawn horse.
To check yourself, you can also write scenes from other characters' perspectives. Do the events taking place still make sense from their point of view, or are you making characters do something that doesn't fit for the sake of your plot? Does the pace feel right for everyone in the book, or is everything simply falling into place for your protagonist?
No ending can be truly great if it feels unearned.
Featured photo: Debby Hudson / Unsplash