What Did My First Novel Teach Me?

Now that my first novel is coming out, I get to think about what lessons I learned from it, and how I benefited from them no matter if the novel is being published or not.

One of the biggest revelations was that I could actually finish something as complex and daunting as a full-length novel. Several years ago, as much as I toyed with the idea of writing a novel, I never thought I could pull it off. Even halfway through writing the novel, I didn't think I could finish it. Then something clicked. I realized I must finish it. It was a quest, a conviction, something I'd known I must start, then knew I must finish.

Because I had a good story to tell. And good stories deserve to be told.

Now the learning curve was rather steep. Prior to starting the novel in November 2001, I had taken creative and novel writing classes at UCLA, so I'd learned techniques such as character sketches, dialogue, conflict, plot development, etc. at workshops. I'd also tried my hands at writing a serial for a few months. These exercises were helpful, but nothing really prepared me for the actual novel -- my very first. What I learned along the way was invaluable, and it's not just about grammar or style or word choices. It's about storytelling. Skills that have not much to do with prose, but everything to do with telling a good story. It's about the fictive dream, how to help the readers reach that state, and how to keep them there.

Some big lessons I learned:

- How to begin a story: I admit I didn't really know what I was doing when I started writing the novel. I had a decent style, and my command of the language wasn't too bad either. But I kept starting the story at the wrong places. I wrote chapters after chapters of character development and settings and back stories. I started the story WAY before the inciting incident. I think that's one of the problems many novice writers like I was faced early in their careers. The early rejections I got were some the the best things that happened to me as a writer. These rejections had similar themes: "The story starts too slowly. Where is the plot? While the characters are interesting, not much is happening in the beginning." My beta readers had said the beginning of the novel felt somewhat slow, but they never told me that was really a problem for them. As painful as these rejections were, I felt fortunate that some agents were honest enough to tell me what they thought was wrong with my manuscript. During the fifth draft, I cut about 15,000 words from the top, moving the beginning of the book closer to the heart of the story. I learned to ask this question: "What is the story really about?"

- Pacing: pacing is about guiding our readers through that fictive dream state. There are times when we should slow down and let them smell the roses and feel the grass and taste the rain and experience the emotions. There are times when we should zip along and create movements and suspense and momentum. As writers, we need to learn when to speed things up and slow things down. When to linger in narrative and descriptions to introduce the world. When to move things along with lively actions and dialogue. When to stay with the characters and understand their wants and needs and conflicts and struggles. When to show and when to tell.

- Dialogue: I've learned a lot about writing natural dialogue. Dialogue doesn't just tell the story. Dialogue, together with action, also tells us about the characters. What makes characters come alive is not how we describe them, but how they speak and act. And it's a skill to have, to know how to create natural, intimate dialogue while conveying information and moving the plot along.

- Self edit: I learned how to edit my own work objectively. It's not easy to do, to step back and evaluate our own work objectively, and to cut, prune, move, alter our own golden words as if someone else had written them. But it has to be done.

There are many other lessons learned as well. Some big, some small. I think that's what makes novel writing so interesting and exciting. I always learn something new. Writing and finishing my first novel made me realize how much I still had to learn, and what wonderful process creative writing is. It's exciting, frustrating, even infuriating. But it's all worth it.

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rosemerry said…
I'm not even done writing my first novel and I'm learning so much. Thanks for posting this it was very interesting and encouraging to know that I'm not the only one going through this. Of course, I'm still trying to get down the you have write every day but I'm getting there or so I tell myself.
Ray Wong said…
Just keep going and discovering -- that's part of the fun of being a writer.


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